Hope and contradictions in Appalachia

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WVU student Tristan Dennis warms up before a concert at Washington Lands Elementary School, Marshall County, WV. Credit: Raymond Thompson.

Travis Stimeling is an associate professor of music history at West Virginia University, a series editor and author with WVU Press, and a member of the WVU Humanities Center advisory board. He was instrumental in helping bring Elizabeth Catte, the press’s new editor at large, to WVU for this week’s talk cosponsored with the humanities center and the David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas. Here he responds to Catte’s presentation.

Earlier this week, WVU Press’s new editor at large Elizabeth Catte visited Morgantown to participate in WVU’s Festival of Ideas and to serve as a much-needed counterpoint to Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who spoke at the university on February 21. Vance’s talk reinforced familiar negative stereotypes about Appalachia at nearly every turn—we’re deliberately ignorant, too lazy to work, and too dependent on government assistance to want to do anything to take ownership over our lives—and blamed “environmental” and “cultural” factors for the region’s problems. On the other hand, Catte—who holds a Ph.D. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University—argued that these negative stereotypes have often been deployed by people who did not always have the best interest of Appalachians at heart, including missionaries, extractive industry leaders, politicians, and even eugenicists.

In her carefully researched new book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, she pushes back against these stereotypes and challenges us—even those of us who are deeply committed to building inclusive, compassionate, and democratic communities in Appalachia—to step back for a moment and consider the ways that our work might implicitly work against our broader goals. At the conclusion of her talk, Catte challenged us to counter negative stereotypes and narratives of Appalachian decline by sharing our own Appalachian stories and by creating spaces where others can do the same. To that end, I’d like to offer a few examples of my Appalachia in the hope that you, too, might do the same.

My Appalachia is:

  • Pride in a family history that ties me to the same land that my eighteenth-century ancestors lived on.
  • Shame that they came to that land as part of a large-scale colonial project that dispossessed indigenous people who had hunted and fished there for centuries before my family arrived.
  • Nostalgia for the smell of drip gas on my dad’s clothes as he returned home from a long day in the oilfield.
  • Fear that the current fracking boom will devastate a fragile ecosystem that has already been taxed by more than a century of energy extraction.
  • The excitement of sitting in my eighth-grade West Virginia History class and learning about Mother Jones, Paint Creek, and Blair Mountain.
  • The voices of teachers telling me to leave the state as fast as I can so I can make something of myself.
  • Fishing for bluegills at one of the state’s many U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–dammed lakes.
  • Mourning the loss of the family farms that form the lakebed.
  • Playing bluegrass and old-time music at rural elementary schools with my WVU students and seeing my students’ eyes light up as they see some of the kids in the audience start dancing in their seats.
  • Leaving those schools with the knowledge that, due to widespread cuts to arts funding, we may have provided the only musical enrichment those children would experience that school year.
  • Eating a pepperoni roll with a side of Oliverio peppers.
  • Trying to square the presence of Italian foodways in my belly with Appalachia’s mythic homogeneous Scots-Irish population.
  • Ethel Caffie-Austin’s swinging right hand, Bob Thompson’s delicate left hand, and the comforting hands of Bill Withers’s grandma.
  • Confederate flags flying from the beds of pickup trucks, displayed on front porches, and depicted on T-shirts.
  • Moving to North Carolina to complete my studies and to Illinois for my first faculty position and longing every day to be back home in the hills.
  • Returning home to find that I must sometimes work harder to fight negative stereotypes about West Virginia here than I did elsewhere.

My Appalachia is an Appalachia of contradictions. But unlike Vance’s desolate and hopeless Appalachia, my Appalachia is, like Catte’s, a hopeful one. It’s one in which people still check in on their neighbors and gather together to share a few songs, regardless of their faith, politics, race, or class. It’s one in which I, as a straight white man, can stand proudly in solidarity with my queer neighbors to demand equal treatment under the law and learn more about how to support other people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness through compassionate listening and deliberate action. It’s one where cutting-edge scientific research is conducted every day and where future technologies and traditional folkways both provide guidance toward a bright tomorrow.

As a professor at WVU, I encounter new opportunities to be hopeful every day. I am hopeful when I look into the eyes of a student who has come to Morgantown despite it being ten times bigger than any other town they’ve visited because they want to learn more about the world and its ways. I am hopeful when a student comes to my office to learn more about the musicians from their home county so that they can understand their own tangled roots. And I am hopeful when a student from out of state comes to me at the end of a long tour through the southern coalfields to tell me that she wants to find a way to make a life here. At the end of the day, I feel sad for J.D. Vance. He doesn’t see what I see. And from up here in the mountains, the view is stunning.

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