A little more than a year ago, ABC’s long-running newsmagazine 20/20 aired a documentary called A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.
Hosted by Diane Sawyer, a native of Glasgow, Ky., the show focused on a collection of impoverished communities in Central Appalachia, each suffering from one or more particularly deplorable circumstances: rampant methamphetamine and prescription drug addiction; teenage pregnancies the result of incest, because, as one shotgun-wielding young man put it, “the closer the kin, the deeper in”; chronic toothlessness, brought on by poor dental care and too many soft drinks (at one point a man poured Pepsi into his two-year-old niece’s sippy cup); and an overall sense of grinding poverty that seemed as intractable as it was apparent.
To much of the nation and many Knoxvillians, this represents one version of Appalachia.
The other—the one that celebrates Appalachians as independent, resourceful frontiersmen, deeply connected to the land in a way we modern city dwellers aren’t and perhaps never were—is far more palatable and accessible. Drive 20 miles north from Knoxville to the Museum of Appalachia, just off I-75, and it’s there seven days a week for anyone with $15 and a passing interest in handicrafts, wood cabins, and other icons of America’s pioneer days.
Or visit a new exhibit through June 20 entitled “Vanishing Appalachia” at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Featuring photographs and field recordings documenting a time and place in danger of being lost to modernity, the exhibit’s advertisement makes clear the Appalachia it’s pushing: photos of barefoot children crouching on an old wooden fence; a bearded mountain moonshiner leaning on his cane in front of a still; and an old motel billboard featuring a man, shoeless and in frayed overalls, pointing the way to a hot meal and a restful bed.
When asked to move past these pat cultural stereotypes, to define what Appalachia really is, many turn to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the federal agency created in 1965 to address the woeful economic environment in the region.
“We do have a region with a federal agency that’s charged with its development,” says Herb Smith, who’s been making films for 40 years at Appalshop, a cultural and media center in Whitesburg, Ky., formed in 1969 to document life in Central Appalachia.
The ARC leads to other associations—John F. Kennedy’s campaign in West Virginia, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the Appalachian Development Act, which provided $1 billion to 11 states for highway construction and other projects. These efforts were both noble and necessary, undertaken to alleviate the shocking conditions Kennedy encountered during his 1960 visit.
But they also reinforced a perception of a place uniformly poor and largely out of step with the rest of the country. It was (and still is) the case that parts of Appalachia were in dire need; but there was always more to it than that. And yet to this day, this narrative so subsumes the region that Appalachia somehow becomes simultaneously synonymous with modern mountain poverty and a frontier ideal destined to disappear.
In his new book, Appalachians All: East Tennessee and the Elusive History of an American Region, local teacher and historian Mark Banker argues that this way of thinking about Appalachia, by both outsiders and those within it, excludes far too much of the region’s history and culture: namely, urban areas like Knoxville, its inhabitants, immigrants of anything but Irish and Scotch stock, Northerners, the educated, and the affluent.
“I believe those of us who reside here—and that is my definition of Appalachians—have accepted these images for too long. In this concern, I share the view of a fellow East Tennessee native who lamented several years ago that many Appalachians ‘firmly believe that Appalachia is someplace other than where they reside,’” Banker writes.
He hopes to convince Knoxvillians that they, too, are Appalachian, and in doing so, broaden the word so that it might allow the idea of Appalachia to reflect its true nature, and to grow and evolve as its people and region do.
But is Knoxville really Appalachian? What does that even mean? And what difference does it make?
One Question, Lots of Answers
Asking Knoxvillians if their city is Appalachian is a bit like asking them why a just Creator would allow suffering, or whether a theory of free will is compatible with a theory of predestination: That is to say, it’s complicated.
“I don’t know the answer. It’s one of those you can’t really answer,” says an obviously conflicted Cherel Henderson, executive director of the East Tennessee Historical Society.
“It depends on your interpretation of the word ‘Appalachia,’” explains Red Hickey, host of WDVX’s Blue Plate Special. “If you mean is Knoxville still a little mountain town, then, of course, no.”
“In the mountains, but not of the mountains, is how people like to see themselves,” says Knox County historian Steve Cotham of the city’s residents. “We’re in the region called Appalachia, but we don’t see ourselves as part of Appalachia.”
There’s a good reason it’s such a hard question: As Hickey points out, nobody is really certain what “Appalachian” means. The word has been used as a marker of culture or identity only since about 1880, when America entered a period of rapid urbanization and industrialization known as the Gilded Age. Before then, there was little need to define a people or culture that did not differ significantly from the nation at large.
But during this period, journalists known as local color writers began writing and publishing stories about a strange, isolated people living along the Appalachian mountain range, a people who seemed to be rejecting their idea of progress. These stories gained wild popularity even as they were wildly inaccurate.
“This old idea of an Anglo-Saxon enclave never did hold up,” Smith, of Appalshop, says. “That was bunk from the word go. The reality really from frontier times to the present is a complex, multicultural mix of people who are somewhat different from people from other parts of the country.”
Banker and others say this caricature resonated because it reflected the anxieties of a nation then concerned about modernization and the toll of extractive industries.
“American industrialization and the accompanying ideal of progress took center stage,” Banker writes. “The former required Appalachian resources even as the latter spun off contradictory images of ‘Appalachia’ that persist even now. Images of backward, benighted, aberrant ‘Appalachia’ made the region’s economic exploitation more palatable.”
Even before that, the word’s meaning was ambiguous. Banker notes that from 1539, when the Apalachee Indians met Spanish explorers in Florida, the word has meant many different things to different people. “The sixteenth-century cartographers’ ‘Appalachia’ has proved as enduring, elastic, and elusive as it was inaccurate. Mapmakers nearly five centuries later still do not agree about the physical boundaries of the space called Appalachia,” Banker writes.
Mapping Out Some Boundaries
And so today, what Appalachia means depends on its utility—on who’s defining it and to what end.
Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian studies and music at East Tennessee State University and editor of the journal of the Appalachian Studies Association. He contributed to the 2006 Encyclopedia of Appalachia, which relied on the Appalachian Regional Commission to define the area’s parameters—a move, he says, that proved controversial.
But faced with so much vagueness and so many potential pitfalls, many turn to that ARC definition, where the answer is simple: 420 counties over 13 states and 206,000 square miles from north Mississippi to western New York that comprise this Appalachia. Knoxville is within those boundaries. Therefore, Knoxville is Appalachian.
While straightforward, this is also fairly unsatisfying. With the ARC’s mission of economic development, Congress defines counties as Appalachian based on both proximity to the mountains and economic need. In fact, just this past year 10 more counties became “Appalachian.”
“ARC exists to serve the people of Appalachia, and it’s not our purpose or role to define the character of Appalachia,” says ARC spokesman Louis Segesvary, bristling at the suggestion that the agency’s definition would be used in any but a narrow development sense.
And defining it this way necessarily conflates poverty and need with Appalachia, reinforcing the perception that Appalachia is uniformly poor and somewhat static. Again, where does an urban center like Knoxville, and its educated, affluent population fit in?
Moving away from the ARC definition, others, such as Jamie Ross, producer of the 2008 PBS documentary Appalachia, focus on the region’s distinct geographic feature. “Our film takes the mountains as the main character, as the defining element in what makes you Appalachian,” she says. “The mountains have shaped people here, whether they were Italians that came to work in the coal mines or the first indigenous people who came here. The mountains are a particular landscape, and that landscape is not just where you live, it’s also how you live.”
Ross believes this definition allows for a better understanding of Appalachia’s biological, cultural, and demographic complexity, for people like Booker T. Washington or Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—two black intellectuals from West Virginia—to be included within it. “That’s the side of Appalachia that people don’t realize,” Ross says. And she includes cities like Knoxville and Asheville under this definition.
This is largely Banker’s design, too. Drawing on what he calls a “cartographic consensus” to show that all of East Tennessee falls within the region defined as Appalachia, Banker says Knoxville is Appalachian, and that whatever culture or people are found within that region—blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, Middle Easterners, Northerners, rich, poor—are Appalachian, too.
Knoxville’s Ongoing Identity Crisis
“If you’d have told me we were Appalachian growing up in the ’50s, I’d have laughed in your face,” Banker says, in a way that seems at once confrontational and playful. Growing up on a small farm in Kingston, Tenn., where he lives today with his wife, Banker’s family had a decidedly rural existence but did not identify with Appalachia.
And like many others, it took his leaving his home and the region to realize how complicated his cultural identity was. After college, he spent 11 years in New Mexico, during which he completed his doctorate in history; there, he also confronted difficult questions of Native American identity, acculturation, and how cultural stereotypes can limit and even harm a people.
When his father died unexpectedly in 1986, Banker found himself back in Kingston, living on the family farm, driving 30 minutes to teach at Webb School of Knoxville, and profoundly confused about what Appalachia meant. With his advanced education, was he Appalachian? Were his mostly well-off students? If education and wealth were disqualifications, what did that say about who could be Appalachian?
The product of this identity crisis, which he says continues today, and 14 years of teaching Appalachian studies at Webb high school (where he taught this writer nearly a decade ago), is his book—part memoir, but mostly a history of East Tennessee.
Banker uses his own life, family history, and the development of three distinct East Tennessee communities—Cades Cove, the Clearfork Valley, and Knoxville, representing mountain, plateau and valley—to trace the region’s development from its Cherokee inhabitants to present day. The Clearfork Valley and Cades Cove serve as representatives of stereotypical “Appalachian” places—the Clearfork Valley being a collection of communities near the Kentucky border steeped in the timber and coal industries; Cades Cove representing the nostalgic, frontier Appalachia and broader Smoky Mountains, once harvested for timber but later purged of any traces of contemporary amenities when it became a national park.
With this, Banker hopes to illustrate how intertwined Knoxville’s development was with the surrounding hinterlands, and thus how difficult it is to separate Knoxville from these “Appalachian” places.
“Knoxville’s role in the regional economy allowed it in many ways to become ‘less Appalachian’ as the city’s relative fortunes contributed to ‘Appalachian’ conditions in the hinterlands,” Banker writes.
But, he says, it was never a one-way street, nor an impermeable membrane between Knoxville and the mountains. While Knoxville benefitted from the resources of its surrounding areas, in turn it provided demand and, in places like Market Square, an exchange for many of the goods those communities produced. Knoxville’s wholesale industry was key to creating employment and markets for the industries in the outlying regions. And when these communities became overpopulated and suffered from economic stagnation, many of these rural people migrated to Knoxville to become the ancestors of Knoxvillians today.
Banker argues the move from country to city created conflicting feelings—on the one hand, the new arrivals wanted to confirm the superiority of their adopted homes, and the stereotypes of backwards Appalachians provided them an easy way to do so. On the other hand, nostalgia for the old ways sometimes pushed them to romanticize their former lives.
And so while Knoxville has always been inextricably linked to “Appalachia,” and indeed in many ways composed of “Appalachians,” its inhabitants nevertheless accepted the narrow definitions the nation at large came to hold and rejected that identity.
“By the mid-twentieth century, Knoxvillians and more fortunate regional residents had in general bought into images that demean their neighbors—and of many of their forebears—as hopelessly out of touch with modernity,” Banker writes. “With few exceptions, these ‘successful’ Appalachians—like the mainstream they emulated—distanced themselves from the ‘Appalachia’ typified by the Clearfork Valley. Meanwhile, many of these same people selectively embraced romanticized elements of the Cades Coves ‘Appalachia’ as an occasional alternative to modernity.”
To this day, Banker says, these cultural definitions of Appalachia remain with us, creating psychological barriers between ourselves and these outlying regions, and cultural insecurity about our past, present and future.
“Are East Tennesseeans who become formally educated, enjoy economic success, or move from the farm to the city or out-migrated beyond the region ‘Appalachian’?” Banker writes. “What about newcomers from the North or from Mexico who recently arrived here? Should they be included among Appalachians? If one assumes that Appalachia is static and uniformly aberrant (e.g., poor, ignorant, and rural) and culturally homogenous (e.g., ‘all WASP’) then the answer is, ‘No.’ And a self-perpetuating cycle of poor, ignorant, rural and ethnically uniform Appalachians results.”
So while Banker readily admits Appalachia is an invention, he believes it is one that has and continues to be harmful to the region. And further, that Knoxvillians hold the keys to changing it.
Educated, affluent, “that person, who I call a successful Appalachian, does not fit the stereotype,” Banker says, “but he does not stop to think he could debunk the stereotype. Instead, he works very hard to make sure that people don’t think he fits the stereotype.”
So, Are We Or Aren’t We?
Back at the Museum of Appalachia, president Elaine Meyer admits she’s never considered how complex the question of Appalachian identity was. “I think when my father started the museum back in the late ’60s and ’70s, we were just telling the story of our people,” Meyer says, “We never really thought about who we are representing and who we’re not. It was just, these are our people, this is what we stand for, this is what is noble and good.”
Others, such as Hickey of WDVX, who turns out to be a cousin of Banker, hold a more traditionalist view of the word and of who can claim it. “I definitely believe it’s more a generation-type thing...you have to be rooted here for a long time,” Hickey says.
Meyer and Hickey’s perspectives demonstrate the degree to which the stereotypes of Appalachia are entrenched, and that people will ultimately decide for themselves what the word means. Indeed, this very article—which is all about not buying into stereotypes of Appalachia—relied on images of Appalachian stereotypes for its artwork.
“Ain’t no missionary who can rehabilitate that word,” laughs Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies, an outreach group based in Eastern Kentucky with an office in Knoxville.
Is Marema correct? Is the word beyond saving?
“I’ve just never been able to accept that it’s a very meaningful way to describe this region,” says Cotham, the Knox County historian.
Olson, at ETSU, applauds Banker’s effort to reflect Appalachia’s complexity, yet he’s suspicious of attempting to apply an objective standard like Banker’s to such a subjective idea. “I would say Appalachian as an identity marker is never hard and fast. It’s never so clinical as to say if you live in East Tennessee, therefore you’re Appalachian,” Olson says. “I say that because we have a lot of in-migration, a lot of people who live in our geographical area who don’t consider themselves Appalachian in the least. And also, and this is something I’ve experienced living here, a lot of people who are from the area don’t even self-consider themselves Appalachian.”
“In some ways, it may be best to see Appalachia as an identity marker as something of a state of mind,” Olson says.
But again, Banker believes the reason Knoxvillians don’t identify with Appalachia is precisely because they’ve accepted the narrow cultural stereotypes that were never accurate. And by redefining the word, he thinks Knoxvillians might be able to resolve their long-held ambivalence about themselves, their place in the world, and build a solid foundation for the 21st century. “As the old Indian guy told me in New Mexico, if you inhale here and exhale here, you’re one of us,” he says.
Besides, many say we’re stuck with the word, so we might as well make the most of it.
“I think Knoxville’s going to get identified that way whether it wants to or not by a significant portion of the American population,” Marema says. “So the question to me would be, ‘What are you going to do with that? Are you going to push the river upstream? Or are you going to take it and do something with it that could be positive?”
Perhaps through embracing an Appalachian identity rooted in common geography, Knoxvillians could feel more connected to surrounding communities. And perhaps this could change the way Knoxvillians see something like mountaintop removal—which occurs geographically in their own backyard but psychologically far away, to a people unlike themselves.
Even Banker concedes that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter if people identify as Appalachian as long as they realize what it is they’re saying. “Whatever we call ourselves is less important than that we begin to acknowledge that East Tennesseans—and Appalachians in general—are a diverse, ever-changing lot, whose destinies have always intertwined,” he says. Just asking the question, and interrogating the answers, will accomplish some of that work.
And that returns to the utility of the word.
So, are you Appalachian?