At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet....At last it seemed to be time, and they sent out the Buzzard and told him to go and make ready for them. This was the Great Buzzard, the father of all the buzzards we see now. He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still soft. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and his wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.
Excerpt from Cherokee narrative, “How the World Was Made.”
Perhaps it’s easier to begin to describe Appalachia by telling you what it’s not. For example, according to Katherine Ledford, professor of Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, it’s not either of these two things:
“Appalachia functions for the nation as two sides of the same coin, so on one hand you have representations of Appalachia and Appalachian people as degenerate, dangerous, sexually deviant, just all of those negative 'Deliverance' stereotypes that circulate. But on the other hand you also have images of Appalachia that are romanticized, so you have depictions of people from the region as simple people, down to earth, close to nature and family oriented,” said Ledford, who is from western North Carolina.
That dichotomy has been reinforced through popular culture, despite objections from Appalachians themselves, most recently in the book-to-film adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy.” Published in 2016, the memoir “of a family and culture in crisis” rode a wave of interest in rural America after voters stumped the pollsters by electing President Trump. Author J. D. Vance, a venture capitalist, wrote about his childhood in Middletown, Ohio, touching on issues of poverty and drug abuse. But natives of the region questioned Vance's self-proclaimed "hillbilly" identity, assumed via his Appalachian grandparents, and his position as self-appointed judge and jury of the region’s culture.
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But that’s not the book this article is about.
This is about "Writing Appalachia," an anthology from the University Press of Kentucky chronicling the history of the region through its literature, from its Cherokee roots into the diversity of the modern day. That’s right: diversity.
Despite the simplification of Appalachian culture — or what Vance called “social rot” — into a homogeneous and white narrative, the area has the same nuances as many other rural communities across the country.
“The region in some ways functions as a scapegoat and I think we saw that with the reaction to the election of Donald Trump,” said Ledford. “I think it’s just an example of how Appalachia functions in the national narrative, as a place of differentiation and as a place of, in some ways, blame.”
There’s a long history of the region being represented as white, Ledford said, especially at the turn of the 20th century when American missionaries were seeking to do work closer to home, rather than traveling abroad, but did not want to go into Black communities.
“Appalachia was - erroneously - but still seen as a white space. In some sense it's marketed in that way by people who were interested in having philanthropists come into the region. So the idea that Appalachia was a bastion of white American settler stock, this idea circulated and was picked up on and promulgated widely, when we know that of course Native Americans have a long history in the region and Black people as well,” she said.
The anthology includes Black, indigenous and immigrant voices from early Appalachian literature through the civil war and into the Cold War before entering a third century. Some of the more modern literature covers subjects such as the opioid crisis and prescription drug abuse - a central focus of Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” - and LGBTQ+ identities.
Divided loyalties, perhaps. Still, I refuse to relinquish either world. I insist on it all. The late-summer pastures full of ironweed and goldenrod. Muscular, hairy, goateed men—just my type—marching in the West Virginia Gay Pride Parade. My father’s gardens, the buckets of tomatoes and cucumbers he proudly brings home, the jars of spaghetti sauce and chowchow and corn relish he and my sister put up. Harness-strap boots, my black-leather motorcycle jacket, my leather-flag baseball cap. Listening to Tim McGraw, Brooks and Dunn, Melissa Etheridge, Joni Mitchell, Kathy Mattea as I drive my dusty pickup truck down winding West Virginia back roads. Harpers Ferry, Helvetia; San Francisco, Key West. Leather bars like Charles- ton’s Tap Room or the Baltimore Eagle. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” one of my few specialties on the lap dulcimer. Lobster and paté, brown beans and cornbread. The Journal of Appalachian Studies, The Gay and Lesbian Review. In my life, at least, these contradictions coexist. They cannot be separated.
- Excerpt from “Loving Mountains, Loving Men” by Jeff Man
The anthology was a labor of love — and 10 years worth of work — for Ledford and fellow editor Theresa Lloyd. But when the book was published in March, it seemed at the time that the coronavirus pandemic might drown out any time for stories or nuance.
“One of the things that drives me insane is people talk about how isolated Appalachia was or even is today,” said Ledford, who teaches students from other parts of North Carolina and even other states. “Appalachian historians have spent decades showing how Appalachia has always been connected, from Cherokee-Colonial interactions, with local, regional, national and international markets.”
COVID-19 has revealed that no matter how isolated outsiders or insiders perceive Appalachia to be, it is not completely insulated from the rest of the country. West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are considered the heart of Appalachia and are also the most economically distressed, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Many of the same concerns in rural communities across the country are echoed here: a lack of access to health care, an older population and higher rates of certain pre-existing conditions.
“We were one of the last counties to see any cases," Trissa Wilder, nurse supervisor for the Bell County Health Department, told the Courier Journal. "We got lax, feeling that we were safe and secure.”
But even before the coronavirus arrived, the area was already hurting from the economic impact of the pandemic - especially in coal country. Of course, this isn’t new for a region known for its labor unions and picket lines, but is perhaps forgotten by those drawing the lines between “red” and “blue” areas.
My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union,
Till every battle’s won.
They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Excerpt from a protest song, "Which Side Are You On?" by Florence Reece
COVID-19 has also revealed how false and potentially harmful a monolithic view of the region can be. Even defining the borders of what is and isn’t Appalachia is difficult. The ARC’s definition includes 420 counties across 13 states, from Georgia to New York, each of which have responded to the pandemic differently. Of course the Appalachian mountains themselves can be traced as far north as Canada, but trail off somewhere around northern Alabama, with the Cumberland Plateau stretching farther into Georgia. But if you ask an Appalachian and their neighbor, you’ll likely get two different answers.
Ledford and Lloyd have generally used the ARC’s definition of the region, but focused on literature that was about the Appalachian mountain region itself — even including an author from outside the region whose work dealt with mountaintop renewal in West Virginia.
“We are under no illusion that this is the story of Appalachia. What we’re trying to do is to give people entree into places that they can investigate further,” said Ledford.
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