The history of Appalachia is one of exploitation and extraction — and dogged resistance to both. This region, my family’s home for seven generations, has literally powered American life since the 19th century. There is no song, labor union or machine built east of the Mississippi that does not arguably owe its existence to Appalachia or that at least engages with our culture and ecology.
The ecosystems of the mountain South, its uniquely influential art and its interdependent communities (particularly communities of color) have been systematically misrepresented and pillaged for centuries now. In these hills, “we’re accustomed,” says Elizabeth Catte in her debut nonfiction book, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” “to serving as passive subjects for others.”
Writers who set their work here are therefore responsible for embracing (or at least acknowledging) that history and for recognizing their own work as but a patch on a large, complex quilt, one that has been touched by both ravaging and patient hands.
Often, those hands are highly skilled and belong to Othered, forgotten bodies. As a writer myself, I am constantly intimidated by the astonishing literary tradition that surrounds and precedes me here. And yet, to hear the men folk tell it, none of this matters.
If you believe Appalachia is monolithically conservative and white, if you assume our story is one of privation, redneckery and pipe smokin’ grannies sipping moonshine, you do so because white men have told you that story. Although the majority of Appalachia’s 25 million inhabitants are indeed white, it is also a place of vibrant matriarchy, where we are “adding African American and Hispanic individuals at a rate faster than most of the nation.”
The so-called Scots-Irish tradition of Appalachia is a myth, Catte meticulously explains, designed to “satisfy a particular fetish” of the bourgeoisie. “There is no basis,” she writes, “for the belief that historic or contemporary white Appalachians share a distinct culture informed by their homogenous ethnic heritage.”
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