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In my experiences during travel throughout both Western and Eastern Europe, I am frequently asked questions about life in the United States. Packed within many of the questions are preconceived notions about what it means to live in the US and what it is like to be an American. Almost consistently, these perceptions categorize Americans as being similar or exactly alike in their thinking.
Often European cultures do not recognize the regional differences that comprise the different areas of the US When we cross borders into different regions in Europe, we often find ourselves exiting from one country and entering into another. The borders and regions of the United States are decidedly different; all regions use the same currency, speak the same language, and share unencumbered borders.

The idea of small communities, regions, and towns is often overlooked in American studies courses overseas. As Rob Kroes in “The Small Town: Between Modernity and Post-Modernity” discusses, American studies courses often focus on the big city areas and broad regions of the United States and the study of smaller communities and regions often gets marginalized. Kroes asserts, “Currently themes like borderlands and multiculturalism seem to carry everything before them. They have become the buzzwords at learned gatherings of American studies specialists, the signal codes for all those who are interested in the de-centering of the American sense of self.” What about regions and communities that do not exactly fit into the current schemata? Kroes quotes Hollander who says, “Community studies are still the best conceivable introduction to the national culture of another country and it is a cause for wonder that the study of America in Europe pays so little attention to them.”

In American studies abroad, there are frequently recognitions of the differences between the South and New England, for instance, but when we closely examine how the regions of the US are divided, there are marginalized regions that are often dismissed or under taught within European and American colleges. One such region in the United States is Appalachia.

In Appalachia Inside Out, Higgs, Manning and Miller say, “We cannot define precisely where Appalachia begins and ends geographically,” but the region usually includes the mountainous regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and all of West Virginia. Statistics from the US government and other sources often represent Appalachia as behind in education, employment opportunities, and culture, among others things. Even in American Studies programs in the US, Appalachia is often not studied as a unique region. Higgs et al., in their introduction to their Appalachian reader, state, “Like the issues of gender and ethnicity, the question of region has entered the debate over what constitutes the canon of American, and even southern, literature. Appalachia Inside Out engages this issue of region, which major American literature texts, focusing as they usually do upon major authors and literary movements, fail substantially to address.” Once we study the region closely, the rich cultural heritage and history of Appalachia make for a multi-faceted, unique area that deserves consideration in American studies courses both in the US and abroad.

Originally Appalachian settlers came from many European lands. According to Higgs et al., the original settlers of the Appalachian mountains were “already on the fringe of their original culture, displaced by war, economic conditions, or ambition.” Settlers were Scotch-Irish, British, and Native American. Even today, most of the inhabitants of the region are Caucasian.

I was fortunate enough to live in the Appalachian region of Virginia for six years. During that time, I taught in a small Appalachian public high school, conducted research with Appalachian women at two community colleges, and read multitudes of literature from and about the region. What I discovered about the people of Appalachia is that family ties closely bind them, families are hesitant to leave the area, and the people of the region have a deep pride in their cultural heritage.

As a high school teacher in Shawsville, Virginia, located in the Montgomery County region of Southwest Virginia, I had my first encounter working with Appalachian students. My charges were eleventh grade English students, who comprised all levels of literacy. Shawsville is one of the poorest areas of Montgomery County, Virginia. When I was hired, the principal told me that over fifty percent of the students lived in trailer parks. What I discovered at my first teaching post in Appalachia was that the students were painfully aware of the negative stereotypes and assumptions that surrounded them as poor Appalachians. Sadly, their perceptions were often truisms.

In American culture, the Appalachian people, often synonymous with mountain people, are portrayed as ignorant, incestuous, and wild. Television programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies cement the negative perceptions and stereotypes into the minds of Americans. Possibly the most damming and hurtful stereotypes came from the 1972 film Deliverance. In the film “mountain men” are portrayed as uneducated, dirty, and rapists of tourists. Even as recently as this year, a television commercial aired showing some men getting out of an SUV in the mountains, and when they hear the song “Dueling Banjos,” the “theme song” of the mountain men in Deliverance, they run to the car and make a quick exit.

With such negative media portrayals, my students expressed their disdain for their dialect and their geographical ties to Appalachia. They perceived themselves as unable to do much with their lives since they would always be hindered by being Appalachian. Bill Best, in his article about Appalachian culture and custom, writes that “the combination of shame, emotional sensitivity, and artistic forms of expression makes Appalachian children poor candidates for success in the public schools, where almost all such attributes are not valued and where very few of their strengths are perceived as such.”

My students’ concerns became my concerns. I dedicated the following five years and my dissertation research to unpacking the mysteries of Appalachia. My interests led me to study the industrialization of the Appalachian region and, specifically, how the continuous closing of factories affected the economy and, more importantly, the workers at those factories.

Appalachia has always been a desired region for large, manufacturing companies because of the powerful rivers, the vast expanses of land, timber, and coal, as well as an available, cost effective workforce. Perhaps the most affected industry, due largely to the North American Free Trade Agreement, was textile and garment manufacturing. M. Mittelhauser says, “Employment in these industries has been projected to decline by about 300,000 jobs over the 1994-2005 period, compared to a net loss of about 250,00 jobs over the previous 11-year period.” The statistics were startling, and I was particularly concerned about what happened to the women who were previously employed in the sewing industry.

In the fall of 2000, I decided to attend a community college developmental writing class with the intention of finding out about the progress of displaced garment workers who would be taking this class. Instead of just collecting data about writing instruction, I found myself gathering information about women’s lives - women committed to their families and their heritage in a way I had never witnessed in other American cultures. The women who participated in my study have overcome incredible odds and hardships; the mere fact that they have found themselves in college for the first time (at the ages between 23 and 50) is an incredible testament to the dedication and will power that many of the women of Appalachia possess.

During the time that I taught, researched, and lived in Appalachia, I talked and studied with women who have made the study and teaching of the region their life’s work. I discovered authors like Barbara Kingsolver, who divides her time between the American Southwest and Appalachia; Nikki Giovanni, who as a Black feminist poet was born in and now again calls Appalachia home; Sharyn McCrumb, who has penetrated the mainstream fiction market; and Jo Carson, whose “found poetry” about and from Appalachians gives a voice to people from the hills.

The rich tapestry of writers, musicians, and artists of the region, in addition to the time that I spent with Appalachian women, convinced me of the need to include Appalachian studies in the American studies curriculum. Allison Ensor, in a discussion of the importance of establishing a canon of Appalachian literature, states, “Although I attended elementary school, high school, and college in one of the Appalachian counties of Tennessee, I heard virtually no indication from my teachers that the literature - or the history or culture - of Appalachia was of any importance at all.” Ensor, among other writers and authors of the region, recognizes the tendency to ignore Appalachia in the planning of American studies and literature programs.

Once I left Appalachia and began teaching in New England, I realized the study of the region did not often occur once outside the region. Consequently, I created a critical writing course that focuses on the history, culture, and literature of Appalachia. Critical writing courses at my University are sophomore level writing courses that focus on writing, researching, and documentation. Each professor chooses a theme for his/her course and the writing in the class revolves around that theme. Within the course, I use the reader, Appalachia Inside Out. We also read Jo Carson’s stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet and a novel, Sharyn McCrumb’s The Ballad of Frankie Silver. Additionally, I use a film from the 1980’s called The Coal Miner’s Daughter, which as far as Hollywood presentations go, does surprisingly little stereotyping about the Appalachian culture.

In the beginning of the course, I spend several days unpacking the stereotypes that my students have internalized about Appalachia. W. H. Ward cautions, “The main obstacle here, of course, is an abiding one in a great deal of regional writing still deeply tinged with local color: the tendency of characterization to run stereotypes.” It is exactly this caution that encourages me to dispel the stereotypical information that my students bring with them to my course. At first, they are reluctant to admit that they have any stereotypes, but once we open the discussion and I am frank about my own preconceived ideas from my childhood, they open up. At the age of a freshman or sophomore in college, my students are significantly impacted by the media and what they see and hear from its sources. They hold all the common stereotypes about “mountain men” - moonshiners, incestuous, poor, dirty, shoeless, uneducated. What follows next in the course is an exploratory essay in which students not only identify their preconceived stereotypes but also dig to find where the stereotypes originated.

If you speak to any of the students that have completed my Appalachian course, you will hear that they have a newly gained respect for its people and culture. They probably can hum you a few bars of a bluegrass song, tell you about their Appalachian penpal who is not a barefoot, wild rapist, and tell you how they think the legend of Frankie Silver is one in which Frankie was wrongly convicted for killing her husband. It is in the teaching of the Appalachian focused course that I have affirmed my belief that the study of Appalachia belongs somewhere, hopefully in American Studies courses, within the University curriculum.

It is not my intention to think that we should “save” Appalachians, but instead to celebrate and study their culture to increase its cultural significance and our understanding. If an already marginalized region becomes further marginalized by not being recognized within college curriculums, then the region will continue to be negatively impacted. I think often of the high school students that I taught in Shawsville. I hope that they are in universities where their culture and literature are celebrated. I also think often about the women with whom I studied at the community college. I hope that through their writing and in their new positions that their culture is as valued as they value it.

December 2004

From Katherine L. Hall, Assistant Professor of Writing Studies at Roger Williams University

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