By Rose Gibson
I grew up knowing my family had strong Appalachian ties. My grandpa turned a leathery tan in the summer thanks to his Melungeon roots. My Aunt Jo Jo taught me about snake handling services in one-room churches. The occasional story about wading in a crawdad creek with skirts scandalously hiked up to the knee, would catch my attention. I knew, but I didn’t really care. Those were the extent of my thoughts about heritage, besides my deep embarrassment when someone said the word “hillbilly.”
I put away my familial ties in an old military trunk next to my grandma’s bluegrass records. My heritage was neglected and forgotten, except for the occasional dinner of cornbread and cabbage, until I started working with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s (UACC) Place Keeper’s program and the Originary Arts Initiative (OAI), founded by UACC Core member, Sherry Cook Stanforth. My love of writing, coupled with the warm welcome mentorship in these groups, has led me back to an ancestral place. I was initially taken aback by the effect this openness and accepting community had on me. As my writing and poetry progressed and I got to know UACC friends and local authors, so did my appreciation for my Appalachian heritage. I felt inspired to grow not only as a writer, but as a woman who embraced her identity.
However, as is too often the case, my family tree burned down through years of hardship. Branches of alcohol, drugs, violence, and abuse spread down through the roots until all that was left was death and decay. Now I am left searching for these roots, but from a safe distance. I’m holding tightly to a pair of binoculars while I try to discover who I am, and what connects me to this region.
The binoculars have given way to pens and a broken laptop—the words I’m sending out into the world have begun to light up my uneven ground. Over the past year or so, I’ve been participating in open mics and virtual events. I’ve also started serving as a UACC/OAI Place Keepers arts apprentice, taking on other writing and leadership projects as well. I have been honored to collaborate with creative people such as Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour, Sherry Cook Stanforth, Richard Hague, and Pauletta Hansel. In sharing and growing the seeds these writers have planted and watered, I’m gaining a stronger sense about who I am than ever before. The Place Keepers mission has impacted me and other young artists deeply, and Cincinnati is reaping a rich harvest from it.
On Friday, September 1st, I’ll join other local and regional artists to perform in the Appalachian Flow Showcase at the historical Carnegie Center of Columbia-Tusculum. This evening of creative expression will include stunning visual art, dynamic readings, traditional/folk music, and a variety of Appalachian foods, all in celebration of Greater Cincinnati’s diverse Urban Appalachian culture, as well as other migration cultures. With apprenticeship spirit in mind, we’re also honoring the beautiful Ohio River watershed holding these cultures.
As my former Thomas More University professor and now lifelong friend Sherry Cook Stanforth explained, “We’re gathering in the spirit of creative expression, intergenerational apprenticeship, and place keeping. The current of our Greater Cincinnati arts scene holds regionally beloved artists as well as rising younger talent.” Stanforth views Appalachian Flow’s relaxed family atmosphere, storytelling design, and heritage food tasting as a way to emphasize a strong value for sharing home spirit and cultural curiosity.
Among our featured presenting artists is our Ohio Poet Laureate, Kari Gunter-Seymour, who is a master at her craft and a delight to work with. I am so thrilled to see her in action once again, and to attend her “Home Shores” creative writing workshop held that same afternoon. You can find out more about her workshop, also at the Carnegie Center of Columbia-Tusculum on Friday, September 1 at 2 pm, here.
I’m inspired by all of the eclectic artists who will take the stage on Appalachian Flow Showcase night. Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Sara Moore Wagner, Michael Thompson, The Farmer & the Crow (Dale Farmer, Ma Crow), and Tangled Roots (Jody Knoop, Mike Boershig, Sherry Cook Stanforth) will all be a part of the journey. With a focus on a sense of place, home, and background, every featured creative on the stage will be bringing a unique slice of who they are and how they connect to our community.
Several Place Keepers writers and musicians will also be presenting with these regional inspirations. I am not alone in knowing the truth and power in UACC’s mission to link generations together through arts and culture. When asked about speaking at Appalachian Flow, Katie Nichols, a fellow PK apprentice and magnificent poet, said, “It’s a privilege to share alongside people whose work I admire, people who have helped enrich my own understanding of community. I know I will come away from the event feeling energized and inspired.” Other young people ready to be energized and inspired, as well as to impact others, include Claire Sketch, Jake Dyer, Katie Nichols, Tommy Ballard, Emily Tromans, Bekah Woeste, and me, Rose Gibson.
Appalachian Flow Showcase will take place on September 1st at the Carnegie Heritage Center of Columbia-Tusculum. This beautiful historical venue will open its doors at 6:00 and the event will go from 6:30 until 8:30. Tickets are $8 in advance (https://thecarnegiecenterofcolumbiatus.regfox.com/appalachian-flow-showcase) or $10 at the door. All event-goers under 18 years old will be granted free admission. Your attendance at this Appalachian Flow event will not only support local artists, but also help fund free and affordable arts in the area. Sherry explained the showcases, school programs, workshops, and retreats designs unfolding to be about “cultivating ongoing partnerships and impactful new visions for creative place keeping stewardship throughout our cultural and ecological landscapes.”
I haven’t yet pinpointed who I am fully, and what my place is in the Urban Appalachian community. However, I know through opportunities like this one, I am inching ever closer. While I am still working out my feelings about where I come from, I claim my Appalachian roots with pride.
I am grateful for UACC and OAI for inviting me along for a ride I didn’t even know I was getting on. As my fellow PK apprentice Katie Nichols added, “I am thankful to UACC for hosting events that link together community members in arts, and for providing me a front row seat to the action.” It will be a privilege to share a piece of myself on September 1st, and another opportunity to recognize the value in both our individual and collective identities.
Rose Gibson is a writer and an Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Place Keepers Apprentice.