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‘Stranger, You Still Don’t Know’: Historian Explores Meaning Of Appalachia

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Eric Douglas
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WVPB
Mountains surrounding the upper Kanawha River.

Stan Bumgardner is a historian and the editor of Goldenseal Magazine, a folklife publication about West Virginia. He recently wrote an essay titled “What is Appalachia?” for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The essay begins: “Appalachia evokes an immediate reaction from most people. For some, it's a backward image of the Hatfield McCoy feud, or perhaps the 60s TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Although growing up as a big fan of the show, I still see it more as a family of kind and authentic people in a very fake gratuitous world.”

Eric Douglas spoke with Bumgardner about his essay.

Douglas: What was the message that you were trying to get across?

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Credit Courtesy photo

Bumgardner: I just kind of started with that concept of ‘what is Appalachia?’ As I said in the column, Appalachia is very diverse. There are pockets where it's not as diverse as other places. But if you start looking out over the whole of Appalachia, and even sections within Appalachia, it's very diverse in so many different ways.

Douglas: How can we take advantage of that diversity?

Bumgardner: I think we can leverage that diversity by celebrating so many pieces of our culture, because Appalachian culture is a mix. There are many Appalachian cultures and subcultures and subcultures of that. And I think rather than say, ‘Okay, we've got one Appalachian culture and you've got to fit into this category or this category to be considered Appalachian,’ let's celebrate the fact that as a region, we're one of the most diverse in the country, and we're very unique. If nothing else, we are a unique group of people. Rather than say, this is what a mountaineer is or this is what an Appalachian is, celebrate what we are.

Douglas: Do we start giving that message to the world outside of Appalachia? Or do we have to educate ourselves? First we have to get Appalachians to believe that about themselves and realize what's around them or do we start that message from outside?

Bumgardner: You know, it's a two fold process and it can happen at the same time. Yes, we do need to have a better understanding of our cultural differences within Appalachia. Always keep in mind that thing that brings us together. The moment we start seeing that in ourselves, I think the world is going to see us as trendy, which we are. I mean, how much are ramps selling for in New York right now?

Douglas: Which is frightening, because I know I could buy them on the side of the road right up here.

Bumgardner: Exactly. It's like things that we've known for hundreds of years, the world is certainly just now figuring out. We need to take more pride in those good parts that we do. In the end, there's a bond, there's a familyhood here. It's kind of like Texas. That's the closest thing I can think of to Appalachians and West Virginians. If you're from Texas, and if you moved to Texas, you're still a Texan. It's all based on this very fascinating history, but more importantly, a pride in that history. Even when there's bad parts of it, they're really proud of their history and they get their identity from their history. And as Appalachians we've forgotten that.

Douglas: Stand up and be proud of who we are.

Bumgardner: It means something when they say ‘I'm from Texas,’ it means something to say ‘I'm from West Virginia.’ It means as much as that or more.

Bumgardner’s essay ends this way: 

“Appalachians always seem to have an eye toward a better future, if not for ourselves, then for our children — cynical optimists, if you will. Despite our struggles, there’s always a belief that tomorrow might be better if we’d just be allowed to have a say in what tomorrow brings. Far from helplessness, it’s hopefulness and authenticity — often for good, sometimes not so much — that best describe us. But please don’t define us.

In the words of West Virginia poet Muriel Miller Dressler, “I am Appalachia; and, stranger, though you’ve studied me, you still don’t know.”

Listen to Bumgardner read the entire essay.

wvpublicnews · What is Appalachia, by Stan Bumgardner

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