Opinion: Media misrepresents Appalachian history, diversity

I grew up in the shadows of the Appalachian region in Hamilton County, OH, for the first twenty years of my life. Yet, Appalachian values still transcend into the nearby city hubs. 

Since moving to Appalachian Ohio almost three years ago to pursue my studies at Ohio University, I have learned a great appreciation, understanding and a true sense of place in this region. Before coming here, and still now, many people ask me questions riddled with stereotype: “Why I would go somewhere with nothing to do, nothing to see, a place riddled with poverty?”

Yes, like most places, Appalachia has its fair share of troubling issues. However, it is much more than that, and media fail to recognize its many strengths and values of hard work, music, natural beauty and, most importantly, the communities that weave its culture.

While researching Appalachia on Google, finding an article describing it so negatively was not hard. The Week adapted a 2013 National Review article that describes Appalachians as people who, “live for pills, soda pop, and welfare.” 

For far too long, and even continuing today, news organizations have painted Appalachia as rural poverty backward and white, often by journalists who have no ties to Appalachia at all. Only trying to understand Appalachia through stereotypes of “poverty porn” that have been fed to us for generations covers up a more colorfully diverse reality. 

The region’s population may be predominantly white and have minority populations lower than the rest of the country, but we are unquestionably not all alike. A colorful reality has been hidden in not highlighting especially the early onsets of Appalachian history, a history that predates The American Revolution. Appalachia consisted of various Native American tribes, the earliest trace being approximately 8,000 years ago in the Archaic period but thrived in the Woodland period between 900 BCE and 1300 BCE. 

This period is most noted for mound-building cultures, the most famous of these being the Hopewell culture. Evidence of such cultures can be seen today in Appalachian Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee; other tribes of Appalachia included the Cherokee and Shawnee Tribes. 

The earliest trace of African Americans came to the area around the mid-1500s as enslaved people to French and Spanish explorers. The European settler population boomed through federal land grants in the early 18th century. Then, both enslaved and free, African Americans again came to the region during this period, creating the early mold of culture and traditions. Later, during The Great Migration, many African Americans fled to Appalachia and urban centers to escape violence in the Deep South and to work in industrial labor and railroad opportunities.

In the present day, Appalachia has seen a significant growth of minority groups. In 2021, 20.2% of the population were minorities, a substantial climb from years past, with 10.2% being the African American population and 5.8% in the Hispanic/Latino population. 

An increase in population like this is likely due to jobs in warehouses, food processing, and the creation of small businesses, but also a possible increase due to Appalachia being home to several universities. Campuses bring in a wide array of people, including an LGBTQIA+ population, and diversify economies, which defeats the stereotype of Appalachians being uneducated miners, which, by the way, are more than coal miners; they are service workers, manufacturers, students, business owners, musicians, farmers and much more.

Speaking of music, Appalachia has a significant weave in the story of music, especially its connections to the African instrument akonting, which later became the precursor to the banjo, which anyone can conjointly identify as truly Appalachian. It also defines the majority of today’s folk music, as an Appalachian medium for people to tell the stories of their daily lives. 

Songs such as “John Henry,” tell about the African American freedman, which is among other stories of hard-working Appalachians and the protest songs that tell the stories of those who fought injustices such as those in Harlan County, KY.

While problems plague Appalachia, they are not what define the Appalachian. There is not one state, one voice, one vernacular, one religion or one story but many, a place ripe for new possibilities through our deep desire to better the place we call home. 

Our rolling hills and mountainous roads lead to several unique towns, their culture, and firmly tied communities seen in West Virginia through the eyes of Anthony Bourdain that also transcends throughout the region that is hard to find or experience anywhere else. For those who have never been here, come here and experience why several people have an immense sense of pride living in Appalachia, but most importantly, we are more than pills, pop and welfare.

William Troyer is a senior studying media social change at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell William by emailing him at wt005221@ohio.edu

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