Defining my Appalachian identity

Identity is both community and individual


Jocelyn Gibson

The mountains at Benge’s Gap overlook in Virginia.

Appalachian, as an identity, says so much more about a person than just the region they’re from or where they live.

I returned Sunday from the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Johnson City, Tennessee, with a more developed understanding of what being Appalachian means to me and says about me.

One part of my personal Appalachian identity is my craft. I like to carry a crochet project with me most of the time and occasionally I feel odd pulling it out in some places and get some mixed looks.

The first day I was at the conference I noticed several other women engaged in crochet or knitting projects during the downtimes, so the next day I brought my own and never felt out of place with it or like people were staring. I began to think about how keeping your hands busy is maybe a trait of Appalachian women that I have picked up on, and I felt among my own people when I could express that trait openly.

The leisure of music is another part of being Appalachian. After Saturday’s sessions Y’ALL (Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners) hosted a mixer where people could get to know one another and have a drink in a laidback environment. At the event, two men—one with a fiddle and one with a banjo—had an unplanned jam session while everyone mingled.

Sitting there watching them play I realized I hadn’t been in an atmosphere like it since I moved from home three years ago. My Pappy Sam is still never without an instrument in his hands and everyone on that side of my family can jam without ever planning out a set because everyone knows the same songs or, like the two men I observed, can listen and learn by ear before joining in.

Not only is that type of talent incredible to me, but just the experience of live Appalachian music felt like home to me, and it frightens me to think there might be a day when it’s not feasible for me to stay in the region any longer.

On that note, a part of my Appalachian identity that I adopted far too late in life is pride. One of the most important lessons I took away from the conference was the need to instill pride in Appalachian youth through education.  Unless young people understand the culture and history of the region, they will fall prey to the negative stereotypes of Appalachia that are everywhere.

I went through a period when I was ashamed of where I came from, and I am glad to have left that life behind me, but I know how easy it is to feel that way when you don’t understand your own culture. We need to teach Appalachian youth there is value in being self-sufficient and learning and living from the land. We need to tell them about the successful and talented people who have come out of Appalachia before them, and we need to tell them all of this before the rest of society tells them that their people don’t wear shoes and marry their cousins.

And last, but certainly not least, activism (particularly environmental activism) is a huge component of my Appalachian identity. As a people, environmental issues, namely Mountain Top Removal and contaminated water sources, disproportionately affect Appalachians and no one else is going to fight the battles of environmentalism in the region except us. Along those same lines, there are multiple social issues disproportionally affecting Appalachia as well: poverty, poor public education, teen pregnancy, lack of higher education…the list goes on. So, being part of the community and the culture and trying to correct the negative stereotypes of Appalachia, for me, requires being involved in advancing their own cause through activism.

Appalachia is a powerful region and a powerful people and that was really solidified for me this weekend. If I have only one thing to take away from the experience it would be the newfound facets of my Appalachian identity that make me a part of the community and yet distinctly my own brand of Appalachian.

Jocelyn Gibson can be contacted at [email protected].