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Illustration: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Greetings again, folks!

Jordan here. Last week, I spoke to you about verbal lore and how our scary stories can save us. This week, I want to talk about material culture and its significant role in our current times as we navigate the intersection of two public health crises: the COVID-19 global pandemic and structural racism.

Material lore is, quite simply, the things we make. You’ll see it in food and quilts, architecture and crafts, and, recently, homemade pandemic masks and protest signs. Often, people think folklore is a thing of the past, and that those remnants of history are long outdated. But all the recent use of material lore, especially masks and protest signs, reminds us that folklore is alive and well in the present too, always intertwined with our daily lives.

In the early stages of the pandemic, our frontline healthcare and essential workers were experiencing a shortage of protective equipment as they were exposed to the virus while trying to save lives, especially here in the United States. To reserve medical masks and protective equipment for frontline workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the rest of us find creative ways to cover our faces and protect ourselves and others.

Bring in the folk!

Creative solutions popped up left and right as we, the folk, not only designed and created homemade face masks but also built guides for others to make their own protective coverings. If you’re like me and don’t have a sewing machine, you might remember using a folk guide for making a mask out of a folded bandana, hairbows and a coffee filter. Luckily, some of my craftier friends (thanks, Sydney and Cristina!) made me these lovely little lightning bug and floral masks.

Photo: Jordan Lovejoy/Provided

This year, we’ve also seen a lot of material lore pop up through protest signs and street art as the folk have taken to the streets demanding justice, action and an end to systemic racism. As Black Lives Matter protests grew around the globe, the folk conveyed their thoughts, feelings, rightful anger and hope through artistic expression.

In Appalachia, we saw a lot of protest signs that said things like, “Hillbillies for Racial Justice” or “Rednecks for Black Lives.” These signs gesture to the radical labor organizing history in Appalachia, like the Mine Wars of the early 20th century. The signs also acknowledge that systemic inequalities, discrimination and exploitation exist in our region too, and that we must collectively work toward dismantling those white supremacist systems of oppression that have sought to erase the very existence of Black Appalachian experiences.

Black Lives Matter protestors march through Terra Alta, West Virginia, on July 10, 2020. Photo: Chris Jones/100 Days in Appalachia

These pieces of material culture remind us of how we use folklore to creatively reflect upon and respond to what’s happening in the world around us. In his celebrated article “Tradition,” folklorist Henry Glassie tells us, “tradition is the creation of the future out of the past.” In Appalachia, we have a long tradition of solidarity and social justice activism, as well as an enduring tradition of radically caring for one another – especially in times of need.

How Appalachians have been showing up for each other and creatively responding to the public health crises of both structural racism and the COVID-19 global pandemic suggest to me that we still value and pass along those traditions of solidarity and care in Appalachia.

As we shape our material culture into expressions of hope and action toward a healthier and safer future for us all, we are actively using our folklore and our traditions to create the world we want to see. While we continuously imagine and work toward that more just world, I invite you all to think about some of your favorite pieces of material culture — especially those masks, signs and street paintings — that you feel most accurately represent your own traditions, values and goals. If you’d like to share your own folklore, send us an email at editor@100daysinappalachia.com

Until next week, friends!

- Jordan

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