Appalachia Is a Place, Not Just a Backwater

I used to envy my friends with cultural connections to the country their families immigrated from. The traditions, cultural ties, and general identification for a way of life left behind but still valued enticed me. It continued a rare brand of conservatism that reflected Burke’s definition of society as a pact among the past, the present, and the future. It’s not necessarily nostalgic, but rather an acknowledgement of what was and what now exists. It’s a certain bond that I felt removed from understanding.

In general, I suppose, I longed for the metaphysical rooting that place provides. It determines community, influence, and mobility. It doesn’t control a person, but it places boundaries that control a person’s scope, for good or ill.

My last quarter of college, I took a Midwestern Literature class that emphasized how place shaped novels. Though her teaching style irked me, as well as a haughty windbag of a student I dubbed the “English ogre,” it was a valuable class long after it ended.

The class helped me realize that my longing was pointless. That connection to the “old country,” its community and traditions, and the deterministic properties of place already existed in my life.

The mental barrier, I realized, was that I didn’t think local. Immigration was irrelevant for me. My ancestors left Ulster and Scotland for America before the revolution and never looked back. Those ties vanished centuries ago, but I still had a place.

My place, to be specific, is Appalachia.

Along with that realization, I noticed how my place was viewed. That is, I was relatively unaware of foreign perspective treating “Appalachia” as synonymous with “backwater.” It wouldn’t be notable, but its power shapes the region and its people. It lacks context, but defines the conception.

For 250 years, my family migrated about 100 miles through Appalachia, rarely straying 50 miles from the Ohio River. Why did it take me so long to recognize my place? Maybe it didn’t seem interesting enough. I had ancestors fight in the Revolutionary War, and most wars since then, but maybe I lacked a flashy narrative of history-altering bravery. The answer, I think, lies in something simple: I had no model to go on.
My part of Appalachia, extending a bit into the Midwest, gets lumped into anonymous, boring “flyover country.” The coasts dominate American culture, and Midwesterners lack pizzazz:

In the East Coast imagination, the Midwest is populated largely by hicks, and life there is about as exciting as a field of corn. Instead of having a vital, rewarding career as, say, chief assistant to the assistant chief in the personnel department of the Federal Bureau of This or That, Midwesterners plow fields, work in factories and mills, operate small businesses. They belong to the Grange or the Rotarians, go in for church suppers and community singing.

Who cares about a place riddled with rednecks in every cornfield, hillbillies in every holler?

Well, I do.

Aside from the marginalization and stereotyping, much more happens here.

I’m not sure how many more sitcoms can be about hipsters in Brooklyn, or a circle of white friends anywhere in New York City. Yet, a new one premieres every fall (usually with a character fleeing the Midwest). In contrast, Appalachia has Deliverance or Buckwild to shape perceptions. Murderous, predatory hicks, or ignorant, dumb yokels. What variety! If luck shines through, the Beverly Hillbillies retains some social influence. Gems like October Sky might break through, but the negative overwhelms.

Journalistic pieces follow a similar script when describing Appalachia. Impoverished people leech off welfare and scramble for drugs as the community decays. Few pieces humanize Appalachia’s denizens like Leslie Jamison’s. Even with that piece, the subject was from the South, but stuck in Appalachia; we only catch fleeting glimpses of others.

The challenge, then, for anyone in my position is staggering. How do I explain the variety and complexity of life in the backwoods Do I stay? How do I justify leaving? Why should I have to justify it?

What stands to do, then, is to integrate its existence as a valuable, complex place into public consciousness. Not through a denial of problems, but through the creation of a place in a space that doesn’t exist. Stereotypes stand, but I want to humanize the hillbilly, contextualize the redneck, and recognize others. To erase the awareness of a variety of people would be unacceptable in other contexts.

Currently, as historically, Appalachia is a resource bank. To power the country, mountains are removed. Before, they were hollowed out. Instead of a gap to hint at what once was, only wastelands, tucked away from wandering eyes, remain. Unnoticed by anyone outside, the public is unconcerned about how others suffer when they benefit. We value Appalachia for what we can extract from it and ignore what’s left behind. To change that, people need to find it on the map and understand it beyond Cletus, Sally Ann, and their bare-footed children.