Education in the U.S. mountain South has long been a terrain of state neglect. Adopting the “folk school” model from Denmark and other Scandinavian countries for American purposes, ground-up education by and for the people living in so-called Appalachia marks a particular set of contributions toward social and political change. One notable folk school, Highlander Folk School, stands out among many in its mission to restructure the standing and collective empowerment of mountain folks by and for themselves. According to Vicky Eiben, folk school philosophies have been an important counterpoint to nationalism as a unifying force.
The above linked trailer is for a documentary directed by Lucy Massie Phenix called “You Got to Move.” You can rent or purchase the whole film here. The film is one of the most direct ways to learn about Highlander Folk School’s history. Opened in 1932, Highlander has also focused on civil rights, labor rights and unionizing, literacy, strip-mining, pollution, immigration, and LGBTQ+ issues. Because it seemed so agitative to the Jim Crow order, in 1961 backlash by the state of Tennessee closed the Highlander Folk School after the school successfully provided training and education to many of the prominent leaders of the Civil Right Movement, many of whom are now household names like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr, and John Lewis. The school reopened in a new location under the name Highlander Research and Education Center. In 2019, Highlander’s main offices and part of its archive were set on fire and vandalized with white supremacist symbols painted on the pavement nearby.
One of the women featured prominently in the film is Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose accomplishments are innumerable in activism, scholarship, and artistic contributions. Reagon’s transcribed talk from the 1981 West Coast Women’s Music Festival, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” was referenced in Martine Syms’ piece, “Intro to Threat Modeling,” included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. In the work, Syms mentions the Reagon text as part of a “theorizing against safe spaces.” In what can be inferred from Reagon’s conception of a safe space (the term is not used but the concept is), she argues that the kind of logic which produces this sense of “safety” also becomes its own form of nationalism, while by effect also leaves “XYZ group” (Reagon’s term) even more vulnerable. This helps Syms advocate instead for “threat modeling” as a means of creating informed and empowering decisions, particularly as Reagon is very clear about coalitions as both necessary and dangerous if not, as Syms implies, threatening.
Highlander has been one of many flash points in writing an article currently under review with the editors of the Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. My article, titled “Black Mountain College: Eclipsing the Local in Artworld Memory” attempts to make in-roads between an elite metropolitan-centered art world which is inept at folding in the contributions of “place” by way of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and broader conceptions of Appalachia into its beloved “gee whizz” crucible of American modernism and mid-century art star circuitry (AKA Black Mountain College). In somewhat of a transversal, the field of Appalachian studies has been hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace the legacy of Black Mountain College as one of its own, despite the school fitting into a larger constellation of progressive and experimental pedagogy in the region, most obvious being its nearby folk schools. Black Mountain College was certainly unique, but it was not necessarily exceptional. In addition to currently undergoing edits with the journal, the article has been accepted for presentation at this year’s reVIEWing conference at University of North Carolina at Asheville, which is relatively near the former site of Black Mountain College. Hope to share more updates about it soon!
I also have a grant proposal I’ve been trying to get funded, which involves touring Appalachian folk schools and then going to Denmark and touring folk schools there. If you are interested in the kind of work I plan to make from this traveling, how it might benefit or bolster awareness of important overlooked community work, or how you might be able to financially support, please email me: email@example.com. However, information about this particular dream might seep out on its own if you stick around <3.