For all those arrested on September 27, 2010 during the Appalachia Rising protests in Washington, DC.

Provincetown, MA. The people of Eastern Kentucky – West Virginia, East Tennessee – have been treated as the ‘Other America’ for more than a century.   From Lil Abner to Shelby Lee Adams—from Charles Kuralt to Diane Sawyer— we create and propagate images of our own people that solicit, at best, a pathos of tin pan pity, and at worst, no empathy, at all.  Do we know them?  Shiftless, conniving men.  Desperate women.  Children too poor to eat anything but dirt.  Our feverish faith in Capitalism requires a story, a parable for why Americans who struggle are to be blamed for their own strife.

The Other America.  The Hillbilly. The American who – let’s say it out loud – deserves to suffer at the hands of global capitalism because he is idle, and because his mind is so simple, he cannot manage complex work. Or, to drive home the point, the American who deserves to be exploited, because he is too foolish to insist on a complex local economy, a network of industries that might actually sustain his community’s wellbeing and growth.

Now, we find ourselves in the age of global warming.  And, the wisdom of hindsight allows for some clarity: all the while that the cartoonist Capp was convincing us of his Dogpatch, Kentucky, the coal industry was convincing us it was the great provider, the only provider, of a way out of Dogpatch.   Sears and Roebuck catalogues on the front porch.  Gardens shriveling in the sun.   Throughout America, in Appalachia and beyond, we believed electricity meant convenience meant civilized living meant dignity, hope.  But in Appalachia we made a second dangerous pact: a codependency with a single industry, an extraction industry, that would become, during these same years, our only plan for economic progress—a single industry that would coincidentally also become the leading contributor to our climate crisis.  Our men were sent to work. Our women went to the picket lines.  Our region became, unwittingly, the domestic front of what is now surely a global energy war.

In this context, it is plain to see that the degenerative imagery so often repeated of our people is, in many ways, just borrowed.   Borrowed from the colonialist imagery of Africans, borrowed and made to fit our white fear of white poverty.  This is important, because this kind of propaganda is confirmed in its ability to teach us how to turn a blind eye, how to allow for people, once unified and self-sustaining, to be divided against themselves so that their labor can more easily be exploited.  It is an old machine.  It has proven productive.

But our real problem does not lie with outsiders.  It lies within.  My mother is from Perry County, Gay’s Creek.  But I was raised 30 minutes away from here, in a smoke-filled kitchen, listening to my family denigrate themselves.  Cigarettes to lips, telling stories about how ignorant the people in Eastern Kentucky were.  They were ashamed of themselves, of where they had come from, of what the world said it all meant.  To be a Kentuckian is to be a self, divided.  In Louisville, we too often act as if we are annexed, a metropolitan state all our own.  In Lexington, like we are the Ellis Island for those who manage to make it out of the hills.  This semester, in Morehead where I teach, one of my students explained to me that he understood mountaintop removal coal mining was happening, but that he, who had been born and raised in Rowan County, was not Appalachian, so it didn’t affect him. We understand it is humiliating to be associated with the stereotypes that go by our name.  We understand it is humiliating to be associated with widespread destruction and oppression.  And so, we do double-time, all the time, to say, “yes, but that’s not me.”

This must stop.  The karmic cycle of these last 100 years is now upon all of us.  Activist Randy Wilson said to me once of coal, “We’re all economically tied to it and dependent on it… That creates desperation in people.  We desperately need it and we’re desperately destroying ourselves with it.”  We no longer have the time for pity.  We no longer have the time for blind eyes.  Or divided selves.  James Still is quoted to have said, If it happens in Afghanistan, it happens to me.”  I think our imaginations have shrunk.   Today, we don’t even dare to ask, if it happened in Appalachia, did it happen to me?

Thanks to Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s support, I’ve spent these last many years driving in and out of Eastern Kentucky, documenting those who live with, and against, the coal industry.  This opportunity— to develop a relationship with those who welcomed me into their homes—has forever changed my life and the way I want to live it.  Those I have come to know, our people, my people, are the opposite of shiftless, hopeless, or dumb.  The opposite.  I have known a man who has, with his own hands, with his own tractor, spent upwards of a decade reclaiming mountaintops that the industry abandoned, so that they could once again grow trees.  I have known a retired miner who now works with MIT to determine Kentucky’s potential for wind energy.  I have known a Special Education teacher who spends her evenings writing letters to her elected officials, begging for the rights of her neighbors, begging that the coal truck drivers be required to take a different route.   And I have come to believe that if we who live outside the mountain south follow the leadership of those who live within it, if we surrender to the truth that none of us are other or cartoons or deserving of exploitation— we stand to be a bellwether for a different kind of coming culture, a future rooted in our deeper past.  We stand to be a bellwether for human responsibility, a requirement for respect, setting the terms for the forthcoming civil rights movement in this new, shared landscape, this earth of want and crisis.

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s poems and translations have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Ecotone, Connotation Press, and The Great River Review, and her documentary work has been collected in The Artist as Activist in Appalachia (University of North Georgia Press, 2010), Plundering Appalachia (EarthWise, 2009), and This is Home Now: Kentucky’s Holocaust Survivors Speak (UP of Kentucky, 2009).  She holds a combined MFA from Drew University and is currently a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.

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  1. the problem is not that our imagination has shrunk. the ethical problem today is that our world is too imaginary. i believe i have a real ethical obligation to those mountains, any thought otherwise is the product of imagination.

    the problems of today will not be solved by ascending in imagination, but instead, by descending to reality from our ethical retreat from real responsibilities via imagination.

  2. Stephen, though I see your point, I would have to argue that it fails to recognize the place of imagination. I’m quite certain that among our greatest blunders is the mis-valuing of the imagination. It is not, as the entertainment industry would have us believe, a way to escape the platitudes of existence in this difficult world. Imagination allows us to respond to what we have before us with the appropriate energies, language and feelings: it isn’t about disconnecting ourselves from the issues through imagination, but about connecting our imaginations to the issues. Imagination is how we avoid living as floating monads in a chaotic present — we see and understand our past, and we envision our future through it. How, without imagination, could we possibly introduce the language necessary to carry on good work against what, at so many times, seems such overwhelming opposition and blind indifference? That is, the language of courage, of sacramentality, of heroic, saint-like commitment to the good even when the good seems by all signs to have been forever cast into the dark valley of defeat. It is, I believe, the ability to envisage beyond the curtains of events that reveals the real character of those events. Their roles in the greater story. In fact, I would go as far as to say that any act of the intellect that strives to make appropriate sense of the intelligible mosaic of reality is by necessity an act of imagination.

    This is all, I think, affirmed when we consider that a reading of James Still’s fictional “River of Earth”, for example, likely gives us a richer and more comprehensible image of life in Appalachia than any ethnography on the subject, though both have their functions. Humans live in story, and through the ecstatic revelations of narrative we are most well equipped to do what is required of us and to not abandon our ethical obligations in the real world.

    Having said all that, it must be admitted that your point is very true: that our world is too imaginary, but again, I think we are remiss to altogether conflate the imagination with the irreal.

  3. We do not “find ourselves in the age of global warming”. We find ourselves in the age when fashionable leftists like you have been duped into believing a transparently and wildly false pseudo-scientific religion. In earlier times, we mocked hillbillies for going along with snake-handling cults; now the People Who Count are the Gaia-worshipping snake-handlers and the hillbillies are (by comparison) the rational thinkers.

  4. I am always fascinated by discussions about Appalachia. Maybe it;s because I grew up in my own weird little corner of it in Western Pennsylvania. (People actually refer to it as Pennsytucky.)

    But here’s what I don’t get; we have also had wave after wave of extraction. The timbering here was probably worse that it was anywhere, perhaps ever. Heck, we were the birthplace of the oil industry. (Bradford, PA, once had a chandelier store.)

    So yeah. Extraction? We got extraction. But we don’t have this perpetual sense of LOATHING. I remember when someone found out I was a hillbilly and told me to read some Breece DJ Pancake. I did and my immediate reaction was, “Wait… is this what I am supposed to think about myself and where I’m from?” because I don’t.

    SO you can’t blame it on timbering or coal or oil or gas. Rather, I think the defining difference is that we never really got POOR here. Know how we avoided that? Well… more capitalism. Factory after factory after factory, guys making $28 an hour in the local plants. Parts for cars. parts for lawnmowers. Powdered metal. SIntered metal. Paper mills. (People I know made all the paper for all the Harry Potter books.)

    Yeah, those jobs dried up and the house of cards started falling. But now it looks like the jobs are back, as any guy who can swing a sledgehammer can make a killing out in the Marcellus Shale fields, extracting the natural gas.

    My brother-in -law’s father was a coal miner. But he’s never read Breece Pancake. And if he ever did, he’d flip his lid. He loved digging that coal and the culture that it made.

    I am not saying he’s right. But it seems a little simplistic to argue that reliance on coal or other kind of extraction is automatically dehumanizing.

    I have to be honest with you: the fact that the extraction jobs are back has brought about a collective sign of relief. No more sending boys of to Stanford or Penn State to major in sociology on engineering or elementary ed. They can go if they want, sure, but they don’t have to anymore. and still, after all these years, most of them don’t want to. The sledgehammer looks like liberation and smells like cash money. People keep telling them that this generation is the last and the jobs won’t last forever. But they’ve been wrong for about 150 years running now.

  5. I find this to be wonderfully compelling and troubling. I’m not sure which part is going to hang with me more. As an educated adult who was raised in Eastern KY I read this piece and loved it. I am thrilled when a well reasoned voice speaks up for a place that has seen such hardship.Yet the kid that grew up in in Eastern KY hears himself so clearly in the voice of the student from Rowan County. I am different. The constant jokes of “you still have teeth” or “you wear shoes” still come up. I can remember the embarrassment this would bring when I first went to college, and I can hear it in his voice. and it reminds me of my own.

    I am not sure which will hang with me more

  6. Yes, polistra, there are elements of sentimental dim-wittedness to go around amply but while the debate simmers along, the consumerist charade continues to crap in the nest , smear it around and call it “progress”.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with “extraction”. It is when we introduce the notion that the local is less important than some kind of over-arching progress-mad global bazaar that extraction stumbles into the blind hole of destroyed habitat and water. Loathing the flatlander may salve the disquiet for a spell but then you have to drink the water you find at hand and the taste of it is a rebuke not easily ignored. We will not treat the organism of our environment prudently until we treat our own physical house with the respect it deserves. Everyone remains a catfish admiring a fat worm wound tightly around a barbed hook.

  7. DW says:

    “It is when we introduce the notion that the local is less important than some kind of over-arching progress-mad global bazaar that extraction stumbles into the blind hole of destroyed habitat and water”

    That’s not always when it happens. Quite often, locals are quite willing to foul their own nest if it means a good paying job for a while. And quite often, its those big-city flatlanders from downstream who come in demanding that people stop.

  8. Sammacdon,
    This supposes that the locals madcap rush to befoul their neighborhood is not encouraged by the same remote forces inhabiting the firmament from which the benevolent despot descends, in golden chariot, to teach the simpletons how to behave.

    I don’t buy it

  9. Maybe you know different people than I do. But I didn’t think the idea that people are often quite shortsighted about their resources would be deemed all that controversial.

    I don’t think that acting locally or acting globally does all that much to magically make people wise. Even on Walton’s Mountain, only the Waltons were the Waltons. Yancey was a drunk who burned down the barn… with no help from big corporate distilleries. He got bombed on local moonshine. As most peope do.

  10. There is no “magic” or “controversy” about it. Suffice to say that there is less of a chance of a prudent decision being made about resource extraction if those who are extracting are sitting in a country club well removed from the scene of the extraction. The Achilles heel of the economy is the removal of “cause and effect” from any kind of guiding force. It is called “external costs” and it is a five card monty game.

    • “Suffice to say that there is less of a chance of a prudent decision being made about resource extraction if those who are extracting are sitting in a country club well removed from the scene of the extraction”

      I think experience paints a different picture. People living in places where resource extraction happens often support the extraction. Largely because they get to extract it. Look at the spotted owl controversy. The main forces who acted to stop the logging and save the owl were not people from Forks, born and raised. We had a similar case here a few years back on the Allegheny National Forest. The activists consisted of one local guy transplanted here decades ago, a local teenager, and an army of flatlanders who had never been here before. The funding for the activism was from distant cities, 100 percent. Other than those two guys, the local sentiment was staunchly opposed to any measures to curtail timbering. The rhetoric of the whole debate focused on the fact that it’s a federal forest, and the locals can’t cut, cut, cut just because that’s what the locals want to do.

      I can promise you that if the federal government were to transfer the forest to local control, and locals decided how much dutting to do, timber production would quadruple the day after that transfer happened. On the other hand, if local concerns were taken out of the equation entirely, and the decision were made in Pittsburgh or Chicago, the cutting would stop entirely.

      If local decisions were always more prudent, I suspect that Jenny Craig, constitutions, bouncers, older brothers and any number of retirement plans would be far less popular than they are.

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