There are two places in Southeastern Kentucky I think of as my true homes: the small community of Lily, in the foothills of Laurel County, and, fifty miles east, Rockhouse Creek, in the lush mountains of Leslie County. I will focus on Rockhouse here, mainly because it is the dark, lovely topography of my collective memory, but also because it is the epitome of Central Appalachia, the kind of place that journalists-who-don’t-know-what-they’re-talking-about always zoom in on with their statistics and opinions. In fact, Rockhouse is located just a few miles from the communities that were recently the focus of a piece called “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?” by Annie Lowrey in The New York Times that referred to Appalachia and the Deep South as “the smudge of the country.”
Well, I am that smudge. My people are that smudge. My homeland is that smudge. And we are much, much more than that. In fact, we would fight for that smudge. Many of us have. Many of us have lain down to be arrested for it (Beverly May, for one), have even risked violence (The Widow Combs, for one) and death (Hazel King, for one) for it.
I will be the first to admit that that article possessed statistics that cannot be denied. But what good are statistics if the reporter using them does not acknowledge or use or even know the history surrounding them? Statistics are only as good as their context. I cannot imagine going into a country I do not know and having the audacity to write about it without knowing my facts, without having worked hard to understand the history of the place and its people, without having the ability to give the joys and sorrows of an entire culture historical context. That is the matter with “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky.”
I went down home last night for a funeral. I live less than an hour north of my home county in a wonderful town, but it’s notdown home. Down Home is where I’m from. Down Home is my people. Down Home is where my accent doesn’t announce me as an outsider, where gas stations offer soup beans and corn bread for sale, where folks sit in a circle in plastic lawn chairs to watch the cool of the day roll in after a long day of work. It’s the place where coal trucks control the roads, where coal companies hand out coloring books to elementary students, where doctors push pills on people in pain, where high schools refuse to allow students to have gay-straight alliances or Young Democrats Clubs, where a small town passes a fairness ordinance to protect all people from discrimination, where most folks have the dry county blues, where hundreds of people work quietly for change.
Down Home is a contradiction and a secret and a history waiting to be read.
Down Home is a wound and a joy and a poem, a knot of complication that scholars and reporters have the audacity to assume they know with a little bit of research.
But you cannot know a place without loving it and hating it and feeling everything in between. You cannot understand a complex people by only looking at data—something inside you has to crack to let in the light so your eyes and brain and heart can adjust properly.
So I went back home, alone, on a summer’s evening cooled by a hurricane sliding up the Eastern seaboard. I drove the parkway with my windows down and the mouth-watering smell of kudzu grapes trembling on the air. There was also the scent of coal (it’s inescapable: scattered along the side of the road from the constant coal trucks, dripping from the cliffs lining the highway, seeping its aroma out onto this world from so many hidden caves and graves and the air itself) and of grills in front yards, loaded down with pork chops or burgers, of the sandy creek-banks touched by cold water washing out of the mountains.
I get terribly sad when I go to Rockhouse, mostly because it’s a place of the past for me since nearly all of my family has had to leave there to find work in the next county over, or even farther away. But a great deal of my grief is about the things the statistics reflect: poverty, educational opportunity, health. It would be irresponsible of me to deny that there are true problems in the region.
I’ll be honest with you: sometimes I get frustrated and wonder why my people keep putting terrible representatives back in office. But then I remind myself that voting is complicated in a region where extractive industry has such a stranglehold on everything from local churches and schools to county and state government. Appalachia is a country that has been in the clutches of big corporation propaganda since before propaganda became a marketing strategy on Madison Avenue. And it’s a place where politics and religion are as tangled as a ball of fishing line that has been tossed into the depths of your tackle box and needed quickly: very, very tangled. As much as many of us think for ourselves, there is no denying that as a region many of us have fallen prey to that propaganda. Keep telling people that coal is their only resource, toss in a free t-shirt, shut down the unions, get into the churches and schools…well, you see how this works.
I’ll use myself as an example here. Because of my outspokenness on the problems created by Big Coal I’ve been called a traitor to my own people. I am proud to be from a coal mining family, but that pride comes from the hard work done by the miners, not an allegiance to the companies that became rich on their backs. Nothing makes me sadder than when I see my own people being fiercely loyal to the corporations that have hurt us over and over. In short, we’ve been convinced to vote against our own interests, but the reasons are not as simple as being brainwashed. Once again, history matters here.
The rise of the Tea Party has made the religious hold on the way people vote even more complex. On my drive down home I heard radio ads talking about Obama’s War on Coal (read: don’t vote for any progressives) and how “the liberal Kentucky agenda” wants to promote gay marriage and abortion (read: don’t vote for any progressives). Still, we cannot blame everything on coal and politicians and history. We must claim some of the responsibilities for the problems in Eastern Kentucky while also acknowledging that we were put in this position by a long history of chronic poverty, control, and underinvestment.
Mostly I get sad because once there I see how the media portrayals of my people have led to life being worse for us. If you tell people they are worthless long enough, some part of them begins to believe it. Calling a place “a smudge” certainly doesn’t help. And that sadness is always countered by an overwhelming pride when I witness the dignity and defiance of the Appalachian people. We’ve had 200 years of history against us, but we keep going, we keep fighting back, we keep trying our best. Not all of us, of course. That would be a generalization as bad as saying we are all lazy. But I can honestly say that most of the Appalachians I know try their best. They work, they love, they fight, they have joys and sorrows and everything in between. Because they’re people, just like everyone else. They are not dots or checkboxes or digits in a statistics report. Yes, some of us don’t try or care hard enough. Some of us are backward and ignorant and violent. Because we’re human beings and some human beings turn out that way.
At that wake, I thought a whole lot about us being called “a smudge”. The woman being mourned came from a family who had had it rough their whole lives, but she and her siblings had done their best to rise up out of that hard country and make good lives for themselves. All of them worked. Worked hard. As waitresses and factory employees, as cashiers and lunch-room ladies and mechanics and coal miners. It is tempting to gather some statistics about this reporter’s socio-economic background and then use that to judge her point of view, but that wouldn’t be classy—and it wouldn’t be accurate, since we’d also need to factor in historical and cultural context. Yet that is what members of the media sometimes do to the people of Appalachia, base their theories on statistics while not taking history and culture into account. As an economics reporter for The New York Times,Lowrey needs to understand that great economic reporting should be about more than statistics. Much more, like history and culture. Especially when reporting on a region like Appalachia that has historically been a sacrificial ground for the rest of the nation. Especially when reporting on a place that has given up its land, timber, natural gas, coal, young people, and many other natural resources throughout the history of this country.
A reporter like Lowrey should know that Appalachia has been pushed down again and again throughout our nation’s history. During the period after the Civil War, many mountain counties in Southern Appalachian states were punished because of their lack of loyalty to the Confederacy. This resulted in politicians not providing those mountain counties with funding for bridges, roads, and schools until extractive industry demanded those things.
Once that happened, the roads were still not maintained properly and Appalachian taxpayers had to pay for the constant damage done by the heavy trucks of huge companies. The lack of educational opportunity caused many great minds in the region to be held back.
Appalachia became a place controlled by big out-of-state (or even out-of-the-country) companies and the local elite (who were controlled by the big companies). Once a place is identified as a source for great natural resources it is in the interest of the corporations and the government to keep the people under their thumbs. People are the overburden in the way of extracting those resources, as Beverly May once pointed out. And one way to control the people is to have a deliberate lack of investment in the region, consciously keeping out other forms of economic opportunity. Neglecting the infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools, and health facilities is another convenient way to keep the people in check.
This probably sounds like conspiracy theories to those unfamiliar with Appalachian history. But for those of us who have lived here all our lives and have devoted our lives to studying the region, we know that there is historical context to chronic poverty and other factors that make this place easy to identify as the hardest place to live in the nation.
The thing is, it is hard to live in Appalachia, especially in Southeastern Kentucky. The statistics exhibit some proof of that. The economy is not good. The environment is being devastated. Many places throughout the region are food deserts. There’s a reason I had to move an hour away, after all. The problem with “What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky” is that the reporter thinks of the people and the place she is writing about as “a smudge.” Not as a place where the history and culture matter. And that’s what’s the matter with the article.
This isn’t the first time Lowrey has written about the region although earlier piecesdid not receive the same amount of attention. On the whole her writing is respectful of the region. There is no malice or even prejudice present (except for calling the region “a smudge”—come on now, that’s just rude and sniffs of classism). There is not evidence of her relying on stereotypes. Always in her reporting she relies on the hard facts. If anything, reading many of her pieces reveals that she has a formula for reporting, delivered in well-constructed and unexciting sentences. None of my words are meant as an attack on this young reporter. Yes, I was insulted by a couple of her phrases, but overall I am responding simply because so often people need to be educated about this region. I do not mean to imply that Lowrey is bad or mean, but simply uninformed. So often that is the problem with most things.
I’ve heard many people citing the problem with the article being that once againThe New York Times and the media elite has shown its bias against rural America. Well, that’s just simplifying the matter. The Times consistently publishes writers from the region who talk about the problems here in a complex way. Just recently they’ve featured great editorials from important Appalachian voices like Amy Clark, Amy Greene, Jason Howard,Maurice Manning and many others. In fact, sometimes The New York Times reports on the issues in the region when our own newspapers will not; they have certainly covered environmental issues of the region more thoroughly. Many of the editors at the Times are Appalachian or Southern themselves and work hard to make sure that the paper looks at the region in a complex way. In the case of this article, someone should have used a keener eye.
My point here is, once again, that to properly examine quality of life in the region, one needs to do more than look at data. I do not mean that only Appalachians can write about Appalachia. But I do mean that anyone who is attempting to write about it must become immersed in a special kind of way. Appalachia is the kind of place everyone thinksthey understand but very few actually do, and that’s mostly because they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly.
One must go to a place like Rockhouse, to drive these winding roads. One must sit and jaw for awhile with folks on their front porches, to attend weddings and high school graduations. One must study the history of the place and come to understand it, must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people, the calluses on their hands, understand the gestational and generational complexities of poverty and pride and culture. One must stand for awhile outside the funeral home and smell the air, study the gravestones out back that await the inscriptions of names belonging to people, not statistics.
Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re talking about.