“How is one of the most liberal people I know from Appalachia?”
May 12, 2022
Throughout my time at Bowdoin, I have encountered a lot of ignorance regarding the Appalachian region I call home. Bowdoin’s well-educated students, staff and faculty consciously (and unconsciously) overgeneralize and dehumanize the entire region as all-white, poor, uneducated, rural and conservative. Monolithic portrayals of Appalachia have been commonplace for over a century, with the most recent mainstream narratives deeming Appalachia the scapegoat for all of America’s worst qualities following Trump’s election in 2016, with the help of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
I am not here to blindly defend Appalachia and say that racism, xenophobia and homophobia do not run deep in this part of the country; I am here to say that racism is found everywhere in all its forms, and it isn’t solely the MAGA-hat-wearing hicks I know. This problem is prevalent across humanity: judgment based on ignorance. This includes the widely uncontested narrative on campus targeting misunderstood areas like Appalachia, a region with 13 states and over 25 million people.?
Like any other identity, Appalachians can look and behave in an infinite number of ways. I am Appalachian and queer and liberal. And yes, I like bluegrass music.
Up the hollow from the Potomac River–the Maryland-West Virginia state line–I grew up on an apple orchard in Mountain Maryland. In many ways, I lived a blissful, privileged youth full of adventure into the surrounding forest with fond memories of vibrant starry nights, fort construction, fossil hunting, my brother’s fiddle championships, political debates with my father and gardening with my mother. This depiction is a romanticized, singular look at my life and it was much more complicated than I could ever disclose here. Growing up as a liberal, queer woman in a predominantly conservative, Christian region was challenging; I was expected to adhere to very traditional ideas of womanhood, and I was consistently objectified and not taken seriously. My ability to move from this region is embedded in my privilege as a white, able-bodied and middle-class person with two educated parents. This granted me access to vital knowledge about college scholarships and SAT requirements that most of my peers did not have due to systemic failures.
Walking around Bowdoin’s opulent lobster bake, witnessing the pinnacle of prep school fashion and hearing chatter about world travels, I recognized how geographically, culturally and socially different I was from my peers. I went through various stages of coming to terms with the identity label ‘Appalachian.’ I initially rejected this association, laughing at Northerners’ demeaning jokes of Appalachian hicks, trying my hardest to differentiate my e’s and i’s and telling stories about the plethora of racist and sexist people I know from home. Especially as I explored my sexuality, I thought I needed to shed one identity to gain another. But when asked, “How is one of the most liberal people I know from Appalachia?” I realized my peers, and even I, did not understand the nuance of this place, its people and myself.
Sickened by the distance I was putting between myself and the community that raised me, I reached out to Professor Meredith McCarroll and completed an independent study on the history of Appalachia. Did you know the largest labor uprising in US history, with an integrated coalition of mine workers, took place in West Virginia in 1921 – the Battle of Blair Mountain? Have you heard of Frank X. Walker who coined the term Affrilachian and writes poetry challenging the idea that Appalachia is all homogeneously white? For my final project I explored the intersection of my queer and Appalachian identity by interviewing LGBTQ+ people in Appalachia, deconstructing popularized images of metronormativity: a term coined by J. Halberstam to describe the synonymous nature of queer identity and urban life.
Coming into this Appalachian identity at Bowdoin has made me feel more myself than ever. I spend more time adventuring in the woods. I wear my favorite bluegrass bands’ shirts to the dining hall instead of to bed, and I tell stories of the good, the bad and everything in between of Appalachia.
Recently, Zoe Guyot ’22 and I organized an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip looking at Queerness in Appalachia to Asheville, NC. We met with the Angel K Love Project, who provide therapy for LGBTQ+ foster children, Cornbread & Roses, a LGBTQ+ community support center and neighbor-to-neighbor food distributor, and Sylva Pride, founded by Travis Rountree. These are just a few of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC organizations that support marginalized identities in Appalachia every day. Learning alongside this group of students and watching as they came to understand the complexities of the South and Appalachia was by far my most rewarding Bowdoin experience—it’s the closest I have gotten to merging two separate worlds and selves.
Travis Roundtree told our ASB group, “Your dialect is your birthright.” I urge you to use your own dialect to challenge academic standard English and to never shame others for their own beautiful collection of memory, life and language. I also urge you to be critical of any narrative that perpetuates a singular idea of a vast region and peoples even if, perhaps especially if, it comes from people who have “escaped” the Appalachian region—a prime example being Morgan Edwards’ ’22 book, “An Outlier’s Tribe.”
Please don’t just take my word for it. Take a class with Professor Meredith McCarroll, the past President of the Appalachian Studies Association, and read the book she co-edited called Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy for free in the Bowdoin library. Read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte and Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia. Watch the documentary Hillbilly. Listen to the Black in Appalachia and Country Queers podcasts. Read stories of Southern and Appalachian Bowdoin students. In the words of Professor McCarroll, “As soon as you think you understand a place or a person, resist it. Ask yourself why you believe that. Keep complicating your own understanding with multiple voices.”
Melissa Magrath is a member of the Class of 2022.
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Thank you for this beautiful reflection. As a Bowdoin alum from a state often written off as “flyover country,” your struggle with the popular misconceptions about a place you call home is very familiar.