The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia by Emily Hilliard, available everywhere books are sold.
I have spent much of the past six years traveling in and across West Virginia, crisscrossing mountains, hollers, creeks, and rivers along dirt roads and highways on fieldwork trips to interview quilters, fiddlers, striking teachers, gospel singers, miniature makers, independent pro wrestlers, neon sign makers, herbalists, marble collectors, gamers, woodworkers, playwrights, pastors, turkey call makers, and more. I’ve been welcomed into homes, barns, churches, and workshops, and spent long afternoons around kitchen tables, sharing meals prepared by home cooks of traditional Filipino, north Indian, Greek, Swiss, and the particular amalgam of predominantly Scots-Irish, German, Native American, and African American cuisines now thought of as Appalachian foodways. I’ve eaten a lot of hot dogs and pepperoni rolls. I’ve attended a Lebanese Mahrajan Festival, a Baptist singing convention, local independent professional wrestling shows, ramp suppers, and Serbian “chicken blasts,” visited a Hare Krishna temple, gone two-stepping, harvested sorghum, and been a guest at a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. I’ve toured farms and gardens and studios, with dogs and cats trailing along as their owners shared family stories and personal accounts of their work, artistic inspiration, and, on a few occasions, divine visions. I’ve been given several dozen fresh eggs, a handmade broom, a hand-hewn wooden bowl, a rug hooking kit, loaves of salt-rising bread, books, plants, and been a guest at a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. I’ve toured farms and gardens and studios, with dogs and cats trailing along as their owners shared family stories and personal accounts of their work, artistic inspiration, and, on a few occasions, divine visions. I’ve been given several dozen fresh eggs, a handmade broom, a hand-hewn wooden bowl, a rug hooking kit, loaves of salt-rising bread, books, plants, and reel-to-reel tapes. Many of the people I’ve worked with I now call friends. The intimate glimpse I’ve been offered of this place has been entrusted to me with extreme generosity, openness, and intention.
It was in many ways a dream job—an opportunity to establish and direct a completely new state folklife program, in a place I’d been interested in since I started visiting regularly four years prior.
I moved to West Virginia on Halloween 2015 from Washington, D.C., where I’d been living for four years, working for several cultural heritage organizations and picking up freelance writing gigs on the side. The West Virginia state folklorist position at the West Virginia Humanities Council was posted; I applied, was offered the job, and accepted it without hesitation. It was in many ways a dream job—an opportunity to establish and direct a completely new state folklife program, in a place I’d been interested in since I started visiting regularly four years prior. But the scope of it was also daunting—an entire state, even a small one, is a lot of ground to cover. I also had concerns about my position as someone not from West Virginia or Appalachia. I am a “flatland foreigner” (as West Virginia fiddler Frank George teased when I met him)—a midwesterner who grew up in the inner city of a rust belt town in northern Indiana, surrounded by cornfields and Amish farms. Appalachia and the Midwest are knitted together by histories of extraction, industrialization, and migration—in the first half of the twentieth century, thousands of Appalachians moved north in search of work to industrial towns like mine, bringing their culture with them. Perhaps because of this, and the two regions’ similar juxtaposition of industrial and rural spaces, I felt a familiarity in my new home. I had also done some fieldwork in West Virginia before, mainly in the Swiss community of Helvetia. But ultimately, I was an outsider, now charged with documenting and working with local communities to help sustain the cultural heritage of a place with a deep place-based pride and identity. And I was well aware of the state and greater region’s history of extraction and exploitation of both natural and cultural resources. Though the Folklife Program’s mission would be to document, sustain, present, and support West Virginia cultural heritage and living traditions from within the state to the benefit of its citizens, I questioned how my personal positionality and intentions might be perceived, and what preexisting conceptions of folklore I would encounter.
Emily Hilliard is a folklorist and writer based in central Appalachia. She is the former West Virginia state folklorist and the founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program. Find more of her work at emilyehilliard.com.