Uneven Ground: Appalachian Readings

Before I jump into this month’s book, I want to take a moment to celebrate a dear family member we lost on Memorial Day. Great Uncle George was an inspiration to so many, and it is fitting that he left us on a holiday meant to remember those who died while serving this country. He is best known as one of the Erwin Nine, as he spent a year as a German prisoner of war during WWII. He would be the first to tell you that the way you tell your story defines you.

Uncle George next to his father, my great-grandfather.

I couldn’t help but think of him as I finished up Uneven Ground by Ronald Eller, and the news of his passing colored my reading. The 2013 paperback edition of the book ends with an updated afterword recapping the history within the context of the modern era. After pages and pages of exploitation in the Appalachian mountains, the afterword is strangely uplifting. It is like a light at the end of a long tunnel. Eller writes, “The stories we tell about ourselves can give us a vision for the kind of community we want to become” (272). Uncle George is the perfect example of this. He was born in 1920 in Appalachia, lived through the depression, fought in WWII, and worked on the railroad, which was the main industry in Erwin, Tennessee. Rather than focus on all the negative he experienced, he spent his retirement telling his story, “seeing this as an opportunity to remind everyone of the cost of keeping a dangerous dictator at bay and this Country safe as well as working through his own painful memories, one story at a time” (obit.). While other veterans lost themselves to vices as a way to cope with their pain, George shared his story over and over to both own it and control the narrative himself. My takeaway from Uneven Ground is just that: many of the challenges that defined Appalachia (and the nation as a whole) in the last seventy-five years are recurring, and we have the change to redefine ourselves by recognizing our past and writing the future we deserve.

Eller works through the pained history of Appalachia one story at a time, slowly building a detailed look at how we got where we are: an impoverished region drained of resources. With luck, we can take these important stories and reframe our future.

Appalachia as Exploited

Written before Hillbilly Elegy was published, Eller does what Vance should have: focus on the actual facts of history in Appalachia. Eller does a deep dive into Appalachian history—from the beginning of the coal industry, to JFK’s visit, through several presidential administrations—that shows with 20/20 hindsight why poverty continues to be a problem in much of Appalachia. For so long, Appalachia has been the “other” America, the poor region the rest of the nation was ashamed of enough to have president after president try to “fix” us with various economic projects, though it seems the motive was mainly to get votes by proving that they could bring prosperity even to the darkest corners of the country. President Johnson, for instance, had an ideal “Great Society” he was striving for to ensure his legacy, which the so-called success of Appalachia was a key part of.

To many in power, the impoverished were at fault (Vance lands in this camp of thinkers). Their fix, beginning with the War on Poverty and the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC; 80), was to get Appalachia up to speed with the rest of the middle class. They wanted us to assimilate to the wider country’s view of success. According to Eller, “poverty in Appalachia, they believed, was simply out of step with the rest of America and could be conquered by government investment in public infrastructure” (89). Despite some great ideas and some very bad ones, program after program was unfortunately a bust, and poverty stayed endemic. For instance, money was poured into the region to build up highways to fight isolation between tiny, rural towns hidden in the mountains. This sounds like a great idea, until you see the result: some of the larger towns right on the interstate system grew (like Johnson City, Tennessee), but the deepest poverty was untouched (as in Hampton, Tennessee, my home). This outcome was due to the fact that all the resources remained focused on the towns with the best chance of succeeding. Eller rightly notes that “faith in growth-based development alone . . . disenfranchises poorer people and rural people and further displaces our collective responsibilities for the land and for each other onto the vagaries of the market” (7). In essence, “Appalachia became a pawn in a great national experiment that sought to eradicate poverty without confronting the specific institutional and economic structures that abused the region in the first place” (93).

Eller notes that the ARC and similar programs “rarely addressed many of the underlying problems of the region [and] . . . seldom questioned the equity of politics and economic relationships” (89). For instance, in the 1950s, when the coal seams were getting more difficult to mine underground, state courts “upheld the rights of the miners [and therefore the coal companies] to remove the coal ‘by any means convenient or necessary'” (38). This decision of profit over people, a strong theme in Appalachian history, pitted small family farms against massive coal conglomerates. By looking at the destruction of mountaintop removal on Google Earth, we can all see who won. And as recently as October 2000, lax regulation enforcement with coal-giant Massey Energy (headed by infamous Don Blankenship) caused a 2.2-billion-gallon coal slurry pond to burst (250). Eller writes that “the spill was twenty times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill” (250). Sally Maggard, member of Council of the Southern Mountains, noted in a 1972 Mountain Life and Work article that “it is more profitable to let mud slide into living rooms and across cornfields that it is to mine coal with care” (cited on 167). Clearly not much has changed.

As I was taught at Berea, you must focus on root causes to solve a problem. There’s no point in mopping up around a leaky sink if you don’t turn off the faucet. Eller shows time and again how those causing the leaky faucet (absentee land owners, corrupt politicians and officials, extractive industries) refused to turn it off, because it would be to their detriment. Instead, they gladly allowed the government to pour money at the problems in an attempt to sop up the mess, all while those in poverty continued to be blamed for the lack of success.

Appalachia as Activist

It’s fascinating to watch Eller’s construction of Appalachian pride. Before the War on Poverty, few people self-identified as Appalachian, particularly because the term was tied to poverty (67). It took the nation focusing on us as an embarrassment and us coming together into a wider regional community to reclaim the name and create the regional pride we now see. Our Appalachian identities were literally born out of the struggle of activists.

Tellingly, some activists who came into the region as volunteers with the various government programs formed by the ARC or similar organizations found themselves a new home in Appalachia. Rather than flitting in and out—as in volunteer tourism, or voluntourism—these folks stayed and challenged the local economic and political systems. They stood up to the coal companies, researched absentee land ownership, and fought for clean water. These attempts to fight the root causes were met with violence and threats from those in power. I suppose that means you’re on the right path if the head of the snake snaps at you. The Appalachian Volunteer organization, in particular, did great work on this front. They became “impatient advocates of change in a political atmosphere that feared structural change” (118). Similarly, the Glenmary Sisters helped organize “community-based programs that provided alternatives to the institutionally based services that were often controlled by local elites” (124).

Individual activists also stepped up to the call. Dan Gibson organized his neighbors to fight strip mining in their community; Eula Hall demanded better benefits for coal miners dying from black lung disease; and Marie Cirillo organized health clinics and land trusts (271–272). Youth also made a huge impact, as “young volunteers from across the region established networks to oppose strip mining, outlaw the broad form deed, document absentee landownership, and lobby for fair taxation” (157). Joe Mulloy and Alan and Margaret McSurley were even arrested for their organizing, based on an outdated 1920s law that “had long since been declared illegal” (150). Despite the uphill battle, Appalachians kept fighting back. However, the key to true success, I think, will be a concentrated effort to change laws and power structures. If everyone is fighting a different battle, we won’t win the war.

Appalachia as Bellwether

Many have seen Appalachia as backward or behind. This mindset has allowed the country (ahem, Vance) to blame those in poverty for their situation rather than face the truth of our nation. As Eller writes, “This tendency to think about the poor as part of a third world . . . displaced responsibility for poverty onto the culture of the poor themselves” (101). In reality, rather than being behind the rest of the country, we are the ugly face of its future. We are the bellwether predicting our country’s fate. Eller notes that “Appalachia has consistently reflected the struggles, trends, and value conflicts of the larger society, sometimes with agonizing intensity” (265). If exploitative laws and lax regulations continue to be the norm, the United States will become what Appalachia has been for decades. The gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, our land will be stripped of resources to pad the pockets of the wealthy, and we will be blamed for our own poverty and lack of education as those in power continue to take more for themselves. Appalachia suffers from “one of the highest rates of prescription drug dependency, anxiety, distrust, and depression in the country,” and psychologists have shown that the same growth-centered economy forced on Appalachia as the cure-all “has contributed to rising unhappiness and stress across America” (270).

Perhaps capitalistic wealth and power aren’t the end goals we should be seeking. Perhaps, we should go back to our roots and focus on supportive, diverse communities and strong ties to a land that has the power to feed and clothe us. Perhaps we should have a simpler life wherein we watch out for each other and proudly remember our past through song and art. The growing strength of the local food movement is a testament to this idea: respecting the land helps us respect each other and ourselves. The same goes for the youth movement rising across the country to fight for gun control, reflective of the values that “drove hundreds of young people to fight poverty and injustice in the War on Poverty”; the Poor People’s Campaign, which stems from Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision in the 1960s; and the beautiful Her Appalachia project. In my view, this is the true “America First” rather than our current president’s greedy, power-grabbing method.

A long, but powerful passage in Uneven Ground is this, which comes at the very end of the book and again reminds me of my Uncle George redefining his trials through the power of narrative:

Our own stories can provide us with models to counter the dominant stories of mainstream culture and powerful media. For every story of private greed and public corruption in Appalachian history, there are stories of positive human values: the importance of family loyalty and survival, the disparagement of position, respect for diversity, compassion, fairness, equality, human dignity, social justice, and community. Such values can be found in the farm families of the nineteenth century who shared labor and the products of the land so that everyone in the community could survive; in the quiet endurance of the black and white abolitionists who struggled to move slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad; and in the solidarity of mine workers who fought for better working conditions and civil rights in early twentieth-century mine wars. (271)

America, rather than being an “other,” we are your heart. We will continue to fight the corruption, learning from our mistakes and taking responsibility for our missteps. We will rise into a truly new Appalachia, “one that provides an adequate and meaningful life for all Appalachians in a balanced and sustainable relationship to the land” (272).

Neighbors in Carter County, Tennessee.

PS: There were a few problematic parts of this book that I feel I should mention. First off, while he makes a point to discredit Charles Murray (see “Pseudo-Science” here), he cites Harry Caudill throughout the book without a similar context, going so far as to call Caudill a “champion for mountain activists,” which is a shame. He also doesn’t address the rich diversity in the region as explicitly as I’d hoped for. However, he does tell the stories of many individual men and women who sacrificed so much to fight for the betterment of the region.

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