What if you lived along an enormous mountain range and nobody knew it?
I sometimes feel that way about Pittsburgh. This is by far the largest metropolis in Appalachia, but locals rarely acknowledge being part of it. It's as if all these hills are on loan from Morgantown (which is at a lower elevation than Pittsburgh).
So it's welcome news that, for the first time in its 35 years of existence, the Appalachian Studies Conference is being held north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Hundreds of regional scholars will gather March 23-25 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The American mind generally flashes on rural white poverty in places such as eastern Kentucky when it hears "Appalachia,'' but the region stretches across at least a dozen states and more than 200,000 square miles. It's time we recognized its complexity and nuances. Take, for instance, the polka.
"Polka music, not just old-timey Scots-Irish fiddle music, is Appalachian," says Jim Cahalan, an English professor at IUP and an organizer of this conference.
I was taken aback by that claim. How can music as Eastern European as the pierogi also be Appalachian? But Mr. Cahalan believes we need to redefine the people of Appalachia as "whoever's here,'' and Southern and Eastern Europeans have been here for generations.
The Slavs of Pittsburgh may just have a different lingo than kinsmen elsewhere, thanks to the people who preceded them here. "Yinz," like "y'all,'' is an echo of Irish and Scots Gaelic grammar, which alters the singular and plural of "you.'' Similarly, native Pittsburghers and eastern Kentuckians may both drop the verb "to be,'' to say something "needs washed,'' and residents of both Scotland and Pittsburgh are careful when it's "slippy.''
Pennsylvania has the most acreage of any state in Appalachia, with some three-quarters of our commonwealth within the realm of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission. That's about 50 percent more acreage than West Virginia, the only state entirely in Appalachia.
In some ways that federal map is political rather than cultural or topographical, Mr. Cahalan said. Some counties wanted to be part of the ARC to get federal road money, while some "effete Virginians'' kept their counties out because they didn't want to be associated with the region.
But the way we think of the region is evolving. Frank X. Walker, an African-American poet from Kentucky, created the word "Affrilachia'' to say "as loudly as possible'' that people of color are part of this region stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York.
IUP has a Center for Northern Appalachian Studies, but Mr. Cahalan's students can still be startled by the maps showing Western Pennsylvania "smack in the middle of northern Appalachia." Maybe that's because poor white Appalachians, "the last people it's perfectly safe to stereotype'' in the popular media, are so often portrayed as hillbillies, he said.
Just as young urban professionals never want to be called "yuppies'' but always know one when they see one, "Appalachia is always somewhere to the south,'' Mr. Cahalan said. Cross the border into West Virginia and locals will point toward Kentucky when asked about Appalachia, he said.
Metropolitan Pittsburgh is more prosperous and densely populated than most of the region, but it wouldn't be what it is without the natural resources of Appalachia. The rivers, the coal, the oil and now Marcellus Shale are shaping us, and this conference aims to give northern Appalachia its due.
The conference includes presentations on Marcellus Shale, the Appalachian literature of Pennsylvania, the impact of the Civil War along the Mason-Dixon Line, and even our food. (If they include corn bread, they'd better include pierogis and wedding soup.) A highlight will be a concert by Si Kahn, a singer-songwriter who champions the region's workers.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about contemporary Pittsburgh and called it "The Paris of Appalachia." I was playing off a sneering, coffee-house put-down of this place, which I could never quite see as an insult because I'm so fond of these hills. I figured we ought to turn that slur around, the way other maligned minorities have.
Say it loud. We're here. We're Appalachian. Get used to it.
Oh, and mind the roads if you go to this conference. It can still be slippy in March.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.