So Far Appalachia (Book)

About That Thing You Ask Me About Hillbilly Elegy

I’ve been an outspoken advocate for Appalachia for the better part of the last decade. My writing and speaking about the region ramped up quite a bit once I started writing So Far Appalachia, a creative memoir about my family’s role in founding Clay County and the slow and inevitable slide of the area to become of the poorest in the country. Clay County — and the story of my family — are a case study in how we ended up where we are today.

For some time, there weren’t many people talking about Appalachia. Certainly, there were academic conferences, the occasional memoir, and a slew of exploitative “reality” television programs. But nothing much existed within the cultural zeitgeist that kept our attention.

Until two events: the release of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and the election of President Trump.

I was late to Hillbilly Elegy. I’ve always been slow to read books about the region because our history is rife with people exploiting the region — and its people — for political purposes, painting the geographic area as a place where wild, uneducated, and dangerous people live.

But after the election of President Trump, I rarely went a day without somebody asking me what I thought about Vance’s book. Appalachia was on everybody’s mind.

For those of you who have not read Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of Middletown Ohio, a small Northern Industrial town, and Appalachia that is slowly dying. Like So Far Appalachia, Vance’s story is one that uses the personal to talk more broadly about the regional.

Vance’s book is a bestseller, having already sold more than 240,000 copies. Because of this, he’s voice has become dominant in the media sphere, particularly in the conservative media that took his message of self-determination as the driving explanation for Appalachia’s dire straits.

As you might imagine this has angered many on the left. His conclusions in the book, that people in places like Middletown should simply work harder if they want to succeed, rankled many. If you want a nice snapshot of that anger, take a moment to read Sarah Jones, Jared Yates Sexton, and Hari Kunzru. These will give you a pretty good idea of how the book was received by liberals.

The conservative media’s lauding of Vancen and the anger in those reviews and make sense when you view each individually and without a larger context.

If this is the only story that you read about Appalachia, if this is the only story you read about the people from the region, then the book does a terrible job at painting an accurate picture of the region, its history, and its people. Any conclusion you’d draw from it, no matter what you were seeing, would be incomplete.

More importantly, it’s wildly unfair to expect any single book to do that. And that’s a fallacy our society has tried to correct in other meaningful ways.

So when people ask me what I think about Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance, I begin the conversation by asking them this: How many books about Appalachia have you read?

* * *

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave an amazing TED Talk on the danger of the single narrative. She was speaking specifically about the way the West views Africa (and really any place that isn’t the West). About the decisions the West has made in portraying Africa. About removing agency from people who never have a chance to tell their stories. And about the danger of what happens when we think about an entire culture through a singular lens.

We destroy the humanity of people when we do that because we never see them as they see themselves. Instead, we see their reflections in the writing and portrayal of others.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we abdicate our responsibility to tell stories about people who are different than us. It simply means was must all work to make sure that we’re seeing stories that are both authentic and reflective.

As I watched her talk and listened to her speak about the pain and the problems that are created by the narratives that we tell, I felt that story. I understood her story on a visceral level, and I understood the danger of the single narrative because I come from a place that has been — and continues to be — defined by those reflecting on the culture.

And if my experience with that is true, then her experience is must be true. And her story is likely amplified in this country by her race and gender, two experiences that surely must be true as well. Because these are the invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) forces in our lives.

I don’t get to claim that some of these forces are real (the ones I experience), and some of these forces are fake (the ones I don’t experience.)

* * *

This is why I begin every conversation about Vance’s book with the question of what else they have read. Because it’s helpful to know where you are coming from. And how much you’ve thought about this. And how much you understand — and believe — that the invisible forces that have shaped this country have done so as well in Appalachia. And that some of that shaping has created damage, long and sustained pain that has manifested in anger.

I need to know that before I tell you what I think about Hillbilly Elegy, or White Trash, or Glass Castle, or The Road to Poverty, or Night Comes to the Cumberlands, or Somebody Told Me, or Far Appalachia, or belonging.

Because what I do think about Hillbilly Elegy is this: I think that the story is J.D.’s to tell. I think northern industrial Appalachia is different from central Appalachia, where my family is from. I think the conclusions that J.D. draws are incomplete, but not entirely wrong. I think that there is no way to tell the story of Appalachia in one book. And anyone who criticizes his story and his conclusions because they don’t match up with the narrative they want to tell is far more problematical than any problems I might have with J.D.’s conclusions.

When I tell people this a curious thing has happened in the last year. Those who fall on the liberal side of the political spectrum tend to tell me that my conservative views are part of the problem. And those who fall on the conservative side tend to tell me that I can take my liberal ass back to wherever it is I came.

(I’ll let you decide: So Far Appalachia‘s main argument is that feudalism grew in the Southern colonies, embedded itself in our country, and created an Appalachia in which a handful of companies control the mineral rich lands while the people struggle to build an economy. And that is told through my family’s three-hundred-year history in Clay County.)

So as I answer that inevitable question and engage with people on these issues, I often times feel like a man without a country because people seem to want to hear a single narrative that explains it all. But I know that there isn’t a single one that defines the place that I called home and the people whom I call brothers and sisters.

* * *

The truth about that question I ask when people ask me their question is nearly without exception people tell me that haven’t read much about the region. Or if they had, they didn’t know it was about the region. Or if they did know, it was most likely a memoir, which tends to follow the “oh my god everything sucks” story.

Now that doesn’t particularly bother me. People are busy, and life comes at you fast. We face the kinds of huge, systemic problems that are endemic to a country with three-hundred million people. We can’t all keep up on everything. It’s impossible and impractical.

That’s where the single narrative becomes so dangerous. That’s why answering the question about J.D.’s book is so difficult. Because people don’t know the history of the region, and the don’t — by and large — understand its problems. Yet many of those same people — more than I’d like — have a great number of preconceived notions about the people that they aren’t afraid, or ashamed, to unleash.

And so the answer to the question, if you really want to know, is this: Read more books about the region. Visit the region. Talk to the people who are from the region. And if you do that, you’ll understand J.D.’s story for what it is: one powerful tale out of twenty-four million powerful tales about, and from, Appalachia.

What We Mean When We Talk about Infrastructure

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study that looked at how we make snap decisions, particularly those that happen just beyond our conscious thought. In one of the studies Gladwell wrote about, the researchers found that we make less informed decisions when we feel as though our life is in danger. The reason: when you go into survival mode, your body begins to shut down any peripheral sense that doesn’t immediately allow for the common defense.

Practically speaking that means you begin to see less. Hear less. And everything about your environment becomes very small, filtered through the pinhole of survival. (In sci-fi parlance, it’s simply rerouting all the power to shields!)

That filtering may redirect energies into immediate survival, but it also means you begin missing vital pieces of information. Your body focuses all of its energy not on external stimuli but instead upon surviving whenever is directly in front of you. And that means your actions may help you survive, but your judgment is severely impaired as data points are reduced.

Now the study Gladwell used in his book focused on police shootings, specifically those that involved unarmed suspect, but the idea behind the research — that we increasingly make less-informed decisions when our survival is threatened — is analogous to what’s happening in Appalachia today.

That region — almost since its inception — is facing a life-threatening situation, one that has accelerated since 1965.

That death spiral has caused a great political upheaval in this country, one that countless people are trying to understand. And so many of them are looking for one, single, easy answer to the question of why there is so much anger coming from rural communities. Because if we can find that single answer, we can cure so much of what’s going wrong in the country.

But the truth is — I think — that there isn’t one, single answer. And I think that America is broken along class — and opportunity — lines in a way that we are bad at speaking about. But if you pressed me on the one idea that can fix the problems we face, I would tell you the least interesting answer in the world:

Fix the infrastructure.

* * *

So what in the hell do I mean when I say “fix the infrastructure.” Every four years, we hear politicians talk about fixing this thing, but I suspect most people would be hard pressed to really get into what that means beyond tell you that we need better roads and schools that don’t fall down. (We need both of those, by the way.)

Indulge me for a minute.

The infrastructure problem dates back to the founding of the country, and it’s tied to the very way that we govern. The southern colonies were built on a system of feudalism, in which a small number of people control large swaths of the land. Those landowners were given rights as citizens, while the workers were stripped of the kinds of rights that would give them the ability to change the system.

You know this from history: That system began with indentured servants shipped in from England and then morphed into slavery, which stood as law of the land until the end of Civil War.

The problem that’s plagued Appalachian is that after the War, the people assumed (or maybe never concerned themselves with the idea that) feudalism died as well.

But it didn’t.

Only slavery — and then indentured servitude — died.  (And let’s be honest: We can probably have a really interesting conversation about whether either of those two really died.) What remained throughout Appalachia was the hidden remnants of feudalism that was baked into the DNA for the region. What remained was an economic system where land speculators and corporations took control of the mineral-bearing land. In Kentucky — my family’s ancestral home — those speculators shared that wealth with a small cabal of politicians (and you can read all about that in So Far Appalachia) in order to maintain control of the area.

Since the Civil War, the region’s mineral wealth has been extracted and taken away by companies not based in the region, and with no stake in developing the economic and social interests of the area. What was left behind for the people of Appalachia was the remnants of a land that was no longer rich in minerals energy, and that has little ability to control the exploitation of its other natural resources.

The region was left on life support because it was designed that way.

* * *

But here’s the thing: Once you know the fix is in, you aren’t really interested in playing the game anymore.

In the run up to the nineteen sixty presidential election, the thirteen Appalachian governors realized the fix was in. They could no longer stand alone against the corporate and government interests that conspired to control its land. They could no longer stand as individuals. Instead, they needed to a coalition. And so they petitioned then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, Jr., asking him to appoint a commission that would unite the region as an economic entity that could better regulate each state’s individual borders.

(Today, those on the right would likely call this a federal takeover. I know this because as I’ve written about the history of the region, I’ve far-right conservative Appalachian call me a liberal and berate the federal government’s meddling in the region — despite the fact that thirteen governors asked for this. In our polarized time, it’s difficult to explain that this commission was the states recognizing how to best use its power.)

Washington didn’t immediately take to the idea, and it took five years for the federal government to hear the pleas of the Appalachian governors. Only after President Kennedy was assassinated did President Lyndon Johnson fulfilled the promise that Kennedy had made when he was running for president.

What came out of that comprehensive study was the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a group organized to study and implement economic change throughout the region.

The initial charter contained four ideas that ARC would focus on, which would be the keys to Appalachia getting out from under its feudalist history: develop and exploit the alternative energies that existed within the region, build out the education system, develop economic corridors, and most importantly build an infrastructure that would connect the region’s many rural areas to the large economic centers.

Of those four ideas, the ARC and the Appalachian governors argued — in no uncertain terms — that infrastructure building was the most important part of those four recommendations. Without that infrastructure, the ARC position states, the other three elements would fail.

If they just exploited the natural resources of the region, that would likely continue to be controlled by companies that didn’t have any allegiance to that particular region. If they just bolstered the education system, they would educating people who would have no jobs and eventually leave. If they just built out the business corridors, they would face a shortage of workers.

What they truly needed was to build the veins through which the blood of prosperity could flow. In other words: without creating the connective tissue that would bring Appalachia into the fold with the rest of the American economy the region would slowly die.

* * *

Now you’re reading this in 2017 so you know something went wrong. Somehow that infrastructure building never happened. No connective tissue was built. No transportation systems developed.

The reason — or at least one reason — is that Congress gutted two parts of the ARC’s original recommendations. It de-emphasized the exploitation of alternative energies, preferring to allow the corporations that has extracted most of the mineral wealth from the region already to determine what energies should be harvested next. And it also decided to forgo building out the transportation and connected infrastructures that would have made Appalachia part of the national economy.

Instead, the ARC’s mandate focused almost exclusively on building out the business corridors,  assuming that once those were built money would flow into the region thus bolstering the education, infrastructure, and natural resource exploitation.

But gutting the most important part of the mandate — creating an infrastructure that allowed for social, educational, and business mobility — left in place the very structures of feudalism that ensured that a few people would control the most important parts of the region.

And so here we are today: Appalachia has been choked off from the national — and global — economy. Small rural towns are dying. Young people — when they can — leave, and never come back. Those who can’t are left to live in a place where jobs that were once abundant have now gone away. And without the infrastructure, there’s little new money coming in and nearly no social mobility throughout the region.

The senses are shutting down. And people are making decisions for fear of survival, without all the data points that others have. And Appalachian parents not only fear for their own economic security, but also the economic security of their children.

Say what you will, but the people and the region are faced with extinction. And so there is a laser focus on one thing and one thing alone: creating the infrastructure and jobs that will save not only the people who live there now, but the children of the people who live there now.

That is the number one issue facing the area. That is the lens through which every — every — decision is processed by the twenty-four million people who populate Appalachia.

While there are surely — and inevitably — those who have other nefarious, wretched reasons for the decisions they make, there are countless others who are struggling to imagine a world in which tomorrow will be even marginally less terrible than today.

Everything else — all the hand-wringing that those of us who have options, who have choices, and who have opportunities — see around the periphery in a way that those facing the long, slow death may not.

The Curious Case of Explaining, not Excusing

When I set out to write So Far Appalachia, I had to deal with a very real problem.

I wanted to tell a story about Appalachia, one that touches on the historical forces that created the region and shaped the people. I wanted to tell the story of the people I knew, of the place I grew up, and of the world into which I was born. I wanted to do that in a way most people don’t think about that world. Even in the age of Hillbilly Elegy and Donald Trump, the truth is few people visit the place and get to know the history and culture. Even with all of this media saturation, I am from a world once-removed.

When I talk with people about Appalachia, I’ve found most have only a cursory knowledge of the region. They know it because they read something. Or maybe they’ve talked to somebody. And on the off-chance they’d been to Appalachia — it’s thirteen states and 425 counties, so it’s pretty big — their visit was incidental. After all, ain’t nobody planning a vacation to Clay County, Kentucky. (If you’re ever inclined, let me invite you to The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale, a 450-mile trek through the heart of Appalachia.)

This idea — people talking about, without ever experiencing — created a rather odd dynamic for me as I sat down to write this book. Appalachians are so often talked about, rarely talked to, and almost never given license to talk ourselves. The reason: Everyone is convinced they know who we are, and why we are the way we are.

If you think I’m wrong, try this little experiment: Ask somebody why Appalachia now largely votes for Republicans in national elections. Even amongst my educated and erudite friends, the responses I get are filled with venomous hatred and disdain for the people.

And I understand that. My friends are scared. They are frightened. And they are confused. It’s as if this other race of people emerged from the stars, and landed in the United States.

As I sat down down to write this book, I was faced with this strange tightrope act: I wanted to write a book about why Appalachia and its people ended up as they have, but I also needed to acknowledge its sometimes brutal and horrible history.

* * *

And so I have wanted to tell the story of Appalachia — or at least my Appalachia — for a long time. I wanted to tell the story of the historic and economic forces that are so baked into the DNA of this country that we don’t even see them anymore, and how those forces were specifically and meticulously designed to turn Appalachia into what it is today.

There was something deeper, something more embedded within the history of America, that made my region, and my people, into the caricatures that have permeated the popular culture, the national news, and the cultural zeitgeist.

There are reasons that my friends are afraid, and I wanted to explain what those were. Within that story, I hoped, we could all forge a new way to talk to each other.

But therein lies the rub: I was faced with writing a story that needed to tackle the historical issue of class in this country — which we don’t talk about — while wrapping that around the idea of race and gender — which we talk about all the time although rarely as part of an interconnected conversation.

And let’s be honest: telling that story as a middle-aged white dude with a funky southern accent is one that makes a great many people take a big ass breath (rightfully!) hoping Uncle Brad doesn’t say some dumb ass shit along the way. (And even if Uncle Brad doesn’t say some dumb ass shit, a certain part of that group will tell Uncle Brad that people that look and sound like him need to shut the hell up because we’ve already had our turn.)

So I find myself on the tightrope that all writers find themselves: I wanted to tell a story that explained, but didn’t excuse, knowing full well that some part of the population probably (and righteously) didn’t want to hear it.

And if I was deft enough at pulling this off, the story wouldn’t just be about Appalachia. Or the white working class, who I have been writing about as a proxy for so many other things. The story would be the story of America, and how invisible (and many times not so invisible) forces were put in place that drive us apart.

My hope — my eternal hope — is that if I can tell the story of my Appalachia in a way that people recognize the invisible force of class, then those people who were shaped by class (the white Appalachia I’m writing about) can make the intellectual leap to understand that if their forces are real, then so to are the forces of race, and gender, and sexual orientation that have smashed up against the rest of our country.

To do that, I needed to be real in a way that’s frankly uncomfortable, but necessary, for white folks.

* * *

I have written this story because I wanted to tell the story of my family, who came to America in the sixteen hundreds and settled what would become part of the Appalachian region in the seventeen hundreds…and then mostly (but not entirely) never left.

I have written this story because I feel Appalachia deep within me. And like the invisible forces that shaped America, those same invisible forces in Appalachia have shaped me. (I say this while sitting in Pittsburgh, the northern industrial capital of the region, and feeling more at ease than I have in a long time. Something about the mountains, and the green, and accents, and the vibe that make me feel like I’ve finally come home.)

I wanted to tell this story — in part —  because I needed the world to understand that who I was, and where I was from, mattered. And I wanted to understand for myself that I — and my world — matter even as we face the parts of our history that are violent, and terrible, and indefensible.

I wanted — maybe I needed — to face down some of the uncomfortable truths of the region. I needed to tell a story that said, “look, despite the forces that had pushed against the people of Appalachia, we can’t simply use those to brush aside the racism, and sexism, and homophobia that permeated the culture.” (Two good primers: anything by bell hooks but particularly belonging and Been Coming through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky. These aren’t easy books, which is exactly why you should start here.)

And in my story, there are also some more personal truths that have to be confronted: my family owned slaves. I can’t dance around that, or pretend that despite the hardships they faced that somehow what they did was justified. Or that it’s somehow better that the history books have oftentimes written about how the family made a habit of freeing its slaves. Or that it’s better because my family fought unequivocally for the North.

Being poor — or being forced to be poor, or having your region’s weath destroyed as you fought to maintain your social standing — doesn’t give anyone cover on those other areas. These ideas are not — and we cannot allow people to portray them as — correlated. Poverty doesn’t have a moral nature to it. Even the slow crush of poverty as feudal, capitalist forces drain the region of its money and its hope.

And I’ve always refused to cede that poverty was a root cause of these other diseases because — by definition — that gives those who are more well off the cover to claim that they don’t traffic in those very things. And we know the rich to traffick in such things, in ways that eviscerate economically.

* * *

So here we are: you and I at the start of this journey. Throughout the next year, I’m going to write about the issues that smash against Appalachia and this country. I’m going to write about the ideas that cross my mind. Sometimes those will be national issues. Sometimes those will be my own small thoughts.

Whatever I write, though, I promise you this: my goal is simply to explain a place I’m from, and not excuse the complexities that have spilled out into the world. While we can never really separate one from the other, each — I think — can be true in its own right.

Roger (& Jared & J.D.) and Me, or Breaking Appalachia

I started writing So Far Appalachia — or at least what would become the book — in 1998. I was twenty-six years old.

I didn’t have idea where the narrative, and the research, and my career would take me. I just knew that I needed to write this story. I needed to do that in the right way. And I was fairly certain that I wasn’t yet ready to do it.

I can’t — and couldn’t — articulate in words what that meant, but everybody knows the feeling I’m talking about. It’s that creeping feeling of inevitable despair that follows you around when you finally find something that you want and don’t know how you will survive if you don’t get it.

I also knew that I wanted something more than just write a book. I didn’t want to finish this, send it out into the world, and have it exist. I wanted to make a thing, and I wanted that thing to be part of something that mattered. I wanted the book to be part of a conversation. Part of a movement. Part of a wave.

But neither was going to happen for me in 1998. And so the years flowed by, sometimes silently and sometimes violently. Through it all, I wrote more. I got better at my craft. I tried to beat back that creeping despair with my words. Along the way: I found myself, lost myself, found myself again, and today find myself adrift in a storm and unsure how I will — or even if I want to — find my way back to stable ground.

In those travels and in that darkness, I came to find something more meaningful than the serenity I’ve glimpsed from time to time: my voice.

I have never been the person I’d hoped to be, but I’ve always know the stories I’ve wanted to tell. Even as the very real life I’d so carefully cultivate shifted beneath me and swallowed me whole, that instability brought clarity to my voice.

And this has always felt like a fair trade to me.

I have wondered if that is the price the writers — or storytellers — have to pay for that clarity of voice. I have wondered if this constant churn, this sense of doom, and these impending waves are the gifts that allow us find that singular voice that is our own. (My friend Jason says this is my sick obsession, although I have watched him struggle in his own way to find his path.)

But more than just finding my voice, that struggle has helped me find the community of writers who are telling the kinds of stories that I tell. We are not friends, this group. We are not the literary circle that I’d always envisioned I’d be part. But as I’ve found my way through So Far Appalachia, I’ve had the chance to meet, talk, and read the work of others who have found their voices in the wilderness.

This is the gift of the churn, and the voice, and the story.

Voices in the Wilderness

I first met Roger May first through Kickstarter where he launched his Testify project, a love story in photographs of Appalachia. I backed his project (and he backed mine; only one of us has completed work as of yet but So Far Appalachia is coming soon) as part of a decision I made to back as many Appalachian projects as I could find. But his, by far, was the most polished, haunting, and beautiful.

In my younger days, I had little appreciation for the aesthetics that go with words. I’m a writer. The pictures live in my head, and they come out on the page as something else. I like that something else. And for years I thought the something else was all you needed. But then I worked with amazing designers at national magazines. I began to see how those images and picture and designs could move — or destroy — the story.

All that is to say that while I have no talent for making the design, I have a pretty good idea for what excellence in that area looks like. And Roger had that.

He went on to launch the Looking at Appalachia project, which has grown into a curated multimedia storytelling project that puts the Appalachian people at the center of the storytelling experience.

Just short time later, I had met Jared Yates Sexton when he appeared — and won the night — at one of the readings my writing collective The Geeky Press held. In fact, he’d recently left Ball State — where I taught at the time — and he was working on a project that would become his forthcoming book, The People are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, his first-hand account following the Trump campaign.

He was — and is — a gracious dude, one who grew up a little rougher than me but with backgrounds similar enough that I was fond of him. I think the feeling was mutual, but neither of us ever really bothered to ask. That’s not really how I’ve ever trafficked in life, and I appreciate the silent acknowledgement of kinship without all the messy words.

But where you’re probably most likely to know him is on Twitter (@JYSexton) where his tweetstorms about Trump and the political right have become legendary (at least inasmuch as such things become the stuff of legend)!

Time passed between Jared’s departure from Indianapolis and my next encounter. In the intervening time, my world began to crumble and shift.

I’d lost the will — and desire — to continue working as a professor. The work had dulled me, muted the writing. David Foster Wallace once said that the first three years of teaching were when you learned the most about yourself (and thus were the most interesting). Year one you learn that you don’t really understand how to break down your craft into small pieces. Year two you begin to dig into and understand exactly how you work. And Year three is when you teach. After that, you cease to grow in the classroom because the students no longer push you (as each new crop comes in with the same basic set of questions the first crop had.)

As I headed into year nine, something broke inside me. The world’s colors turned grey. I moved through the world, but I wasn’t connected to it.  For two years, the fissures within me grew. But when it — I — broke, I found the colors again. I retreated into my words. In just six weeks, I banged out 30,000 new words to go with the 30,000 I’d written slowly, and painfully, over the previous four years.

Which is when I came to meet the last Appalachian voice. This time it happened Twitter. I’d gone on a tweetstorm about colonialism and Appalachia, delving into the historical constructs that have shaped the region when a mutual friend tagged J.D. Vance (@JDVance1), the author of Hillbilly Elegy and a fellow Buckeye.

Of course, I was thrilled to see a book about Appalachia hit the cultural zeitgeist, but I was equally annoyed to see a book about Appalachia hit the cultural zeitgeist. Still, the Twitter tag was a provocation, someone who thought that I’d taken umbrage with Vance’s portrayal and analysis of Appalachia. His story about growing up in Middletown, Ohio (a town just a stone’s throw from where I grew up) had caused quite a stir, particularly from those on the political left who have largely rejected the analysis he laid upon his story.

But I have a rule about Twitter fights: they are dumb. And they are particularly dumb when they are about important issues. And I find the issue about how we tell stories about Appalachia to be important.

We shared a pleasant conversation about Appalachia for a series of tweets, and we connected again after Jared wrote a post in Salon called “Hillbilly Sellout,” which felt — if I’m feeling generous — like clickbait. Dave Tabler, who runs a large Appalachian Facebook group, posted the article and after reading it I tagged J.D. when I wrote that I didn’t find the piece a fair representation of the book or its intention.

And with that, I ducked back into my writing room to put the finishing touches on my own book.

And So

The irony of this journey is that when I began this book I was positive it would be difficult to sell. Nobody, I thought, wants to read about Appalachia.

And now: I’ve found just the opposite. I finished my first round of agent pitching, something I hadn’t planned on doing when I launched the So Far Appalachia Kickstarter. My plan was to publish through my collective, which also has a small publishing arm.

Then the Appalachian wave hit the media, and I felt I owed it to the project (and myself) to see what might become of this.

Early returns have been good. Thirty pitches, and eight agents have asked for the full manuscript. While five have rejected it, they’ve done so with long emails. Some offered editorial suggestions, many of which mirrored what my early readers said (which is a good thing). But each of them took time to praise the voice, the point of view, and the narrative, rejecting the book only because they didn’t feel like the project was right for them. (That, of course, could mean, “It’s not them, it’s me” but I choose to think otherwise.)

The rejection has been disheartening because the project is so personal and has been so long in the making. And the wave is here.

But that isn’t the point for me. It’s never been the point even as I’ve strived for such success. (And, in fact, I wonder how much self-sabotage I’ve undertaken in my career given the opportunities I’ve had.)

The things that have always sustained me, and carried me through the darkness, and given me a world with color: the writing, and the voices, and the stories.

I’ve found my voice in the wilderness. I’ve found other voices in the wilderness. And if the sounds of Appalachia are too loud for this moment, that’s okay.

So Far Appalachia: The Myth of the Rural, White Working Class + Voting Against Their Self Interest

 

I’m writing a book about Appalachia. More specially, I’m writing a memoir of my family, which helped settled what is now the poorest county in the country: Clay County, which The New York Times  dubbed “The Hardest Place to Live in America.” The book,  called So Far Appalachia, is almost done. You can sign up for the newsletter if you’re interested in more discussions about what I guess we’re now calling the “poor, white, rural voters.”

That’s the context for why we’re here.

I’m writing this post because since the Presidential election, in which our country choose Donald J. Trump as our next leader, so many of my liberal friends have been struggling to understand why — WHY? — so many working class white folks voted against Sec. Hillary Clinton.

More specifically, on Friday, December 2 I posted  this NPR piece “In Depressed Rural Kentucky, Worries Mount Over Medicaid Cutbacks” on my Facebook page. Predictably, the new code phrases that signal disdain for Appalachians appeared. You know them: “low information voters” and “voting against their self interest.”

Instead of fighting on the Internet— which nobody enjoys— I promised that I’d dig into the book’s draft, pull out a few bits and pieces that explain why those white, rural, poor folks didn’t vote against their self interest, and wrap it up with this little introduction.

There are two things to note:

  • I’ve left all the social science out of this post. This is the exposition from the book that explains all the social science. I’ll follow up with another one giving my science-minded friends — the evidence-based crowd — the opportunity to stop spinning conspiracy stories, and instead read up on all the social science that’s been done on the region; and
  • I’ve written an entire book on the subject. This problem is complex and complicated. This post is really a distillation of some of the larger themes in the book.  But really there’s so much more.

Before We Move Forward: A Note

I need to frame this discussion — and the book. What I’m doing is very simple: explaining, not excusing. Great writing and storytelling help us see and understand worlds that are different than ours.

Great stories do not whitewash away the rough edges. I can’t write a book about Appalachian culture without dealing with this important idea.

I love Appalachia, but we’ve got to recognize that racism and misogyny are deeply — deeply — embedded within the culture. Blacks and African-Americans have been nearly wiped away from the history of the region, and so too were women from all backgrounds. This isn’t a book meant to prop up the noble Appalachian working class. Nobility isn’t bestowed on any class. Not Appalachians. Not the working class. Not anyone. Nobility, where it exists, does so within individuals, in tiny moments in their lives. My family — and Appalachians — aren’t noble. My family owned slaves. There is no way around that. We did, and that’s a shame that we must bear and own.

But there’s two points that we need to clear up right now. The first is that neither of those issues is inherent only to Appalachia. The second is addressing issues of race and gender are deeply important to the future of our country. But neither will be part of this book.

While this book is about Appalachia, it’s a story of class warfare.

A Hypothetical Conundrum to Begin

Let’s begin with a hypothetical.

Imagine you are in your mid-forties, you have two children, and you live in a place where there’s been no new businesses developed in the last thirty years. You live well off the beaten path, along one of myriad state routes that used to be the lifeblood of the country but now largely serve as a reminder of how forgotten you are. That lack of transportation infrastructure and cost of doing business due to regulations— oversight that you know  makes your life better— discourages corporations big and small from coming into your town.

With no new businesses, increasingly you are forced to depend upon the government to provide you basic services like healthcare and unemployment insurance. You hate that, but you also have little choice. You don’t have the money — or connections — to move…somewhere else.

In each election season, you find yourself making a choice: continue receiving government help, which you know will not make your children’s life better, or forego those basic services in hopes that your town—one forgotten by the country— has the chance to create jobs that may provide you, and your children, the chance to carve out a life.

The choice each election season is the same, but the circumstances in which you live are getting worse because where you live isn’t part of the growth of the country.

So which do you choose: government help that you know will be there but that doesn’t provide a future, or the chance to maybe build something new (and knowing that if you fail, you will be worse off than you are)?

You must choose one or the other. If you decide not to choose, then you’re told you have no right to complain. And— by the way— no matter which you pick, people will chide you for being too stupid to know the right answer?

Viewing Appalachia

To understand Clay County— and Appalachia, and this question —means understanding how it came to be one of the poorest places in America. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a hard question to answer. How hard can it be to understand the forces that have caused nearly seven decades of poverty?

The answer: quite hard.

More importantly, how you look at the problem says quite a bit about who you are, and how you think about not only the people of Clay County, but also of the larger Appalachian region, which has seen spirit-crushing poverty since the nineteen-sixties.

There’s two ways most researchers — and people — think about poverty.

The first is the “culture-of-poverty,” which in the case of Appalachia means that its relative isolation from the rest of the country has excluded it from the national (and now international economy). The second is the “internal colony,” which in the case of Appalachia means that outside forces — the national (and now international) corporate economy — has harvested its resources and left it barren.

If you fall into the first camp, the people who think that rural isolation is the cause of poverty, then you’re more likely to put the onus of fixing that poverty on the people. It’s a solvable problem, one that can be fixed with new infrastructure, better education, and hard work. If you fall into the second camp, you’re more likely to think that speculators, corporations, and governments must be held accountable for what they have done, and forced to give back to the areas and people they have abandoned.

The culture of poverty tells people to get off their asses and fix things that they didn’t break. The internal colony suggests that external, invisible forces have shaped and limited the choices people can make.

And so you can begin to see how the way you perceive the problem shapes the way you perceive the people. If you think the culture of poverty is the problem, then it’s the people who are at fault. And if you think it’s a colonial issue, then it’s the structures around the people who are at fault.

And that begins to illuminate so much of how you talk about us.

Because if you wonder why people might vote for a political candidate that isn’t interested in social programs for Appalachia, maybe it’s because the people understand that it’s not social programs that are the problem. And if you wonder why the people may want an economy unrestrained by regulation, maybe it’s because the regulations have been set up in ways that help internal colonizers.

If we think back to the choice from the hypothetical, the idea of “self-interest” becomes something far more complex than just “vote for Medicaid because you need it” or “vote for more social programs.”

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not the people who are the problem at all.

Instead, it’s the fact that for whatever the deep-seated reasons are for the crushing poverty that has descended upon the Appalachian region, the twenty-four million residents know that what they really need is a fair chance against everyone else. And since the game has been rigged, the only way they know how to get out is to re-set all the rules.

About that Self-Interest Thing

The idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is baked into the American mythology. That is part of the myth of nobility that courses through our blood.

And I suspect — but do not know — that it comes from a people who forged across the frontier and learned to survive on their own. They pushed across the frontier that had no comforts of the day. The very type of people who would set out across wild land must have been, at least in some way, the self sufficient type. There is something quite noble about taking care of your own problems. There is something very human about persevering through whatever hardship you’re faced with.

Until the day comes when you need help.

And so when people ask me the question why do those hillbillies vote against their own self-interest I tried to explain this to them: They aren’t voting against their own self-interest.

In the last two hundred years, every time someone has shown up in Clay County — and counties just like Clay across the Appalachian region — goods and money were taken, and the people never ended up in a better place. The state and federal governments, the judicial system, and outside speculators colluded to steal— or legally extract— the resources of the region, all while promising “a better tomorrow.”

And so the history of Clay County— and Kentucky— was a fight with the Virginia legislature over who owned the land. (The Supreme Court said Virginia’s owned Kentucky’s land, regardless of who lived there.)

After two hundreds years, the choice between the do-gooder who ends up stealing your money and the asshole who doesn’t care whether you live or die is pretty simple: I’ll take the asshole every time. And the people who seem to care the least about meddling in their business aren’t the Democrats, who waged a war on poverty and who have come trying to tell them how to fix their world. No, the people who believe in the least government and have a laissez-faire attitude about helping people are the Republicans.

The people who you think are voting against their self-interest are doing something quite different. They are just looking for a level playing field, one where they control their land, their economy, and their community. They aren’t voting against their own self-interest.

They are voting on themselves because nobody else has ever come to help them.

Explaining, not Excusing

We are as incapable of talking about class in America, as we are capable of speaking about race and gender.

But in this discussion — to answer this question of why the white, rural voters choose who they did — we have to recalibrate the ways in which we talk about rural, white voters.

I will leave you with this: Many are very quick to remind people that the worst of a group does not represent that group. Terrorist is not synonymous with Muslim, and so on through the different groups. And so we must remember that the racists that surely— unequivocally —embody parts of white, rural America are not synonymous with all white, rural voters.

We can’t — we must not — fall into that trap here that even as we fight and condemn racism and sexism in all its forms

Instead, we need to recalibrate our national discussion to understand that class is as powerful as race and gender (and other identifiers) in this country. We must begin to understand that the invisible forces that shape minorities, women, and immigrants, also shape the poor and the rural who have been excluded from the recent growth in the national economy.

Indy WordLab: Readings from So Far Appalachia + The Summer Run

On Monday, December 1, the folks at Metonymy Media asked me to host Indy WordLab at Indy Reads Books. I’m not a big fan of readings, but I’ve put so many other authors in the hot seat with The Downtown Writers Jam that it felt rude to say no.

Agreeing to read also meant I needed to get my own writing together. I spent the last few weeks polishing up the opening of So Far Appalachia and pulling together my short nonfiction book The Summer of RunIf all goes well, both will be finished in 2015.

Until then: I hope you enjoy the words.

Introducing the two books

So Far Appalachia

“Introduction”

“Chapter 1: The Road to Beaumont”

The Summer of Run

“Prologue: A Moment in Palo Duro”

An Evening in Images

So Far Appalachia: A Reading at Indy Reads Books

Thanks to my friends at Indy WordLab, I’m giving the first public reading of So Far Appalachia: A Memoir of American Mythology at Indy Reads Books.

I’ve been working on the tone and style for the last few months, and it’s finally starting to come together. This is the last rough draft before Part I goes into the drawer and Part II gets written. You can listen to my final reading prep before I headed up on stage.

This is the “Introduction” and “Chapter 1: The Road to Beaumont”.

The Complexity of Understanding Appalachia Economics

There’s a great complexity to why Appalachia has ended up in its current economic and cultural states. Economic and political forces pushed against the region without any centralized plan for its development. Without arguing the merits of free markets, we can see the net results of development in Appalachia that happened without any real planning.

Before I’ve written a word about the region, I wanted to read as much history and social science as I could. I know just enough about the region to let the basic cultural representations cloud my view, and I’ve tried to stay away from those easy answers.

One of the areas I’ve tried to understand is poverty, and more specifically what happened in the region to cause such a concentration of poverty in the area. For instance, in Owsley County nearly 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. It’s easy to lay the blame solely upon the local population, but my assumption has been there are bigger factors that have made climbing out of the economic dire straits more challenging.

As I’ve continued researching, three basic themes that have emerged in both the historical and scientific research:

Outside speculators came to the area (some friends of the Crown, some companies), and these companies were not interested in developing local economics and sustainable environments. They came to make as much as they could from the natural resources, e.g. timber, salt, coal.

“Virginia also chartered another land company-the Loyal Land Company headed by Dr. Thomas Walker, who with Buchanan and Patton and other land prospectors found and named the Cumberland Gap leading toward Kentucky in 1750-to take up and sell land in the upper Tennessee watershed….

…At the same time, the colony chartered the Ohio Company to acquire and sell land around the Forks of the Ohio (the site of modern Pittsburgh) and the Greenbrier Company, whose territory was the valley of the New River’s largest tributary, draining the district adjacent to West Virginia’s present border with Virginia. Thus the movement of people into southwest Virginia represented not only a race between settlers and speculators, but also contests among the rival speculators to identify and secure the best land.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 141-146). Kindle Edition.

Those companies divvied up what would become the region without regard to resource and political boundaries, which has created county and state lines that have often created metropolis regions with resources and outlying areas without.

“Where in this huge territory is Appalachia? Political boundaries do not provide the answer. Geometric lines drawn in London in the seventeenth century to set off Carolina and Pennsylvania from the Chesapeake colonies were abstractions fixed on the Atlantic shore to demarcate the hinterlands of what were then widely separated thresholds of colonization. These lines were subsequently extended inland with little heed paid to the interior’s natural features.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 182-185). Kindle Edition.

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The Appalachian Archetype, or Why I Can’t Stand Cultural Critiques

While So Far Appalachia uses my family, the Bakers, as the backdrop for its narrative, the story is really about the larger issues that impact how we experience life in America: education, poverty, guns, and civic engagement.

The more I research the book and the more I write on the blog, the more focused that will become on the site.

However, the overarching themes related to stereotypes and class are really driving the book. I’ve written about each of those themes, most recently with the post On Appalachia and Reality TV and Writing, but every day my feed is filled up with images that associate Appalachia with a variety of well-worn stereotypes that have survived from the H.L. Mencken era.

The Importance of Being Working Class

One of the great failures of most contemporary criticism in this country is a complete failure to address class in a meaningful way. It’s oftentimes pushed beneath race and gender, the two dominant relational issues through which many cultural critics view the country.

When I first started writing this book, I found myself debating a feminist friend about the primary importance of class when discussing the region.

“Class may be important,” she argued,  “but the women in Appalachia most certainly are less well off than the men.”

In that particularist argument, she is most certainly correct (although I haven’t looked at the most recent data, which would reflect that more women now graduate college than men and thus are changing that dynamic). Regardless of the veracity of her particularistic argument, it’s her claim itself that reinforced the idea that the region must operate within its own walled-off bubble.

In other words: what’s primarily important in her argument isn’t that the region has been cut-off from the economic growth of the country, but instead its that the women in that region get a smaller portion of the shrinking Appalachian economic opportunity.

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From Whence The Kickstarter Backers Came

I’m a little behind on my So Far Appalachia writing, but I’m happy to report that full writing operations on So Far Appalachia are about to commence.

The reason for the initial delay was that my writing partner John Borland and I have just put the last touches on Dungeons & Dreamers: A story of how computer games created a global culture, a book we hoped to have finished in September. Now that we’ve moved from writing into production, I can finally turn my eyes completely towards Appalachia.

The first step in that process is sending out the first rewards: Thank You notes for all who responded to the Kickstarter survey. (If you haven’t responded, log in, and fill out that survey. If you’re not a backer, don’t worry about this.)

While writing those notes, I decided to create a little visual aid to help show what it takes to get one of these projects off the ground.

Why You Think Appalachians Vote Against Their Self Interest

“The only way it’s ever going to change for us is if a poor person is elected president, and that isn’t going to happen.”

How I See People Viewing Appalachia

When elections roll around, I try to pay close attention to how people speak about Appalachia. I do that because I’m both interested in how candidates address the idea of race and class without ever mentioning either, and I’m interested how commentators respond to that politicking.

In general, here’s how I divide that commentary:

  • those who can’t understand why Appalachians, particularly from the central and south regions, would vote Republican; and
  • those who try to imprint their own ideals on Appalachians to push an agenda that has little to do with helping Appalachians.

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Appalachia. People either believe these folks are ignorant, gun-toting rednecks who hate everybody who isn’t white, or these folks are salt-of-the-earth, blue collar workers without whom the country couldn’t function so let’s just leave them alone.

The problem is that neither of those archetypes describes the Appalachia that I know.

The Questions My Friends Ask

When I set out to write So Far Appalachia, I had in mind that I wanted to address the stark dichotomy between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the region. 

My friends on the Left couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that Appalachians would turn away help from the government, and my friends on the Right believed that the Appalachian disdain for the government meant they were free-market Libertarians who wanted nothing more than all social structures to go away.

Whenever I’d finish conversations on the subject, my friends on the Left seemed to believe I was a neocon zealot and my friends on the Right seemed to believe I was one step away from a socialist.

I realized within those conversations there was a question I needed to explore: Why is Appalachia the way that it is?

The Four Rails of America

As the book research evolved and as I’ve dug through my family’s history, four themes emerged.

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On the death of my great uncle

“Hello cousin Brad. Just letting you know that Dad died this morning. The last of that group of Bakers. Glad you got to visit. Love Connie.”

The Bakers 2

Visiting Herbert and my cousins in Oregon in August 2013.

I received the text at 9:33 pm last night as my wife and I sat on the couch watching television. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think in that moment. I’d finally made my way to Oregon in August to meet Herbert, and we’d had a nice visit.

He was still pretty sharp, but it was clear he’d made his peace with the world. “I keep trying to go, Brad, but they won’t take me.”

While there’s much to tell about Herbert, the really good stories will get told in the book. For now, I wanted to share this tidbit because it represents a fundamentally important idea that Herbert and his brothers shared.

In the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Herbert and his brothers signed up for military service. This included Robert Lee, who was only 16 at the time. For whatever trouble the Bakers stirred up with the government throughout the years, they had long prided themselves on military service. When their country called, they answered.

His mother, my great-great grandmother, would eventually receive a congressional citation since she had 6 boys in the service.

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