Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About



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 not down 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 pieces did 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 again The 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 thinks they 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.  





Silas House is the author of six novels, one book of creative nonfiction, and three plays.  He is the NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College.  www.silashouse.org


Notes:

For a better understanding of the history of Appalachia please consult Ron Eller's book Uneven Ground.  

The author of "What's the Matter With Eastern Kentucky," Annie Lowrey, left The New York Times just before her article was published and is now at New York Magazine

This essay and photographs are ©2014, Silas House.  



34 comments:

Anonymous said...

I recoiled at the phrase "smudge" as well. Great post. --Joe

Anonymous said...

This beautifully written article by one of my favorite authors, Silas House, really grabbed me and held me to the end. As a Kentuckian, I have no real ties to Appalachia, having been born in western KY, and living in Louisville most of my life, but I believe I know the people because they are so much like people I've known all my life. I was greatly offended by the use of the word, "smudge" to describe Appalachia, because so many would use that word to describe any "poor" community. I can just hear many Louisvillians referring to the West End as the "smudge" of the city. I abhor such prejudice, and such classism. And I agree with Silas that to understand a place, one has to spend time there, get to know the people. My father was from Appalachia, not KY, but TN, from east TN, near Knoxville, and he was probably the most intelligent man I've ever known; he was smart enough to be "proud to be a hillbilly," and proud to be from "down home." Thank you, Silas.

Kerry Madden said...

I spent a week in Leslie County in Hyden, Kentucky, with my daughter, Lucy, where we collected stories and took pictures in the summer of 2008. The two sisters who run that library on Main Street were just terrific. I had a writing workshop where 100 people showed up, crammed into the little library, including kids from Bear Branch, mainly the Estep family. They wrote stories and were wonderfully bright and funny kids. I wish I could go back again. Beautiful post, Silas.

All best
Kerry Madden

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Wonderfully written and said.

I find Ms. Lowery's article and so many others like it to be especially frustrating b/c these are educated people and they should know better. They are all so good at identifying what the problems and challenges are, but they hardly ever take the next logical step and connect the dots. The issues facing east Kentucky and other extractive communities did not just materialize over night. Ms. Lowery and others like her would do well to ask the most obvious question -- how is it possible for a region with so much wealth (timber, coal, etc) to also be home to the very real statistical challenges that she identifies? If we lived in a different world, communities like those in southeast KY, WV, and western Pennsylvania would look more like Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates. It's not a perfect comparison, but the point is that much of the wealth generated by the natural resources extracted from those countries stays in those countries and benefits a greater portion of those societies than have ever benefited in east KY. In a better world, our communities would control those resources, and the labor and lives sacrificed to extract them would create a level of wealth and ownership that benefited more than a handful of individuals who have no real presence or investment in those communities. I know that it's more complicated, that there are other factors and issues, but until we can have an honest conversation about power, wealth, and ownership, until we are ready to admit to the role those play (not just in Appalachia, but in the whole world), I'm afraid we'll continue to have articles like the one Ms. Lowery has written.

Amy said...

Thank you so much for this. Amen.

Teddy Jones said...

Thank you, Silas. So many blog posts suffer the same symptoms as the article you mention--people posting/speaking of that which they have only opinion and a few statistics. This post, however, explains the necessity of context and past that, the necessity of empathy in understanding cultures different from ones own. As always, you wrote it beautifully. My best, Teddy Jones

marc faris said...

Outstanding response to Lowery's deeply flawed article -- really impressed by your measured but forceful tone, when I'd have found it hard not to just cuss. Thanks so much for it!

Karen said...

Cheering loudly. Can you hear me all the way from Oregon?

Al Cross said...

Silas, this is a masterpiece that should be shared widely. I'll try to give it more legs.

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful article that gives voice to the dilemma of people who didn't want to give up their land, change their way of life in the first place. People who had their way of life stolen "for the greater good" so everyone but them could benefit from the riches of their land. Now that the land & way of making a living have been forever altered, it's hard to blame those who are existing on coal to just lay down & give it up. Sure they might be better off, but your children can't be fed . I really feel for them. Signed a Western KY girl.

Don McNay said...

Silas,

I agree with Al Cross. This is a masterpiece.

Also I will follow his lead and make sure it gets attention in my social media world.

Don McNay

Anonymous said...

Your words speak for so many of us—thank you for your insight and eloquence.

Maria said...

Thank you for this thoughtful response. I agree that being uninformed is often the problem. It's unfortunate to see an article in the NYT that includes such a deeply hurtful word to describe a large part of the country.

Anonymous said...

Silas -- I think we can all agree that Eastern KY got to this point through a complicated past (and present). And Lowery ignored much of the important context. However - I'd be very interested in hearing more about possible solutions. What are the policies that Federal, State, and local governments can implement to address the generational poverty, poor health, lack of educational attainment, etc?

Stephany said...

This is a wonderful piece with so many important points. I love Eastern KY. It will always be "home." I could never be ashamed of such a wonderful "smudge". Coal put food on my table and clothes on my back for years and I have so much love and respect for the people there. Yet, when I go "home," it's impossible not to see the poverty, stunted growth, and dependence on a declining natural resource. "But you cannot know a place without loving it and hating it and feeling everything in between." That really resonated with me.

I hate reading articles filled with blanket statistics, but little anecdotal evidence. It hurts my heart. This one helped. I'm looking so forward to going "home" in just a few weeks. For now, in my home in Oxford, England, I will close my eyes and imagine the smell of coal, a smell so ingrained in my conscious that I can't forget it. Thank you so much for writing this and for being so spot on.

Mike Furbee said...

Every major city in America has a large swath of real estate that in every way is a 'smudge'. The population in these urban ghettos in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia alone would probably dwarf the entire population within Appalachia. Urban writers seem all too capable of discerning the mote in our eye but ignoring the beam in their own.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking the truth. My hair caught on fire yesterday when I read the Lowery article. If we, the people of Appalachia are smudges, then let us make our marks on pages and with our words speak up with insights and wisdom from our history and culture and based on TRUE experiences of surviving in a tough place. I am glad you addressed the issues involved. You are not a traitor Silas, you are our leader in what seems like an impossible battle to win, and your smudges and marks in the form of powerful words inspire us to carry on with sharing the truth.

RFMoore said...

This is well said. My Mother's family is from Leslie County near Wooton which bears the family name. All of her brothers and sisters left to move to Somerset and farther North to escape the grinding poverty and hopelessness. They are all salt of the earth people with strong values and they left behind many aunts, uncles and cousins. My heritage is in these mountains and they call to me even though I have never lived there. I know the people, they are much like me. My politics are more progressive and my education has allowed me to recognize the repression those who live there have suffered for generations. We are a complex people.

Amanda Marion said...

Thanks for the post. You say everything I'd like to, but don't have the skills to express.

My biggest pet peeve is when outsiders talk about "fixing" Appalachia. While I of course want the best for us, I dont want to lose any of the things that make eastern Kentucky such a special place. There is a balance to be struck here, and whatever compromise is made it should darn well be a decision of the people who live there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. Keep arguing for examining the complexity of issues and for critical thinking.

McAllister Bryant said...

I am one of those folks who is from Eastern Kentucky, has lived and worked in New York City but mainly lives in a world of statistics and analysis.

When I read the NYTimes article, I knew the opposition would be strong...though your view is the best I have seen in response. But what I see is that the statistics are, sadly very true...it hurts us because it shows us in a light unfiltered by history and culture. As Jack Webb said...Just the facts.

And the facts are not good. Your point that sometimes the best solution is to leave hurts, but in many cases it is correct.

In my life, I have fought against the reality that there is no PLAN B for eastern Kentucky...I keep feeling that the "Coal Keeps the Lights On" bumpersticker industry is the most successful in the area. And a Plan B is elusive because those who can make decisions are too entrenched in keeping the status quo, albeit a ever shrinking status quo.

But all we can do is try. Try to move those decision makers to a world where energy corporations do not fog their decision making.

Keep up the effort...it is voices like yours that might just make the difference.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Al Cross, but words are merely that. I have a solution and it is called legalizing hemp, locating hemp product factories in eastern Kentucky, sell those products outside the area, and have the money returned from those sells to the area. Also, we need PR people who can sell our great natural beauty to outside areas instead of creating a promotions team that thinks it is helpful to promote what we have to offer on local/area press/media outlets. I see no benefit for our tourism folks to promote east Kentucky on a Hazard TV station. Deeds satisfy needs. It can be done if/when we, as voters, ever decide we want to elect people who are smart enough and caring enough to help everyone instead of spending their resources and brain power on merely giving governmentally subsidized jobs to family members and those who can provide them with the most votes.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is praising this as some kind of defense of eastern Kentucky, but in reality it's just as much of a slam at the region and its people as the NYT story it purports to rail against. It didn't take long for this to revert to the typical anti-conservative rant that I've come to associate with Silas House. This may be worse than the NYT piece because it comes from a local person who should know better.

lin craft said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sabne Raznik said...

This made me cry. Absolutely beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I am pleased to read this piece written in defense of my home town. This is where I live now with no plans to leave. I was offended by the term "smudge" for a description of me and my own. I cringe when the use of a statistical analysis is the source to measure a culture. Appalachian life is not and should not be pigeon-holed to describe us as ignorant, hopeless, and bound by a lifestyle that we cannot change. Why should you change something that you love. We are not all engulfed in poverty, drugs, and illiterate. I cannot speak for all Leslie county citizens but I am happy and so is my family. We do not rely on coal for our income but we know those who do. We do not "draw a check" or use illicit drugs. We are educated, own our home, have an affinity for gardening and nature, and are not that dissimilar from others. I appreciate the opinion and support from Silas House. I did not know that he was a native of Rockhouse, which is a short distance from my side of Hyden. Thank you for speaking for your own.

Jen said...

This was a great response to the original article.

Anonymous said...

As always, wonderfully written. Thank you.

Jonas said...

As a person who called Beattyville my home for 18 years, I really appreciate the way that you acknowledged the truth that was in her piece but also corrected.

It seems that people think of Appalachia as a place of black and white. Either it's poor, dirty, and backwards, or it's written about in an equally one sided idealistic manner.

Because the truth is there are big problems. That's why I doubt I will ever live in Beattyville again. But everytime I go back home I am reminded why I'm proud to be from there and it has a special place in my heart.

Silas House said...

Thanks very much, Al. I appreciate it.

Silas House said...

I would love to talk with you about your opinion that this is a slam at Eastern Kentucky. How so? Since you've chosen anonymity here you are welcome to email me at houses@berea.edu if you'd like to have a real conversation.

Ken@BaldridgeTree said...

Thank you, Mr. House. I read this piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal today and I was compelled to seek out your blog. I have not yet read any of your other writing but that shall soon be remedied.
I was born in Grundy, Virginia, just across the line from Pike County, Kentucky. Though I spent much of my growing up time in Floyd County, I have lived in Ohio and I graduated from high school in New Jersey. I, too, come from a coal mining family. We migrated to NJ when there was no work for Dad, but Southeastern Kentucky will always be home.
You have said what has been on my mind and in my heart for some time now. If I had written this piece, only Rock Fork and Floyd County would be substituted for Rockhouse Creek and Leslie County. I wish that I had written it; that I had been able to find the words (and the courage) to express such sentiments.
What you have written has power to evoke sadness and longing as to move one to tears. Such a sense of loss of time and place is there, it makes one want to weep in mourning. Some might find your words embarrassing and perhaps resent that you have drawn attention these things at such length. In my mind there is no doubt. This absolutely needed to be said; and you said it very well, indeed.
The uninformed and, it must be said, the ignorant, may view it as a "smudge." But it is our culture and our history. This is our home and these are our people. It is where we are from; it is who we are. If we love our home and our people as much as we proclaim so often, then, at minimum, we should acknowledge if not accept it as well -- all of it.
I will do my part and share this with others. Not everyone will like it, but it is important that they all read it.
Again, thank you.

hiibaa said...

Thank you Silas for this enlightening and honest piece. I think Mr. Anonymous wanted you to paint it rosy. But improvement requires honesty.

Anonymous said...

I respect that Appalachia is home. I understand the sentimental ties to the homeplace. I would hate to have to leave my home. But. But. But...

Aren't there certain economic facts of life that we have to recognize? If there aren't sufficient resources in an area to support the number of people who live there, why is the responsibility of the rest of us to subsidize your (admittedly cherished) way of life? Why is it OK to condemn generation after generation to crushing poverty because you're simply unwilling to move? If you're so dead set on living where there's no economic opportunity and none on the horizon, don't you forfeit the right to complain about your lot in life?