Who Can Speak For Appalachia? A recent transplant wants to know.
by Parker Hobson
This past May 18, I made a 3-and-a-half hour trip in a rickety minivan, from my current home of Whitesburg, Ky. to my hometown of Louisville, Ky. I was traveling to represent my small, community radio station at Louisville Loves Mountains Day, a benefit for the grassroots citizens’ activism group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Photo, left, provided by Parker Hobson. Local citizens take to the airwaves at WMMT’s studio to protest school consolidation.
The festival, now in its fourth year, consisted of a day-long street party in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, complete with an eclectic musical lineup, local beer on tap, gourmet blue-cheese hamburgers (good screaming Christmas, were those delicious) and great company. In information-tabling for WMMT (a community radio station run by Appalshop, which is a non-profit multimedia center with an extraordinary, 43-year history of advocating for Appalachian people, challenging regional stereotypes and working to preserve and uplift traditional culture), I was able to have fantastic conversations with strangers and old friends alike, and I got to speak frantically and far-too-excitedly about our work. All in all, I had an absolute blast.
That being said, the evening was a bit disorienting. After moving away from Louisville upon graduating high school and then having spent the past 3 years bouncing from North Carolina to New Orleans to Brooklyn to Letcher County, I found myself home, ten minutes from my parents’ porch.
As strange as it was to be home, it was doubly strange to be there representing Appalachian Kentucky, home to an unspeakably rich regional culture and an
incredibly complex history, and my personal home for all of eight months. In trying to distill my limited understanding of the issues Central Appalachia faces into sound bites for passers-by on their way to the awesome-burger truck, I felt like I was somehow putting everyone on, that my answer to the oft-repeated “ . . .and where are you from?” was consistently a letdown.
I think such conversations will always feel a little strange. Despite The New York Times’ recent designation of Louisville as “the foothills of Appalachia,” I’m not from the mountains, and no matter how long I live here, I can’t imagine identifying that way. Based on my short experience, Appalachian identity has seemed to be very much tied to these hills themselves, and in what exactly it means to be from them. Some places seem to welcome you in as a part of their DNA. New Orleans, for example, is a port city, and it’s always thrived on a confluence of different ideas and cultures. If you love it, if it becomes a part of you, then you’re in. Southeast Kentucky is home to some of the warmest, most selfless and most welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, but I’ll never be “Appalachian.” It just doesn’t seem to work that way. I’m perfectly all right with that, but it does leave us folks-not-from-here in a tricky place sometimes—what right do I have to speak for the region?
Standing on Longest Avenue during the festival in May with all of this swirling through my head, I kept thinking back to an article I read this past April. It was, on the whole, a well-written history of the Louisville/Kentucky rivalry and basketball in the state, but a passage near the end grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. After describing driving along Letcher County’s Route 7 and meeting a “rawboned” man on a front porch, the author went on to write of Appalachian Kentucky:
. . . communities [here] long have been victimized and exploited . . . more often than anyone wanted, Kentucky’s basketball success became the natives’ only source of pride.
As exciting as it was to see Route 7 garner a national shout-out, I couldn’t get past that last sentence.
A theory began to take hold among sociologists in the 1960s that Appalachia had been treated in many ways like an “internal colony” of the United States. Whether or not you, reader, buy this specific notion, the fact stands that southeastern Kentucky’s resources have generated incredible wealth over the past century, and very little of that wealth has remained in the region. Kentucky’s coalfield district (U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ 5th District), in fact, was recently rated by Gallup as having the absolute worst overall quality of life of any of the 436 districts in the entire United States.
In this context, the use of “natives,” particularly in support of such a questionable conclusion (there has existed nothing for the “rawboned” “natives” of southeast Kentucky to be proud of save the results of basketball games played hundreds of miles away?), seemed fairly demeaning and wholly unnecessary. Was not this sort of dehumanization of the people of Appalachia part of how the U.S. government justified mobilizing the army against its own people at Blair Mountain, or how coal executives have found sleep across the decades while denying obviously ill miners’ black lung benefits? In short, was this easy characterization of Appalachian folks as simple, different, and somehow apart not in some way responsible for the very sort of exploitation the author mentioned?
So that should have been it, right? It’s pretty easy to take offense to things—you come upon something, you get the old hackles raised, and presto! You’ve taken offense! People do it every day!
I began doubting myself, though. Was it even my place to take offense? What did I even really know about this place? Who was I to speak for anyone here?
I suppose I’m still not sure. The more that I’m learning and the longer I live here, I’m slowly becoming more comfortable advocating for Appalachia as an objectively incredible, important and downright inspiring place, but I still feel uneasy speaking for it, especially when outside the region like in Louisville. In trying to condense a complex web of issues into talking points, it’s easy to resort to the same kind of generalizations that I’ve just railed against, especially when many seem to want to think of Appalachia as a sort of mythical, “rawboned” place. Still being new to this whole barbecue, I can’t claim to know how to navigate that just yet.
Here’s what I do know, however: this place is worth fighting for, and not just because of the vast, deeply-woven, uniquely American traditional culture that has managed to survive here, or just because these mountains contain a beauty of which I had no idea Kentucky was even capable.
There are people here who have been overlooked and under served throughout Kentucky’s history, and remain so today. These folks come in all shapes and forms: some work to preserve traditional culture, some listen to Slayer, and some do both. Most all, however, love living here and wish to make homes here, but due to a unilateral economy and a longstanding lack of investment in any kind of diversified means for Appalachian folks to support themselves, few are actually able to find the work necessary to do so. This is a long-simmering crisis of human rights and elected sloth, and the people of this region certainly deserve better.
No matter where I’m from, how long I’ve been here, or what you want to call me, I’ve got no problem saying that, and, if I can at least speak for my co-workers, neither does my little radio station.
Parker Hobson grew up in Louisville and holds a degree in music from Davidson College. He lives in Whitesburg, Ky. where he is a staff person at WMMT radio and Appalshop. A songwriter and producer (check out his 2009 album “flat-footed ghost”), he is also a M*A*S*H enthusiast.