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Is Appalachia just a state of mind?

A software engineer in Wise, Virginia. A firefighter in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A teacher in the suburbs of Ithaca, New York. A blogger in Tishomingo County, Mississippi.

What do these people have in common?

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), they are all residents of Appalachia.

ARC was the first government entity to offer an official definition of Appalachia. Prior to ARC’s creation, discrete areas had been identified as Appalachia using criteria such as history, culture, geography, geology, and topography. However, in the 1960s, economic development, or lack thereof, was the yardstick used to measure the boundaries of Appalachia. President John F. Kennedy planted the seeds for ARC, and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, nourished the program as part of his infamous War on Poverty.

Lawmakers recognized the area as encompassing all of West Virginia and the mountainous areas of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. However, ever-changing political and economic currents have given Appalachia fluidity unheard of in other U.S. regions. Between 1965 and 2005, Appalachia “grew” from 11 states (360 counties) to 13 states (410 counties), reaching as far northeast as lower New York state and as far southwest as Mississippi.

Do these shifting, artificial boundaries impact residents’ sense of identity? I doubt it. Many of the people in ARC’s Appalachia don’t even realize they are identified as living in Appalachia. If they were made aware of it, some might shrug off the designation, while others might contest it with great vehemence. Some of us who live in what’s considered the core of Appalachia claim the name with pride. Others...not so much.

"Standing in the midst of Appalachia, I was asked to deny its existence."

A former coworker of mine insisted that I should never use the terms “Appalachian” or “Appalachia” in our marketing materials because she believed those words carried negative connotations. Standing in the midst of Appalachia, I was asked to deny its existence.

Perhaps it’s a moot point as to whether you reject or accept yourself as an Appalachian. Appalachia, defined and redefined to the nth degree, never quite fits any of its labels in a way that satisfies. John Alexander Williams, author of Appalachia: A History, espouses the theory that those who attempt to classify Appalachia walk away with the belief that it is a place of invention, “a territory only of the mind.”

Poet Michael Chitwood, in his book Gospel Road Going, speaks of “The Great Wagon Road, or Why Appalachians Are Mountains and a People”: “Locally, it took its name from where it was going, the potent away-from-here, the better place....”

That thought warms my heart. No matter who tries to define Appalachia, or how it is defined, those of us who live in Appalachia know that it is the better place.

Based on an article I wrote for the Coalfield Progress in 2006.

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