A Note to Readers
This is a reflection on place and identity in Appalachia, on the relationship between the places where residents of that region labor and how they imagine themselves and are viewed by others. This is a reflection on the construction of Appalachia in relation to place, identity and love. Long-lived stereotypes of Appalachia emerged in the late 1900s and have been maintained, if not always intentionally, by government programs and in the mass media. A movement from within the region has emerged, first through service, and soon after through social activism, to educate people about America’s internal colony and to construct/reconstruct images that more accurately portray the region. Recent ruptures from the movement were evident when Annie Lowery called the region a “smudge on the map” in a New York Times article, “What’s the Matter with East Kentucky.”1 Silas House, award-winning author and Appalachian activist responded with a blog post entitled, “The Matter is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About,” on July 10, 2014. He argued that the Appalachian people are people, but are often nonetheless only seen as a sensationalized microcosm of the most difficult of America’s challenges, “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.”2 House sought to call attention to the complexity of place and identity in the region. In order to understand the region, House wrote, “[O]ne 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.”3
Appalachia: Stereotypes and Identities
During John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for the presidency he traveled to Appalachia, and famously campaigned in West Virginia where he was deeply touched by the dignity of the people and the depth of the poverty confronting many of those he encountered. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 resulted in Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) completing his term. Johnson was elected to the presidency in 1964 and worked thereafter to realize Kennedy’s vision for the amelioration of poverty in the United States. Indeed, in his 1964 State of the Union Address, President Johnson went much further than his predecessor had and declared a national “War on Poverty.” Not long thereafter LBJ chose a specific place, Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, Kentucky, to symbolize his aims and concern. In so doing, the president introduced the American masses to Appalachia once more, “America’s backyard,” occupied by “a strange and peculiar people.”4 The nation’s campaign to eliminate poverty launched Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) (a “domestic” Peace Corps), Headstart for at-risk preschoolers and Community Action Programs and many other initiatives.5 All of these efforts aimed to assist Appalachian communities especially, since the area was viewed, as President Johnson’s visit had highlighted, as particularly poverty stricken and located therefore somehow on the nation’s periphery. The photograph below from The New York Times shows LBJ speaking with Fletcher while visiting Kentucky.
President Johnson touring impoverished areas in 1964. Credit George Tames/The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/business/50-years-later-war-on-poverty-is-a-mixed-bag.html?_r=0)
Just as many during the nation’s post-Civil War reconstruction era had depicted Appalachia as a place with “worthy” people desperately in need of assistance, the War on Poverty painted the region and its residents as in critical need.6 The President’s concern, while well intended, nonetheless hid the systemic economic oppression and structural deficiencies (for instance, mono-economic extractive practices and external land ownership) that created and sustained the poverty of the area’s people in the first instance. Ronald Eller has examined how the region’s residents came to be regarded by the American public as a backward, but nonetheless pure people:
Spurred by the image of a privileged, young New England senator being greeted by hungry children and destitute coalminers, a spate of journalists had descended on Appalachia after the West Virginia primary to capture the story of poverty in America. Concerned about the growing disparity between the “affluent society” and what Michael Harrington called the “other America,” journalists rediscovered Appalachia as a depressed American region. Between the summer of 1960 and the fall of 1963 more than a dozen books and articles were published illustrating the plight of the poor in central Appalachia.7
Ultimately, this stereotype of the region’s residents (hillbilly, backwoods, ignorant) was predicated on the idea that education and work needed to be provided to this area; both were somehow lacking in Appalachia.
It has now been 50 years since Johnson stood with Mr. Fletcher, framing the region, knowingly or not, as a place still in need and still lacking somehow. The decades since have included a major effort to “lift up” individuals in Appalachia, but to do so without changing the fundamental economic and social structures in which they lived. Many good things arose from the anti-poverty campaign—VISTA workers provided much assistance while also highlighting the complexity of the region, for example, and area citizens established many remarkable organizations, including Appalshop, a very successful Appalachia-based arts institution.
Nonetheless, pervasive stereotypes of the region among Americans have not changed. Human beings cling to stereotypes, as Robert Cantwell has explained:
We willingly participate in its artifices, willingly follow them into what we know is an illusion in order to grasp the truth of its dynamic form, which captures like the two dimensional drawings of three dimensional scenes, the moment of recognition itself and objectifies the participant element in it. That moment consequently becomes available for our contemplation as the only way we can master our fear, or satisfy our desire, of the stranger. No wonder we are so attached to our stereotypes; no wonder we are so convinced of their truth. For they are true—true for us, if not for the other: truths that we cannot otherwise know; truths that, moreover, we can vitally confront not in some shadowy underworld of introspection, but palpably and dramatically in the medium of a human relation.8
In the period since Johnson set out to eliminate poverty in America the nation’s overall poverty level has decreased from 19% to 15%, but in Appalachia many counties continue to experience poverty rates far above the national average. Coal mining continues in the region too, although with far fewer employees than decades prior, due to mechanization and technology changes. Unfortunately, land and water contamination from mining activities also continues. Nevertheless, many area residents and many others from outside the region continue to labor for and within Appalachia on the basis not of compassion alone or of a sense of assisting a population lacking somehow, but on the foundation of a self-identified reasoning of love.
As the region’s residents have responded to the “outside-in” narration process that has so mythologized them they have begun to take part in a psychogeographic process of unraveling, “why who one is comes to be experienced as indistinguishable from where one is, and in turn to where and who others are perceived to be in relation to one’s own.”9One such native, photographer Roger May, came to visit the Introduction to Appalachian Studies class I teach last week in conjunction with a performance at the Moss Center for the Arts by West Virginia native, country music star and environmental activist, Kathy Mattea. As May spoke with the students I was struck by his passion for the region, which is amply represented on his website:
These images are a vignette into my working through the problem of the construction of memory versus reality. My work embraces the raw beauty of the mountains while keeping at arm’s length the stereotypical images that have tried to define Appalachia for decades. . . . I am both an insider and an outsider and though I maintain a safe distance in my photographs, I attempt to invite you into the intimacy of family, of sacred space. Testify [May’s recent book of photographs of Appalachia] is my bearing witness of a personal journey, of never truly being able to go home again, to seek answers from my ancestral home. Appalachia testifies of timelessness and natural beauty.10
I was also struck by the way May tags his work on Facebook and Instagram: #heartwork. As I understand the term, “Heartwork” implies an effort from within. He is currently curating a project that is fully Kickstarter funded and being prepared by photographers native to and traveling through the region. The project, entitled, “Looking at Appalachia: Fifty Years After the War on Poverty” represents:
[a]n attempt to explore the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point, this project will look at Appalachia fifty years after the declaration of the War on Poverty. Drawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region, this new crowd sourced image archive will serve as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.11
The project’s submission guidelines allow any photographer to submit work from the year 2014, as long as the image was taken within the Appalachian Regional Commission’s recognized boundaries of Appalachia. This work will arise from and be about the region—a transformation of subject and object as one. One may offer criticisms of this effort, but its organizing concept, projecting what Appalachians see when they view their region’s mountains, homes and towns and fields, is much needed if the stereotypes of the area are to be overcome. More, only when the nation can see past those frames can it begin to recognize the entrenched and enduring conditions that contribute to the region’s persistent challenges. This project may represent one step in securing this necessary sea change in perspective.
Photo by Roger May (Untitled, 2014) Used with permission from photographer.
For these reasons, the hashtag “heartwork” resonates with me—I must admit I have used it myself. Nonetheless, I am struck that our population will not soon reflect as deeply as necessary and even this fresh “gaze over the region” will result in many imagining that still another project is necessary to “help” Appalachia’s residents, rather than finding ways and means to address the region’s enduring underlying challenges. As I discuss pedagogy with my peers we are encouraged to utilize “problem based” learning. The result of these discussions is typically a project or an “answer.” Rarely does the response involve changing basic assumptions about learning or knowledge. By analogy, for Appalachia, this sort of orientation results in persistent failure to seek change in the region’s underlying economic and social conditions.
The broader public has not been asked to rethink its suppositions and frames but instead has been permitted, even encouraged, to divide those in need in the region from those residing outside it. Heartwork seeks to break down this separation and to create a space in which all of the work undertaken can arise from genuine love for the place and its people, not as objects or subjects, but as citizens desiring to realize full and free lives. Such labor is hard work. Re/imagining a place is also heart rending work, but it must be done if Appalachia is to emerge in the public mind as the complex and textured tapestry of land and people it is, as opposed to the misleading stereotypes by which its citizens have for so long, so often and so misleadingly been described.
Photo by Roger May (Untitled, 2014) Used with permission by photographer.
Looking Back at Appalachia Project Guidelines curated by Roger May
Submissions are not limited by style, however:
1. All work submitted must be the copyright of the photographer.
2. Photographs must be made in calendar year 2014.
3. Photographs must be made in one of the 13 state’s regions the Appalachian Regional Commission defines as Appalachian (here).
4. Submissions are open through 31 December 2014.
Please provide as much information as possible about each photograph, but at minimum the date, city, county, and state. Submissions must be in .JPG format, sized at 1500 pixels wide, 72ppi. File names must include your last name and the city and state where the photograph was made (example: maychattaorywv2.jpg). It is imperative that you follow these submission guidelines, otherwise the work will not be considered. Please include a link to your website.
Photographs will be indexed by the state in which they were made. You are not limited to submitting work about one state, however please be aware of the ARC map boundaries. To be clear, this project is not seeking poverty pictures. Will poverty be included? Yes. Poverty exists to be sure, however the purpose of this project extends far beyond that.
(Note: Please consider that by submitting images to this archive, you’re agreeing to the possibility of their inclusion in a group exhibit, catalog, book, etc. All photographers will be contacted to discuss details of any and all ideas for exhibition. All photographs remain the copyright of their creator.)
Email submissions to email@example.com.
Note from the author: Please note: Roger May’s project Testify was funded via Kickstarter. The proposed exhibit, Looking at Appalachia, has crowd-sourced photographs, and is currently seeking financial support.
4 Howley, Craig. “War on Poverty.” 2006 Encyclopedia of Appalachia (1624)
5 Howley, Craig. “War on Poverty.” 2006 Encyclopedia of Appalachia (1624)
6 Drake, Richard. “Appalachian America: The Emergence of a Concept, 1895-1964,” Mountain Life & Work, 40 (Spring 1965), 6
7 Ronald Eller, “Modernization, 1940-2000,” in High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place.Eds.Richard Straw and Tyler Blethen. University of Illinois Press, (2004), 204.
8 Cantwell, Robert. Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture. Univ. of North Carolina Press, (1993). 183
9 Stein, Howard F. Developmental time, culture space: Studies in Psychogeography. Norman,OK: Unviversity of Oklahoma Press, (1987).15
Jordan Laney is a writer, photographer, educator, and doctoral student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social Political Ethical and Cultural Thought) program. Her research interests include: place, Appalachia, identity, music, labor justice, and feminist space. Before joining ASPECT Laney received her M.A. in Appalachian Studies (Music concentration) from Appalachian State University, and her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College.