The shape of Appalachia to come

We’ve all been bitten
We’ve all been underground
We’ve all been beaten, battered, bruised
Told to get down
—Refused, The Shape of Punk to Come

This past weekend, I returned to Cincinnati, OH—where I lived for many years in the Over the Rhine and Lower Price Hill neighborhoods—to attend the Appalachian Studies Association conference. It was my first time attending the ASA.

Volumes have been written about Appalachian culture; the music, the dance, the quilting, the basket-weaving, the story-telling, and poetry. I appreciate it. It’s what I grew up on. And there was lots of it on-hand at the ASA. But, that’s not what I went for.

I went for the ideas and politics. I went for the people fighting for a better Appalachia—and a better world. I went to meet author-activists like Elizabeth Catte, Crystal Wilkinson, and Barbara Ellen Smith. I went to discuss the history and future of Appalachian struggle. I went to the ASA to connect with young Appalachian activists that have been organizing against nazis in places like Knoxville, TN and Pikeville, KY. I went to meet the Black and queer Appalachians doing the work of fighting white supremacy. I went to get the buzz on the wildcat strikes of education workers in West Virginia and Kentucky.

I did not go to the ASA to hear recycled culture-of-poverty tropes and thinly veiled racism from the likes of JD Vance. His mainstream, blame-the-victim outlook is what we already hear in the mainstream media day-in and day out.

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I (perhaps, naively) assumed that everyone within Appalachian Studies agreed with that assessment. I was surprised that Vance was a panelist, during one of the final sessions, on the opioid crisis. Who thought that was a good idea? Haven’t we already heard enough from him? Shouldn’t our efforts, as Appalachian scholars and activists, be focused on a counter-argument to Vance?

So, I cheered when organizers protested inside his session. These folks stood in a long, proud tradition of speaking truth to power and combatting the backward politics of charlatans like Vance.

And, despite the demands of some organizers for respect and decorum (sprinkled with a topping of paternalism and sexism), along with the reminder that the conference was in “our house” (Cincinnati, presumably), the protests continued.

This year’s ASA was billed as the first to be organized by a community organization (The Urban Appalachian Community Council) rather than an academic department.  That should, in my opinion, invite more activism; more outspokenness; more messiness. Not less. Besides, academia can never—and shouldn’t—be somehow inoculated from protest. Especially when there are serious ideas at hand.

And, the “our house” claim is disingenuous. I was a teenager in Cincinnati during the late ’80s and early ’90s. When I became a young activist, there was an unruly, unapologetically radical group of urban Appalachian activists. I learned a lot from them; in fights for housing, to stop the closure of the Milner Hotel, against gentrification in Over the Rhine, and the meaning of solidarity. We protested anywhere and everywhere. I’m glad to see that tradition of organizing—even in the hallowed halls of academic conferences.


Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.