I’ve spent the last twenty years or so saying I’m “from West Virginia,” consistently enough that when I told a friend at IKEA that I was going to write an essay about the lie that I’m from West Virginia, she was confused. “But you are from West Virginia!” she said. No, I said, I grew up in Ohio. And the truth is, I did: Proctorville, Ohio, a town at the very southern anus of the state. Or even Rome Township, if you want to get more specific than that, on a road called “Little Paddy Creek.”
No one ever does. Someone once told us that Rome was the origin of the Rome Beauty Apple, a fact so irrelevant that I’d never bothered to check it until now. Rome apples are some of the least inspiring apples. And southern Ohio… what even is it?
Proctorville was once called “Quaker Bottom” before it became “Proctor’s Landing,” a trading post where local farmers could get to the river; the Quakers were the first white abolitionists and I remember a friend of my mother’s telling me that he had heard some houses on the river had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, one of those facts whose general plausibility you don’t want to trouble with confirmation. But the Rome Beauty apple does date back to the early 19th century, it turns out; if you dig into what made Rome a township—beneath the grid system that divides and semi-urbanizes all the rural land in Ohio into one township or another—you’ll find a familiar and boring story about 18th and 19th century settlement. It was apparently called “Labelle” until it was re-named Rome, because there were seven hills that converged, and because the 19th century was a great era of imperial longing.
It never seemed like any roads converged there, and none of it is very interesting, not even to me; when I arrived at Ohio State, as an eighteen-year-old, what interested me about where I was from was that Ohio State was not where I was from. Columbus was the biggest city I’d ever lived in, by a lot, and my fellow freshmen were Ohioans: some were from cities like Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati; some were from rural farming towns—my dorm was right next to the Agriculture campus, so they were overrepresented—and some were from those once-thriving little cities that Ohio seems to have so many of: Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton, Youngstown.
None of them were from Appalachia. To explain where I was from, I would tell them I was from the ass of Ohio, the very bottom; I would explain that I’m from Appalachia. “Basically West Virginia,” I would say.
I pronounce “Appalachia” the way people pronounce it where I’m from. And when I heard hillbilly-whisperer J.D. Vance pronounce it like glacier, with a soft r, it felt like a tell. Though he’s made a career from claiming a native-son right to speak for the hill country, Vance, like most who pronounce it this way, is not really from Appalachia. The book hides this fact in plain sight, and most of his readers won’t know the difference, but: his grandparents moved from Jackson, Kentucky, for jobs and better prospects in Middletown, Ohio, and they settled and lived there, where there are no hills, and where they pronounce “Appalachian” with that soft “sh” sound, like a skier on soft snow.
Thus: he’s not really from Appalachia. It sticks out if you’re used to people saying the word with a sharp four syllables: App-Uh-Latch-Uh. If you say glacier, I’ll throw an “apple atcha.” So when I first saw the novelist Sharyn McCrumb calling the former “the pronunciation of condescension, the pronunciation of the imperialists, the people who do not want to be associated with the place,” it felt good. It felt like a good description of J. D. Vance’s whole thing, and although I lost my accent when I went to college, at least I pronounce “Appalachia” the right way, right? A Tennessee lawmaker even tried to enshrine it in state law (when he wasn’t trying to make the Christian bible the “official state book”), and there’s a point on the Appalachian Trail where the pronunciation changes, as you pass out of the real Appalachia. If there’s an orthodox pronunciation, a correct one that real Appalachians use—and that fake ones or outsiders don’t—then this is it.
I’ve always lied about being from West Virginia because both of my parents worked in Huntington, West Virginia—just across the then newly-built bridge—but they’d moved to Ohio when I was seven so that I could go to Ohio schools; I’m sure they had, in the back of their minds, the prospect of in-state tuition at a school like Ohio State (in the city to which J.D. Vance returned “home” to when he returned to start a non-profit called “Our Ohio Renewal.”) Of course, we did live in West Virginia for our first year in the region, when I was six, in rural Wayne country, where—and this is completely true, and will fill you with admiration for what a true West Virginian I am—I had a small coal mine in a hillside, a tiny little naturally-exposed seam that I would use a rock hammer to chip off bits of coal. I would put in a little suitcase I had, an oddly wide, blue suitcase with a plastic handle that later broke off.
If West Virginia is truly Appalachian, there’s an Appalachian edge to every state that borders it: the South-Eastern edge of Ohio, parts of Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, Western Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky (and even the upland Carolinas and Georgia). The Appalachian mountains are no particular respecters of state boundaries; Steven Stoll has gone so far as to use the term “Greater West Virginia” to describe the region, and it will do as a thumbnail: West Virginia and the portions of neighboring states that are like it.
You can draw these kinds of borders, and you can use language and pronunciation to help fill them in. Proctorville, Ohio: Appalachia. Middletown, Ohio: not Appalachian.
But where does it stop? What of the farthest tip of West Virginia’s own Eastern Panhandle, after you pass out of the big mountains? What about Charlottesville, VA? Cincinnati? Pittsburgh? Where are the borders of this nation? Where, when we secede and build walls to keep out immigrants—since J. D. Vance is super clear that clannish xenophobia is a defining characteristic of the hillbilly—will the line be drawn?
The irony is that Appalachia was a wall for the early nation. “Separating the eastern seaboard from the Mississippi Valley, the Iroquois in the uplands from the Algonquian peoples along the coasts and valleys, the British from the French colonies, the ocean-facing coast from the western-oriented backcountry”—as my guy François Furstenberg writes—“the Appalachian Mountains were responsible for the great problem of North American, and perhaps even Atlantic, history from 1754 to 1815: the fate of the trans-Appalachian West.”
For colonials who longed to be a continental empire, the mountains were hard to cross, and on the other side—where all the good land was, in the Ohio-Mississippi watershed—the natives had alliances with European powers like Britain, France, and Spain. The would-be American empire wanted to grab up Ohio, among other things, but not only was it on the other side of an imposing mountain range, the people who lived on the other side were strong with strong allies.
The story we tend to know about the United States is what happens once this problem was solved: when once-powerful Native American nations were abandoned by their allies—who abandoned their continental ambitions—and they were driven out by genocidal white settlers. Ohio would be part of the “Northwest Territory,” but it would take a war fought, for example, by the same “Mad Anthony Wayne” who gave his name to a campground I was a counselor at. The physical obstacle of the mountains was never the primary problem—it was always the nations on the other side who had to be massacred and driven out—but the landscape maps onto the political obstacle and the watershed topography defined the politics of the late colonial period and the early nation: the original thirteen didn’t really trust the early white Appalachians, because the backcountry’s commercial links all ran westward, along the Mississippi down to Spain and France’s New Orleans port. But then the Whiskey Rebellion happened, the Battle of Fallen Timbers happened, the Haitian rebellion resulted in France losing interest in the Americas, and basically a lot of stuff happened that allowed America to conquer all of it.
We don’t really talk about it. Stuff happened.
West Virginia’s story begins later, with the Civil War, well after all of that stuff was finished. West Virginia even split off from Virginia as part of the Civil War, a double-secession that makes it the only state to secede for abolition (Not really, but hey, it’s a nice thing to think about the state). But the real action only begins then, well after the genocide: coal, railroads, coal, timber, steel, more coal—basically, mostly coal—and tons and tons of freshly-arrived immigrants to fill the coal camps and drive the economy, and then be abandoned and unemployed once it all fell apart.
Mountaineers are always free: the story you can tell of being from West Virginia is a story about a (mostly) white peasantry that was exploited and attacked and abandoned by an imperial industrial economy, workers who built an economy and then were dismissed and insulted as hillbillies. Appalachia can be a story about white people who were an “internal colony” of the United States, a resource-extraction zone that became a sacrifice zone.
When I was a kid, this was the story that attracted me to imagine myself an Appalachian. My mother was an environmental organizer, and she once organized to prevent a massive Pulp and Paper mill from being built in Apple Grove, WV, upstream from our drinking water; it would have polluted the Ohio river with dioxin, one of the most potent cancer-causing chemicals there are. She spent much of her career at OVEC fighting mountain-top removal coal companies in West Virginia, who also caused cancer; when she died of cancer, she was engaged in fighting the building of natural gas pipelines across West Virginia, part of what is to be called the Appalachian Storage Hub, a monstrously terrible industrial nightmare that will give people cancer and greatly contribute to the warming of the planet: she had seen that this would be the next energy frontier, the next stage of Appalachian dispossession, and was ready to fight it.
And so, this is what I’ve learned to remember about where I’m from, what it means to say Appalachian. When Parsons and Whittemore declared that they liked to locate their pulp mills in “third world countries”—OVEC put that quote on newsletters and signs—it told us something about what the region is; as OVEC tried to save Blair Mountain from being destroyed by coal companies, we told stories connecting that fight to the first battle of Blair Mountain, in 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history, when ten thousand miners fought a literal battle with the state and the bosses. It was the only time the US Air Force was deployed against American citizens, dropping pipe bombs and tear gas from the skies. And as the fight against natural gas pipelines heats up, OVEC has connected struggles for water rights in Appalachia to water rights in native country, and in Flint.
This sense of Appalachia as a colony was why, when I went to Ohio State, I found myself fascinated by African literature and history, why “postcolonial literature” was what I went to graduate school to study. I grew up, a white person in an extremely white part of the country, understanding where I was from as a colonial space; at Ohio State, I learned that I was a hick and a hillbilly–and like J. D. Vance, I have always felt like I missed some kind of crucial social training as I progressed through institutions filled with non-Appalachians–but at some point I discovered that Appalachia was filled with white immigrants who were treated like natives, most of whom arrived long after genocide had been completed. Ohio was filled with white settlers who committed genocide against the natives.
I never made the choice consciously, but I have no doubt that’s why I made the choice that I did, why I decided that I was from West Virginia, not Ohio.
White victimhood is alluring. If you dig into the story that Sharyn “pronunciation of condescension” McCrumb tells about Appalachia, you’ll start finding some really fucked-up Anglo-Saxonism: you’ll find a Braveheart-fetishizing narrative in which plucky Scotch-Irish settlers are not only the real victims of the British empire, but you’ll find a very strange story about how the Appalachian mountains were, before continental drift, part of the same mountains as the highlands of Scotland; thus, in McCrumb’s account, they were a homecoming for the whites who arrived there (“When our pioneer ancestors settled in the mountains because the land looked right, made them feel at home – they were right back in the same mountains they had left to come to America!”).
You will find, in these kinds of stories, that the Native peoples who lived there when they arrived were merely interlopers; you will find that hillbillies were not only treated like native peoples (which is actually true in some respects) but were the real indigenous people (which is astonishingly, hilariously dumb). You will find grounds for asserting that “our pioneer ancestors” were not slaveholders, not really; West Virginia seceded from the South, after all, and the Appalachian part of every slave state was the most unionist portion of it. And you will find grounds for telling–if you’d like to follow the path of white immigrants from Ellis Island to company towns to ghost towns–a story about white victimhood by capitalism.
A little bit of truth is a dangerous thing. All of that stuff is at least a little bit true–at least the parts that don’t posit a quasi-spiritual connection to geology as the engine of history–but without context, without the big picture, it becomes a story about authenticity, about who the real Appalachians are. It’s a story that becomes a wall.
But the problem with J. D. Vance’s stories about hillbillies has never been how he pronounced the word Appalachia, or that he’s “really” from Ohio; it has always been his forcefully unexamined assertion of “Greater Appalachia”’s connection to whiteness. What, after all, could be more Appalachian than route 23? If mountain music is all about the old homeplace, it’s because hillbillies never stopped leaving, and if there’s one thing I believe in Vance’s truly strange memoir–so much weirder than its basic-assNational Review politics–it’s that he’s spent his life trying to understand what it means to be from where he’s from. I believe that he’s haunted by it, as I am.
I grew up in a holler: a deep, narrow creek-bed tightly contained on both sides by steep-sloping hills, hills that, if you want to use that metaphor, can feel like walls. The Appalachians are so old, so much older than the more ostentatious Rocky mountains, that they are better described as hills, but they’re cramped, and they crowd in so close that it can be quite dark at the bottom; the sun rises late and sets early, and when my mother first moved there from Wisconsin, she found it claustrophobic, depressing.
I never did; it felt right to me for as long as I remember, and it still does. You could be alone there, and would be, whether you wanted to or not; in a city like Columbus, you had to search for solitude.
As I think back on it now, the Appalachia I grew up in was a lot weirder than anything that could be “authentically” anything in particular. The people I remember and miss were and are all weirdos, eccentrics, and straight-up kooks, the kind of people who needed a little solitude to live. But the thing about the hills, about this topography, is if it mostly makes cities impossible, and solitude easy, it also makes it impossible to go anywhere without passing neighbors. You can feel alone with the universe in a holler, but your people might only be a quarter mile away.
Which is why those hills were never walls. Hollers are roads, watersheds that lead down to bigger streams and rivers, and up into deeper hills, deeper creeks, and wilder woods. When I was growing up, the Ohio River always seemed like an important boundary, the line separating West Virginia from Ohio, and that border seemed to mean something. But wasn’t it filled with the water that flowed down from Little Paddy Creek, and didn’t it connect Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico? Nothing respects borders less than water, nothing links us all together as completely and totally. And the holler I grew up in was only dark from the bottom; if you climbed up to the top of the ridgeline, above our house, you’d find the ruins of what had once been an orchard.