Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Culture’

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

Breaking Boundaries: Contemporary Appalachian Art

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Appalachian artists craft a contemporary twist on regional art

By Megan Northcote

Morgan 2 - Pangean Youth

Robert Morgan crafts evocative sculptures from found materials. “Pangean Youth,” completed in 2011, stands 42 inches tall.

An Avatar-blue, 42-inch doll with spiked, glitter-plastered hair stands erect amidst a colorful pile of trinkets. One outstretched arm defiantly wields a miniature sword as a snake coils tightly around the doll’s torso, its open mouth poised to attack.

So stands the “Pangean Youth,” a found-art sculpture commemorating Lexington, Ky. artist Robert Morgan’s troubled friend whose naked, blue-tinted body was found lying in a parking lot after a heroin overdose years ago.

Morgan helped save his friend’s life that night, which, years later, helped save his own.

Growing up in an impoverished part of eastern Kentucky, Morgan would spend hours “collecting little things” from trash piles and creating “something out of nothing” with the guidance of his mom, a self-taught artist.

After years of battling drug and alcohol addictions, Morgan, now sober and in his sixties, has returned to his childhood passion of collecting found objects to create art that tells humans’ stories. “I’m always looking for ways to package peoples’ stories that no one wants to hear,” he says. His pieces have reflected the historic Lexington cholera outbreak, the 1980s AIDS epidemic, addictions and suicides.

Morgan’s work blends the unusual — electronic parts, rusty springs, doll heads and gaudy carnival prizes — with special finds, such as discarded knickknacks.

No solid boundaries define the work of contemporary Appalachian artists like Morgan. Some artists are regional natives, others recent transplants. Some pull from the narratives and imagery embedded in the region’s landscape and culture, while others reject tradition and embrace globalized, innovative approaches to their work. Yet what unites all of these artists are the stories they each hold, waiting to be told.

A “Greener” Approach

Recycled art using found objects is an emerging trend in Appalachia and across the globe.

Mary Saylor, a 3-D mixed media artist and East Tennessee native, moved back to Knoxville three years ago. Working in an animal clinic inspired her to create papier-mache animal sculptures using primarily recycled materials, such as brown paper bags and toilet paper tubes, as well as found vintage objects.

“I’m big into recycling and wanted to reduce my carbon footprint through the work that I do,” says Saylor.
Making greener art can also happen in the literal sense — using found objects from nature.

Lowell Hayes, a native Tennessean now residing in Valle Crucis, N.C., has focused the latter half of his career on landscape art, specifically 3-D bas-relief construction paintings of Appalachia, using only natural materials gathered from his wooded backyard.

“People tell me that it feels like you can walk right into my work and that’s exactly what I work to achieve,” says Hayes, a retired art instructor from Appalachian State University.

Like many artists, moving back to Appalachia after an extended absence made him more fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains and advocate for them through his art. For example, one of his more recent series featured the Carolina Hemlock trees and helped raise awareness for this native species threatened by the woolly adelgid.

Reforming Tradition

Exhibiting a representative sample of Appalachian artists living and working across the region is no small feat. Yet every other year, the William King Museum in Abingdon, Va., showcases a juried exhibition, From These Hills: Contemporary Art in the Southern Appalachian Highlands, which does just that.


Jeana Eve Klein’s Abandoned House Quilts combine the reality of the present with imaginings of the past. The North Carolina artist’s 2012 work “Any Day in June” is comprised of acrylic paint, digital printing and dye on recycled fabric and is 63 inches tall by 69 inches wide.

The 2013 show included mixed media Abandoned House Quilts from Jeana Eve Klein, associate professor of fiber arts at Appalachian State University. Her pieces transform regional quilting traditions through a playful process that explores the forgotten human stories behind these houses; each quilt splices together manipulated digital images of self-discovered abandoned houses, which were then superimposed onto fabrics, sewn together and embellished with paint.

Likewise, Simone Paterson, associate professor of new media art at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, whose work was also showcased at the 2013 show, explores digital media art. Through her installations, she juxtaposes traditional craft, particularly sewing and textile arts, with computer technologies, including video projection and photography.

As an Australian native, Paterson’s recent exhibition, “The Nest,” commemorates her earning American citizenship. The installation is designed to provide audiences with an outsider’s aerial view of America, featuring large mural landscape prints and three woven nests, each containing projected images of dogs, cats and Paterson herself, narrated by the sounds of nature’s rhythmic breathing.

Blurring Borders

For 24 years, Blue Spiral 1, a prominent art gallery in Asheville, N.C., has showcased a sampling of regional artists’ work.
“The things that interest me and my gallery the most are those works that stem from traditions, but are a more modern take on those art forms,” says Jordan Ahlers, gallery director.

One of these artists is Michael Sherrill. Since moving to western North Carolina in 1974, Sherrill has blurred the lines between traditional mediums, creating a hybridization of clay, glass and metal in his 3-D sculptures.

Having cultivated his craft for years under Penland School of Crafts’ internationally recognized instructors, Sherrill feels compelled to support the region’s next generation of artisans.

He currently serves as board president for the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design in Asheville, which annually awards the prestigious Windgate Fellowship to 15 collegiate art students nationwide.

Hamilton 3

A detail from Charles Jupiter Hamilton’s Westside Wonder Mural in Charleston, W.Va., depicts community faces. Photo by Bob Lynn.

“The creativity we have here [in Asheville and the Appalachian region] is our greatest commodity,” Sherrill says.
Photographer Megan King graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2013 with degrees in Spanish and photography. A native of Bristol, Tenn., her photography series, “Hispanic Appalachia,” was selected for the 2013 From These Hills exhibition.
Growing up in a more conservative Appalachian community, King wanted her images to raise awareness of the rapidly growing Hispanic populations in East Tennessee in the hopes of building acceptance and easing racial tensions.

Rooted in the region

Contemporary art in eastern Kentucky is often centered around the folk art of self-taught artists, says Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead.

“The hotbeds of self-taught artists tend to be found in economically depressed areas,” says Collinsworth. “Even though it’s stylistically primitive, folk art is very much contemporary art.”

John Haywood is one of these self-taught artists. A native of Risner, Ky., Haywood has turned to his work as a tattoo artist to reconnect with and commemorate his Appalachian roots, which he once shunned.

Haywood 2

A John Haywood tattoo strikes a soulful note.

At 13 years old, Haywood allowed his friend’s untrained older brother to give him his first tattoo — a Misfits skull from the popular American punk-rock band. From that point forward, he was hooked.

By the summer of 2004, he worked in Radcliff, Ky., tattooing soldiers on leave from Fort Knox. After five years of filling non-stop tattoo requests, Haywood returned to Whitesburg and opened his own shop, The Parlor Room, in 2011.

Haywood esteems tattooing as a fine art, incorporating the painting principles he learned earning a master’s degree at the University of Louisville. Yet, he says he is most proud of those tattoos he creates that reflect a regional identity and confront Appalachian stereotypes. “Here [in Appalachia] I get to do tattoos that come from the minds of people who have a similar background as me. I don’t want my art to go over people’s heads.”

Carl Shoupe: Seeing through the “War on Coal” smokescreen

Thursday, August 21st, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Carl Shoupe, the author of this piece, which originally appeared on The Hill, is an active member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and lives in Harlan County, Ky. We’re sharing Carl’s thoughts here with his permission.

Carl Shoupe speaks at a KFTC press conference held as a ” Declaration of Grievances” towards the inaction of the Kentucky state legislature. Photo from

As a retired coal miner, the son of a coal miner, and the father of a coal miner, I’m curious about Congress’ recent attacks on the EPA and claims of a “war on coal.” These claims are nothing but a distraction from the real needs of coalfield communities.

I live in Harlan County, Kentucky in the very heart of the Appalachian coalfields, and with the exception of a couple years in Vietnam as a United States Marine, I have lived here all my life.

I’m working every day – along with thousands of other Kentuckians – to build a better future here in Eastern Kentucky and across Appalachia so that my grandchildren and their children can make a life here. We believe we can have a bright future here with more and better jobs, safe and affordable energy, healthy communities, and opportunities for our kids.

Of course, we know it won’t be easy. It will take hard work, creativity, and investment in new ideas and real solutions. More than anything, it will require honest leadership with vision and courage.

That’s why this Congress’ misguided attacks are such a disappointment. The war on coal is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to keep us from seeing the true challenges and real opportunities in communities like mine.

You see, the coal industry has been leaving Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for decades. In 1980 there were more than 34,000 coal miners working in Eastern Kentucky. By 1990, that number was down to 25,000 despite a production peak. Fewer than 8,000 jobs remain today — the lowest since 1927 — and continue to fall.

For years, industry analysts, coal company executives, and energy agencies warned that our best and easiest coal has been mined, that transportation costs have been rising, that cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal were on the rise.

It has been clear that we needed to be building a new economy here in the coalfields for generations, yet our political leaders have done little or nothing to help us prepare for the inevitable transition.

If Congress really wants to help the coal miner, there are several ways to start. First, Congress should pass the mine safety reforms we’ve been waiting for since the Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 fellow miners in 2010. Congress should help ensure coal miners don’t get black lung – a vicious and entirely preventable workplace disease that is increasing instead of disappearing. Congress should also make sure that a miner’s hard earned pension is secure, not stolen by some corporate shell game.

Congress should remember that every coal miner is more than just his job. He – or she – is also a son or daughter, a parent, a spouse. When he’s not underground 60 or 70 hours a week, he is a member of his church, his local PTA or volunteer fire department; he might be a Little League coach.

If Congress really cares about coal miners and coal families, then it should work to give them a future.

For instance, Congress could generate thousands of new jobs in the coalfields by creating a revolving fund for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses, and pass the Shaheen-Portman bill to create thousands of energy efficiency jobs.

We like to say that if you give a coal miner a coat hanger and some electrical tape, he can fix anything. Congress could release the millions of dollars sitting in the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund and employ thousands of laid-off coal miners to restore our land, forests, and water. Congress could locate one of those fancy new manufacturing innovation centers the president talks about right here in the mountains.

Instead of raging about a made-up war on coal and how to protect coal corporations, Congress should take a closer look at how to really support coal communities.

Over the past century, Harlan County has shipped over one billion tons of coal to steel mills and power plants across this country. In a district represented by some of the most powerful politicians in Washington D.C., one-third of our children live in poverty and we rank 435th in combined quality of life indicators.

It’s time to try something new. We can have a bright future here in the coalfields of Kentucky and Appalachia. Our people are hungry for honest and courageous leaders who will help us build it.

From farm to fork to mountain trails: summer edition of The Appalachian Voice

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 - posted by Kimber


You don’t need to travel far to experience a summer rich in laughter and discovery. In this issue of The Appalachian Voice, we scope out some of the region’s most lively farmers markets and showcase the natural beauty of the “Heart of Appalachia,” a region in southwest Virginia hailed as among the most biodiverse in the country.

Writer Megan Northcote explores the growing phenomenon of “destination farmers markets,” which host events and activities that lead Northcote to dub them “more than a market.” Visitors can enjoy cooking and artisan demonstrations, hands-on kids activities, live music and dancing -‒ all while enjoying fresh and delicious food from the surrounding community. And access to this healthy, locally-sourced produce is expanding. From a mobile farmers market in eastern Tennessee to a program in West Virginia where children grow and sell food from their school garden, the way that communities think about food is being transformed all across Appalachia.

At the same time, ecotourism is continuing to gain momentum as a way to promote and protect the natural features that shape a community’s unique identity. In the Clinch River Valley of southwest Virginia, the recent opening of a river tubing outfitter, as well as the development of driving, biking and hiking trails, have been attracting tourists from across the nation. Visitors are enticed by the region’s astounding biodiversity ‒ the crystal-clear waters of the Clinch River are home to more endangered and rare aquatic species than anywhere else in the country ‒ and the famous voices of the region’s musical history steeped in the origins of bluegrass.

Residents, organizations and businesses of the Clinch River Valley are banding together to preserve these assets by working towards the creation of a new state park. The state legislature is still working through the process of funding the park, but in the meantime the issue’s regular Hiking the Highlands column explores some of the trails that already traverse the area. The ability to discover and interact with the outdoors in the Clinch River Valley is further aided by several phone applications ‒ introduced throughout the articles ‒ that provide visitors with guided tours and wildlife interpretation.

Potential threats to our food and environment are also investigated in this issue. Valerie Bruchon analyzes some of the issues surrounding genetically modified food and what it could mean for Appalachia. You can learn more about which food labels exclude genetically modified foods and other controversial components from our “What’s in Your Food” chart.

You can also read about some of the continued difficulties associated with fossil fuel consumption. In “At What Cost?” residents of Belews Creek tell their stories about how coal ash ‒ the toxic byproduct from burning coal ‒ has endangered the health of their community. Brian Sewell examines the need for federal rules to regulate the practice of using coal ash as fill material for abandoned surface and underground mines. And in “Confronting Carbon Pollution,” Molly Moore investigates the Obama administration’s plans to implement carbon pollution regulations for new and existing coal-fired power plants.

Be sure to check out our regular features too. This issue’s Naturalist Notebook takes a look at the Eastern grey treefrog, whose mating song can be heard in Appalachia from April to August. Our This Green House column checks out the European Solar Decathlon, an energy-efficient home design competition. Appalachian State University has teamed up with a French university to compete in the decathlon this June.

Wherever your plans take you this summer, make some time to get outdoors! And while you’re out there, be sure to read this issue of The Appalachian Voice. You can pick up a copy from a newsstand near you, read the online version here or join Appalachian Voices to receive a one-year subscription in your mailbox. Questions or comments? Email, or submit a letter to the editor!

Handing Off and Holding On: Melungeon Identity and Appalachia

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Kimber Ray

Attempting to trace the origin of the Melungeon people is akin to pursuing the source of the Cumberland River coursing through their historical territory. Like the waters of the Cumberland Gap, where neighboring streams weave through Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to meet among the rolling crests of the Appalachian Mountains, the Melungeons — a mixed-race population of Appalachia — are the product of a great fusion. Yet where had these waters passed before they arrived in Appalachia?

With a map of the Cumberland Gap spread on the table, Sylvia Ray, mother of Tammy Stachowicz, researches the residences of her Melungeon ancestors.

With a map of the Cumberland Gap spread on the table, Sylvia Ray, mother of Tammy Stachowicz, researches the residences of her Melungeon ancestors.

If the water had traveled along the same path as the Melungeons, some might speculate that it had pooled into swimming holes for the lost colonists of Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Others may suggest these were the same waters that had carried the notorious ships of 17th century Portuguese slave traders across the Atlantic Ocean. While any of these stories may be true, each one blunders over an essential truth: the Melungeons— like the river — are an indisputable presence that is greater than any far-flung origin.

“You can’t pin down a definite definition for Melungeons,” says Tucker Davis, a freelance journalist and self-identified Melungeon from Buchanan County, Va. He recalls a youth spent exploring his rural mountain community of Grundy, where everyone had a different story about what it was to be Melungeon. From neighbors recounting tales of African or Native American lineage, to a Sunday school teacher who said they could be identified by a small knot of bone on the back of their heads, no one could say who the Melungeons were with certainty.

A popular misconception is that Melungeons can be identified by their dark skin and piercing blue or green eyes. This may have been true historically but, by its very nature, a racially mixed group will manifest in countless expressions over time.

The quest to conclusively characterize Melungeons may be spurred by the abiding mystery of whether they were in Appalachia even before the English. William Isom, a coordinator for the grassroots Community Media Organizing Project, explains that his family had long passed down an oral history of their Melungeon heritage; yet he was the first to conduct more extensive academic and genealogical research on his family’s deep-rooted history in the Cumberland Gap region of Tennessee.

“I’ve always been really intrigued with genealogy and keeping records even as a kid,” Isom states. “So I’ve always been interested in copies of the family tree and family photos. It’s a personality thing; I’m that guy who likes to archive things and keep these scraps together.”

From sifting through these pieces of the past, Isom says he’s settled on the idea that Melungeons are ambiguous because the population is historically mixed. In vivid detail, he speaks of how the English first scaled the Appalachian mountains in the 17th century and encountered people of color — neither Native American nor black — who dressed like Europeans, lived in houses, and spoke some kind of English, which they used to announce that they were Portuguese.

But this history still would not provide a decisive answer of origin: the Portuguese were the first slave traders, and their population included Jews, Muslims and North Africans. What is known with more certainty is that the term Melungeon did not appear in print until 1813, where it was used to ascribe mixed-race identity to others.

Tucker Davis has documents from this early time period of his own ancestors appearing in court, fighting the theft of their land after having been labeled Melungeon. According to Isom, discrimination and the resentful sentiment of being labeled a Melungeon can still be very tangible in northeast Tennessee.

Recalling folklore that would brand Melungeons as bogeymen, Isom says that children would be warned, “Don’t go out in the woods at night, the Melungeons will get you.” In his community, it was not uncommon for fights to ensue if the word was thrown around.

“If you called someone Melungeon, it meant you hated that person to the core of their being,” Isom says. “But now it’s fine,” he adds, because “most of the Melungeon population has assimilated into broader society, so the threat — the dread — of getting your property taken, or being murdered is no longer a reality.”

Growing acceptance of Melungeon identity is the most recent emergence in this complex narrative. “I knew no one that referred to themselves as Melungeon prior to 1990 because until recently in some areas it’s still a term you don’t say out loud — it’s a racial epithet,” states Isom, who himself became engaged with the grassroots Melungeon movement in the mid-’90s.

Ray is preparing a meal in this 1968 photograph. Many recipes were passed down by her Cherokee grandmother in southeastern Kentucky. Photos courtesy of Tammy Stachowicz

Ray is preparing a meal in this 1968 photograph. Many recipes were passed down by her Cherokee grandmother in southeastern Kentucky. Photos courtesy of Tammy Stachowicz

Isom asserts that there are actually two kinds of Melungeons: racial Melungeons and cultural Melungeons. While a racial Melungeon is someone from a historically mixed community, Isom explains, a cultural Melungeon is “poor folks — who make up the bulk of people in Appalachia — who might not have racial disparities to deal with, but share a cultural and economic identity. They understand that even though they might be white and from the mountains, they’re still not quite white enough, they’re not quite assimilated into the mainstream, they’re not marketable.”

The idea of racial status forming the basis of identity is a persistent — and harmful — belief. “Race itself is so socially constructed,” remarks Tammy Stachowicz, a diversity instructor at Davenport University in Michigan. For Stachowicz, her experience as a Melungeon had nothing to do with her skin tone.

Stachowicz discovered her Melungeon origins while searching for the source of her family’s puzzling heritage. She grew up on a farm in Michigan, where her family carefully tended their garden and orchard and raised animals including horses, goats, pigs and chickens. Although she recalls these memories fondly, Stachowicz felt throughout her childhood that there was something about her family that was different.

“Nobody else was so self-reliant — canning, freezing and growing their own food,” she says. Other children in the neighborhood made sure that she knew just how unusual this seemed. “We got teased mercilessly. Kids behind us on the school bus would throw spit wads and make animal noises,” Stachowicz adds. In her journey to understand her identity, she conducted her thesis work on Melungeons and came to a versatile conclusion: “Nature doesn’t make you Melungeon. Nurture does.”

Yet despite this conviction — one which she found validated by various Melungeons she spoke with — many people have never stopped trying to pinpoint a firmer genetic source of Melungeons. With the advances of modern technology, this fascination has taken on a new form.

Most recently, researchers published a Melungeon DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. The final results examined only a “core group” of Melungeons — one that excluded many self-identified families — and concluded that Melungeons are primarily sub-Saharan African and European. Tucker Davis is unconvinced. “Even if a group of researchers vote on some technical definition of Melungeons, it won’t matter,” he says. “It won’t change what it means to be Melungeon.”

William Isom found this undated photograph of his great-great-aunt and uncle, Lillian Isom and Henry Cloud, while searching for information about his family’s heritage in northeastern Tennessee. Photo courtesy of William Isom

William Isom found this undated photograph of his great-great-aunt and uncle, Lillian Isom and Henry Cloud, while searching for information about his family’s heritage in northeastern Tennessee. Photo courtesy of William Isom

In a nod to the damaging effects of assigning an identity to others based on race, the American Anthropological Association wrote in 1999 that “humans are not unambiguous or clearly demarcated … race is an arbitrary and subjective means of classifying groups of people, used to justify inequalities … and the myths impede understanding of cultural behavior.”

This plight is poignantly revealed in Appalachia, which has long struggled to shed stereotypes imposed by others. For Melungeons, this struggle is magnified. Despite sharing the Appalachian cultural heritage — a story of independence and a fighting spirit shadowed by mistrust from generations of exploitation — Melungeons have suffered harsh discrimination from their “whiter” neighbors.

Prejudice against Melungeons has waxed and waned over time, in step with shifting racial perceptions in the United States. Through the emergence of racial slavery in the late 17th century, wealthy landowners sought to keep the poor under control by pitting racial groups against one another. Despite the shared heritage of many Appalachians, the stigma that came to be associated with race led much of the public to speak of “purity.” Those who could not conceal a multi-racial background encountered countless civil, educational and economic limitations.

Yet prior to — and even following — the rise of racial slavery and legal segregation, people of all different backgrounds were sharing cultures and marriages, adding to the identity of Melungeons today. As Davis explains, the story of Melungeons is not just one of discrimination, but also of diversity and community. “When I think of Melungeons, I think of unity,” he states.

In revealing the legacy of Melungeons, Isom says that he wants to “dispel the myth of Appalachian whiteness and dispel the cut-and-dry story of American settlement in Appalachia: that there was Cherokee, then the Scotch-Irish came, then the TVA, and mountaintop removal — that’s Appalachia.” He adds, “I want to mess that up as much as I can.”

Exactly where Melungeon identity ends and Appalachian identity begins is uncertain. Davis suggests that maybe being Melungeon is just a state of mind. Stachowicz likens it to a venn diagram, pointing out that with generations of Appalachians and Melungeons all living together, “you can’t know one without the other.” Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising that there is no single element that can define the shared experience of identity.

Whitewashing Reality: Diversity in Appalachia

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Rachel Ellen Simon

The coal boom drew a mix of European immigrants and African Americans to work in Appalachia. Photo courtesy ofUniversity of Kentucky Libraries, Harlan County Mine Strike Photographic Collection, 1939

The coal boom drew a mix of European immigrants and African Americans to work in Appalachia. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Libraries, Harlan County Mine Strike Photographic Collection, 1939

The United States may be thought of as the good ol’ “Red, White, and Blue,” but in the minds of many, Appalachian America is simply “white, white, white” — racially, that is. The stereotype of Appalachia as a strictly white Anglo-Saxon region has been perpetuated by journalists, novelists, social scientists, and even many regional historians. Yet this generalization over-simplifies a more complicated — and more colorful — reality.

Appalachia is not a homogenous region today, and, even historically, diversity has always been present. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, Appalachia was home to thousands of Native Americans, mostly Cherokee. Following their forcible removal via the 1838 Trail of Tears, around 1,400 natives remained in the mountains, forming the core of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

At the same time that the natives were being forced out, Africans were being forced in. By 1860, people of African descent made up between 10 and 15 percent of the region’s population. These slaves brought with them the akonting and ngoni, precursors to the five-string banjo. The combination of African-American blues with other musical imports formed what would become one of the region’s most popular exports: modern-day country and bluegrass music.

Invariably, the commingling of cultures led to intermarriages that created ethnic and racial combinations new to the region. Even as diversity increased, racist laws supported a climate of white superiority while facilitating the disenfranchisement of non-whites, who were clumped into a category then dubbed “coloreds.” This term was used to signify Native Americans, Africans and even Irish immigrants upon their initial arrival.

Other European immigrants were lured to the area by the first major coal boom at the end of the 19th century. As demand for miners increased, coal operators began to look outside the region for more workers; they particularly targeted eastern and southern European immigrants. Between 1820 and 1920, more than 60,000 Italians, Hungarians, Austrians, Russians, Poles and other immigrant workers had settled in the Appalachian coalfields, constituting as much as 40 percent of the workforce. African Americans from further south were also drawn to the mines and surrounding timber camps, creating a melting pot of diversity in central Appalachia.

Yet, the jobs that initially drew these newcomers to America and to the region did not last. The coal slump of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s led to widespread unemployment, with vast numbers of workers leaving for northern industrial cities, reducing both Appalachia’s population and diversity. By 1990, minorities made up only 9 percent of Appalachia’s total population, with African Americans comprising the vast majority of this subgroup.

Diversity on the Rise

During the past three decades, however, diversity has been increasing throughout the region, particularly in urban areas and university towns. In the 1990s, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for nearly half the region’s population growth, while the Latino population increased by nearly 240 percent. West Virginia alone welcomed new residents from 31 different countries during that time period. Many of these newcomers were drawn to the region for work in specific industries, including poultry processing in East Tennessee, Christmas tree farming in western North Carolina and horse farms in West Virginia. By 2010, minorities accounted for more than 16 percent of the region’s population.

Despite the influx of such newcomers, minority population rates in Appalachia remain well below the national average. Yet, contemporary Appalachia is undeniably a much more multicultural place today than it was even thirty years ago, a fact that is gaining wider recognition among artists, academics and leaders of nonprofits, if not yet the general American public. Today, Heifer International’s Blue Ridge Seeds of Change initiative supports the growing number of Latino food producers in Appalachian North Carolina, while the Affrilachian Artist Project chronicles the experience of African Americans across the region.

Even the federal government has come to embrace a broader understanding of the region’s demographics; in response to a petition filed by Appalachian scholar Fred Hay in 2005, the Library of Congress officially changed its Subject Heading that referred to the people of Appalachia as “Mountain Whites” to “Appalachians (People).” This seemingly minor triumph indicates a much greater one — Appalachia’s long-whitewashed image is finally being colored in to reveal a more nuanced, accurate portrait of the region and its history.

Ralph Davis: Exploring Appalachia’s Future

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Nolen Nychay

Photo courtesy of Ralph Davis

Photo courtesy of Ralph Davis

In his 21 years of journalistic work at publications such as the Jackson County Sun, Paintsville Herald and Floyd County Times, Ralph Davis developed a close relationship with the small communities of eastern Kentucky and the rural lifestyle the region prides itself on. When Davis began work on his master’s thesis in new media journalism last year, he used the opportunity to explore the underlying economic issues of his region through a medium of reporting unfamiliar to him: documentary filmmaking.

Davis’s public awareness project started in 2012 by questioning what the future of Appalachia might look like. “I didn’t want to narrow my focus with a specific agenda,” Davis says. “I wanted to let the project develop organically through authentic voices in the community.”

The documentary, titled “Appalachia 2050,” features a combination of nonprofit workers, university professors, journalists and area residents who offer their thoughts on what is holding the region back from economic prosperity. Highlighting sources of poverty — from dwindling opportunities in Kentucky’s once-booming coal industry to the lack of technical schools for tomorrow’s workers — the documentary explores how community collaboration may offer hope for the future. “While there may be disagreement on how exactly to get there, these people are unified in their desire for a healthy, vibrant Appalachia,” Davis says.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

Davis completed his documentary this past July, after eight months of research and interviews. He hopes to expand “Appalachia 2050” into a web series, delving further into issues of community development in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

View “Appalachia 2050” at

Ada Smith: Giving Voice to Appalachia

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Kimber Ray

Photo courtesy of Ada Smith

Photo courtesy of Ada Smith

Amidst the economic and social upheaval sweeping through Appalachia, art and media may seem like unexpected tools for approaching the challenges the region faces today. However, through her work with Appalshop — a media and cultural center in Whitesburg, Ky.— Ada Smith has witnessed how creating and sharing stories can empower communities.

As the daughter of two of Appalshop’s founding filmmakers, Smith has a deep-rooted connection to the organization. After receiving a degree in Appalachian Studies from Hampshire College in 2010, she spent three years working as the program coordinator and co-director for Appalachian Media Institute, Appalshop’s youth media training program. Although her role facilitating the program meant that Smith rarely saw herself as a creator, Smith has embraced the AMI vision of “creating a new Appalachian culture.”

Encouraging people to question the circumstances they’ve become accustomed to is a principal function that Smith feels AMI serves. One video demonstrating the program’s ability to influence dialogue for change is “Because of Oxycontin,” which presents the personal stories of Oxycontin addicts to depict the drug’s devastation. According to Smith, the youth-produced video helped spark the ongoing policy debate regarding the marketing and overprescription of Oxycontin in the region.

Smith was working to engage the community on critical issues in Appalachia even before her employment with AMI. In response to the exodus of youth leaving the region for opportunities elsewhere, Smith and three others formed The STAY Project in 2008. Short for Stay Together Appalachian Youth, the project connects rising Appalachian leaders for a four-day summer institute of social and environmental justice workshops. By encouraging youth to demand change in their communities, Smith explains, STAY empowers youth to remain in Appalachia as active participants.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

In August 2013, Smith was appointed Appalshop’s institutional development director to champion the value of the organization’s work and to develop events and partnerships enhancing fundraising. She also continues to be an active participant in The STAY Project. “Media and art makes people look at things differently, it makes them value themselves and their culture differently,” Smith says, “and without that encouragement for people to reevaluate their situation, it’s not apparent how we’re going to create a new economy.”

To learn more, visit

Choose Your Own [Historical] Adventure: An Appalachian Travel Guide

Thursday, November 14th, 2013 - posted by Rachel
From left to right: The Lost Sea; Burke's Gardens; Pocahontas Exhibition Mine.

From L to R: The Lost Sea of Sweetwater, Tenn.; Burke’s Gardens; Pocahontas Exhibition Mine.

When my editor first asked me to compile a list of “Historical Hidden Treasures,” I imagined my words guiding readers to ancient, geological wonders; down fossil-riddled hiking trails through former sea basins; deep into old growth forests squirming with endemic salamanders and a host of yet-undiscovered species. My brave readers would venture into the unknown to chart the unseen, name the unnamed, describe the unsung – all while practicing “leave no trace” trail ethics!

In Defense of the Earth: An Appalachian Poet’s Presence

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 - posted by brian

Stream “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet” below or watch it on Moyers & Company by clicking here.

Widely celebrated as a caretaker of the culture and myth of rural America, Wendell Berry has a distinct drawl and speaks like he writes, eloquently but with simple words and equal parts conviction and compassion. Beyond being a renowned poet and author, Berry is an abiding presence in the environmental movement — especially among those of us who live in or love Appalachia.

A new presentation by Moyers & Company, “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet,” provides a portrait of the literary icon’s growth and influence, his relationship with the land and his hopes for humanity.

Among the topics covered — industrialization, wealth inequality, the indifference of elected leaders to environmental degradation — is Berry’s anti-mountaintop removal activism, and his participation in a four-day sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest mountaintop removal.