Past conversations debated on whether to define Appalachians as a minority group based on cultural, economic, and social factors. People of Appalachia have been called the invisible minority, but are Appalachians an actual minority group? Current conversations distinguish minority status based on one or more observable human characteristics, including: race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, and sexual orientation. However, according to studies, mountaineers have specific health problems which differentiate them from the majority of Americans coupled with a history of poverty in rural areas.
How diverse is Appalachia? And according to the 2010 – 2014 Census by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), 83 percent of Appalachians are white; 9 percent black; and 4 percent Hispanic or Latino. African-Americans are the region’s largest minority. Visit www.arc.gov. Frank X Walker, a black poet from Kentucky, conceived the word “Affrilachia” to represent the African-American presence in Appalachia. Blacks in Appalachia, a book by editors William Turner and Edward Cabbell tell their stories.
ARC oversees 205,000-square-miles which are portioned into 13 states and 420 counties. This geographic location is called Appalachia. West Virginia is the only state where all 55 counties are defined as Appalachia. The ARC region covers all of West Virginia and parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
My corner of Appalachia includes the Tri-State area of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. The Ohio River is a commonality among the rural towns in this rural region and is marked by what we think of as bigger cities: Portsmouth, OH, Ashland, KY, and Huntington, WV.
The following is the past Appalachia as I remember it while growing up in a hollow. Rural folk are dedicated to their land – the source of nourishment, shelter, and stability. It is a part of our regional identity. People prize land, barns, and homes. Each spring is a rebirth of nature with homegrown vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Honeysuckle grows wild. Fresh milk from the cow and gathering chicken eggs is valued. The green beans snap and the bacon sizzles. Biscuits and gravy are staples. Homemade pies, cobblers, and jam taste sweeter. Picking berries off the vine is widespread. When family and friends die, you take food to their homes. Children are considered a blessing. Elderly citizens are considered wise. Neighbors mingle and tell stories. County fairs are attended. Religion is ingrained. Country music and Bluegrass shine. It is a part of our cultural identity. People have ponds instead of pools. Hunting and fishing are renowned. Mountains, forest scenery, and wildlife are legendary. Life functions at a slower pace with people stopping to smell the roses along the way. Roots in Appalachian family culture run deep and kinship is recognized as the center of daily life. Kinfolk may bicker among themselves but they stick together when threatened by strangers. But, Appalachia people have been described as cliquish and clannish.
In reference to ethnicity during my childhood, the only people I knew in Appalachia were white. Minorities were not discussed because they were not around and considered invisible as if nonexistence. The first time I caught sight of an African-American was at the county fair when I was around 9 years old. He was a policeman and I stopped and gawked. Fast forward to being older and in larger urban areas and I was exposed to African Americans on college campuses in Appalachia. Black Like Me, a nonfiction book by John Howard Griffin, opened my eyes to racism, oppression, and prejudice. Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, showed me the amazing courage of a traumatized black woman.
Of course, new generations of Appalachians evolve and leave behind many of the long-standing customs and traditions. Neighbors do not drop by for coffee and conversation like they did in times of yore. Square dancing has faded. Many of the younger women do not sew, embroidery, or quilt. Homemade ice cream and apple-butter are replaced by grocery store items. Family farms are gobbled up by industry. Unemployment is high. Such is the way of progress, modernization, technology, and change. Beliefs change and attitudes are altered. The new-fangled mixes with the deep-rooted. Albeit, some changes are necessary and you cannot stop progress. Like any subculture, weaknesses and strengths abound.
Alas, I cannot speak for all Appalachian people or my ancestors; I can only reflect upon my experiences and how I perceive and understand. But, this I do know… my Appalachian roots grow deep. And I embrace cultural diversity while continuing to monitor my own cultural values, beliefs and biases.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.