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We’re Fighting For Our Future

Toward a Visionary Folklore

by Emily Hilliard

Consider the evolution of cultural forms and our present role—whether active or passive—in shaping the folklore of the future. Folklorist Henry Glassie elaborates on his conception of tradition as “the creation of the future out of the past,” as, “A continuous process situated in the nothingness of the present, linking the vanished with the unknown, tradition is stopped, parceled, and codified by thinkers who fix upon this aspect or that in accord with their needs or preoccupations.” Glassie frames tradition as a temporal concept, a moving target constantly churning. Folklorists and scholars who study traditions necessarily arrest expressive practices in their present moment, but that means we’re always working from a mere snapshot of culture in motion. While Glassie’s conception is commonly cited in the field, a directive urging a forward-thinking approach to vernacular culture that recognizes the necessity of prior contributions, his emphasis is still weighted in the past. If the present is “nothingness,” what is the value of that moment as the past transformed into the future? Are the actions taken in that present not important? Do we just send traditions off, like some message in a bottle tossed into the sea with a wing and a prayer that they might weather the onslaught of time’s storms and gales to eventually land fully intact upon some future shore?1

This essay is excerpted from the conclusion to MAKING OUR FUTURE (UNC Press, November 2022).

To do the work of a folklorist is inherently to believe in the future. We record voices, document events and objects of vernacular culture, and share those stories in order to create a record of community life, practices, creative work, and perspectives, many of which are marginalized or suppressed by dominant narratives. We place these recordings, documents, and writing in archives and libraries, carefully labeling them with metadata so future descendants of those artists and communities, researchers, and the general public might one day use them to understand what it was like to live here in this place, to be us or them, in this moment. But in our fieldwork and ethnographic relationships we don’t often pay enough heed to that future beyond “sustainability,” or mere survival of current forms. By bringing Glassie’s conception of tradition as the basis of the future into conversation with Fredric Jameson’s assertion—that science fiction in truth, tells us little about the future but a lot about the present, illuminating how our current reality will ultimately be historicized—we can imagine how a notion of what I’m calling “visionary folklore” might be fruitful.

This concept is related to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s emerging notion of “anticipatory heritage,” which operates “in anticipation of the future when the present will be past”— an imperative for cultural workers to collect the present as it’s unfolding. Though I didn’t encounter Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s conception of anticipatory heritage until after [my book] was largely written, it describes, to some extent, the framework within which I have approached my fieldwork in West Virginia, and the presentation of a selection of that work in [Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia.] What I’m calling visionary folklore, though, is the next step, chronologically speaking; rather than conceiving of heritage as a “mode of cultural production that has recourse to the present,” as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says of anticipatory heritage, visionary folklore can be viewed as having recourse to the future—a future that is contested. How might a future-focused framework help us be more attune to present conditions? What current narratives will constitute the base of future folklore? What must we fight for in the present so that future communities may retain their sovereignty and have agency over how their traditions are transmitted? My suspicion is that adopting a future-minded approach to cultural work will have liberatory effects for communities in the present too. As visionary poet Audre Lorde writes in her reflection on the lessons of the civil rights and Black power movements, “We are making the future as well as bonding to survive the enormous pressures of the present, and that is what it means to be a part of history.” Future-building, she asserts, is a collective and creative project that in turn lends hope to the present, making it endurable.2

What must we fight for in the present so that future communities may retain their sovereignty and have agency over how their traditions are transmitted?

Scotts Run Museum members gather at the museum in Osage, West Virginia on a Saturday. February 18, 2019. Photo by the author.

In his chapter, “Critical Folklore Studies and the Revaluation of Tradition,” in the collection Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present, Stephen Olbrys Gencarella engages with Glassie’s temporal concept of tradition in proposing a “critical folklore studies.” Gencarella presents the model of tradition and betrayal, positioning the concepts not as antonyms but as necessary counterparts in the process of cultural reproduction. He writes, “Every opportunity to pass something on is also an opportunity to betray that passing.” Acknowledging that “tradition” is not inherently good, Gencarella argues that tradition bearers, communities, and networks are constantly negotiating what aspects of tradition will be transmitted, and what will be shed or “betrayed.” Current debates over the removal of Confederate and colonial monuments in the United States, including here in West Virginia, are one example of how official and state memory is often contested, but this process is also happening in cultural communities. The members of Scotts Run Museum—who not only regularly enact a counternarrative of their community but also have drafted a specific vision for its future—offer the most direct example of this, but there are others. Writer Shirley Campbell carefully preserved her autobiographical songs and poems in a notebook as a statement of identity and tangible artifact of her creative labor for a future reader. Home cooks and residents of Helvetia consider just what is at the core of their cultural traditions, allowing recipes, material culture, and communal celebrations to be revived, retained, and mutated so that those traditions might survive. And in Milton a dedicated pair of friends twine text and place to experience the writings of beloved hometown writer Breece D’J Pancake as a placemaking project, lending layered meaning to their hometown. These community members are invested in creating and maintaining shared cultural reference points in hopes they might leave behind a trace, a road map, a legacy, for the future vernacular culture of West Virginia. As Washburn’s rendering warns, though, while the intentional actions of tradition bearers are important in this process, which aspects of tradition endure and which aspects are cast off for the ages is determined not only by the conscious choices of their communities of origin but also is greatly impacted by the material conditions, environment, and ideological currents (not to mention mere happenstance) of the society in which they occur.3

The postapocalyptic narrative of Fallout 76 [the video game set in a post-nuclear disaster imaginary West Virginia in the year 2102], in which players inhabit a world ravaged by the atrocities of capitalism and are charged with rebuilding a society and culture out of what remains, suggests that we must consider the material conditions of cultural communities. Gencarella proposes that “folklorists must turn their attention to inciting crises in traditions that prohibit social justice.” I’m reluctant to wholeheartedly agree, as I believe that such a drastic intervention in a community-based tradition by a folklorist would need to be approached delicately and specifically, and is potentially problematic, putting too much power into the hands of one folklorist’s subjective assessment and interfering with communities’ self-determination of their own tradition making. But I’m interested to see the ethical protocol for such an interference further outlined. I argue instead that as a next step beyond documentation, contextualization, and presentation, folklorists, myself included, should be more attuned to the future life of traditions beyond sustainability, and actively work in collaboration with communities to combat the outside destructive forces, such as privatization, extraction, and austerity, that disrupt them and block their agency to negotiate the transmission of their traditions. Glassie gestures at this when he asserts that the antonym of tradition is not change, but oppression. “Oppressed people are made to do what others will them to do. They become slaves in the ceramic factories of their masters. Acting traditionally, by contrast, they use their own resources—their own tradition, one might say—to create their own future, to do what they will themselves to do. They make their own pots.”

But it is becoming ever harder for people to make their own pots. The deracinating forces of capitalism and its atrocities of extraction, environmental destruction, disease, poverty, and climate change that can act upon the creative practices of cultural groups are so powerfully disruptive that they are often the primary etic causes of the death of tradition. In West Virginia, witness, for example, the local community whose members for generations dug ramps on a certain hillside—a site of community practice and shared memory—now lost due to land being privatized or altogether ravaged by a coal company. Or the new communities of Haitian, Burmese, Puerto Rican, and Ethiopian refugees and immigrants who work long night shifts at the local chicken processing plant in the rural small town of Moorefield, where there are language barriers among workers and few places and little time to gather in community and engage in cultural practices. Or consider the community graveyard of a former Black coal camp in Logan County, where locals once gathered every Memorial Day to picnic and decorate the graves of their relatives, before it was destroyed when the gas company ran a pipeline through, cracking graves and disturbing remains. These sorts of disruptions seem to be occurring at an accelerating rate, particularly in a place like West Virginia, where the population, especially in rural areas, is declining faster than in any other state, the majority of land is owned by outside private companies and investors, and many of the livable wage-paying jobs that do exist demand long hours and grueling, often dangerous work, leaving little time or energy for other pursuits. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated outstanding and intertwined social issues including unemployment, poverty, poor health, addiction, racism, and structural reliance on a rapidly declining extractive and destructive monoeconomy. In the wake of the pandemic (if it’s possible to speak of such a thing), it will become all the more necessary for folklorists and cultural workers invested in the sovereignty of marginalized and oppressed populations to take a visionary approach to cultural work. To do so, our work must be in collaboration with communities and be based in material analysis. As Gencarella writes of his critical folklore studies, “It would not seek utopia but rather struggle to make the future better, redress past injustices, and improve the present for as many people as possible.” Perhaps, though, a bit of a utopian spirit would yield a beneficial and productive outlook for folklorists, inspiring us to work in collaboration with communities to not only envision collective futures but create them together, by fighting for improved material conditions for everyone.4

Striking West Virginia teacher holds a sign referencing Hazel Dickens lyrics, March 2, 2018. Photo by the author.

A bit of a utopian spirit would yield a beneficial and productive outlook for folklorists, inspiring us to work in collaboration with communities to not only envision collective futures but create them together, by fighting for improved material conditions for everyone.

What might this look like in practice? Collaborative ethnographic methodology suggests that folklorists work with communities and practitioners to engage in that dialogue, draft a collective vision, and identify an action plan. Questions that could be included in fieldwork interviews include, What is the future you envision for your community and its cultural traditions? What resources and structures need to be in place to ensure your community and its cultural practices thrive now and in the future? And what do you need in order to achieve that future? In his article “Theorizing Public Folklore Work,” Gregory Hansen cites several examples of how public folklorists have leveraged their fieldwork to advocate for local cultural communities, including lobbying for traditional basket makers’ rights to access and sustainably harvest grasses in endangered wetlands, helping foster a renaissance of dying art forms like Baltimore screen painting, and other productive cultural interventions that have benefited the well-being of practitioners and their respective traditions. However, as evident in the Scotts Run Museum members’ vision, which calls for, among other goals, affordable housing, some of the necessary advocacy that will help secure the sustainability of cultural communities for the future may lie outside the scope of the usual work of arts and humanities nonprofits and philanthropic grants. This may include fighting for new and expanded social programs such as universal health care, a mandated livable wage, child tax credits, affordable housing, unconditional basic income, debt relief, mutual aid networks, and other infrastructural and policy shifts that will directly benefit the material conditions of communities and practitioners we work with. Such programs could undoubtedly assist in the cohesion of cultural communities, granting resources, time, space, and well-being that will allow them to fully engage in their respective creative practices.5

In addition, public folklorists and cultural workers who engage with local communities to “amplify voices in a democratic polity” could make more efforts to communicate the value of our collaborative methodology as a model for bottom-up participatory democracy and grassroots community engagement across positionalities, which can be applied to other contexts. Just as striking West Virginia teachers reimagined the space of the state Capitol as one where policy that determines the life and work conditions of a group of workers was shaped by those workers themselves, entities that could benefit from planning methods that work in collaboration with the communities they impact, include local planning and zoning offices, community development commissions, rural development offices, tourism boards, arts and cultural organizations, and community-engaged educational programs. The work of these organizations and government agencies involves and impacts folklife in various ways; public folklorists can leverage that intersection as an entry point to advocate for the inclusion of the voices of cultural communities regarding specific policies that may impact their self-determination and ability to sustain their cultural traditions. As Mary Hufford writes in her article “Deep Commoning: Public Folklore and Environmental Policy on a Resource Frontier,” which addresses the potential applications of public folklore in environmental policy, specifically in the Appalachian coalfields, “Public folklorists and heritage workers on resource frontiers will need to embrace the task, described by Tim Winter, of ‘understanding the various ways in which heritage now has a stake in, and can act as a positive enabler for, the complex, multi-vector challenges that face us today, such as cultural and environmental sustainability, economic inequalities, conflict resolution, social cohesion, and the future of cities.’”6

To undertake this type of holistic work is to acknowledge what may be obvious: that the sustainability of expressive culture is inextricable from the material sustainability of the community from which it emerges. Further, we might borrow the concept of “intergenerational justice,” which is most often used in the context of the climate change movement, and apply it to our notions of cultural heritage and cultural equity. What does intergenerational justice look like in terms of cultural traditions? Sociologist Erik Olin Wright writes of the term, “Future generations should have access to the social and material means to live flourishing lives at least at the same level as the present generation.” Those social and material means include those with which communities are able to practice and perform their cultural traditions, and folklife is a crucial aspect of a flourishing life. Commitment to visionary folklore and cultural intergenerational justice would reify a core value of the field of folklore: that our collective futures—of folklorists, artists, tradition bearers, cultural communities, and vernacular art forms—are inherently twined, all part of a diverse, just, equitable, and pluralistic society. As Mark Nowak reminds us in Social Poetics, his book on worker poetry workshops, “Solidarity is simultaneously a historical condition, a contemporary action, and a future aspiration. Solidarity, deep within its definition, embraces all three tenses: the past, the present, and the future.” So too must the field of folklore.7

Wrestler Huffmanly jumps off the ropes during a tag team match at ASW’s drive-in wrestling show in Winfield, West Virginia. The promotion began holding drive-in outdoor events during the COVID-19 pandemic. July 18, 2020. Photo by the author.

In the meantime, as old traditions die, communities are adapting, responding, and reshaping to birth new expressive forms. What I’ve witnessed through my work in West Virginia and what much of this book explores is that though some traditions may be disrupted or even destroyed by extractive industry, climate change, and structural inequality, communities are responding to and at times resisting these deracinating and destructive forces with new forms of expressive culture. In the aftermath, isolated individuals link their fates and new creative futures can be born together. As scholar and activist Lynne Segal writes, “Understanding the lineages of loss . . . can supply the tools for pondering what remains afterwards, and hence for both a possible ‘rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future.’” West Virginia teachers striking against austerity measures and privatization built collective power through their signs, chants, T-shirts, and memes. Faced with the widespread lack of personal protective equipment in the midst of a pandemic, sewists took to their machines to stitch masks and distribute them to local first responders through veteran-run mental health peer support networks. Unable to gather and hold indoor events for months due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, All Star Wrestling hosted drive-in matches outside a local dance studio. When the Scotts Run Museum regulars could no longer gather at their regular Saturday coffee shop, Eve Faulkes worked with her students to develop a “Together Even When Apart” care package to distribute to the network. It included yard signs, a set of greeting cards to send to each other, a journal to document how they were coping, and information on how to register to vote and keep safe during COVID. Local businesses hosted hot dog sales to cover their lost income and employees’ medical expenses. Porchsitters of Appalachia, a mutual aid group that formed in Boone County during the pandemic, assists in collective self-provisioning, giving away food, seeds, vegetable plants, and garden tools to local families and sharing information on gardening, food preservation, and traditional herbal medicine. A post on the group’s Facebook page asks, “Do you believe it is possible to think radically regarding food, food access, and local food sustainability in Boone County? What does envisioning our food culture look like? What could the future of food look like in our communities?” As ever, West Virginia communities offer potent examples of how expressive culture fortifies identity and creates shared narratives that the collective can apply to further resist structural inequality and oppression. Tradition, as they see it, is indeed the fight for the future.8

This essay is excerpted from the conclusion to Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia (UNC Press, November 2022).

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

Header image: An effigy of Old Man Winter hangs in the Helvetia Community Hall, awaiting Fasnachtrevelers. After a square dance in the hall, the revelers will cut him down from the rafters and burn him on a bonfire outside. February 6, 2016. Photo by author.NOTES

  1. Henry Glassie, “Tradition,” in Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 176.
  2. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Folklore Talks: Heritage, Folklore, and the Public Sphere.” American Folklore Society panel, March 10, 2021; Audre Lorde, “Learning from the 60s,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing, 2007), 144.
  3. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, “Critical Folklore Studies and the Revaluation of Tradition,” in Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present, ed. Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2013), 53.
  4. Based on an interview with Ernest Hoeffer, a lifelong ramp digger in Helvetia, West Virginia. Hoeffer, interview with author, April 30, 2016; Here I draw from fieldwork with immigrant workers in the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, and an interview with Hardy County English-for speakers of other languages teacher Amy Lough. Lough, interview with author, February 25, 2020; From a personal account relayed by Cora Hairston in an interview with the author and the George Mason Folklore Field School. She said, “So the cemetery is located up on the hillside where my little community still is, and it was desecrated by a bulldozer. It was through the gas company. I think they were putting in pipelines. And we had to fight. We fought for 10 years more with them, the desecration of them. And it’s never been restored, can never be restored. They have my father’s tombstone turned backwards. I don’t even think it’s on the right grave. They have some tombstones placed where I know those gentlemen that were supposed to be there are not on that side. They were on the other side. Just missed . . . so we fought them and finally it was solved.” Hairston, interview with the George Mason Folklore Field School, May 24, 2018; A May 2020 piece in the Guardian reports that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the coal industry has experienced the highest decline in sixty years, with over 6,000 miners losing their jobs in March and April and coal production on track to decline 22 percent by the end of the year. Michael Sainato, “The Collapse of Coal: Pandemic Accelerates Appalachia Job Losses,” Guardian, May 29, 2020, A July 9, 2020, report in the Guardian reports that opioid overdoses are rapidly accelerating during the coronavirus pandemic. The piece quotes a former director of the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy: “The number of opioid overdoses is skyrocketing and I don’t think it will be easily turned back. Once the tsunami of Covid-19 finally recedes, we’re going to be left with the social conditions that enabled the opioid crisis to emerge in the first place, and those are not going to go away.” Chris McGreal, “Opioid Overdoses Are Skyrocketing’: As Covid-19 Sweeps Across US an Old Epidemic Returns,” Guardian, July 9, 2020, The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that over 130,000 West Virginia residents have filed unemployment claims since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 60,000 West Virginians are now uninsured due to job loss. Kelly Allen, “60,000 West Virginians Have Likely Lost Health Coverage over the Past Month.” West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, April 23, 2020.; Sean O’Leary, “The Where and the How of West Virginia’s Population Decline.” West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, April 29, 2019. Ted Boettner, “Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?” West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, December 9, 2013.; Anna Patrick “The Poultry Plant That’s Changed the Face of This Appalachian Town.” West Virginia Public Broadcasting, August 15, 2019.
  5. Gregory Hansen, “Theorizing Public Folklore: Folklore Work as Systemic Cultural Intervention.” Folklore Forum 30, no. 1 (1999): 38–39; According to a study by the Urban Institute, COVID-related federal relief programs such as the federal stimulus, expanded unemployment benefits, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reduced poverty in West Virginia by over 70 percent, affecting an estimated 301,000 West Virginians. Sean O’Leary, “Federal Relief Programs in West Virginia Cut Poverty by 71 Percent.” West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, September 3, 2021.
  6. Mary Hufford, “Deep Commoning: Public Folklore and Environmental Policy on a Resource Frontier.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22, no. 8 (September 13, 2016), 2.
  7. Erik Olin Wright, How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century (London and New York: Verso, 2019), 15; Mark Nowak, Social Poetics (Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2020), 253.
  8. Lynne Segal, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy (London: Verso, 2018), 52–53; Porchsitters of Appalachia, Facebook post, April 13, 2020,
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