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Elizabeth Catte: Resisting Myths of Whiteness in Appalachia

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Hours after President Trump announced his sweeping immigration ban, conservative social media began to circulate press photos of Kentuckians taken during Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign as a form of support. If the connection wasn’t immediately clear, the photographs’ superimposed text drove home the point: why should we care about refugees, the images asked, when poor white Appalachians are suffering on our doorstep?

Although uncreative and callous, the use of these images pulls from the grimier subtext of both historic and contemporary writing about Appalachia, and particularly the political debates about our region that took place during the election. According to some analysis, to be Appalachian is to be poor and dismissed through national indifference, but most of all, it is to be white and therefore more deserving of good will.

Most of us who are from or live within Appalachia know those perceptions to be regional stereotypes. Appalachia is not now nor has it ever been racially homogenous, yet the default Appalachia that exists in the imaginations of many is exclusively white and universally poor. During the election, journalists gave these stereotypes new life by casting Appalachia as the heart of “Trump Country.” Profile after profile offered up Appalachia as home to a unique kind of white voter motivated by sheer economic desperation with little attention paid to our region’s diversity, history, or the roots of its decline. I came to see what I initially dismissed as regional ignorance as a deliberate strategy that allowed writers to discuss Trump’s popularity without confronting the racism and xenophobia within his campaign and among his base.

This strategy trades on the flawed assumption that racism, as such, can’t exist to any significant degree in Appalachia because its regional identity is white and degraded. This suggestion might sound odd, at first, given that writers often use precisely the same logic to argue that Appalachia is a hyper-racist region. What these two positions share, however, is a willingness to use Appalachia as proof of a variety of extremes depending on the needs of the current political moment. The fiction of the deviant hillbilly — think Deliverance — served the 1970s well, for example, because definitions of social progress in part hinged on the acceptance of personal freedoms like women’s and LGBT rights, along with support for racial equality. Locating the antidote to progress deep within mountains and hollers made those outside the region feel more progressive. Our current political climate needed a category of white individuals that allowed writers to make tidier arguments about class while ignoring or deflecting attention to race, and it wasn’t the first time that Appalachians have served that role.

Anthropologist Allen Batteau called it the myth of “Holy Appalachia” — a fiction designed to help repair a society contaminated by the evils of slavery. During and after the Civil War, it became therapeutic, in a sense, to allow a category of white persons immunity from racial hysteria. In other words, Appalachians became the first beneficiaries of the #notallwhitepeople impulse. Citing the existence of Appalachian anti-slavery societies and geographic and cultural distance from plantation slavery, a wide variety of intellectuals — from Abraham Lincoln to Carter G. Woodson — made the case for our racial innocence. If the institution of slavery fundamentally altered the moral compass of whites, it followed that those who lacked exposure to could be spared.

Throughout the nineteenth century, white Appalachians also participated in this myth-making. When outsiders employed the stereotype of an uncivilized Appalachia to justify their economic and social experiments in the region, we often countered with valorized versions of our better selves. The myth of a “Holy Appalachia” is a wholesome fiction, unlike those that resulted in our economic exploitation. And over time, all of our stereotypes — both benevolent and derogatory — came to be embedded in the way that individuals within and outside the region looked at Appalachia through the prism of class.

In Appalachia, class often supersedes race as the defining maker of social status. Our region is shaped by decades of conflict between the working class and those who controlled our industries. Appalachia has yielded sophisticated readings of class and labor history, but these too are complicated by the burden we often carry to tell our stories in ways that refute stereotypes. Labor history, and the history of the region’s class conflict, is the arena where Appalachian writers and scholars have pushed back most forcefully against the myth that people of color were not or are not significant to our region. In drawing inspiration from these stories, however, we often emphasize that black and white workers united in mutual class oppression.

To use a recognizable example, imagine the stirring scene from the film Matewan where a white union organizer makes an impassioned defense of African American miners before an interracial crowd. “There ain’t but two sides to this world,” the organizers says, “them that work and them that don’t.” The hostility that white workers initially felt toward African American miners dissipates because the white workers realize that outsiders want them to fall prey to racism as a way to undermine the union. Although people of color are restored to the region’s history, their experiences remain largely interpreted through their class status and often in terms of solidarity with white workers, which becomes the basis for racial unity. As for racism, the myth of “Holy Appalachia” makes an appearance through the suggestion that individuals outside the region stirred up racial hostility as a means of driving a wedge in communities for their economic gain.

The entanglements of race and class within Appalachia and the function of regional stereotypes within these positions are vast topics. This project is an important example of individuals trying to make these topics more intersectional, but we must also understand the cost of using our region’s history as a political weapon. During the election, journalists, pundits, and the public-at-large often used stories of down-and-out Appalachian whites to deflect growing alarm about the most brutal outcomes promised by a Trump victory. The poor, white Appalachian voter, the script went, thinks little about mass deportations, religious discrimination, border walls, or sinister figures elevated to senior political office. His only thoughts are of his economic survival, and although his position might be naïve, he comes by it honestly through an upbringing deprived of meaningful contact with people of color.

This outlook was strengthened by the publication of two recent books that invited readers into a world populated by white individuals who complicate the universal concept of “white privilege,” or so journalists thought. Historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash offers a long look at the changing fates of economically-inferior whites. An academic offering, it pulls race and class apart in order to provide fuller analysis of a dispossessed and often exploited white underclass. Fortunately or unfortunately for Isenberg, her monograph hit the shelves at the precise moment that the country was primed to consume any sort of analysis that might explain Donald Trump’s popularity and particularity his popularity among working-class whites. Another beneficiary of uncanny timing was J.D. Vance, whose self-defined memoir Hillbilly Elegy became the favored text for understanding the inner lives of disadvantaged white voters. Unlike Isenberg, Vance eagerly embraced the role of spokesperson for this group and in the process has left a significant imprint on the way that journalists have covered our region during the election.

What concerns me most about this coverage is its tendency — consciously or unconsciously — to write about white Appalachians as an ethnic minority. Returning to Vance, a central idea in his memoir is that white Appalachians are culturally and ethnically distinct from other white Americans and therefore have a unique “stock” that informs their social position. This is the Scots-Irish myth, repackaged as a political tool. Many individuals within the region or who work in the field of Appalachian Studies have shot back at this not only because it’s inaccurate, but also because he links this distinction to certain pathologies: laziness, violence, poverty, and addiction come immediately to mind. But stepping back from this — and setting down the burden of refuting regional stereotypes — I am alarmed to read such frequent descriptions of white Appalachians that define our relationship to our region and our collective fates as a matter of bloodline. This not only excludes people of color from our shared regional heritage, it comes dangerously close to echoing white nationalism.

Thanks to an election cycle marked by commentary that claims Appalachia is home to a unique group of white second-class citizens with a distinct ethnic heritage, white nationalist are now very interested in our region. The Traditionalist Worker Party, for example, has an extensive yet unsophisticated vision for Appalachia that includes transforming the region into the kind of “people’s community” planned by architects of the Third Reich. At the time of writing, the Traditionalist Worker Party is planning to rally in Pikeville, Kentucky this spring in “defense of white families.” The League of the South, an older hate-group for individuals with “Anglo-Celtic” heritage, is also expanding.

Those of us who are from or love the region have always spoken out against this kind of intellectual dishonesty, but the urgency to do so seems more acute since January 20. I hope that in the process we continue to liberate our history from myths and fictions. Even if the rest of the world seems incapable of looking at the region with clear eyes, we can resist being defined by their gaze.

Elizabeth Catte (@elizabethcatte) is a historian and writer from East Tennessee. She is the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, forthcoming from Belt in 2017. More of her writing can be found at elizabethcatte.com.

 

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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From Corn Liquor to State Pride – Origins of ‘West by God Virginia’

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Trish Hatfield with her husband Jim and their son Ben. Trish’s question “Where does the phrase, ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” won West Virginia Public Broadcasting's latest Wild, Wondering West Virginia poll. Photo: Courtesy of Trish Hatfield

Here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve been asking listeners what they wonder most about West Virginia.

The latest question that won out in an online poll came to us from St. Albans resident Trish Hatfield. She asked, “Where does the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” WVPB reached out to experts across the state and discovered one of the first times the phrase was found in a publication — and we have a good idea why it has stuck around.

“West by God Virginia” is an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

West Virginia University linguistics professor Kirk Hazen did some digging for us into the phrase. The earliest printed version he found was in a Virginia magazine published in 1926 called “The Virginia Spectator.” It reads:

“And it is, we believe, the only way that corn can be mixed and presented to a girl — except the iron plated ones from West (by God) Virginia.”

The article was written by students at the University of Virginia who, in the middle of the prohibition, are likely alluding to making alcohol, Hazen said.

He said the quote is basically saying West Virginia women can hold their liquor.

“And the implication here is that they are accustomed to drinking homemade corn liquor,” he explained. “So, they can handle it without having to mix it up in certain concoctions.”

Hazen discovered this publication with the help from a Google Books application called Ngram Viewer. It’s an online tool that sifts through a massive digital database of millions of publications in several languages.

This screenshot of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a peak in the published phrase “West by God Virginia” in the early 1960s — perhaps due to the centennial celebration of West Virginia in 1963. Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Hazen

Hazen said the phrase likely appeared in written form earlier than 1926, but to confirm that it would take months of sifting through physical documents, such as newspaper clippings, journals, books and magazines.

Hazen found another early publication of the phrase in 1939 in an academic article published by WVU’s English department. The phrase is found in a footnote written by Harold Wentworth. The quote explores the possible history behind “West by God Virginia.” It reads: 

“Among phrases so formed is the well-known ‘West by God Virginia.’ But the expletive insertion here is more syntactical than morphological. One story of the origin of this phrase, true or not, is that a native West Virginian, irked at being called a Virginian, retorted with an intonation that can only be suggested here, ‘not Virginia, but West by God Virginia.’” — Harold Wentworth, WVU department of English, 1939

The exact origin of “West by God Virginia” as a spoken phrase is difficult to pinpoint.

Hazen points out how most spoken language is almost a living organic thing — not something that’s tracked, monitored, sorted or in databases.

But Hazen and other experts say there’s a good chance the phrase made its first oral appearance sometime after West Virginia became a state in 1863. But they say this is educated guesswork.

WVU Linguistics Professor Kirk Hazen. Hazen found one of the earliest uses of “West by God Virginia” in a publication from 1926 about corn liquor. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We spoke with another expert from West Virginia University. Associate Professor Rosemary Hathaway specializes in American folklore and literature. 

Hathaway has been working on a book that explores the cultural history of the term “Mountaineer.” She points to parallels between the origins of “Mountaineer” and the phrase “West by God Virginia.”

“The first time the term Mountaineer shows up as a synonym for West Virginian is before statehood,” she noted.

Hathaway said before we separated from Virginia, there was a legislator from Harrison County who sent a letter to a newspaper in Richmond expressing annoyance that his region, western Virginia, was not being fairly represented in the Virginia Legislature. 

And when he signed that letter?

“He signed it, not with his name, but as a Mountaineer,” Hathaway explained. “So, I sort of see that as being parallel to the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ in the sense that it’s just kind of a way of reminding both ourselves and outsiders that we are distinct from Virginia, and we have a unique identity and a unique history as West Virginians.”

WVU Associate English Professor Rosemary Hathaway. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But none of this answers the underlying question —  why did people start inserting “by God” into the name of West Virginia? 

The use of “by God” in language dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, but it became commonplace in the 1600s, according to Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. Waggoner is also a retired history of English teacher.

Waggoner said “by God” has always been used as a way to emphasize something. He sees the inclusion of it in “West by God Virginia” as an expression of pride, when so much of the world perceives West Virginia in a negative light.

“There’s been a sort of narrative about West Virginia that focuses on illness; it focuses on poverty; it focuses on hard times; it focuses on this sort of thin, cultural and educational infrastructure; a lot of things that are here that need attention and that people who live here know intimately,” Waggoner explained. 

He said many West Virginians are tired and fed up with this negative narrative, and by adding “by God” into our state name, our identity, it allows us to reclaim our image. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride, not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place, that ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” he said.

Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia

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This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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