What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia: Appalachian Readings

For April, I chose to read What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, Elizabeth Catte’s response to Hillbilly Elegy. Catte states that her book has two objectives: “to provide critical commentary about who benefits from the omission of . . . voices” and “to openly celebrate the lives, actions, and legacies of those ignored in popular commentary about Appalachia” (9–10). Honestly, I was a little nervous to read it, as I wondered what main points I had missed in my own review last month, but when it comes down to it, I’m pretty proud of how much I covered in my short post that Catte also addresses. One thing she expands on that I didn’t is the authorial history Vance draws from, which was even more eye-opening than reading Hillbilly Elegy.

With this book, she gets at the heart of power in Appalachia: the people. By providing context, Catte connects the dots between the desire to define the region, the true history of region, and the people of the region.

Controlling the Narrative

There is power in defining something. You get to create the context in which it is viewed and discussed. With Hillbilly Elegy, and the coverage following its release, Appalachia was defined as white, straight, poor, and conservative. Catte notes that according to these reports, “I do not exist. My partner does not exist. Our families do not exist” (9). Unsurprisingly, there is a history of conservatives and corporations (sometimes one and the same) with ulterior motives defining Appalachians in various ways. Many outsiders have looked on Appalachia as a place to tame, to correct from its “otherness.” In fact, naming Appalachians as backward and incapable of progress allowed industrialists to “justify the development of Appalachia” (42). In their minds, they were providing these sad folks a leg up. This goes back to the mistaken idea that Appalachians need to be saved. While this happened with many industries, coal is the first that comes to mind. Catte writes, “Coal barons credited their industry with bringing order and harmony to an uncivilized place, but what actually came to the mountains was a vast system of economic exploitation, facilitated through violence and malice by both outside developers and compliant local elites” (43). You can see this in the use of broad form deeds to deviously buy mineral rights out from under residents, in the use of company scrip to stop miners from moving on to other companies or industries, and in the use of Pinkerton agents to keep the peace on behalf of the coal operators.

The national media are guilty of this narrative control as well. Just after the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, the media took stories of dead miners, killed because the company didn’t follow safety regulations, and made it about the grieving families. Rather than a community gutted with no regard, Sago, West Virginia, became home to “decent but damaged people” (21). This fed right into the 2016 narrative that Appalachia was Trump Country: passive people too dumb to vote or act in their own interest. Catte takes a long, hard look at how that narrative came about, and how the media intentionally omitted Appalachian voices that didn’t fit that narrative. We became scapegoats for the political shift that happened, and yet we had no voice in the conversation.

This isn’t the first election cycle to focus on Appalachia. Back in 1960, during the presidential primaries, John F. Kennedy visited West Virginia. (Read The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart for a fictionalized version of this.) Kennedy was shocked by the poverty he encountered, and news organizations shared images of ragged Appalachia around the country. President Johnson then turned Kennedy’s campaign promises to Appalachians into the War on Poverty (81). Since then, there has been an overall perception that Appalachians are dependent on government assistance. But Catte points out that this view is rarely presented with the acknowledgment that “corporate welfare runs Appalachia. Corporate welfare allows businesses to shirk their tax burdens, hoard land, and wield enormous political influence while local communities suffer” (13). Unchecked capitalism and the uneven distribution of wealth is a pervasive problem in Appalachia with “outside corporations owning the majority of the region’s mineral rights” (123).

Appalachians have learned that when powerful people—from coal barons to politicians—offer “help” or media coverage, it comes with strings attached, like only being able to shop at the company store or being forced to bathe in contaminated water or being lumped in with white conservatives or having to foot the tax bill for “local” corporations. And if our station in life doesn’t improve with this help, we are blamed for being wasteful and lazy. These so-called helpers should be looking at the root causes of poverty and following the money trail. Where does welfare support actually go? Why does the community not sustain itself? Who owns the land? Who pays the taxes? Appalachia, with its large gap between the haves and the have-nots is a microcosm of what we’re seeing in the wider US economy, and we should be afraid. Even as recently as last week, the president blamed the poor for their continued poverty while his policies clearly favor more money going to the rich.

And that’s the rub: outsiders define the region for their own profit. Instead, we should be defining Appalachia for ourselves.

Pseudo-Science

Catte also steps outside Hillbilly Elegy itself and provides a wider political context for Vance and his “sociological” writing. She deftly tracks his thought pattern to previous conservative or pseudo-scientific writers who also had a vested interest in defining Appalachia. Consider Henry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Thanks to writers like Caudill and the War on Poverty, “the nation began to see [Appalachians] as individuals who had absorbed an unprecedented amount of federal aid and done nothing with it except continue to be poor” (84). Caudill and his cohorts, including eugenicist William Shockley and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, thought Appalachians had “defective genes” to the degree that they advocated “coercive sterilization” (85–86). Caudill wrote to Shockley that Appalachian poverty “is largely genetic in origin and is largely irreducible” (86). They used completely unscientific methods to prove their hypotheses, going so far as to say that having soldiers get mountain girls pregnant would be “to the everlasting benefit of the region” (87).

Then comes Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, who uses Shockley’s ideas throughout. Vance cites Murray in Hillbilly Elegy and often mentions his influence in interviews. In a joint interview, they discussed their “pretty-clean Scots-Irish blood” and talk about their bloodline as an ethnic component of Appalachia (90). In addition, Vance cites Razib Khan in Hillbilly Elegy. Khan was dropped by the New York Times as a writer for his history of racist extremism. Sadly, Caudill and Vance are both taught in Appalachian courses now, helping define Appalachia for new generations of readers.

As we take back the definition of Appalachia for ourselves, then, we must be cognizant of not only what others are saying on our behalf, but also who they’re representing. I’ve made my opinion about Hillbilly Elegy‘s faults pretty clear, but looking behind the curtain at the ideologies Vance represents makes his book that much more vile.

History of Activism

To counter the passive acceptance that the world projects onto Appalachia, Catte details the real history of Appalachia, which Vance failed to acknowledge at all. In fact, this book is an excellent intro to Appalachian history. She covers the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was “the most significant labor uprising in United States history and the largest show of armed resistance since the Civil War” (46). She talks about activists standing up to coal companies with massive equipment that literally pushes mountaintops, including community graveyards, down into the creek to more efficiently mine the coal seam. She tells stories about community organizers fighting the prison industrial complex in Appalachia with a radio show. She discusses artist Roger May’s project Looking at Appalachia, which features photographers from inside the region showing the vibrant reality, as a response to the pattern of outsiders photographing Appalachia in biased ways that push the poverty narrative. And there are so many other stories to tell. Of Berea students marching in Selma, of families fighting coal plants to keep coal dust from settling on their communities, of town members coming together to make sure kids have food.

Appalachia has a strong history of activism, despite the news coverage we receive. And Catte rightly notes, “This is who we are. This is who we’ve been all this time.” However she also acknowledges that we, like anyone else, have weaknesses. A popular theory in Appalachian Studies was once the “internal colony” model. It was “a tool for understanding the region’s web of exploitation, from the stories of local color writers in the early nineteenth century to the corruption that fueled the domination of the coal industry in the twentieth” (122). It allowed us to step back and see the power dynamic in relation to the rest of the country, to “transform our shame into coherent and righteous anger” (122). However, it also allowed us to blame others for our problems. Catte writes, “It risks excusing us from the responsibility of imagining how we in the region might be complicit in structural inequality and oppression” (124). Despite being labeled an “other” America, we can’t divorce ourselves from the rest of the US, including its problems. After all, “there’s not a single social problem in Appalachia . . . that can’t be found elsewhere in our country” (8), and it does us no good to imagine we’re exempt from those social ills. We need to strive for intersectionality in our justice by fighting for all Appalachians: gay, straight, people of color, white, liberal, conservative, women, men, poor, rich, and everyone else. We are a diverse bunch. And that’s where Catte really grabbed my attention. My very first book in this project, On Homesickness, had me thinking about who I am as an Appalachian. The next two were more focused on how others see me as an Appalachian. But What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia brought me back full circle. Catte said it well in a speech at West Virginia University in February:

You know, people ask me now, all the time, what it means to be Appalachian. If it’s not a mediocre memoir, if it’s not dependency narratives, if it’s not Scots-Irish heritage, if it’s not black and white poverty photos—what is it? And I like to decline to say because I think self-definition is power and if I tell you what or who you are I have taken some power from you and I do not want to do that. I want you to ask these hard questions of yourself and get more powerful for the work that must be done.

No one can tell me what it means to be Appalachian, just as I can’t define it for anyone else in the region. So I choose to continue my exploration, reading books and writing posts, to figure out who I am as someone with deep East Tennessee roots.

Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain

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