I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, grew up as a child in rural, small town Missouri, then adolescence in suburban Chicago, Illinois, followed by young adulthood in urban Kansas City with second tours of rural, small town Missouri again. In my early thirties, I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia and from that base I’ve traveled extensively across the State, the Heart of Appalachia, for twenty-five years. I’m not a West Virginian by birth, but I am a West Virginian by choice.
From the moment I moved here, I’ve been acutely aware of a cultural prejudice about and against West Virginia and Appalachia from virtually everyone I meet outside the area. Usually I’m wearing the Blue Suit with a Sophisticated Blonde on my Arm. Whether as a Professor, Scientific Fed, or Fabulous Consultant, folks think I’m funning them when I claim Mountaineer Status.
The psychology of this prejudice is the same mechanism that drives racism, sexism, and every other thoughtless and biased Ism: No direct personal experience in the formation of the bias, a reliance on a key salient beliefs that over time cohere into a well-connected and reliable story or framework or meme or just plain old prejudice. Just good old Biased Processing from the ELM.
Shootfire, just look at a Google image search on “Appalachia.” Barefoot. Shirtless. Hollers. Rusted cars and washing machines. Moonshine. Tobacco fields. Deliverance. Incest. Snake handlers. Mountain Men. KKK. Ancient pickup trucks. Proud, but hapless, Coal Miners. Sick and hungry children. Hillbillies.
You might recall that the downfall of the infamous New York Times journalist, Jayson Blair, began with his in-depth story behind Jessica Lynch, the young West Virginia servicewoman who was captured in the Iraq War then rescued or “rescued” by Special Forces. Blair opened his fictional news story about Lynch’s hometown with a description of tobacco fields. I vividly remember reading that agricultural designation and hooting because I’ve been in that neck of the woods before and there ain’t no tobacco fields in them there parts. Indeed, there’s precious little tobacco farming anywhere in the State, but if you’re a Cool Table elitist, you don’t know that and you don’t need to know that because you already know the Appalachian Meme. And all other Cool Tablists and CT Aspirants know it, too. Prejudice serves up easy, fun, and popular communication between and among Those In The Know.
Many years ago when the newsmagazine, Slate, was launching as the first online journalism venture, they had a fun columnist, Prudence, who responded to reader pleas concerning manners and morality. Prudence, a paragon of virtue, taste, and style, always managed to navigate the perils of PostModern Political Correctness with good sense and old fashioned manners, until she served up a negative example of bad manners that was nothing but Appalachian racism. The prejudice was small and discreet, but First Order Prejudice nonetheless. Prudence would have been looking for a new line of work if she had responded similarly with Lesbians, African-Americans, or Muslims, but Appalachian trash, well, that’s another matter.
And, now, with the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion I am once again treated to Cool Table foolishness parading as Truth. We are still in the midst of rescue and recovery at this writing, yet the Cool Table is casting the story as predatory King Coal sucking the life out of the miners, their families, and the land of West Virginia in a pitiless and eternal grab for profit. And always, “hardscrabble,” which is the Appalachian counterpart to words like “clean” for African-Americans, “family-oriented” for Hispanic-Americans, and “ambitious” for Asian-Americans when you can’t say what really comes to mind because you’re writing in polite company.
West Virginia is one big small town. We have barely two million citizens and a State government budget just past four billion dollars. On Game Day, Mountaineer Field in Morgantown becomes the largest city in the State with 65,000 residents for a weekend. The land was part of an original colony, Virginia, but broke away from the Old Dominion during the Civil War over slavery. We border Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet, we are not Southern or Northern or Rust Belt or Midwestern even though you find those markers in the State.
We are Appalachian. Rural, small town, traditional values, close to family, community, and land. If your car breaks down almost anywhere in this state, you’re safe. Somebody will stop by soon and offer to carry you where you need to go. We rarely commit crimes against strangers, especially strangers in distress. In fact, we rarely commit violence against anyone.
This is not an aspirational, elite, upwardly mobile, highly educated, sophisticated, nuanced kind of place. People are nice, humble, straight, open . . . good folks, salt of the earth folks. They didn’t and wouldn’t invent the Internet, but they will use it. We missed the Tech Bubble of 1999 and the Wall Street Bubble of 2008 and our employment rate is holding good in this recession. We’ve got a diverse economy from coal to tourism to high tech corridors, light manufacturing, and lots of services like education and health care.
Things are going pretty good right now and we’ll handle the disaster in the Upper Big Branch mine. We’ll rescue and recover. We’ll do the public hearings and investigations. We’ll do the science and engineering and make it better. We will. Mining is a damn dangerous thing and if you spend a good day with miners on their job, not the day after a disaster, but just a normal day, you know they know it and they keep that in mind. They are friendly, but serious men and women who love each other and the work, even with the risk. They are not Pawns, Puppets, or Patsies. Just people who care about each other.
If you aspire to the Cool Table, you understand none of this, but fortunately you have the Appalachian Meme to protect your ignorance, inexperience, and intolerance.
And, y’all wonder why we don’t offer you a taste of White Lighting?