Following on the heels of the launch of Harvesting Our Stories: Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project, it seems appropriate to take on some ideas that explore the depth and complexity of urban Appalachian life and culture. A recurring question is about the ways in which we define Appalachian identity. When we bring the question of Appalachian identity to the urban sphere, it takes on even more dimensions. Many of us who identify as Appalachian are in fact second and third generation urban Appalachians who find our connections to the Appalachian region through indirect lines. What do we mean when we talk about Appalachian people and urban Appalachian people? This is a complex question with a world of scholarship that attends it.
I began by talking to UACC’s Research Committee Chair Ashley Hopkins whose area of research is Appalachian identity. The first thing Ashley Hopkins said is that “most of what you think you know about Appalachia and Appalachians is wrong.” The misunderstanding of Appalachia stems from misrepresentation of Appalachia which I will get to below. Hopkins further explained that the sense of “being Appalachian comes through multiple lines– the connection to the land, place, family, and sometimes spirituality.” Often the concept of “being Appalachian” does not come until it is named from outside. As Ashley Hopkins observed, “for many of us, Appalachia referred to the mountain range more than anything else.” That many folks gain a sense of themselves as Appalachian from outside their internal sense of themselves creates a world of incredibly complex questions and ideas. For Ashley Hopkins the questions come down to “what does it mean to be Appalachian, and who gets to decide?”
The work of scholar Todd Snyder begins with these same questions. Todd Snyder is a scholar of rhetoric, the use and function of language, at Siena College in New York. Todd is from West Virginia, and he has turned much of his research and teaching toward the complexity of Appalachian identity. As you might imagine from a scholar of rhetoric, one of Todd Snyder’s major works is called The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity. By beginning with rhetoric, Snyder is able to examine the ways the term “Appalachian” is used by those from within the region and by those who have sought to exploit the region and the people who live there. In talking about his upbringing, Snyder told me, “I come from people who do not go to college and who do not move away from where they grew up.” He comes from working class people in West Virginia, people who, as he says in his book, “work in the extraction industries.” But Todd Snyder did go to college, he did leave West Virginia, and he draws personal experience into his scholarly work.
The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity is serious scholarship, but what makes it accessible is that Snyder treads the line between personal reflection and deep analysis. We read of his movement from average (or even below average, something I can identify with) Appalachian school kid to his place as a scholar and educator at select private school in upstate New York. The introduction explains his direction in the book: “Beginning with my own experiences, this book is an exploration of the various ways that social, economic, and cultural factors influence the identities and educational aspirations of rural working-class Appalachian learners.” Snyder writes from within the Appalachian experience in order to provide a complex analysis of this experience.
Snyder says that Appalachian identity, for people inside and outside, is a long history of the “stigmatized persona.” This persona, or image, is largely created by people from outside Appalachia who sought (and still seek) to exploit the people and the region. “It is all about stereotypes,” said Snyder, “and these stereotypes have served the people who exploited Appalachia and Appalachian people.” So if you are first identified as Appalachian by those from outside the region who say being Appalachian is not good, this creates serious problems for our understanding of Appalachian identity. Urban Appalachians, as we know, have had to fight these stereotypes in places that were not familiar, that did not readily accept them. Todd Snyder was emphatic about this problem of the inside and the outside. Even as one who grew up in West Virginia, he told me, “It wasn’t until I left that I realized I am a part of all this.” This final observation seems especially relevant to urban Appalachians in greater Cincinnati.
As we consider the question of “what does it mean to be Appalachian, and who gets to decide,” it seems of primary importance to begin with the most fundamental recognition that Appalachia is a vast region that consists of an extremely diverse population. For example, Elizabeth Catte reminds us of the active and vocal population of transgender people in West Virginia. The history and culture of black people in Appalachia bears on just about all of Appalachian culture. To list the multiple and even conflicting forms of Appalachian identity is impossible. What we can do is bear in mind that “being Appalachian” is a rich and complex idea, one that demands that we tread carefully when we define even ourselves as Appalachian. I often question my own Appalachian identity as one who claims connections to Appalachia through my father’s side of my family. While I see myself in the Appalachian heritage they gave me, I also feel a real distance from the world these people came from since their connections were often clouded by the weight of the struggles they endured as urban Appalachians.
Not much was ever said about where we came from. In fact, my older relatives seemed to hide their Appalachian origins. I have memories of my great grandmother forbidding me to leave the house if I was dressed in a way that made me look like a hillbilly in her eyes. At the same time, life was infused with things that were signature features of Appalachia. I was approaching my teens when I discovered that Bluegrass was a genre of music and not just the simple sounds of being at my aunt Myle’s house. All the older people easily broke into hymns they learned in rural churches. I know they kept themselves fed during the Great Depression using old-time mountain skills of hunting and raising rabbits in a hutch. Yet, there was always a strange hush about where we came from. I suspect the “rhetoric” of the Appalachian stereotypes hurt them, and they felt the need to just keep quiet about it all. Nevertheless, they gave me a magical childhood of running wild in the woods of Wax, Kentucky every summer.
Deciding who we are and how we come to know who we are is a question that spirals into everything that pertains to the urban Appalachian experience. Our Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project is one of the ways the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is documenting the complex issue of Appalachian identity. A suggested interview question is “Did you or your parents use words like Appalachian or mountain people to describe yourselves? (And do you now?)” The responses from those interviewed are as diverse as the people themselves, as you can see for yourself at our Story Gathering Project Interview Archive.
Information on Harvesting Our Stories: Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project and how to participate is at this link: https://uacvoice.org/storygathering/.
Works referenced in this article:
Catte, Elizabeth. What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia.
Snyder, Todd. The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity.
Other useful resources are the website http://expatalachians.com/ and our own research webpage, https://uacvoice.org/research/Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.