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Caring for our own is what matters

By Catherine Sawyer • Guest Columnist | When I think of the stereotypes against Appalachia, what comes to mind is what popular culture has had to say about Appalachian people. The mockery, generalization, and misunderstanding that Hollywood has been producing for generations is the most glaring. I also think of the lesser known impacts of the stereotypes, such as the way the government and our fellow Americans treat the area. I’ve said before that growing up here, in a small town as widely known and simultaneously forgotten as Bryson City, was somewhat like growing up in a novelty store. “One of the cutest small towns in the country,” they boast. “Rated top in the nation for small town living” is displayed across the covers of national travel magazines. 

For a place with that many people moving through it, you’d think that we’d have more funding for activities, or that the school districts would have the money to cover a year’s expenses. It’s kind of amazing how blind people with two working eyes can be. They come here, content with the images of “mountain people” they have in their own heads, and see just enough to fill that stereotype. They don’t see anything unusual. They seem to genuinely believe we all live here, working our own farms, driving our old pickups, riding into our quaint little mountain town daily to socialize at the general store like we’re living an episode of “The Waltons.” 

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the tourists want to feel like they are living in an episode of “The Waltons,” but only for as long as they’re here. Most of them go home to wherever they’re visiting from. Some of them decide they want to stay. And despite moving into our community, they still fail to see what’s so obvious to the rest of us. For example, the majority of the residents of Swain County can’t afford to do any casual shopping on Everett Street. Those prices, and products, aren’t for us. They’re for the visitors, little souvenirs to remind them of their trip to the mountains. Our small town gets a lot smaller when you get old enough to realize you can’t afford to shop in most of its stores or eat in most of its restaurants.

I could probably list a hundred things about tourists I don’t particularly like (including the fact that they all flocked here to “escape” the Coronavirus, infecting people as they came). But I would be wrong to not acknowledge all the things they provide for the community. Most of our revenue comes from tourism, and it keeps the town running. We all benefit from putting up with the droves of tourists that spring brings. 

Some of us play our parts very well, appealing to what the tourist believes a mountain person should be like in order to get a little bit of what they’re jingling in their wallets. I myself have played that part, though not for any monetary gain. I like to emphasize where I’m from, and my family backgrounds. I get satisfaction from building up their idea of what my family must be like, just so I can watch it crashing down on them as I tell them the truth. 

My family, like every single other Appalachian family, is nuanced. It contains lifetimes of instance and detail. It would be impossible to fit that into any stereotype. It is a disservice to the people that lived those lives to even try. I do get angry about the stereotypes, and I can get up in arms about defending the community I’m passionate about. But I also understand that it comes largely from a place of ignorance, and that the only way to fix that is education (That still gets tricky, though, because then you have people trying to experience the mountains and come out thinking they know everything about them). 

I bear no resentment toward mountain people playing the stereotype for their own benefit. We sometimes have few other options. We are told to be “authentic” — whatever that means — but shunned by our own community when playing into it too much. An Appalachian acting like a city slicker is a traitor, and an Appalachian acting like a hillbilly is a sellout. There’s no way to win. We have been ignored, neglected, and exploited for just about as long as we’ve been a recognizable group of people. 

I say, if you can find a way to profit amidst all that, go for it. Any funding, personal or community wide, we can squeeze out will benefit us, even if we have to play stupid to get it. The taxes paid by overcharging tourists helps us keep our schools running, keep our welfare programs helping people. The funds we can squeeze make it possible for us to band together when we need to. Those expensive restaurants on Everett do well enough that now, while we are at a standstill, they can offer daily free meals to Swain County students. Our community knows what it’s doing, and we know what we need. We might play the part for those visiting, but we know how to take care of our own when the time comes. And that’s all that matters. 

And as for shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Waltons,” I love them. My grandparents were huge fans of both. It would be impossible for me to call them evil or exploitative when I grew up watching my grandparents enjoy them so much. I don’t mind other people across the country enjoying them too. It can bring us together rather than separate us further. And hell, if they want to come out to the mountains and play country music on the porch together, I’d be happy to. That sounds like it would be a lot of fun. 

(Catherine Sawyer is from the Alarka community of Swain County. She wrote this essay for an Appalachian History class at UNC Asheville. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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