Columnist proud of her Appalachian roots
This past weekend hundreds of scholars and activists from several states gathered on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus for a three day Appalachian Studies Conference.
Dozens of talks were given on a wide array of topics—everything from access to health care to coal mining to sustainable living to religion.
Musicians with fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, mandolins, and banjos jammed in the library all weekend.
I presented with a couple of other students on “History through Stories.”
But what is Appalachian Studies some wonder, and who cares, anyway? What does it mean to be “Appalachian?”
Well, apparently, we are it. And “it” can mean a lot of things.
To some, it’s about where we live, geographically speaking. To others it’s about a unique mountain culture. To still others, it involves economic development or the environment.
But Appalachian Studies includes all these things and more.
One significant way that Appalachian Studies affects us here in Estill County is that researchers spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out why certain areas of Kentucky remain the poorest in the nation. Why have we been left behind?
Our very own Joe Crawford from the Estill Developmental Alliance was there as part of a panel discussion on growing local economies.
“We presented on what we learned from the Growing Local Economies project we did with the UK Appalachian Center. GLE was a big part in the formation of EC Local-Motive,” Crawford said.
My love for the discipline began when I took an Appalachian Literature class a few years ago and read books by homefolks—writers from Kentucky and the surrounding states. Not only did Appalachian Studies feel like home to me, but I enjoyed thinking about our culture from different perspectives.
Reflecting on where I’m from, I realized that students who head off to college from counties like ours encounter a more diverse group of people than many of them even knew existed, which is a necessary part of a good education, but it can also be a bit of a culture shock.
I believe that’s why a lot of local students fall by the wayside. It’s not just the number of people on campus that is overwhelming; it’s more about feeling out of place. And it’s also about discovering the prejudice that many people from outside the area have toward us.
I heard a fellow-student from out of state tell how her friends reacted with horror over her decision to attend EKU. One reportedly said something like, “Why would you go there—aren’t you afraid?”
Others have said that they didn’t think eastern Kentuckians wore shoes until they moved here.
Where do these misconceptions come from?
We certainly do have more than our share of problems, and there are people who like to go barefoot on occasion, myself being one of them, but for the most part, we are not “stupid hillbillies.”
I remember a class with a young lady from a neighboring county who obviously felt ill at ease when she spoke. She sounded country-er than cornbread, and I got the feeling that she was embarrassed by the fact. She dropped the class and I didn’t see her again.
I’ve heard horror stories of professors who’ve ridiculed students in class for sounding different. I never experienced any of that myself, but I won’t say it doesn’t happen.
A speaker in another of my classes said that Appalachia remains one of the few targets that is not politically incorrect to insult.
I think she’s right. It seems that respect for diversity is encouraged toward nearly everyone except hillbillies.
Thanks to certain movies and TV shows, many people think we are barbarians. Or, at best, just plain dumb.
But the disrespect doesn’t just show up in entertainment—you hear a lot of “stupid hillbillies” and “backward Kentuckians” tossed around in political conversations too.
I’m convinced that overcoming stereotypes is one of the greatest challenges students from this area have to face if they go to college or leave this area to live and work.
But it isn’t just the way we are viewed by outsiders that holds us back. It’s when we internalize and believe the negative things said about us that we have a problem.
We need to develop some Appalachian pride. If we don’t respect ourselves, who in the world will?
Not long ago, I saw a book on display in EKU’s library whose cover announced that poverty is not a learning disability.
So true, I thought. Poverty typically results in lack of opportunity, not lack of intelligence.
We don’t have to buy into the idea that because we are from Estill County that we can’t keep up with the rest of the world. We’ve got a lot of progress to make, but I believe we have the same potential as any other population.
I know a lot of very smart people in this county, some not necessarily formally educated but equipped instead with good old-fashioned common sense–a quality that, in my humble opinion, seems to be in short supply these days.
And it shouldn’t take an Appalachian Studies conference to figure that out now, should it?