INTERVIEW with Chad Berry

Richelle Peryea

Much of Chad Berry’s life was spent in northern Indiana, swapping stories with his friends about their families’ ancestry. Most people would say “I’m from Quebec” or “I’m Russian” or “I’ve lived in Indiana all my life.” But for Chad Berry, the answers were not always so easy.When asked where his family was from, Berry would probably be a long time in answering. There would be few moments silence in waiting for his answer; during this time, Berry would be mentally tracing his heritage….

“I knew part of my family was southern Appalachian, other parts were English, Scottish, etc.”

Then he would probably shrug, mumble something about the South and Europe, and wave the question away.Those times would certainly be some of his most uncomfortable.How was he to answer a question that he didn’t know how to answer?

This dilemma led Berry to sign up for a folklore class as a college student.In the duration of this class, Berry learned about the “culture” of the southern Appalachian part of his family.The class fueled his desire to learn more.For his senior thesis, Berry studied the community in which his grandparents were raised.But even then his thirst was not quenched.For his graduate dissertation, Berry wrote on “the out-migration from the South and from Appalachia.”

“[It was] in no small part to learn about my own family and my own identity,” he says.

his dissertation, Berry learned more about his family than he ever could have hoped.And when his dissertation was finished, the inspiration to write Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles was left.It lingered in his mind for a long time until, at last, in 2000 the book was published.

Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles is a book detailing how people from the South and from Appalachia had to travel north and west for jobs.It refutes stereotypes that had been, and still are, in effect. Despite its popularity, there are really only a few things that made Berry feel good about his work:

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“…I’m really proud…especially because my grandparents were so proud of my attempt to tell their story. It’s also rewarding when someone who reads it says, ‘You wrote my story!’”

The study of the South has not lost interest for Berry.Now he is the director of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. While there, he teaches classes such as “Appalachian Culture” and “Senior Seminar in Contemporary Global Issues,” the latter being a study mostly on world food politics.

But while the “Senior Seminar” holds a special place in his mind (because he gets to both cook and co-teach it), the Appalachian Culture course means much to him because it is the introductory course of his department.

the Appalachian Studies Department, Berry and his staff try to “reach out” to faculty and students about southern Appalachian culture.In addition to on-campus work, Berry’s department works with other programs from regional schools in a further attempt to teach people more about the history of the southern Appalachia region.

But what is really rewarding for Berry is when students from the east Tennessee, North Carolina region join the Appalachian studies program.He writes that these students have often been encouraged to “get rid of” their past.Berry is often moved at “the transformation” from questioning to understanding, most likely tying these students to his own past confusion over his heritage.

“The transformation is often powerful. And it’s certainly rewarding for me as a teacher to be able to facilitate it.”

In addition to teaching, Berry has also traveled to other countries.Berry has traveled to over forty-one other countries, including Ukraine and Ghana. A rural village in Ghana, where Berry was on sabbatical, inspired him to make a list of similarities and differences between it and southern Appalachia.After a long, extremely detailed list, Berry found that his grandparents would have been at home in this little village.

This thought led Berry to explain that there are many cultures in the world that have been stereotyped much like the south Appalachia region: “backwoodsy”and unintelligent.Basically, the world has come to view the culture that many people base their lives upon as medieval garbage that should be thrown away in favor of modern culture.

And as Berry finished on this reflection as a small piece of his life, he wrote to the young writers in the world “to find your own voice.” This is especially important to those who want to hold on to our Appalachian culture and make it real for the world.Every day now, a person is rejecting his or her Southern heritage in favor of the modern one.There are still those, though, who believe in this culture, but their numbers are dwindling.“Don’t let the world forget Appalachia” is a motto that Chad Berry surely lives by, and so should we who inhabit it. -e-