Carl J. Thomas
When I came to Berea College as a student, I enrolled in a freshman seminar class called Issues and Values, during which the instructor discussed Appalachian Culture and talked about the lineage of white families who lived in the mountains of the Virginias, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. When she began referring to “Black” Appalachians in industrial Birmingham and the neighboring coal mining towns of Alabama, I thought, hold up, wait a minute—let’s not put the Black folk in it. Once upon a time I had been Colored, a Negro, an Afro-American, Black, and even had my race referred to by other choice names during the days of Bull Conner in Birmingham, but there was no way I was going to be called an Appalachian: they were worse off than Blacks. I had to put my foot down on this one. I was a “city boy,” not some “hillbilly.” We didn’t live and act like those folks in the mountains. We were cultured, dignified, and polished, not backward, country, and slightly uncivil. It was an oxymoron: THERE WAS NO WAY THAT A BLACK PERSON COULD BE AN APPALACHIAN—PERIOD.
As a young black urbanite attending college in the heart of rural Appalachia, that was my mindset. Even today, blacks who live in urban areas don’t take ownership of an Appalachian heritage. I decided to test my theory recently during a recruiting trip to a predominately black high school in Birmingham, Alabama. While speaking to a group of prospective students, I shared with them that 80 percent of Berea College students come from southern Appalachia. I then asked three questions: Are you familiar with Appalachia? Do you consider yourself an Appalachian? Do you think that there are Black Appalachians? The answer to all three questions was no. Although some did say they thought of Appalachia in a geographical sense, comprised of a mountain region, they thought that maybe ended somewhere around the Birmingham area.
The truth is most African Americans don’t see ourselves as Appalachian because we identify with our race and not with this ethnic heritage. Those of us who come from urban centers within the Appalachian region may not see ourselves as being Appalachian either.
But before you put your buggy up at Wal-Mart, or pull the blinds when it gets dusk dark in the evening, and watch your momma pull out the skillet to cook some cornbread to go with that fixin’ of collard greens and coke—although the actual bottle label may say Grapico—you might want to re-evaluate your position before you knock this idea clean off the table.
If you know that a buggy is a shopping cart, blinds are window shades, a skillet is a frying pan, Coke represents all flavors of soda, a fixin’ is a serving, and clean is used in place of “all the way,” as in “I’ll knock your teeth clean out of your mouth,” you might be an Appalachian.
Only you just don’t know it.
I have learned much about Appalachia, culture, and blacks since my freshman year of college. My perspective and thoughts are now different. If we choose to entertain the idea that there are blacks who are Appalachian (remember that oxymoron), I will pose a dichotomy in the form of two questions for discussion. The first is: Am I worse off by association with Appalachia? The second is: Am I better for it?