The Community Within

The Community Within collection traces it origin to the American Studies Senior Seminar taught by Professor Howard Sacks and Professor Ric Sheffield at Kenyon College during the 1991-1992 academic year in which students embarked upon a community study that focused upon the black experience in Knox County, Ohio. What quickly became clear was how African Americans in this predominantly white rural community felt at one and the same time both a part of and separate from the small town. Even though visually conspicuous as individuals, they also felt relatively unnoticed as a group. They experienced being “hypervisible” – always standing out - while on the other hand being culturally invisible. These archives chronicle the life experiences of Black people and other minority groups that reside within the larger racially and culturally dominant community.

When one speaks of community, reference is often made to a sense of belonging. Feeling as though one belongs may be the consequence of having roots in a particular place or regular social interactions. Attachment to “place” usually requires more than just “being from there;” it frequently revolves around the quality of the social interactions, as much being “of the place” as from it. One’s experience of a place can be personal and direct or it may be second-hand and vicarious. Meaning is derived from both and frequently forms the basis of one sense of shared experience with other members.

Community in rural America is in large part about locations, spaces, and geography. It seems impossible to truly know rural life without an appreciation of the towns and villages, rivers and lakes, fields and forests, houses and barns, as well as cemeteries and farms. These are the places that reflect and evoke an essence of “ruralness.” They embody the qualities and characteristics oftentimes romanticized or stereotyped through images like horse drawn plows, farmers’ markets, and favorite fishing holes. While community in rural society is comprised of institutions and organizations, often brought together for the purpose of commercial enterprise and productive labor, what makes these communities distinctive are the relationships formed and partnerships gained from them. For the most part, these are personal and intimate associations in which people commit to one another through friendships, as neighbors, by marriage, and often united as a consequence of blood relations or kinship. Some suggest that what really sets rural communities apart are the meanings derived from the locale or environments to which one is attached and in which one resides, the people with whom one lives and shares one’s life, and the pace and quality of the “simple life.”

A common axis around which persons share their experiences involve identity factors. Group membership, whether grounded in race, ethnicity, native language, religion, or other cultural minority status, plays a significant role in determining the extent to which persons feel a part of a particular community. Some persons feel as though they are situated with “one foot in with the other foot out” of the majority dominant community. In what was so eloquently articulated by W.E.B. DuBois as a state of “double consciousness,” the daily challenges of “duality” are heightened when a person lives in a community in which she or he is one of only a few, if not the only, person of a group to which that person derives an important part of one’s identity. These persons, while conversant and fluent in the social language and practices of the larger community, are aware of the existence of others like themselves who share the history and cultural experiences of the discreet group that resides within the community at large. Thus, the “minority experience” within rural America is often defined by persons being situated in space that is aptly called “the community within.”

Thus, the Community Within collections seek to illuminate the experiences of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups that have settled in rural communities. While the primary geographical boundaries of this project are within central Ohio, the concepts and experiences of these groups may be representative of persons who settled in towns and villages throughout the state and region, if not the nation as a whole. Welcome to this exploration of Knox County, Ohio’s Community (ies) Within.