More than a Postcard:
A few months ago, I went to see Nikki Giovanni speak at a local Barnes and Noble. During her talk, she mentioned that the only people who would survive a nuclear bomb (this was right after the Hawaiian Missile Scare) would be the black community and the Appalachians. She said the black community would just write a song about the bomb coming and the Appalachians would get all their brothers, sisters, and cousins and hide under the porch before the impact. Because they’ve already seen hardships and a nuclear bomb would be no different.
See, Nikki Giovanni and I live in the same town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For those unfamiliar, Giovanni began her career as a poet in New York City where she intended to stay; however, she was invited to be a lecturer at Virginia Tech in 1987 and fell in love with the area–just like I did.
Coal Towns and the Coal Company
I can’t write about my love for Appalachia without addressing the darker parts of our regional history–coal mining, which is still a blight on the environment. However, coal mining has played a significant role in Appalachian culture.
A lot of the music, folklore, and literature is centered around The Coal Company coming and disrupting the way of life. Although it created jobs for the poor residents, the working conditions were dangerous with harmful, lasting effects (see: black lung) and coal miners often weren’t paid in real money–instead, they were paid in company scrip, which could only be exchanged at the company store. This meant residents of the coal town would remain poor and could not save for a better future.
However, the Coal Strike of 1902 in Eastern Pennsylvania helped coal miners gain basic workers’ rights and recognition of the United Mine Workers labor union. In fact, the term “redneck” originates to the time unions were forbidden in the mining towns. Members of the union wore red bandanas as a way to show others they were members and could be trusted. Today, coal mining is still a hot topic throughout the country, but its origins are what built modern Appalachian culture.
“Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” [x]
Bluegrass is the music of Appalachians, describing the experiences of those who grew up in the mountains. It’s hard not to some kind of venue to listen to this music. In fact, if you’re into road trips, I highly recommend the The Crooked Road–a road trip that will lead you to some of the best live music in the area.
And then there’s Floydfest, which is itself a monster. Think Coachella, before it became rampant with Instagram celebrities and mainstream music. I’ve never been because it costs a pretty penny ($200 per ticket!), but I do hear it’s a great time. So if you’re into music festivals, I highly recommend it.
Many of those from in and around Appalachia have used their upbringing and family history as inspiration to share their stories through fiction and non-fiction writing. Having taken a course in Appalachian studies as well as in Appalachian literature, I developed my love of the region through the the words of these authors.
- Kettle Bottom – A book of poetry by Diane Gilliam Fisher
- Rocket Boys (or Blue October) – Homer Hickam
- Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
- Storming Heaven – Diana Giardina
- One Foot in Heaven – Ron Rash
Affrilachian literature is a sub-genre within Appalachian literature.
Here’s an excerpt from the Affrilachian Poets website to better explain their history and where the term came from:
“[Frank X.] Walker, then a budding poet and an experienced playwright and visual artist, knew African-American writers from Kentucky should have been represented. He also felt the name change from ‘Appalachian’ to ‘Southern’ required an explanation. Walker’s disappointment led him to Webster’s Dictionary and, to his dismay, a definition that mentioned “white residents from the mountains.” The artist wasn’t white, but he was from Kentucky, Danville to be exact. Didn’t his work matter too? Wasn’t he, like his white peers, creating in the great shadow of the mountains? This definition of Appalachian would not suffice, and Walker was moved to a moment of clarity. He would create his own word that described people of African descent from the Appalachian region: Affrilachian.
It was the stereotype of an all white and poor Appalachia that the word Affrilachian would fight.” [x]
What to Do and See in Appalachia
If you’re visiting the region, here are some things to do and see!
The Appalachian Trail
If you’re anything like Jax, then the Appalachian trail is at the top of your bucket list. For those who aren’t too into hiking, the Appalachian trail is a 2,181 mile-long trail starting in Georgia and ending in Maine. For experienced travelers, it can take up to six months to complete the trail. However, it is the best way to see the Appalachian Mountains up close and personal.
Museum of Appalachia – Clinton, TN [x]
The Museum of Appalachia, founded in 1969 is located in Clinton, TN and strives to preserve the history of Appalachia. The museum houses thousands of items including art, instruments, and Native American artifacts. It also has a garden and is home to dozens of free-range farm animals. If you’re passing through the area, this might be a nice stop to get to know the history.
Biltmore Estate – Asheville, North Carolina [x]
Built in 1889, the Biltmore Estate is a modest,135,280 square foot mansion in Asheville, North Carolina. After a visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Vanderbilt knew this was where he wanted to build his future home. So, in 1889, he began construction on what would become one of the grandest homes in the South. Today, his great-grandchildren manage the property as a historical attraction where guests are welcome to explore the home and garden. The house also features five dining locations, which all have meals and treats made from ingredients sourced from the farms and gardens at the Biltmore Estate.
Berea, Kentucky [x]
Berea, Kentucky, is considered the folk art capital of the country. It’s a small town with a lot to offer arts and crafts lovers. Berea also offers a wide array of live music, delicious food, and unique experience for visitors. If you love art or quirky small towns, add it to your bucket list!