Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ain’t No Place Like Home: Appalachia, Anthropology, and Autoethnography*

“Ain’t no place / Anything like this place / Anywhere ‘round this place / This must be the place.” 
–-Lisa Mount, Community Playwright, Songwriter, and Director of Artistic Logistics

My interdisciplinary path of education has included many a winding turn, an occasional bump in the road, and duly delightful detours and discoveries. I have engaged my life-long interest in art, culture, language, social/environmental justice and their intersections throughout my various academic, professional, and activist endeavors. As a native Kentuckian, I have deep roots in and strong commitment to “this place.” I have wandered away a few times for brief spells, but I am always drawn back to the culture and landscape of home. Pursuing a doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology, and subsequently examining feminist media activism in mountain culture(s), is a very natural progression of my development and experience as an independent scholar, media and theater artist, and cultural organizer in the Appalachian region. Indeed, this must be the place.

I have been a writer for most of my life, a homesteader for the past 15 years, and an amateur filmmaker for more than a decade. For 20 years, I have been a dedicated activist on behalf of social and environmental justice and sustainable development in Appalachia. I am also a natural community organizer, and I feel called to use my communication and collaboration skills in the service of cultural and social movements in the region. I have only recently entered the official discipline of anthropology from an admittedly circuitous and indirect route, but I have come to realize that much of my academic and activist work for the past two decades could be considered applied anthropology.

My own identity as an Appalachian ecofeminist and my ongoing interest in Appalachian cultures, ecologies, and justice issues has resulted in a body of autoethnography [1] that frames my current doctoral endeavor to explore feminist media activism in the region and possibly other mountain culture(s). Interestingly, these elements of my pre-anthropology past overlap consistently throughout my academic, activist, and professional history, so I feel quite at home within my “new” chosen discipline after playing around its edges. My focus on feminist media activism in Appalachia arises from my interdisciplinary academic background as well as my interests and experience as a cultural organizer, documentarian, sustainability educator and activist, and theatre artist. All along the way, I have used primary research in well-suited archives as well as created my own primary materials through interviews, fieldwork, video, and cultural productions and performance. 

As an undergraduate, I produced several ethnographic projects, though at the time I did not understand this to be the case. I graduated as the first Women’s Studies major from Berea College, where I also completed a Spanish minor and several courses in Appalachian Studies. As part of my major, I created an independent study on “Women in Appalachia,” for which I conducted informal interviews with my mother and paternal grandmother as my final paper project. I also produced an archival research paper and my first documentary video project, about the closing of Berea College Appalachian Museum, as part of my final project for a course on “Appalachian Problems and Institutions.” For the documentary, I interviewed Christopher Miller (then Museum Director and current Associate Director of the Berea College Appalachian Center and College Curator of the Artifacts and Exhibits Studio), Shannon Wilson (then Berea College Archivist and current Head of Special Collections and Archives), Loyal Jones (founding director and namesake of the Berea College Appalachian Center, Sydney Saylor Farr (former Appalachian Heritage Editor and Berea College Special Collections staff), as well as students and other visitors to the museum.

 “Berea College Appalachian Museum: Preservation of History Becomes the Past" (10 minutes).

I deepened my ethnographic interests and skills in graduate school where I was also privileged to work for two years at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. My only formal anthropology course was called “Ethnographic Imaginations” for which I conducted interviews and surveys with library staff, conducted historical and ethnographic research, and wrote a paper on the role of food and community at the Schlesinger Library.

As a result of my interviews and research, I ended up writing a second paper exploring the role of women’s activism in the library’s holdings and the lives of library workers for an interdisciplinary course on “Communities and Women’s Activism." For another interdisciplinary course called “Latin American Women Represent Themselves,” I also transcribed, excerpted, and edited a first-person narrative by/about Marta Miranda, a self-identified “Cubalachian” woman and current President/CEO of The Center for Women and Families in Louisville.

After grad school, I also worked at Berea College for almost eight years, first as the Executive Assistant to the President and then as the campus-wide Sustainability Coordinator [2]. In the latter role, I developed programming related to sustainability and Appalachia and offered numerous local, regional, and national workshops and presentations. In addition to my primary responsibilities, I also had the privilege to teach some academic courses including a Special Topics Service-Learning Course on “Ecofeminism: Principles and Practices” and a hands-on course called “Acting the Part: Filmmaking and Community Activism.”

 “Acting the Part” Field Trip to Appalshop.

My experience as an employee and educator at my alma mater strengthened my overall commitment to my own philosophical mission and practical application of service to the Appalachian region. During this time, I continued my personal path of media and cultural production through activism with local and regional non-profit and community organizations.  I have focused most of my filmmaking efforts focus on creating storytelling portraits of the people, culture, and geography that I call home. I have made more than 20 short videos over the past 12 years, including a digital story about my grandparents and the connection between my Appalachian heritage and sustainable living. I also firmly believe in empowering communities and individuals to gain the media skills and access to tell their own stories.

 “Completing the Circle: A Labor of Love,” produced in collaboration with the Carpetbag Theatre
at the 2008 Brushy Fork Institute and screened at the 2009 Clear Creek Film Festival.

I am currently co-producing a documentary called “Remembering the Reedys: Appalachian Music, Migration, and Memory” about my partner’s grandparents Frances and John Reedy and their Bluegrass music. John is best known for writing the gospel song “Somebody Touched Me,” which is often erroneously credited as a traditional tune or to other composers, such as Bill Monroe [3]. John Reedy and the Stone Mountain Hillbillies were documented as founding Bluegrass musicians [4], and Frances’ vocals on a version of “Oh Death” has been compared to Julia Mainer [5]. Both Frances and John were prolific songwriters and under-recognized performers who left behind a substantial collection of commercial and home recordings.

 "Little Sparrow” from Frances and John Reedy's last recorded performance Christmas 1980.

For this project, my partner and I were awarded an Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship where we began the formal research phase of the documentary and donated the Reedys' collection of recordings and memorabilia to the Berea College Special Collections and Sound Archives. During this Fellowship, we organized, digitized, and processed a substantial amount of donated materials from Frances' music and manuscript collection, which included the Reedys’ original commercial recordings as well as numerous homemade reel-to-reel and cassette recordings that they made on their own equipment. We also completed the Community Scholars certification program sponsored by the Kentucky Folklife Program and Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), and in fall 2010, we conducted additional research at the KHS Martin F. Schmidt Research Library and Special Collections through the Family Research Fellowship program.

 Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship Presentation: Frances Reedy Oral History

In addition to research and media-making about music and culture, I love participating in and promoting the performing arts. As a theatre artist, I have performed in several short plays written by local/regional community playwrights. In 2009 and 2010, I also participated in the collective creation and performance of a short set of character sketches and skits called “On the Creek: Clear Creek Community Story Project” based on local story gathering, personal experiences, and improvisational exercises. For the past five years, I have co-produced the local Clear Creek Film Festival featuring film/video projects “focused on but not limited to natural and sustainable living, Appalachian storytelling, Appalachian youth culture, global awareness/human rights, and any films created or produced by local media artists.”

My particular interest and goal for pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology is exploring and documenting various forms of feminist media activism in Appalachia, including community plays, filmmaking, and community-based participatory research projects. For example, I am interested in the work of storytellers and community playwrights Lisa Mount and the late Jo Carson; Appalshop filmmakers Elizabeth Barret, Anne Lewis, and Mimi Pickering; and anthropologist and service-learning innovator Helen Lewis.

Helen Lewis is an especially inspiring and innovative model for me academically and personally. As the “mother” of Appalachian Studies and an anthropologist applying participatory research to community development projects in Appalachia, she embodies my ideal academic goal of becoming an "activist/scholar." She has been the focus of several recent publications emphasizing her special voice and contributions in community-based research and Appalachian studies. One article in the Fall 2011 issue of Southern Culture is entitled “Mountain Feminist: Helen Matthews Lewis, Appalachian Studies, and the Long Women’s Movement” and includes a substantial transcript of an interview with Lewis. Shortly afterward, the University Press of Kentucky published Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, a new book by Lewis in collaboration with Patricia Beaver, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, and Judi Jennings, Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Most recently, the Georgia Appalachian Studies Center blog posted a short piece by Lewis about “Why You Should Study Appalachia.” She offers a pithy and poignant point of departure for emerging and seasoned Appalachian scholars alike:
So if you want to study Appalachia, here is what you do.

Start where you live: Interview your elders, map your community, write your local history. Who lives where and why? Who owns the land, minerals, resources? Who is rich and who is poor? Who has power and who is powerless? Who are the story tellers, the poets, the singers? Who is in jail, who is sick, who is angry and who is throwing the bodies in the river and who is pretending it is not happening?

Who is speaking truth to power, who is feeding the hungry, who is healing the sick? Who is writing the poetry, saving the stories, saving the land, singing the songs?

Find out who you are. What is your place in this place? (emphasis mine)
This question echoes my intent in returning to grad school after a decade and choosing the field of anthropology to deepen and broaden my understanding of this place I am from, in, of, and in some ways, apart from. As a result of my previous studies and my work with various local community organizations and service-learning projects, I share Lewis’ strong belief in a respectful and reciprocal relationship between academia and the communities that it studies, represents, and serves. I plan to continue my work as a cultural organizer, filmmaker, and also share my expanded knowledge in both formal academic settings and public education outlets in the Appalachian region. Through my professional development in the field of higher education and my active community involvement, I realized that “this”—anthropology as a discipline, Appalachia as my location and culture, and the University of Kentucky as my doctoral community—“must be the place.” Forging and fostering my academic career where I have already been building relationships and engaging in community for two decades makes cosmic and common sense. Now it simply remains to be seen where this ongoing autoethnography of feminist media activists in Appalachia will go from this place forward...

Tammy L. Clemons, MTS.
Doctoral Student, Cultural Anthropology, University of Kentucky

*This essay is a modified version of my original personal statement for application to the Department of Anthropology doctoral program at the University of Kentucky. 

[1] I fortuitously encountered the concept of autoethnography at the 2011 Appalachian Studies Association conference during a workshop called “Performing Autoethnography: Radical Methodology, Radical Pedagogy” by Appalachian State University graduate students Donna Corriher and Shannon Perry. They provided a helpful handout with exercises and resources. In their abstract, they describe authoethnography as “a radical interdisciplinary fusion of autobiographical and ethnographic writing that uses personal experiences as a basis for understanding cultural patterns and phenomena. … [Its] powerful appeal and increasing popularity lies in its critique of traditional social scientific stances on objectivity, validity, and ethical obligation by challenging the existence of the disembodied researcher and advocating for ways of knowing that encompass the emotional and experimental in pursuit of a more true history.”

[2] I recently returned to Berea College to serve as President Shinn’s Executive Assistant during his last year until his retirement at the end of June 2012, while simultaneously starting my doctoral program 2/3 time at the University of Kentucky.

[3] Rosenberg, Neil V. and Charles K. Wolfe. The Music of Bill Monroe. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

[4] “Somebody Touched Me” was included on the 1975 Rounder Records anthology The Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 1, which is archived in the Library of Congress (LC Classification: M1630.18).

[5] Q&A Response to Reader Queries, Bluegrass Unlimited, August 2004, Pp. 20-22.

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