The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

January 10, 2014

No bare feet here, Appalachian myths still persist

Point Blank

To many people living in so-called mainstream America, the terms Appalachia and poverty are synonymous. But this is only one of many misconceptions about the region.

The confusion about the much-publicized region of Appalachia stems, no doubt, from the stereotypes surrounding it. When most people, especially outsiders, think of Appalachia, they commonly think poverty, because that’s what they have seen portrayed in magazines and on TV.

But Appalachia is much larger than the region commonly recognized by outsiders. It extends from Maine to Mississippi. It’s bigger than the area of West Virginia, parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. And yet, people generally refer to two separate subjects when they discuss Appalachia—poverty and scenery. Either they talk about the beauty of the mountains or the barefoot mothers standing in the doorways of hillside hovels.

When others hear the word Appalachia they think of the coalfields in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, food stamps, strip mining and black lung. Their images of Appalachia include old mountain men with raggedy trousers and rope belts, bibbed overalls, felt hats and little brown jugs. They imagine people smoking corncob pipes and blurting double negatives.

I first became interested in Appalachian culture while studying at college. I discovered that instructors and fellow classmates had strange notions about Appalachia. So, trying to set the record straight, I was drawn into the study of the region myself.

Actually, I was quick to learn, the study of Appalachian culture offers an entirely separate education in itself.

Contrary to what most Americans might think, the Appalachian region is rich in cultural traditions that can be traced back to Elizabethan England and the Scottish Highlands, not to mention the influences from Germany, Wales, Ireland, Italy and France.

For generations, the blending of cultural influences in this mountain environment has produced a rich heritage of which Appalachians can be justly proud.

But with the Interstate highways opening up the hills and hollows to urban influences, much of the cultural inheritance of isolated sections of Appalachia is fading from the region, according to research enthusiasts who are currently working on a plan that would help develop an understanding of the Appalachian predicament.

One way of gathering information about the region is to find out how others view the Appalachian population and how the Appalachians view themselves. And, of course, some of this research deals with labels and stereotypes.

The term “hillbilly” was coined during the Civil War. We referred to southerners as “Johnny Rebs,” while over in Virginia, the Confederates referred to northerners as “Billy Yank.” Those who lived in the mountains west of the Blue Ridge, they called “hillbillies.”

I still believe, though, that overall, Americans are better educated today about Appalachia and its proud people. The people who come through here on buses, and those who relocate to our area for personal reasons, find that we’ve made strides in moving out of the poverty stage.

If you look around, things are not like they used to be. People left in the 1950s and 1960s to find work. Now, many of the same people are returning to the hills to retire.

And though the population figures are dropping in some areas throughout the state, it isn’t because of poverty; it’s due more to the lack of jobs for young people. As for the so-called accents of hill people, Appalachian residents speak a different dialect than people from other regions of America, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Every state has its own vernacular. If you look at states from Maine to Georgia, you’ll find that accents vary from state to state.

Plus, as far as behavior is concerned, Appalachian folk generally are more welcoming and friendly toward strangers and outsiders than in the past. That’s positive, largely because people now are moving in here from all over the country, including those transferring to jobs with the prison system and other government agencies in the region. In sum, the sprawling mountainous terrain commonly known today as Appalachia is steeped in heritage and tradition, according to those who continue to explore the legends and folklore of the region through research in music, theater, history and literature.

The result: We can all be proud of our indomitable mountaineer spirit, and we no longer have to consider the term “hillbilly” offensive. In fact, most people would probably say they are even proud of it; at least, they no longer consider it derogatory.

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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