For me to wholly claim Appalachia would be theft. I've lived there intermittently for the last ten years - I went to college in Kentucky, but on its periphery, and my family lives in east Tennessee, where I have also lived and worked, off and on. So I know more about the region than probably 90% of people in DC, but I can't say it's mine really, not like my friends who grew up in Laurel County or Ashland or Hazard. I only know it as an adult.
But if you spend any real amount of time there, the region gets under your skin, makes you want to rise to its defense even if you haven't earned the privilege. It's hard to explain to an outsider the sweet burn of peach moonshine, or the joyful feeling of stomping to a banjo's rhythm, or the way an abandoned trailer, surrounded by rusting barbed wire, looks in the fog. It's poor, yes, and different from other places, but it's complicated and beautiful too. And if I, an Appalachian Johnny-come-lately, feel this many conflicting emotions, imagine how much love and frustration must be felt by a person who carries the region in their blood - especially when they see how outsiders view them.
The rest of America has always enjoyed a strained relationship with this pocket of the country, with its poverty and luminous strangeness. (For an introduction to this issue, I always recommend Elizabeth Barret's documentary Stranger with a Camera, which chronicles the death of photographer Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky.) A friend recently sent me a review of a new Brooklyn restaurant that looks like a parody of Appalachia, like some sort of weird poverty theme park where you can pretend to be poor and have a corn dog with a Budweiser. To the reviewer's credit, he castigates the owner for cashing in on a place he doesn't even understand. (Sample quote: "I doubt if he is aware or even curious to inquire how that barn he bought became fallow.")
However, he falls into another trap, which is the pity of the well-meaning outsider. In his review, he says that "(t)he miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there, though as Ronald Eller notes in his bleak study Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, there’s not that many of them." It echoes Annie Lowrey's recent piece in the New York Times, "What's The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?", which notes "the desperation of coal country."
Well, yes, but.
There's no arguing with the fact that much of Appalachia is poor - very poor, poor in ways that might surprise you if you've never been. And yes, it is derided and/or ignored by much of America, because these issues, and our political complicity in them, are hard and painful to deal with. But there's also no arguing with the richness I've experienced there, even as an outsider, and the cultural and artistic offerings the region provides. My parents live outside the Storytelling Capital of the World - that's not my opinion, that's an official title. The Amish fried donuts at the Johnson City Farmers' Market are better than you can believe. And we're always coming up with new ways to make meth. (Joke. Joke.)
The way we view Appalachia echoes the way we view most of the "developing" countries of the world - as places in dire need of our noblesse oblige, rather than as whole, complex entities with things to offer as well as needs. You can be desperate and still be beautiful, in ways that have nothing to do with your desperation. You can be financially rich, but still blind to what the country around you provides.
Poverty like Appalachia's cannot be ignored, but it's also not the sole defining characteristic of its towns or its people. And maybe we should care about it because its existence impedes us from accessing what lies within. When all we can think about is how much a place lacks, it's easy to miss how much it has to offer.
And I'm going to be honest with you here: I've rewritten this post five or six times, because, as I noted at the beginning, I'm only beginning to understand the region - I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. (For a more nuanced defense from a true native, I strongly encourage you to read Silas House's recent editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal.) So, given the amount that's already been taken from Appalachia by outsiders over the course of the last century, I hesitate to write any more than what I already know. But what I want to convey is that it's worth knowing, all of it. The whole picture.