They Came Down From These Hills and Made History
By JEFF BIGGERS
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2008
After speaking at 30 universities in Appalachia and across the country
over the last couple of years, I have learned two things for sure.
First, while some of the icons and milestones of the region's infamy
might have faded for the new generation on our campuses, Appalachia's
reputation as a quaintly picturesque hotbed of poverty and depravity
remains deeply embedded in our national view. And more disturbing, the
region's profound impact on our nation's history has yet to be
recognized by most scholars.
A group of freshmen at West Virginia Wesleyan College brought this home
to me. As I addressed their first-year-experience seminar, reeling off a
history of pop-culture slights to the region, I noticed that none of the
students flinched at the mention of the film Deliverance. I stopped my
lecture and asked them to raise their hands if they had seen the 1970s
classic of hillbilly savagery. Not one student in the classroom budged;
only two had even heard of the film.
But the young students hadn't missed the point. They could easily name
six Appalachia-based horror films released in recent years, including
the popular Wrong Turn (2003), in which inbred cannibals of the West
Virginia woods pursue six young people. One more hand shot up: The
sequel, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, came out in 2007.
Cannibals aside, many of Appalachia's history-altering events seem to
have taken a wrong turn into oblivion. Later that day in a course on
West Virginia politics, I encountered the same blank expressions when I
brought up the hot-button issue of the coal wars in Appalachia and the
role of Blair Mountain, the site of one of the largest armed
insurrections in the United States since the Civil War and a landmark
some laborers consider the Bunker Hill of the region's coal conflicts.
Although most students were vaguely familiar with the name, not one
could place Blair Mountain on a map or on a timeline in history. Their
secondary-school texts — like those of the rest of the country — had not
bothered to explain the vital role coal miners and unions have played in
Despite those discouraging signs, West Virginia Wesleyan College, only
miles from the site of the Sago coal-mining tragedy of 2006, is making
an extraordinary effort to ground its students in the region's history,
culture, and daily life. At a time when campuses around the country
trumpet global awareness, numerous colleges and universities in
Appalachia — such as Lees-McRae College, near Boone, N.C., and Berea
College, in eastern Kentucky — have developed extraordinary regional
centers that place mountain experiences within national and global
contexts. On a larger scale, the Appalachian Studies Association — a
consortium of scholars, writers, and activists — has, over the past 30
years, undertaken a Herculean endeavor to peel back the layers of
misinformation and deepen the scholarship on the mountainous states that
extend from northern Alabama to New York. Transcending the pigeonhole of
regionalism, the ASA is working to make the region relevant to both the
academy and the general public.
But it's still an uphill task. After I spoke at the University of
Georgia on the largely overlooked accomplishments of Appalachians in the
abolitionist, civil-rights, and various literary movements, a student
approached to tell me about the funny skit that the rocker Neil Young
had been in on a recent Saturday Night Live episode. Sporting a fine set
of plastic hillbilly teeth, Young joined an "Appalachian Emergency Room"
skit that incorporated all the incest and depravity allowed on
commercial TV. Although the nation, and its educational institutions,
would have seethed if SNL had done a similar routine about a different
regional or ethnic community, mocking the hillbilly has become just
about the last acceptable slur in the country.
Hillbilly humor has been lucrative fodder for American comics since the
1850s, when George W. Harris created Sut Lovingood, the "durn'd fool"
with his "brains onhook'd" from eastern Tennessee. But as I told a group
of students in Ohio University's Appalachian scholars program, which
benefits selected students from the state's Appalachian territory, jokes
are the least of their problems. Don't lose sleep over Larry the Cable
Guy, who grew up in Nebraska and puts on a fake accent to mock Southern
culture and make millions in the entertainment industry. The real
problem, I told the students, is the refusal of the general academic
community to include Appalachia in the national experience.
That became clear to me last year when an institution in Chicago invited
me to speak about my book, The United States of Appalachia: How Southern
Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America
(Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006) at a February event, then called back to
change the date to April. The organizers felt a book about "those people
down there" would not fit their black-history series.
I kept my host on the phone. Did you know, I asked, that Black History
Month was started by a onetime West Virginia coal miner — the historian
Carter Woodson — who at one point could find a teaching job only in West
Virginia? Or that Booker T. Washington came from Appalachia, as did the
pioneering black nationalist Martin Delany; Nikki Giovanni, the
godmother of black-arts poetry; the legendary novelist William Demby;
the jazz and blues legends W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone;
and the Harvard literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name a few?
No, my host answered. But I still wasn't invited to come to Chicago for
Black History Month.
That misguided yet prevalent attitude is why I have been dogged in
speaking about my book outside the region. I stumbled into Appalachia in
the early 1980s, a college dropout from the University of California at
Berkeley. As a young man, I had decisively shed my own 200-year heritage
from backwoods southern Illinois, a so-called bloody region itself that
has also been plagued by hillbilly stereotypes and historical neglect.
One day, while hitchhiking through West Virginia, I was offered a job on
the farm at the Appalachian South Folklife Center. During my summer
there, piled high with history books and lectured by miners, farmers,
poets, and blues musicians, I discovered a different heritage. Far from
the landlocked, culturally stagnant hollow I thought I knew, the
southern mountains emerged in our discussions as an international
theater of war, a crossroads of American cultures, and a real breeding
ground for innovation.
Marginalization, I learned, has had dire consequences for the region. As
one teacher reminded me during our tours of West Virginia's strip mines,
gutted hollows, and boarded-up schools, "It's easy to take and destroy
someone's land if you have convinced the world that its inhabitants are
worthless and disposable."
All students, not just Appalachians, lose when part of our past is
forgotten. The truth is, we need to know and understand Appalachian
history if we wish to understand American history.
When I brought up my thesis at a dinner in Cleveland one night, a
professor visiting from Yale University couldn't hide her smirk.
Consider this, I said, ignoring our Ohio host's cringe: Years before
Thomas Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of
Independence, a rebellious community in Appalachia had already alarmed
the British crown by declaring itself independent, setting a "dangerous
example for the people of America," according to the last British
governor of Virginia. Then in 1780, with George Washington's Continental
Army on the brink of surrender, an alliance of southern Appalachian
insurgents orchestrated its own attacks and defeated a British-led force
in what Jefferson hailed as the event that "turned the tide" of the
The Yale professor's smirk tightened; my host looked dismayed. I
Did she know, I wondered, that a Cherokee mountaineer invented the first
syllabary of modern times? That a Jewish publisher from Knoxville and
Chattanooga resurrected The New York Times in 1896 and set its course
for world acclaim? That a self-proclaimed "radical hillbilly" trained
the shock troops of the civil-rights movement at the Highlander Folk
School and reintroduced an African-American spiritual, "We Shall
Overcome," as its anthem? That the first American woman to win the Nobel
Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck, was recognized at the awards
ceremony for her biographies about her West Virginian family?
The Yale professor got up and moved away before I could even mention the
mountain abolitionist movement.
It's time to reverse the paradigm for Appalachia, and for similarly
marginalized regions in the United States and around the world. We must
stop thinking of Appalachians as victims who have nothing to offer
mainstream America and focus instead on how they have come down from
these hills, in the words of the Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe, and
"changed the great American destiny."
Higher education can lead the way. For a start, all courses in American
studies, history, and literature should recognize the region's unique
contributions to those fields. At the College of Santa Fe last fall, one
literature student asked in a biting tone why she should care about
Appalachia. She didn't realize that three of the "Southwest" authors on
her reading list for the semester had Appalachian roots — that Willa
Cather's last novel is based in her family's native southern Virginia;
that Edward Abbey's wilderness writing emerged from his Appalachian
childhood; that Cormac McCarthy's first four novels and plays, and the
mythos of his work, are based in the eastern Tennessee mountains and
In the mid-19th century, the New York writer Washington Irving wrote a
letter to a newspaper challenging our nation to change its name. He
suggested the United States of Appalachia or Alleghenia, in recognition
of the region's role as the bedrock of our nation's heritage.
No one took Irving seriously, of course. Perhaps they should have.
Jeff Biggers is author of The United States of Appalachia: How Southern
Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America
(Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006).