So, what does it mean to be Appalachian? Is it merely a birthright or can one become Appalachian? Are there different degrees of being Appalachian? Is there a checklist? Love the mountains — check. Love to hike — check. Enjoy banjo and fiddle music —double check. For those whose roots go back many generations in this region the only thing that can make you truly Appalachian is just that, deep roots. (And, for most people, “Appalachian” means the Southern Appalachian region specifically, but that’s a discussion for another day.) In this sense a person can’t really become “Appalachian” any more than an American citizen could become British. On some level you would always be an American who has adopted the ways of another culture. So, for transplants it’s not really a question of becoming Appalachian. It’s a matter of respect and affection, cultural understanding and acceptance, at least to some degree, warts and all.
I should make clear where I’m coming from on this particular philosophical question. I am a transplant. I don’t have any family in the region, though I have spent the majority of my life in Appalachia. My early childhood was spent in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. When I was eight years old my family moved to Kansas, but I felt drawn back to the mountains. It was like a deep yearning I couldn’t really put into words, and most people dismissed it as youthful fantasy. It was as if the Spirit of the Appalachians got into my soul and quietly grew, calling to me. I left Kansas to attend college in Maryville, Tennessee over thirty years ago and I’ve been in East Tennessee ever since.
But, despite those truths, I’ve never really thought of myself as “Appalachian.” At least not in the way that my wife, her people, or others with far-reaching roots think of it. I have too many roots elsewhere and my upbringing was too different (not better or worse, mind you, just different). I have learned a great deal about this culture over the years, and I’d like to share some of those lessons with you here.
Just because people talk with an unusual drawl does not mean they are ignorant. I have a friend who is just as mountain as anyone you could ever meet. He spends his free time working on cars and around his place, caring for his wife and family, and going to church. He is one of the most gifted and knowledgeable mechanics I’ve ever met, understanding the intricacies of how motors of all kinds work on a level that regularly blows my mind. In addition to carrying a full-time job, he was a successful dirt track racecar driver. After he retired from driving, he designed an engine that is still in use in racing today. But his knowledge isn’t limited to mechanics. He has often helped me deal with my own vehicle issues and it is always an educational experience. During those afternoons and evenings, we’ve discussed philosophy, religion, politics, books, and the socioeconomic issues of the day.
Another, more amusing, lesson I’ve learned about Appalachian dialect is that even some born-and-bred Appalachians back in the hollers have trouble understanding it. They still have plenty to teach you. It just means you have to work harder to gain their wisdom, and you will often earn their respect in the attempt. Oh, and a local translator helps. (Thanks Benny!)
Southern and Mountain politeness and charm are real. Folks may never outwardly express their thoughts, ideas or opinions because they consider it impolite. Generally speaking, some subjects simply aren’t discussed in public, at least not in open and direct language. The phrase “bless his/her/their heart(s)” carries a mountain of meaning. That short phrase implies knowledge of a person’s faults, failings, and foibles. It’s a way to close a comment, or discussion, about shortcomings with an earnest (or, perhaps, less than earnest) blessing, or it can stand alone, leaving it all unsaid.
While, for many, a person’s family tree is key to being an Appalachian, there is so much more to it. The Appalachian Mountains change people. Ours is a region that is still largely isolated and instills a strong sense of independence and self-reliance. If you repair or craft something with what you have at hand and it is functional, that’s success. If the piece looks good, that’s a bonus. It takes a real craftsman with a certain sensibility to take others’ discards and turn them into new, functional pieces or art. Given the growing mountains of trash in our world, it’s a craft and a sensibility we could use more of, not less. Folks are proud of their ingenuity when resources are scarce, and of making do with what they make on their own. The isolation also has created a strong sense of community and family which complements that independence. The sense of “family” goes beyond blood ties. The understanding is that if folks need help, you help, and no payment is expected. Sometime down the road you’ll need help too, and such things have a way of balancing out. It’s a kind of “mountain karma” philosophy, which seems to be getting lost in the growing, fast-paced, urban “me first” ideas of instant gratification.
Suspicion of outsiders has been learned through long experience, by the way. Look no further than how TVA abandoned the families affected by the recent coal ash disaster. Or those displaced when they dammed the river to “bring power to the mountains.” TVA made a great deal of money from that venture, of which Tellico Village is a direct result. My mother-in-law spent her early years in a coal camp not fifty yards from a power substation, but the only place that had access to that power was the camp office and the foreman’s house. That history of betrayal has been repeated time and again.
The negative, two-dimensional stereotypes about southern Appalachians abound across the US and beyond: barefoot, stupid, illiterate, ignorant, inbred, violent, alcoholic. Yes, you can find examples of each of those stereotypes here, as you can in every region in the US, rural and urban. There are also the more idyllic types: wise, attuned to the land, kind and generous, loyal to a fault, natural sharpshooters, and, while these are more positive, they are no less two-dimensional. The reality is the dichotomies and contradictions of life are abundant here. Appalachian culture is far more complicated and complex than expected and very simple and straightforward.
Here are some tips and things I’ve picked up over the years. Maybe you’ll find them helpful.
- Approach people with respect and an open mind.
- Not all Appalachians are white, despite popular characterization. Ethnic diversity exists here, creating a rich, multifaceted culture.
- Listen more, hear more (there is a difference), talk less, especially important when you’re still learning the lingo.
- When you are offered seconds at the table, say yes! To refuse a second helping when it is offered is taken as a serious insult, both to the cook and to the hospitality of the household. Mountain folks are proud to a fault of both their vittles and their hospitality.
- Keep in mind that very real, honest, personal experiences often exist behind opinions and attitudes.
- Avoid talking about how much better it was wherever you came from, even if you think it’s true. It’s considered rude. There is a big difference between talking with folks about a better way to do things and talking down to folks about how much your ideas are better than their ways.
- Enjoying a sunset on a porch in a mountain holler with no TV, no radio, no cell signal, and sitting on a swing or in a rocking chair with family is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It is also a place where I have learned a great many things modern technology cannot teach.
Tom Anderson has a history degree, with minors in Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, and Music; and has been active in theater for much of his life. He spent his early childhood in the Central Appalachian region of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He and his family moved to Kansas where he finished high school. He came to Southern Appalachia’s Tennessee to attend Maryville College and has lived here over 31 years. He is currently employed as a buyer in Facilities Services at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a proud union member who spends his free time supporting humanitarianism and social justice.
**Featured Image Source: City of Bluefield in McDowell County, West Virginia – Wikimedia from the Library of Congress