New book takes on, and takes down, Appalachian Trump Country narratives and elegies

Starting in early 2016, we began to see a phenomenon that later became the Trump Country profile: national (and international) news reporters, parachuting into some Appalachian small town, churning out a think piece about the despair, the poverty, the addiction, the desolation, the desperation that was turning voters toward Donald Trump.

Rather than tapering off, the genre only gained in strength through the 2016 election, and has renewed itself repeatedly since as a periodic exploration of How Trump Voters Feel Now.

On a similar track, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” gained the ear of non-Appalachian conservatives and liberals alike who viewed it as a work of insight into the mind of Trump Country voters, while Appalachian scholars recognized in Vance another writer claiming insider status while making sweeping generalizations about how it is Appalachian people’s own fault if they’re poor.

If there is a plus side to having spent two years watching Vance and journalists talk about things they clearly have not researched, it’s that the experience has given us Elizabeth Catte’s new book, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.”

Catte has a Ph.D. in public history. Her book demonstrates the benefits of reading a book about Appalachia by someone who is both from the region and has actually studied it.

It’s a short and fiery denunciation of the many ways in which journalists and Vance have misunderstood and misrepresented Appalachian history and people. Both cast Appalachians as a vast, one-dimensional group, to fit their own narratives and suit their own purposes.

Catte puts the Trump Country stories squarely within the long history of narratives of Appalachia, representations created by those outside the region for purposes that varied over time, but never bent to the benefit of Appalachian people themselves.

“‘Trump Country’ pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” Catte writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 150 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions that only intelligent outside observers could see and act on.”

She points out that the narrative of Appalachia as the heart of Trump’s support serves a purpose for those who push it, but ignores some facts.

“For liberal political commentators there were no wealthy donors, white suburban evangelicals, or insular Floridian retirees responsible for Trump’s victory, only hillbillies, “ she writes.

Vance’s memoir also crafts a narrative around Appalachians that takes his own singular experience and projects it onto a group of millions. This generalized narrative suits his purpose — without it and his claim to writing a memoir of a culture, his book would be only a memoir of someone who escaped a tough life: nice but probably not a bestseller. His sweeping and inaccurate generalizations — in which all “we” Appalachians are angry, violent, lazy, and wasteful — bear little relationship to the actual experience of many people in Appalachia.

It does remind us, though, of something we’ve read before. Catte writes that what Vance is doing is a resurrection of “outdated theories about a culture of poverty in Appalachia, honed in the 1960s.”

I was not alive in the 1960’s but my mother and other family members remember clearly the painful and inaccurate portrayals of their home region that they saw in the national media during the War on Poverty years. “They just looked for the sorriest-looking house and the sorriest-looking people they could find,” my mother recalls of the news stories then.

Vance mines that old ground.

“Much like the visual archive generated during the War on Poverty, Elegy sells white middle-class observers an invasive and exploitative story of the region,” Catte writes.

But that isn’t its only sin, nor even its most egregious one. Catte puts Vance’s book even more directly into an even darker history. Elegy’s argument for being a cultural memoir relies on the premise that Appalachian people remain a cohesive culture descended from white Scots-Irish settlers. That in itself is factually inaccurate, but Catte writes that it’s also dangerously similar to arguments from eugenicists and white supremacists.

To demonstrate just how one-dimensional these narratives are, Catte describes a very different Appalachia than the one seen in Elegy or in Trump Country pieces — one that should not be left out of the story.

It’s a rebellious Appalachia, one where miners march, generation after generation, for solidarity, against the forces of corporate greed and destruction. It’s an Appalachia where women build health clinics because they’re needed, and one where civil rights-era figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are pictured at a Tennessee training conference. It’s a place where people fight back.

“This too, is Appalachia,” Catte writes. “Appalachia is images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom. Our album is filled with images of people who suffered, but also people who fought.”

Catte’s book should be read by: everyone who is interested in Appalachia; everyone named J.D. Vance; everyone who read Hillbilly Elegy; everyone who recommended that book to anyone else; every reporter who parachuted into Appalachia to write about despair in Trump Country; every reporter who continues to do so despite its demonstrably shaky premise; everyone who has said of Appalachians “they all voted for Trump so let them die/drink foul water/suffer black lung”; every person who has said “why don’t they move”; every person who has said “why do they vote against their own interests.”

Catte packs a lot of punches into 132 pages, providing a crash course in the history of narratives and “othering” of Appalachia by outsiders. She isn’t here to lay out a long, dutifully footnoted academic argument. That has been done by other historians and writers, many of whom she cites as inspirations. You can, and should, read the likes of Ron Eller for a deeper dive into the history Catte mentions.

She’s not here for that. She’s here to deliver an impassioned yet educated defense of Appalachia, against these old, tired stereotypes, the old narratives that recycle themselves every generation. My mother saw the War on Poverty coverage and shook her head at the reporters hunting the sorriest looking people. I see the Appalachia as Trump Country pieces and fume at the reporters looking for the poorest laid-off coal miner in the poorest county in West Virginia.

The cycle never ends. Maybe if more people read Catte’s book, that will change.

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Hillbilly Elegy: Another generalization of Appalachia

All last fall I resisted reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The bad reviews I saw from other Appalachians convinced me it would make me mad.

In October, I went to a mayoral forum and the women behind me were talking about it — “I mean, he’s from there, so he must know” —  I did not read it.

In December, when my boss urged me to read it — “he’s from Appalachia just like you” — I did not read it.

In January, when an acquaintance who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign touted it on Facebook, I was unable to argue because I had not read it.

So now I have read it.

And everyone was right. It made me mad.

As a memoir of a rough childhood, it’s fine. Vance grew up in an Appalachian ex-pat family in Ohio with rough-talking relatives who thought nothing of trashing a store until they got what they wanted, and who regularly communicated by screaming at each other. His mother became a drug addict with a series of husbands or boyfriends.

It’s a sad story, although it’s also clear from his writing that there was love despite the dysfunction.

But Vance claims his relatives were violent and had poor coping skills because they were Appalachian. That this violence and abuse was somehow innate to what they were, caused by the culture from which they had come.

“Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid,” Vance writes on page 40.

No. Sorry, but no. That is what brutes do. Being violent is not a symptom of Appalachianness. It is not part of “hillbilly justice.” If his family were acting like violent jerks, it’s because they’re acting like jerks, not because they’re Appalachian.

On pages 228-229, Vance writes about instability in working-class families, due to relationship instability. He mentions his aunt, who had an early abusive marriage, and his mother.

“Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”

Again, no. Unstable people beget instability. Chaotic people beget chaos. No one is all good or all bad, but family life for most American hillbillies I know is not how Vance, wielding his overly broad brush, describes it.

My father was one of 11 children, and my mother is one of five. I have 26 first cousins, not counting step-cousins, second cousins, etc. And none of them behave the way Vance describes his family behaving. They don’t scream at each other, they don’t fight loved ones or strangers as a way of life. Should I credit all this to their hillbilly heritage? Or should I save that for the couple of cousins who did become addicted to drugs?

Vance also ascribes some of his familial dysfunction to the stress of his grandparents’ move from the hills of home to the industry of Ohio. In that same exodus, several of my mother’s uncles moved to Ohio and Detroit for work. They, like Vance’s family and many other Appalachians, came home for regular visits and the annual reunion. None of them, as far as I could tell, fell into laziness, violence or what my mother might call sorryness.

Vance and I are of the same generation. I look around the classmates with whom I grew up — in Appalachia — and the family that has lived deep in Appalachia for generations, and I see little like the generalizations Vance applies. People exist, of course, who are violent, dysfunctional, addicted, and on welfare. But they’re no more the norm than people who aren’t like that.

Vance’s book is simplistic, and it generalizes. His experience is valid, but it’s not everyone’s experience.

He also fetishizes his idea of being a “hillbilly” and the traits he believes go along with that. Frequently he attributes rough behavior and inexperience with the world to, essentially, hillbillies being hillbillies. He uses this word over and over, beating it into the reader’s consciousness. It is a regular reminder that you’re not just reading about a kid in Ohio with a druggie mom — oh no. This kid is a hillbilly, which makes it special.

Vance has chosen the version of his life to tell, and he chooses to emphasize what fits his narrative. The fact that it IS a narrative is one big reason why his book has gotten the attention it has, when more deserving explanations of Appalachian culture and history have been perhaps overlooked. He is telling, in a very simple and easy to read fashion, a story, and stories trump textbooks every time. It is not dense, it does not use large words or complicated concepts. You could assign this in high school if it didn’t have cuss words. It is approachable, easy to understand, easy and quick to read. It asks very little from the reader. You don’t have to work to read this book.

It’s also a dramatic story. My own happy and stable Appalachian childhood does not make for an exciting book.

Vance writes of being lucky in his life and he certainly is when it comes to this book. He mentions the law school mentorship of Amy Chua, who went on to write a book about Chinese tiger mothers. He mentions that she pushed him to write this, apparently recognizing that claiming his Appalachian heritage as an obstacle to overcome would sell. It also seems that along the way, he had already been writing something for the conservative outlets like the National Review (whose editor has a glowing blurb on the back cover, as does Chua) that helped promote him and make him the hillbilly whisperer for more mainstream publications.

Vance also was lucky in that his book came out last year, while the national media was looking for someone to explain Trump’s popularity with rural and Rust Belt whites. And he must have one hell of a publicist. He’s been everywhere, touted as having some new and amazing insight into the white rural Appalachian voter.

The problem is, he does not have a new or amazing insight. He is doing what outside media has done to Appalachia for generations.

Like newspaper stories and TV news before and since the War on Poverty, Vance has looked at Appalachia and seen a narrative of a place that needs to be fixed, a place where things have gone wrong. A “culture in crisis.”

If others of us don’t see that — or don’t see only that, and are tired of it being the focus — Vance has already preemptively inoculated himself from such criticism.

He cites a 2009 ABC report on “Mountain Dew mouth” in Appalachia, and the outraged reaction of Appalachians. I remember this story myself. And I was outraged too. But Vance thinks that outrage is Appalachian people being unwilling to take an honest look at Appalachia’s problems.

“The angry reaction supports the academic literature on Appalachian Americans,” he writes, then proceeds to cite exactly one piece of academic literature, a paper three sociologists published in 2000 about how “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them.”

“We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves,” Vance writes. “This is why the folks of Appalachia reacted strongly to an honest look at some of its most impoverished people.”

I view it, and much reaction to Vance’s own book, as Appalachian people being tired of hearing that their only story is the negative one. Like those many before him — including many news stories last year — Vance has just written yet another “look at these poor people” story. To paraphrase a tweet from author David Joy, you can read Hillbilly Elegy. Just don’t read it and think you understand Appalachia.

It isn’t that Appalachians can’t face the truth. It’s that we know the truth isn’t so generalized, that Appalachia isn’t just a culture of poor white people, that ignorance and poverty and drugs and violence aren’t its only components. Vance ignores valid reasons why Appalachians are leery of outsiders telling them who they are — because historically, that has always been done through a very skewed lens.

It’s just especially galling to see it done by someone claiming insider status.

(Note: I have made a couple of minor edits since this piece was first posted.)

*I’m not an economist, a historian or any kind of academic. Here are three more in-depth reviews of Hillbilly Elegy.

Sarah Jones

Bob Hutton

Elizabeth Catte


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Identity crisis: without coal, who will we be?

I have been trying for the past month to figure out how to write about the presidential election and Appalachia’s role in it.

As an ex-pat Appalachian, friends have asked me why my home region voted for Trump. I am specifically from the Appalachian coalfields of Southwest Virginia, and I try to explain about coal jobs and culture. But I keep getting tripped up on why people hold on to coal. For people outside, it seems obvious coal is dying. No one but the politicians talks it up. They don’t understand how it may look from the inside.

I have been irritated by some of the national commentary on how Appalachia voted. There are the pitying stories about how used Appalachians will feel once they realize they were lied to about a resurgence of coal. There are the mystified commentators who don’t understand how people could vote against their own self-interests.

Neither of these camps seems to understand the conflicts that coal can create in the psyche of people from the coalfields.

My grandfather was a miner and then a coal truck driver. His father mined coal, his brothers mined coal; one was paralyzed in the mine. His sons mined and hauled coal. Two of my cousins still mine coal; one just got laid off.

I grew up the child of teachers, a life not dependent on the coal mines an hour west of our house. But a visit to Mom’s family meant a drive past mine tipples, a coke oven that belched fire into the night sky, the parked coal trucks of my uncles. Coal permeated the atmosphere there, from the smoke from stoves to the conversation.

It became a part of my identity, like it is a part of the identity of many people from the coalfields. I’m not as close to it, as entwined with it, as many who grew up in even closer proximity to coal. I osmosed a visitation level of coal culture on weekend visits, playing with cousins, listening to uncles talk.

I had trouble finding the words to explain that until this week, when I read this story on the post-coal economy in Appalachia. Go read it. Go read the whole series.

The writer says coal is “is a foundational part of the cultural identity. … To grow up in the heart of Appalachia is to internalize this narrative.”

Yes. This is what I have been trying to describe. This is what I mean when I tell people coal is complicated, when I try to explain that even though coal is dirty and environmentally devastating, it’s what is familiar and known to people. It is, as the story above says, woven into the fabric of life so tightly you can stop noticing it. You don’t really think about the fact that they’re building a King Coal highway or that Bluefield just tore down a decrepit Coal City Auditorium, a relic from a boom time.

Coal was always a part of my life, thanks to Mom’s family. From overheard grownup conversations I absorbed a trust in the UMWA and a corresponding distrust of coal companies. It was always part of my identity. But it became solidified as part of my internal narrative in high school, when I read Denise Giardina’s “Storming Heaven,” a fictionalized account of the mine wars.

I hadn’t known the cost of unionizing the mines, hadn’t known how poorly miners were treated in the early days. I was infuriated, and it informed a sense in me of miners having been wronged, of my people having been wronged. I was angry at the injustice of it. Being about 16 years old at the time, I was primed to have a seed planted in my sense of self, that sense of injustice. A sense of a people being mine. It might have been romanticized, built in part on myth and grievance, but it was planted.

Coal has infiltrated my identity even though I hate to see the decimation of mountaintops, ruination of streams, scarring of lungs. Coal raised my mother’s family and virtually every one of my cousins. It is a conflict, to dislike what coal does yet still see myself as a product of the culture and history and conflict around it.

Imagine that, intensified for people who were not just the grandchildren of coal miners but the children, or miners themselves. Coal culture is much bigger than just the dwindling numbers of people actually employed in the coal industry. The descendants of miners and former miners are all over the coalfields and beyond. Miners do a dirty, dangerous job. You have only to look at the coal-related vinyl on vehicles around the coalfields to understand that that creates a sense of communal pride.

When I hear questions about how Appalachia could vote against its self-interests, I think about who is defining the interests. It certainly isn’t the voter. The outsider asking the question suggests they know what is best for Appalachians. It hints at a feeling — once again — that Appalachians must be too stupid to know what’s best for themselves.

Coal was the self-interest that motivated many of the Appalachian voters I know. Many aren’t even working in the industry, but they can see the effect its latest slump — possibly its last slump — is having on communities.

The downturn in the Appalachian coal industry, which has been going on for years, has become more acute. In the past four years, the industry has lost 25,000 jobs. That affects whole communities, not just miners. When a monolithic industry like coal slumps, the whole community slumps. Schools in Southwest Virginia have lost so many students they’re begging the state for help paying the bills.

A lot of what I heard from friends, relatives and social media in Southwest Virginia, my home region, during the election was a plea for the economy of the coalfields. Everyone had heard Clinton’s comment about putting coal miners out of a job. When my hometown newspaper endorsed Clinton, there was an online fury — how, people said, could the paper endorse a woman who would finish digging the grave of the industry that was the lifeblood of the region? Voting for her was voting against their self-interests, people felt.

They have seen the downturn of the coal industry. And they have certainly heard the politicians decry the “War on Coal” — at best a half-truth, told by the men in suits to the men in coveralls, a false promise that they can get their way of life back at the ballot box, but an effective call to that sense of community and identity.

They knew a President Clinton would not seek a coal comeback. For her supporters, that was a plus — moving forward away from a dirty and dying industry. For many people in the coalfields, though, the future she promised was at best uncertain and vague, whereas coal is real.

When friends ask me why people in Appalachia supported Trump, they’re also asking why there are people in Appalachia who want to revive coal. It is the last century’s fuel. It has killed people, ruined landscapes, poisoned water, flattened mountains, and when it’s done with all that it denies men black lung benefits and cuts bankruptcy deals to avoid paying their pensions. Why, they say, do Appalachian voters refuse to move forward, adapt?

It’s easy to say “adapt” when you’re not the one having to do it.

That is an economic choice, but it’s also an identity one. As Courtney Balestier writes in the article cited above: “To say goodbye to coal—even if just to say goodbye to its halcyon days—is a profound spiritual and emotional decision for a people who have watched their family members work, suffer, and die underground, who have loved and taken deep pride in the community coal created.”

I think the last part is the most relevant to understanding how people still vote for coal — because they love and take deep pride in the community coal created. It is a fundamental part of this sense of “my people.” Coal has defined the people and the region of the coalfields for more than 100 years. It isn’t easy to let go of that.

Two years ago I left journalism, a career I had since college, and took a non-journalism job. It was wrenching, because journalism was such a big part of my identity. I defined myself as a journalist. That wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was.

I think coal is similar. It isn’t just what people do, it is who — individually for some, communally for others — they are.

The series of stories linked above examines what the Appalachian diversification is looking like. I find a lot to be hopeful about in those stories. I hope new industries, large and small, can save the communities we have loved, help people build new identities as coal leaves for the last time, and rebuild that foundational identity. After I left journalism, I had to rebuild my identity and my sense of self (that’s also about when I started this blog; perhaps I reformed my identity more strongly around being Appalachian). Appalachians will have to do the same, and decide the answer to this question: without coal, who will we be?

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Appalachia this election year: So many stories, so little depth

The time has come upon us again when reporters for national publications descend upon the poorest parts of Appalachia like locusts to write stories about What is Wrong With the Poor Despairing Rural Hillbilly.

This year it is couched as an election story, an explainer of why people would vote for a lout like Trump. There must be something wrong with them, the unsaid implication is, if they would choose this candidate.

What is wrong? Why, they’re poor! Their jobs are gone and they’re on drugs and living in derelict houses. They are despairing.

I have seen a number of stories like this in the past few months. The Guardian, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Charlotte Observer, just to name a few.

It is an unusual amount of attention paid to one geographic part of the electorate.  I have not read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” on the grounds that the reviews of it make me mad so the book is likely to make me mad too. But I blame it anyway, because it has gotten a lot of attention and Vance has made the rounds to tell national media outlets about the economic and cultural poverties of the hillbilly and it seems to me that editors of numerous publications have taken it as an invitation.

I admit that I notice stories about Appalachia more than I do stories about, say, rural Oregon, so perhaps I have missed the plethora of national news stories about why other regions of the United States may be voting the way they are.

But I don’t think so. We talk sometimes of an elitism from the urban and suburban ruling classes toward the more rural parts of America, and I think that’s part of what’s driving this latest outbreak of stories. I know the definition of news is often what is out of the ordinary, and I think to national journalists Appalachia and its people are as different as they can get from their own selves and their readers. They want pieces on what The Other thinks and Appalachia is as Other as they can think of

The reporting reflects that. It is mostly — not entirely, but mostly — shallow and derivative. They are all writing the same story. Point out the decline in coal, the rise in drug addiction, mention the Walmart and the church, sweepingly declare the landscape to be one of blight and dereliction and use the word despair – a lot.

Some have been better than others — one I even mostly liked, until I read its photo captions — but overall I expect better from big publications.

If you start a story with your thesis already set, you can usually find evidence to back you up. It is not hard to figure out the Appalachian localities with the highest poverty rates and the highest unemployment, and they extrapolate and generalize from there. They come looking for despair, and they find it. Because of course, it exists. The economy of central Appalachia has been dominated by the coal industry and it is sinking and many people are out of work. This trickles down to all the businesses and jobs that exist in coal areas, it trickles down to the dwindling tax base, to cuts to education budgets.

No one is making this up. No one is pretending that the economy is doing well, that jobs are plentiful, that drug use isn’t a very serious problem. Many people in central/southern Appalachia, coalfields Appalachia, are in deep trouble, and they’re clinging to anything that offers a hope of change from the present and a return to the normalcy of the recent past.

I have no issue with pointing out the very real problems facing parts of Appalachia, but to do so without context or a marginal reference to conditions that help create those things is shoddy work. To not look deeper than the surface is lazy. You cannot understand the conditions of modern Appalachia without having some working knowledge of the history and legacy of coal mining and the industry’s poor treatment of its workers – not just back when they were paying miners in scrip instead of cash, but now, when they hire lawyers to rebuff black lung claims and retired miners don’t know what’s going to happen to their pensions and health insurance. You cannot understand the conditions of modern Appalachia without knowing that big Pharma pumped pills into the region. You cannot understand the promises politicians are making, nor the limitations of those promises, without deeper context.

Much of the writing done about Appalachia and Trump has been boring. It has said nothing new.

But more than the lack of depth of the stories, I take issue with the tone. It’s a “y’all come look at this” tone. Come marvel at the despairing, unemployed, addicted hillbilly. How he’s so angry and despairing that he would grasp even for Trump. I don’t think this tone is even something intentional, usually. It’s a deep-seated, unconscious lack of understanding of a different place. But in practice it makes Appalachians into the Other. It sets us apart as something strange, something exotic, different.

Appalachians aren’t exotic creatures. Appalachians are Americans too. Appalachians dug the coal that powered your homes and forged the steel to build your buildings. You, America, have taken the timber and the coal and the young people and even the very tops of our mountains. You tell us you “discovered” our old fiddlers. You have given us Oxycontin and charity and pity and the War on Poverty and you try to tell us how to fix our problems. Thanks. I believe we might have preferred it if you gave us broadband.

These stories have been written before. Come look at the bearded lady. Let me tell you about these people.

Well, let ME tell you about “these people.”

If you want to write about Appalachia, know these things.

Not everyone in Appalachia is poor.

Not every house in Appalachia is falling down.

Not every place in Appalachia is covered in trash.

Not everyone in Appalachia is “despairing.”

Not everyone in Appalachia is on drugs.

Not everyone in Appalachia is white.

Not everyone in Appalachia is rural.

Not everyone in Appalachia is politically conservative.

The coal companies have blasted away literal mountains.

The coal companies have worked to deny black lung benefits to dying miners.

Coal miners, employed or not, just want to work and come home to their families just like everyone else.

There are young people who want to stay.

There are not-so-young people who want to come back.

There are people looking for ways to build an economy without coal.

There is a resurgence of interest in the unique Appalachian foodways and music and dance and other traditions.

Appalachia is a vast place and no one story covers it. No one experience represents it.

Appalachia isn’t a zoo, to come marvel at the despairing hillbilly and tell your readers about his unusual habits. It isn’t a freak show. It’s fine to write about the negatives but you can go deeper. Try not reporting on us like an exotic tribe. Try not making us the Other.

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Can I make peace with “hillbilly”?

A while back, a Facebook friend referred to someone he disliked as a hillbilly. The person was from the mountains and was being a bigot. Hillbilly was the only word for her he used, as if it summed up the entirety of his disdain.

I didn’t like the person either. But nor did I like the insult.

Hillbilly has long been a derogatory word for mountain people. Used as a put-down, it seems to say that all the negative things associated with the word are because of the hills, entwined with the region, something that almost comes attached to the land. After all, “hill” is right there in the word. When a person not from the mountains calls someone a hillbilly as an insult, it tells me they still believe all those old stereotypes of Appalachians as backwards, ignorant, toothless.

That friend would never have called me a hillbilly. But it felt like he had.

I’m always surprised when I see someone from outside Appalachia use the word hillbilly, as if it’s okay. Slate used it recently, tossed it out casually in a movie review. There are string bands made up entirely of people not from the mountains who say they play “hillbilly” music, and even though I know that’s an historical term, it startles me.

The history of language in the U.S. is full of words used as derogatory insults toward a specific group of people, often because of their race or country of origin, but most of those have been rejected in mainstream language today, recognized as too insulting for any polite person to use.

“Hillbilly” is not nearly as bad as some of those words, but it also hasn’t gone away. As my friend made clear, it’s still used as a pejorative word.

There’s no surprise, of course, in being offended by a word intended to offend.

But what about when hillbilly isn’t offensive? I cringe when outsiders use it, but what about mountain people themselves?

Hillbilly doesn’t offend everyone. Some Appalachian people embrace the word, taking it to mean pride in being from a rural, beautiful, self-sufficient area, pride in Appalachia’s rich heritage.

I grew up believing hillbilly was an insult. It’s not easy to give it another meaning, and apply it to myself.

Why would I try? It would be easy to just let an insult be an insult.

But lately, hillbilly has been poking itself into my consciousness.

There’s a Facebook page called Humans of Central Appalachia, which interviews Appalachian people. The interviewers often ask if the person being interviewed considers themselves to be a hillbilly. Frequently the interviewee says yes.

The first few times I saw this, I didn’t think that I would say yes. But then I realized the alternative is to say no, and that didn’t feel right either. That feels like a repudiation of Appalachia. I’m not not a hillbilly, if that makes sense.

I also started seeing this quote from Kentucky writer James Still surfacing here and there on the Internet:

“You talk smart but you’ve got hillbilly wrote all over you.”

It’s from Still’s “The Wolfpen Notebooks.” He writes:

I’ve never bothered about being called a “hillbilly” or a “briar.” They’re synonymous — the “samelike,” as we say. I count it an honor except when used as a slur. I was pleased when talking to a “gear-grinder” in a restaurant in Jackson who thought I drove a coal truck. After he had learned otherwise, and we had conversed a spell, he said, “You talk smart but you’ve got hillbilly wrote all over you.”

I love that. I would like to think the mountains are written all over me, that anyone meeting me would know, immediately or soon after I opened my mouth, where I’m from.

But am I ready to make “hillbilly” my shorthand for that?


When I was growing up, “hillbilly” was considered a general pejorative. If someone was acting particularly ignorant or backwards, they might be called a hillbilly. Otherwise I don’t remember hearing it much. Hillbilly wasn’t quite fighting words, but it wasn’t flattering.

But times have changed, and I’m not the only one who’s gotten more thin-skinned about stereotypes. “The Beverly Hillbillies” originally aired before my time, and I guess without much protest from mountain people, but by the time CBS proposed a reality-show remake in 2003, Appalachians were up in arms over the revival of a stereotype for entertainment, and labeled it a “hick hunt.”

It’s hard to fully get over a stereotype that won’t die — that has, in fact, spread in some ways. When people call Sarah Palin a “snowbilly,” they aren’t paying her a compliment.

Of course, being offended by the word isn’t the same as being offended by the stereotype. I don’t like the “ignorant rube/hick” stereotype of Appalachia, no matter what word you hang on it. I do get squeamish when I see the country hick aspect of the stereotype embraced — the kitschy, hokey, TV hillbilly claptrap that gets trotted out for the tourists in some places like Pigeon Forge. Are we redefining anything when we’re selling corncob pipes and legal moonshine and playing up the hillbilly stereotype?

But I’m not the “hillbilly” police. Everyone is entitled to define their own identity as they please.

Besides, you could argue that making the stereotype into a joke is a good way to defang it. That putting on some over-the-top hillbilly act puts the stereotype where it belongs by mocking it. Again, I think it depends on who’s making the joke. A hillbilly dress-up contest in Kentucky would play a lot differently than one held in Richmond, Virginia.

My issue is much more with how such a loaded term is used by people outside the mountains, what an outsider’s use of the word says about how they view our identities. There’s a real difference in how I take that word depending on who says it. “Hillbilly” is so loaded, so full of complication, that I feel like it’s not a term polite people in the flatlands are entitled to use, to pretend it doesn’t still carry negative baggage, if they’re not from the mountains and have never felt it was a slur against them. Essentially, my feeling is that if you’re from the mountains, use “hillbilly” as you see fit. If you’re not, you might ought to steer clear.


Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers talks about the “duality of the Southern thing,” the conflict that lies in being from and of and loving the South and yet being ashamed of its racist heritage.

I feel there’s a duality of the hillbilly thing as well. (Although it’s not exactly the same; Hood writes of the conflict over loving his home region but not the bad things done there, and I’m talking more about loving my home region but not the negative outside perception of it. A truer analogy would be the duality of loving Appalachia and all the good things there, yet being saddened by some of the poverty, poor economic conditions, drug addiction and environmental disregard that are also true and do exist in places and are sadly what a lot of America thinks of when it thinks of Appalachia. But that duality is much larger topic than I’m pondering here.)

A kind of duality still applies, anyway. I love being from Appalachia and I’m not ashamed of it, but I don’t love the darker side of the stereotypes — the belief that we’re barefoot, ignorant, inbred, toothless, etc. It irritates me that outsiders assume we’re stupid and backwards, and that’s what I hear when an outsider says “hillbilly” snidely.

I live outside Appalachia now, and I often feel that I’m defending myself against this stereotype. It’s like a ghost in the background whenever someone here teases me about the way I say a particular word, or makes a joke about toothlessness or shoelessness or inbreeding or lack of education.

According to one online dictionary, hillbilly means “an unsophisticated country person, associated originally with the remote regions of the Appalachians.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person who lives in the country far away from cities and who is often regarded as someone who lacks education, who is stupid, etc.” agrees, and notes it is “Often Disparaging and Offensive.”

Wikipedia has quite an interesting entry on the word.

Hillbilly is a term (often derogatory) for people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas in the United States, primarily in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Due to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term can be offensive to those Americans of Appalachian or Ozark heritage. “Hillbilly” first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: “a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” The stereotype is two-fold in that it incorporates both positive and negative traits: “Hillbillies” are often considered independent and self-reliant individuals that resist the modernization of society, but at the same time they are also defined as backward, violent, and uncivilized. Scholars argue this duality is reflective of the split ethnic identities in “white America.” [1] … Hillbilly has now become part of Appalachian identity and some Appalachians feel they are constantly defending themselves against this image.”

I bolded that sentence above. That is the conflict I wrestle with: “The stereotype is two-fold in that it incorporates both positive and negative traits: ‘Hillbillies’ are often considered independent and self-reliant individuals that resist the modernization of society, but at the same time they are also defined as backward, violent, and uncivilized.”

Maybe it’s just that, now that I live outside Appalachia, I want to cling so tightly to the connection that I’m more willing to accept a label with a dubious reputation. But hillbilly just sounds different when I see it used by people who love it. I have a musician friend, a courtly sort of gentleman, who speaks of letting audiences know there’s a hillbilly in the house. From him, it sounds like you’re about to hear a warm, down-home musician. He makes a hillbilly in the house sound like a delightful thing.

If another word existed that could fill the gap, serve as shorthand for being from Appalachia, perhaps I would adopt it. But I can’t think of any. Mountaineer seems archaic, Appalachian works but sounds formal. Hillbilly is more colloquial and relaxed and colorful. And I will give hillbilly this: it has some sass. It seems to speak of a slight air of danger, a little roughness and darkness. It seems a little closer to the struggle that Appalachia can be than some of the other words.

This may sound simplistic, but I think the fact that “hillbilly” contains the word “hill,” linking it directly to the very land, is what makes it such a potent word. A potent insult. But possibly also a potent expression of identity. It’s like an almost physical tie to the mountains. Claiming the word feels like claiming that connection with the hills. Its negative history makes claiming it feel rebellious. It sounds defiant.

So am I ready to embrace “hillbilly”? Not entirely. It’s still complicated. It’s been an insult for a long time. But I want to make peace with it. The best I can say for now is this: if you ask me if I’m a hillbilly, I might say yes. If you call me one, I’ll be mad. If you tell me the mountains are wrote all over me, though, I’ll count it an honor.



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Expecting to leave

Earlier this week, WV Public Radio show Inside Appalachia posed a question on Twitter: did Appalachian ex-patriates regret leaving? Were they homesick? How did they alleviate that?

My answer is probably obvious — I named my blog The Homesick Appalachian, after all. I left, and I have regrets and homesickness. Those regrets have grown up only in the past few years, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them.

The question sat in my mind for a couple of days, and I started pondering why I left. After all, now I do have regrets, although I didn’t for a long time. What had been going on in my 17-year-old mind? What was I thinking then that’s different now?

While there were several reasons why I left, one stands out as something I think is worthy of a larger discussion.

I think I left in part because I was expected to.

It wasn’t spoken, that I recall, but I feel like there was always an understanding there — that if you could leave, you probably would. If you could get into a prestigious college, or get a good job somewhere else, you should go. If you left, you probably wouldn’t be back to stay.

It’s hard now to pinpoint the source of that expectation. Was it just my mother, who most definitely did expect me to go to the best school that A)I could get into and B) we could afford? I don’t think it was just Mom. I think, peering back through the fog of the years, that that expectation was coming from other adults, the teachers and the parents of my friends.

I’d be interested in hearing if other Appalachians felt that unspoken expectation when they were young. I also wonder if my former classmates — particularly the nerdy, college-track crowd — remember that understanding the same way. Of course, a lot of my classmates still live in or near our hometown. Clearly not everyone felt this expectation to leave. But Facebook and the couple of reunions we’ve had tells me that a fair number of other classmates live elsewhere now.

While I feel that there was the expectation from the grownups that we should go, it wasn’t about Bluefield being a bad place. It was a good place, a safe place, the schools were good. It’s still a good place, especially to raise a family. It wasn’t necessarily a great place to look for a career, or for adventure.

Because of course, when you’re 17 or 18, raised in a small town, you want out. You want adventure, you want to explore something bigger. I do think leaving, for a while, is a good idea for anyone — living somewhere you didn’t grow up is an educational experience, whether you grew up in Appalachia or New York City.

I bring all this up because I wonder what expectations kids in Appalachia are feeling today. Do they think they’re expected to leave? Are they urged out of the nest and out of the mountains? What kind of messages are they hearing?

The other weekend, there was a conference, or festival, or something in between, called It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains. I am neither particularly young anymore, nor in the mountains, and I wasn’t there, but I did hear about it. I don’t even need, really, to read their schedule — the mere title of the conference says to me that kids in Appalachia might be hearing more reinforcement to stay than I heard when I was their age.

I don’t remember anyone, 15 or 20 years ago, talking about finding ways to stay, finding ways to build a full life there at home. Perhaps I wouldn’t have listened if they did. But I don’t feel like we ever heard an overt message to stay when I was 18. Not from our teachers, or local governments. It seems like we’re hearing more of those positive messages in the past couple of years, and that’s a good thing.

Last month I heard a story on NPR about an ad campaign in Montana, urging its grown kids to come back home. Turns out it’s a businessman urging Montana’s grown natives to come back and telecommute to the jobs they already have.

It’s an intriguing idea for Appalachia, where it can be hard to attract new businesses. There’s a lot of talk about Appalachian revitalization and ways to build a post-coal economy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could live in Appalachia and work remotely for companies anywhere in the world? It would save trying to lure them to the mountains.

People leave their hometowns for all kinds of reasons, of course, not always for an education or a job. It can be hard to be different in Appalachia, as it probably is in any small town or rural area. It can be hard to find your tribe. Some people want the benefits of city living, or warmer weather, or nearby beaches. Some people think the place they’re from is backwards and dying, and they want forwards and living.

I went off to college, moved back home afterward because I hadn’t found a job elsewhere, and stayed a couple of years, working. But at 23 I still didn’t think home was big enough. I thought I had to go after bigger things and more adventures. And so I left again. I did not have a particular plan or destination in mind, I did not really leave Appalachia on purpose. I just chased a job. And then another job, further away, advancing my career.

But when you stay gone,  you put down roots without even planning it. I left for jobs and adventures, but I did not think about where I wanted to build a life. I thought I would get to that, after the adventures, and maybe that’s where I am now, thinking about where I want to build a life, even though I’ve spent rather a long time building one where I live now.

I try not to second-guess my younger self. I didn’t regret leaving until recently, and I had a good career that I thought was what I was meant to do, for a long time. The things I want now are not the things I wanted then.

It’s self-indulgent to give unsolicited advice, but no one can ever help doing it, and I can’t either. If a young person in Appalachia today asked me if he or she should leave, I would say this: Think really hard about where you want to build your life. Be deliberate about where you grow roots. Go explore, but it’s ok to stay, and it’s ok to come home.


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Old time is the best time

This week I’m going to camp.

With my mother.

Yes, I am a full-grown adult.

We go to old-time music camp, her with her banjo and me with my fiddle. My sister and her banjo came with us last year and will again this year. This is our family vacation – getting up early every morning to grab breakfast and get to class by 9, spending hours in classes, jamming or dancing or just listening to others play at night, and not getting enough sleep before doing it again.

I decided to learn to play the fiddle a few years ago, an early step in my ongoing effort to get closer to my Appalachian heritage. I grew up with piano lessons and the marching band, and with bluegrass and flatfooting just about every time we visited Mom’s people. My mother’s family was into bluegrass – my papaw still has his old collection of records, Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs and one or two old records, definitely out of print, that my uncle Larry’s band put out, all of them in late-70’s denim suits on the front. For years an old Bluebird school bus sat at the bottom of Larry’s driveway, used to take the band to gigs. They played little local shows and when we were visiting we would go. My mother and grandmother would get up and flatfoot and I would imitate them. I loved to dance.

But then I got older, more self-conscious. I didn’t get up and dance much. I listened more to the pop music my friends liked. As an adult, I’d still listen to bluegrass sometimes. But it took a while before I got the itch to combine music and heritage.

I don’t know what exactly sparked me to pick up the fiddle. Maybe I had lived away for a few years and was getting a bit homesick. Maybe I was getting older and thinking more about my roots.

Mom bought me a fiddle and a “How to Play the Violin” DVD. I tried to learn with the DVD and it sounded like I was killing a cat. So I found a teacher. He asked what style of fiddling I wanted to learn. I said bluegrass, I guessed. I didn’t know much then about the differences in bluegrass and old-time.

It was Mom who suggested we look for a camp. She and my dad had met in the Country Dance Society at Berea College in Kentucky, and one summer they both worked at Pinewoods dance camp up in Massachusetts. If there was a folk camp for dancing, she thought, there was probably one for music.

It turns out there are many. Augusta, Swannanoa, Ashokan, Mars Hill – those are just a few that we looked at, on the east coast, and there are many more. We chose Ashokan that first time, even though it meant a 13-hour, two-day drive up to New York state. We liked how it looked outdoorsy.

That week at Ashokan was a revelation to us. A week of nothing but music, of people who were so into it, who could play so well, who knew so much. People who studied Appalachian music. It’s hard to believe now, but even though we’re born and raised in Southwest Virginia, we had no real idea about the background of old-time music, beyond bluegrass music. We knew of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but we’d never heard of Benton Flippen or John Salyer or Tommy Jarrell. People talked about “West Virginia tunes” and “Kentucky tunes” and we were clueless.

But we left so excited to learn.

Old-time music is, of course, not for everyone. Not everyone wants to listen to scratchy old fiddle recordings over and over again. Not everyone is “eat up with it,” as one friend called it.

But for me, playing old-time fiddle has really strengthened the connection I feel to home. It makes me feel closer to a unique musical heritage. I like that it is such a distinct music that folklorists came into the mountains to record it (and I’m glad they did). I love that many tunes have a family tree a geneaologist would envy – we can trace them back a hundred, two hundred years. We can see where they split, where one community plays a tune a bit differently than another. Learning to play Appalachian old-time fiddle isn’t just learning music. It’s learning Appalachian history. If you spend much time around mountain music, you’ve heard tunes like “Pretty Polly” – originally an English murder ballad. You’ve heard, perhaps, of “Camp Chase” – allegedly composed and played by a mountaineer soldier in a Civil War prison to save his life. The banjo arrived as an African instrument. The history of people in the Appalachian mountains can be traced through the history of the tunes. I love that history, and how evocative the sounds are, at least to me. I suppose we all hear what we want to hear, but to me the dark, crooked, modal tunes just sound like a lonely place in the mountains.

Playing the fiddle has also strengthened my connections in the present. Until I picked up the fiddle, I’d never really asked my grandfather about his music-playing days, before World War II, when he and some friends would play Saturday night dances, picking out tunes they’d grown up hearing or had learned off the Grand Ole Opry on someone’s radio. He played the fiddle and the banjo, back in his youth, but he says they’ve left him now. I never saw him play or heard of him playing until just a few years ago. He essentially gave it up during his working years.

Now I ask for stories about those days. I ask about how he first learned to play, how he got the money to buy an instrument, how he learned tunes, who he played with, where he played. Every answer enriches my understanding of his story and our family story, and it enriches my picture of life in his corner of the mountains 70, 80 years ago. When I find a new-to-me fiddler I think he’ll like, I give him a CD. He still likes to listen, and he still likes to talk.

old papaw fiddle photo

That’s my grandfather above, with the fiddle.

So we talk to Papaw about music.

And we go to camp.

Spending a week each summer with my mom, having new experiences and learning new things, has been great. We had never done anything like this and we neither one of us played very well that first year, but we went and did something new and brave together. It was an adventure.

These camps aren’t for everyone. It’s definitely a more formal way of learning a music that was traditionally passed down informally. Could you learn more in a week at Clifftop? Probably. Would it be better to spend the year sitting with an old fiddler and learning his tunes? Possibly.

But that isn’t accessible to everyone. I don’t currently live in Southwest Virginia — my access to old-time fiddle mentors is limited. I go to festivals, but Clifftop isn’t my mother’s scene. Mom spent her career as a teacher. She’s more comfortable with classrooms than festival camping. So camp works for us. I can learn informally the other 51 weeks of the year, but I view camp like an immersion class for old-time. Anything that preserves and passes on the heritage and the history is good by me. Augusta does a great job of that.

After our first year at Ashokan, where for the first time I played in front of people who weren’t my mother or my teacher, I came home with the courage to brave a jam. Now I go to the local old-time jam every week. I go to festivals with those folks. Camp changed my life.

Fiddle changed my life.

So this weekend we’re packing up and heading to Augusta’s old-time week at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV. (We loved Ashokan but it was a long drive.) We’ll learn some new tunes, maybe some better techniques (I always need to work on bowing). We’ll come away with notes to look up old fiddlers and banjo players who we hadn’t heard of before. We’ll hear some great music, we’ll stay up too late and get up too early for people who are supposed to be on vacation. We’ll develop some new family inside jokes. We’ll have a good old time.


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A coal miner’s granddaughter in the Baldwin-Felts house

If you asked my grandfather, he would probably say he loves God, his family and the UMWA, in that order.

He spent his working years in the Virginia and West Virginia coalfields, as a miner and then driving a coal truck, and you won’t find a stauncher union man. My mother remembers him going on strike on occasion. He is 96 years old and he still pays his union dues.

I don’t remember any specific instance of him telling me the union was good, when I was young. I just osmosed it over the years, overhearing adult conversations. He and his four sons all worked in mining, underground or on strip jobs or driving coal trucks. It was understood from Papaw that the UMWA was a great organization. Coal companies weren’t portrayed by him as necessarily evil, simply as a group not to be trusted to look out for the working man’s well-being. The coal company was out to make money. The UMWA was out to protect the miner. That’s the way it was in Papaw’s house.

So my pump was primed, so to speak, to sympathize with coal miners and their unions when, in high school, my English teacher assigned us to read Denise Giardina’s novel “Storming Heaven.” It’s a fictionalized account of the bloody events around unionizing in the Matewan area around 1920, the killing of several Baldwin-Felts agents and others in a shootout, the death of Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield on the Welch courthouse steps, the battle of Blair Mountain, the mine wars, etc.

If you haven’t heard that story, you should. (And here’s a different version with a somewhat different perspective.) Coal mining in the West Virginia coalfields was a deadly business for miners, but trying to form a union to get better working conditions was brutal as well. Coal companies hired agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to bust union efforts and punish organizers. In Matewan, trouble started when Baldwin-Felts agents came to evict striking miners and their families from company-owned houses. It led to a shootout in which 10 men were killed, including several detectives (two of whom were Felts brothers) and the town mayor, whose wife subsequently married Hatfield. Hatfield and twenty-some others were indicted; in 1921 they were all acquitted. A few months later, a Baldwin-Felts agent shot Hatfield dead on the Welch courthouse steps. Weeks later, West Virginia miners began the march that would end in the Battle of Blair Mountain.

It amazed me to hear about scrip and the company store system and the fact that miners were often not paid in actual U.S. currency, about miners and their families forced out of coal camp homes if a miner was killed or injured to the extent that he couldn’t work, about murders, about Matewan, that the actual honest-to-god U.S. Army had been called out against U.S. citizens at Blair Mountain. (A lot of background is on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s website and on WV Encyclopedia, and here’s a rather more colorful account.)

Until I read “Storming Heaven,” I’d had no idea about the violence of the efforts to unionize the coalfields in the early 20th century. I suppose I had assumed, as a child, that the union was the organic and naturally occurring counterpart to the coal companies.

Learning about the dark history of unionizing the coalfields, I was outraged in the way that only a teenager can be. I felt so infuriated that coal miners, my people, had been treated this way. Several years later, when I found out a boyfriend was related to the Baldwin-Felts agent involved in shooting Sid Hatfield, I was mad at him. I felt he and his people had betrayed me and my people, long before either of us was born.

He didn’t really understand why I was upset. He had not grown up with an extended family in the coal mines. He hadn’t grown up hearing about a great-uncle paralyzed for life by a kettle bottom dropping on him in the mine. He hadn’t been told the stories I had been told.

This spring, a visit home coincided with an Appalachian festival held at Bluefield College. The program promised a lecture on the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and a tour of the agency’s old headquarters on the West Virginia side of town.

It sounded fascinating. I had no idea what the agency headquarters would be like — I envisioned a frozen-in-time, cobweb-strewn office somewhere in the too-many empty buildings of Bluefield’s business district. I knew that was, of course, highly unlikely but I was going to be very disappointed, I told my mother, if we got there and the headquarters had been turned into First Community Bank.

The lecture was actually by a Baldwin descendant, John Velke, who wrote a book about his family’s detective agency.

William Gibbony Baldwin, one of the founders of the agency, was Velke’s great or great-great uncle, I believe he said. Baldwin was from my own home county, Tazewell County. In the late 1800’s Baldwin became a detective; he later founded the Baldwin Detective Agency, which became the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency after he was joined by Galax native Thomas Felts.

The Baldwin-Felts agency was headquartered in Roanoke and in Bluefield, WV. Their detectives were railroad police, helping the railroads guard trains and payrolls, escorting trains into the coalfields, and investigating train robberies and other crimes.

Baldwin-Felts became famous for its agents’ work tracking down members of the Allen family of Carroll County, Va., after a 1912 shootout in the county courthouse that killed the judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor and others.

But the agency was also heavily engaged in union-busting work, hired by coal operators to break strikes and unionizing activities. They became known and hated in the coalfields for brutal tactics, and by the 1920s, they were being used less and less. The Baldwin-Felts agency closed after Baldwin died in 1936 and Felts a year later. Their union-busting work is what they’re mostly remembered for — bitterly, by many. That’s how I heard about them, in the context of strike-breaking, in the context of Matewan.

In his talk, Velke focused primarily on the agency’s work as railroad detectives, not as union busters, and on their involvement with the Allen family investigation. He had acquired an old ledger listing crimes the agency’s detectives were working to solve, back in some month of the early 20th century.

After his talk, we loaded up in a college bus and trundled over to the West Virginia side, to the old Baldwin Felts headquarters, which turned out to be neither a dusty relic nor a bank, but William Baldwin’s house, a three-story brick affair just a couple of blocks up from the train tracks. When it was built, that house wouldn’t have been a far walk from the train station. In the early 20th century, Bluefield was a booming center of commerce, with trains running through to and from the rich coalfields.

Velke is not from Bluefield, but in recent years he has managed to buy the house, which had left his family ages ago. It had been divided into apartments, and Velke has been working to restore it.

From an historical perspective, the basement was the most interesting. There are still two holding cells down there, built for Baldwin-Felts agents’ use to hold prisoners accused of railroad crimes. Velke also has a nice little collection of artifacts from his family’s agency and from that era — badges, brass knuckles, the ledger book, etc.

It’s very clear that Velke’s book, and his ongoing restoration of the house, are a labor of love for him. He showed us everything of interest in the house, his wife had made snacks, he was willing to talk about his family’s agency as long as anyone had questions. It was very kind of him and his wife.

Velke was obviously proud of his family’s history, and I can understand that. They did keep order and track criminals, in addition to the less savory business in the coal camps. I’m sure he grew up hearing some fascinating stories.

It felt a little odd, touring the former home of a man whose business had been to help maintain a system in which lives of men like my grandfather were worth little. The teenage girl mad at her boyfriend for his long-dead relative’s actions was still there, a little bit, for the Baldwin-Felts tour. Mom and I weren’t the only coal miner sympathizers there; another woman in the group whispered to me at one point that her people were coal people, but that the house was still very interesting.

We’re all proud of where we came from, even if we came from opposite sides of a (sometimes literal) battle. And those literal battles were fought long ago — before even my union-loving grandfather’s time. He would have been about two years old when the shootout at Matewan happened. By the time he set foot in a mine, the union had won, at least for a time.

Velke grew up hearing different stories than I did. It’s funny how those stories affect how we define who we are, where we come from. I’m glad he has his ancestor’s house, and that he’s opening it up to the public and trying to tell that story.

I’m also glad to see others are trying to tell the story of the coal mine wars to a bigger audience. In Matewan, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum opened its doors May 16. Here’s an in-depth article about before it opened, and another on the grand opening.

I hope it will help people in — and out — of the coalfields understand their history better. In spite of all my grandfather’s pro-union talk, I might never have heard of the mine wars and the violence of the early unionization efforts had I not been assigned a novel in English class. It wasn’t part of the history lessons I got in school.

I don’t know what the curriculum is now, but I hope the kids growing up in these coalfields today are learning more about their history than I was taught. The fight to unionize the coalfields was a big part of the labor movement. It’s both an important part of the American story and a fascinating human drama. I know unions can be a touchy subject these days, but from an historical perspective, the exploitative and unfair labor conditions for miners in the early 20th century are a textbook example of the sort of labor inequality unions were designed to improve.

My grandfather’s stories shaped how I viewed my place in the world. Young people in the coalfields these days may not see a lot of positive feedback about their home in the wider world. They should be told this story too, so that as they find their place in the world, they know they come from a place that’s unique, and they have a history to be proud of.


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Who should tell our stories?

There’s a story told about old-time musician Tommy Jarrell. In the 1970’s, when people from outside Appalachia discovered Appalachian old-time music and were beating a path to sit with the old men (and women) and hear them play and learn from them, Tommy Jarrell is said to have looked at one of them and said, “Don’t your people got none of your own music?”

I was reminded of that recently because of an odd story out of McDowell County, West Virginia, where a mob apparently ran a pair of documentary filmmakers out of town. I won’t get too deeply into the actual situation (you can read about it here).

What I want to examine here is my own reaction, which was a knee-jerk questioning of why out-of-state filmmakers wanted to do a documentary in McDowell. That reaction is not intended as any reflection on the filmmakers themselves, who I understand intended to tell a positive story, or on any individuals. I only bring it up to explain what got me thinking about storytelling, ownership and my own biases.

It does feel like McDowell has been in the news quite a bit lately, and it’s been the subject of at least one lovely documentary, “Hollow”.

Poor McDowell County. It’s at or near the bottom of state and national rankings for just about everything, it seems. Health measurements, educational attainment, employment opportunities. It seems like the county has been everyone’s symbol of poor, downtrodden Appalachia. It’s been featured in independent documentaries, New York Times stories, and everything in between.

And, as anyone from Appalachia knows, the news stories aren’t always fully true, and they aren’t always favorable, and they aren’t always nice. Usually they’re neither nice nor favorable, and the truth they tell is just one part of the picture. Reporters swoop in from somewhere else, looking for a story on how poor Appalachia still is, and they can always find it. If they don’t look in McDowell, they look in eastern Kentucky, or in Grundy, or some other corner of the mountains. National news media seem to view Appalachia almost entirely through a lens of poverty and drugs. It is always held up as the poorest place. The unhealthiest place. Look at those poor, poor people.

So I would say I, and many people in/from Appalachia, have developed a chip on our shoulders about outsiders telling our stories. When I heard about the McDowell filmmaker incident, while I feel mostly sorry that they were treated so poorly and I don’t feel it they should have been, a  voice inside me also said, “why are they coming here to try to tell someone else’s story?”

I should admit right here, that voice is hypocritical. I was a journalist for a number of years. I’ve told other people’s stories for a living. It’s the conflict in my feelings about this storytelling that I wanted to thrash out here.  I know I’m not plowing any fresh ground — I’m sure many people in and of Appalachia (and other cultures) have had this conversation, argued it, wrestled it down and settled it in their minds. But I haven’t worked through my own conflicts on it yet.

So the McDowell incident to me raised the questions of who is telling our stories and who should be telling our stories?

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.

Journalism is, at its heart, the telling of other people’s stories. The craft may be the journalist’s, but the story isn’t. This is generally an understood part of journalism. Maybe you as the journalist are telling the story of the community in which you live — then yes, it’s your story too. But when journalists tell stories about people’s lives, those are other people’s stories.

Fiction is (supposedly) at the other end of the spectrum. Fiction is your story, or at least on the surface. Is it a story cobbled together from all your experiences, including bits of the stories of people you know? Sure. Fiction writers are magpies, taking from everything. Even fantasy probably doesn’t arise from whole cloth out of the writer’s head. Surely even Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have modeled characters after real people. But, by and large, the writer can claim the finished fiction as their story.

I would assume documentary filmmaking falls somewhere in the middle. It has journalism’s facts and fiction’s storytelling skew, I think. I’ve been a journalist and I’ve written fiction, but I’m not a documentary filmmaker, so I could be wrong.

Is there a difference in how we view the storytelling “rights” — for lack of a better word — in those different modes of storytelling? Maybe.

I have a hard time imagining giving much credit to a fiction story about Appalachia written by a non-Appalachian. The only one I can think of off the top of my head that I’ve even read was John Grisham’s recent “Gray Mountain,” and I didn’t much like it (I thought it was facile and it made things too black and white).

Journalism about Appalachia by non-Appalachians has been the usual source of the chip on my shoulder. With the exception of Chris Hamby’s excellent, Pulitzer-Prize-winning series on black lung a year or two ago, much of the national-level journalism done about Appalachia gets my back up a bit. I feel like those national reporters often look at Appalachia and they see numbers and statistics and they may come visit and they see poverty and they wonder why anyone stays.

I haven’t seen any negative documentaries about the region. There’s no reason for me to be troubled by any out-of-town filmmakers.

As a journalist, I loved telling people’s stories. A lot of times, you’re giving voice to someone who doesn’t have a way to have that voice otherwise. Without journalists and photojournalists and documentary filmmakers, there isn’t anyone TO tell a lot of people’s stories. If we only allowed ourselves to tell our own stories, we wouldn’t know a damn lot about the rest of the world. I subscribe to National Geographic. That magazine wouldn’t exist without people telling other people’s stories.

But. There’s another, conflicting, maybe-selfish part of me that says Appalachians should be the one telling stories about Appalachia. That those stories are ours, ours to tell or not, ours to frame, our narrative to shape.

I have both of these beliefs in my mind, and I know they’re contradictory and I wrote this in large part to try to work out a peace between them and I can’t.

There’s a great wealth of stories to be told in Appalachia. Every one of those stories that gets out to the wider world (or gets told around in the mountains) is a good thing. It’s a story that might not have been told otherwise.

Sometimes you can be too close to a story. I think even the storytellers from Appalachia benefit from going away for a while. You can’t always see clearly what you’re closest to. Willa Cather said that Sarah Orne Jewett gave her a most useful piece of writing advice when she said, “One must know the world so well before one can know the parish.”

I believe this is true. I grew up in Appalachia, wanting to be a fiction writer, astounded when I found Lee Smith and discovered you could write about this place.

But I had to leave it to figure out what I wanted to say. I tell myself that, when I’m doubting the choices that led me out of the mountains and wondering what to do next. I had to leave to realize how much I love it, and I had to leave to get perspective on it and to see it.

I still don’t know that I see it true. I’ve probably built up a rose-colored Appalachia in my mind, vision clouded by missing the things I love, not seeing as well the things I don’t.

I was at a writing workshop a while back, and a friend introduced me to a man who’d written a popular non-fiction book about Appalachia (and no, he was not from the region) by telling him I wanted to write about Appalachia too. And he said “oh, what do you want to write about it?” and I had no answer. It was rather mortifying.

Appalachia is so big. You could write about so many things.

But at the same workshop I heard great advice to narrow that down.  One of the panelists was from New Orleans and sometimes sets his novels there, and I asked how he avoids cliche and stereotype in writing about a place that so many others have written about already.

He said you just have to write about your New Orleans. You can’t worry about everyone else’s New Orleans.

I think that’s good advice. I’m trying to follow it in fiction-writing, writing about my own Appalachia and not worrying about everyone else’s. (Although maybe I’m worrying about everyone else’s by the very act of wondering who should be telling Appalachia’s stories.) Trying to describe my New Orleans. My own people’s music.

That’s all a bit of a tangent, but in my mind it relates to the question of who is telling our stories, and who should be, and whether the answer is different depending on the mode of storytelling.

There have been great stories and documentaries on Appalachia, and on McDowell, and I know some have come from Appalachian people, or those with Appalachian roots, and I’m sure some have not and have still been great. I don’t at all want to sound like I’m criticizing any of the filmmakers and photographers and writers who are telling great stories about Appalachia.

As a writer and journalist, I think the journalists and the filmmakers have the right to tell the stories that they can tell, the ones they understand, the ones they research, the ones they respect, the ones they convince those stories’ owners to let them tell. And after all, who am I to tell anyone how to tell their story? If a person in Appalachia, or anywhere, wants to tell their story to someone else, there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s a good thing. Who am I to say “we” and “our” anyway? Appalachia’s population may be dwindling but there are thousands upon thousands of people who all have the right to tell their stories any which way they please. There are many we’s and ours — “many Souths,” I heard a history professor say the other day in a lecture on the Civil War, and you could as easily say “many Appalachias.”

But — and again, I know, it’s completely contradictory, and I know how it feels to see a juicy story ripe for the telling and wanting to be the one to tell it — there’s a part of me that just doesn’t see why anyone who isn’t from or connected to Appalachia wants to tell stories about Appalachia. (It’s the same way I don’t get why men would be gynecologists. Why would you be interested in something that isn’t yours?) Why wouldn’t they want to tell their own stories? Why wouldn’t they focus on their own New Orleans? Don’t they have their own music?

I think part of the answer might be in the same thing that makes me love Appalachia — not just the love that comes from my personal connections, but the love for how fascinating and conflicted and dark and light and rough and beautiful its history and culture can be.

If you came from a place without that culture, without that connection, some flatland suburb somewhere with six-lane highways and shiny cul de sacs and Target stores and no deep sense of being from and of a place, maybe you’d look for other stories in other places to find a connection.

I think about what it would be like to come from somewhere like that, someplace without such deep roots, and part of me thinks, look at those poor, poor people.


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Lynchings in Southwest Virginia

Recently, the New  York Times wrote about a new report (found here) from the Equal Justice Initiative, documenting nearly 4,000 racial lynchings of blacks across the southern states between 1877 and 1950.  According to a summary of the EJI report, they’ve documented 700 more lynchings of black people in those states than has been previously reported.

The report, EJI says, makes the case that “lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.” I wouldn’t argue with that. Lynchings were horrific, and I’ve not heard of one in the American South that wasn’t carried out by white people against blacks.

I was pretty young when the movie “Places in the Heart” came out. My parents had a tendency to take me with them to movies they wanted to see, rather than get a babysitter, so I remember seeing grown-up movies of the early 1980’s like “Terms of Endearment,” “Gandhi,” “A Color Purple” and “Passage to India” in the theater when they came out.  And so that is how I saw “Places in the Heart” in the theater when I was 8 or 9. The movie, starring Sally Fields, is, on the surface, about how she brings in the cotton crop after her husband is killed. It’s also about racism in a small town. Her husband is killed by accident by a young black man, and the town lynches that man. That was my first introduction to lynching. It was horrible, and it stuck. Over the years, history classes, including a civil rights history class, made the images of that brutality indelible.

The New York Times usually has great graphics and in this case they’ve made a map, with circles varying by size depending on how many lynchings had happened in that locality. That’s how I noticed a surprisingly large circle over my home region of Southwest Virginia.

I say “surprisingly” not because I’m surprised to hear that the kind of racial tension that was part and parcel of lynchings existed in Appalachia or Southwest Virginia. I was just surprised that I’d never heard of any of these murders.

I was frustrated that the NYT map didn’t allow me to zoom in, nor did it have any more information on the deaths associated with each dot on the map. So I turned to Google, and now I’m surprised at how easily I found some information. And I learned a few things. I’m writing about this because it interests me and because I haven’t seen any local newspapers in Southwest Virginia localize the EJI report, and I think it’s worth telling about.

The dot that hovered over Tazewell County, in Southwest Virginia, was big for the area. The EJI report has a summary of lynchings by county,  and there I found that Tazewell County had eight lynchings — a large number, it seemed like, especially compared to its neighbors. Buchanan and Dickinson counties weren’t on the list at all. Wise County had three lynchings. Bland County had one. Wythe County had three. Russell one, Scott one, Patrick one, Washington one.

In my googling, I found that five of Tazewell County’s lynchings came in one incident, in Richlands in February of 1893, when five black railroad workers were lynched by a mob. Four of them had apparently spent the night before drinking with two white store owners. Later that night, the two white men were allegedly beaten and robbed by the four black men. The sheriff arrested the black men but a mob seized them (although it doesn’t sound as if the sheriff put up much of a fight).

I found that information in a book (well, a Google version of a book, although I might try to track down a full copy) called “Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930” by a William Fitzhugh Brundage.

Brundage says that the mob was led by a James Hurt, a magistrate and member of the Richlands town council, and a James Crabtree, a prominent local businessman.

They hanged the four black railroad workers from the same tree, then a roaming mob killed a fifth black man. They posted signs warning blacks to leave the county, a warning also given in neighboring Buchanan County.

When I saw the numbers of lynchings in Virginia counties, I was surprised at how many more were in Southwest Virginia. I’d assumed that localities in the eastern parts of the state, with larger black populations, would have more lynchings. But that wasn’t the case — the opposite, in fact.

Brundage has an interesting explanation for that. He argues that the coal mining and industrialization of the late 1880’s in Southwest Virginia created a big social and economic upheaval. Many blacks came into the area to work in those industries (as did many other people).

“As was the case in other areas undergoing rapid economic change, violence in Southwestern Virginia coincided with the period when industrialization was relatively new,” Brundage writes. “Of the 28 lynchings that occurred in the region, 22 took place between 1880 and 1894, nine during 1893 alone. In the subsequent 30 years, only six lynchings occurred.”

Brundage suggests the number of lynchings dropped because “the violent hostility of white residents toward blacks waned when blacks failed to secure a significant role in the region’s changing economy.” Early in the coal boom, Brundage says, black miners gravitated to the coalfields in West Virginia, leaving those in Southwest Virginia much less racially mixed.

He points out that the upheaval in Southwest Virginia had no counterpart in eastern Virginia, where industries (and racial demographics) were much more settled. He says the “flurry of mob violence” Southwest Virginia during that time was “an attempt by whites to define the status of blacks.”

His argument is echoed on this website (apparently developed for a class by a George Mason University professor):

“Due to the immigration of different cultural groups and the associated social disruption, more lynchings occurred in Southwest Virginia between the Civil War and World War I than in any other section of Virginia,” the site says. “The number of blacks in Southwest Virginia were much fewer than in Southside, and white Virginians in Tidewater and Southside were no more tolerant than the whites in the Southwest. The high number of lynchings in Southwest Virginia reflected the tension of new immigrants creating new rules of behavior in a new setting, in contrast to the well-understood social boundaries between whites and blacks further east.”

I think this makes sense. It doesn’t seem to me to be in any conflict with the argument in the EJI report, which is that lynchings were terrorism, a brutal attempt to subjugate blacks and, essentially, teach them their place by terrorizing them.

The EJI report also discusses how those lynchings shaped society and economic conditions for blacks through today. I’ll let their report speak for itself, but it’s clear in Southwest Virginia that that racial tension still has ramifications. I’ll use Buchanan County as an example. I have always heard that black people were warned, through the early 20th century, not to be caught in Buchanan after dark, and the excerpt from Brundage’s book seems to bear that out. What I do know for sure is that when a black law professor moved his family to Grundy so he could take a job teaching at the then-new Appalachian School of Law, it was news. As in, a news story in the Bluefield newspaper. In 1998 or 1999, I believe. About the first black family to move to Buchanan County in I don’t know how long.

Racism and terror definitely cast long, long shadows.


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