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Roger May: Despite turbulent times, ‘I couldn’t not come back’ home to West Virginia

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I moved back home to West Virginia at the end of January this year. It was a tumultuous time in my personal life, never mind the charged political landscape of both the nation and state. My last day of work in North Carolina was a Friday, and I had my car loaded so I could leave and drive straight to West Virginia. Monday morning, I was first in line at the DMV in Princeton to get my driver’s license.  (The town sits just an hour east from Welch, West Virginia, a town where national journalists often descend upon to tell stories of opioid addiction, a decline in coal, health care struggles — all related to poverty.)

I was coming to get more than just a driver’s license. I was there to get a West Virginia driver’s license. The woman at the desk told me she’d never seen anyone as excited as me to stand in line at the DMV.

A t-shirt hangs high on the wall for sale at The Little General gas station, Omar, Logan County. (Photo: Roger May)

Over the course of my first few weeks, I watched the president sign executive orders that repealed regulations designed to protect the coalfields of central Appalachia. I attended an ill-publicized town hall meeting with Senator Joe Manchin (who refers to West Virginia as the Extraction State rather than the Mountain State) in Peterstown.

When it was time for questions, I raised my hand first and asked him to look me in the eye and tell me, as a West Virginian, how he could vote to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. Although he did look me in the eye, the next seven minutes were dedicated to everything but answering my question.

So why come home now? I believe in West Virginia.

A truck in Cedar Grove, Kanawha County with a sticker on the back glass read “Friend of God” a play on a campaign by the coal industry known as “Friends of Coal.” (Photo: Roger May)

A person close to me once told me West Virginia was in my DNA. I know I’m not alone when it comes to this place being woven into the very fiber of my existence, of who I am. I have never encountered prouder people in all the places I’ve traveled in the world. And I mean the kind of pride a mother has for a son, not the kind of pride the bible warns us about.

I believe in West Virginia despite being told at an early age that if I wanted to make something of myself I had to move away. I believe in West Virginia because we are more than an extraction state. I believe in West Virginia because I owe to it my forebearers and my children. I believe in West Virginia because my inheritance, our inheritance, is more than surface-mined mountains, valley fills, polluted streams, and being ranked at the bottom of too many lists. I came home to West Virginia to fight for the future.

Our young folk are tired of not being heard. They’re tired of being told what’s best for them, where they should go, why they should stay, and they’re tired of not having a place at the table. They’re tired of being talked at. My granddad, Richard Watson of Chattaroy, once told me that I have two ears and one mouth and that meant I should listen twice as much as I speak. I came home to West Virginia to listen to young folk.

Our forebearers, whether they marched and organized or wrote songs and taught school and stood for what’s right, showed us a way forward. They created hope in times that were dark and sometimes bloody. I came home to West Virginia to honor my forebearers.

In 2014, I photographed the aftermath of the Freedom Industries chemical spill in the Elk River for The Guardian. After working for three days, I got in my car and drove 300 miles back to North Carolina, to clean water, and to a place where hardly anyone knew about the spill. I struggled with leaving and with not doing more. I came home to West Virginia to do more.

Roger May’s aunt, Rita Vanhoose, looks out over the valley below from the King Coal Highway in Mingo County. (Photo: Roger May)

I came home to West Virginia because I couldn’t not come back. Kentucky writer bell hooks wrote in her beautiful essay To Be Whole and Holy, “Hence we return to the unforgettable home places of our past with a vital sense of covenant and commitment.”

I now have the incredible opportunity to direct the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. Founded by Don and Connie West in 1965, the ASFC was founded to educate young people about their mountain heritage and to focus on “the restoration of self-respect and human dignity lost as a consequence of the region’s colonial relationship with industrial America.”

We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t get out of this overnight. There is no quick fix, no easy button, no campaign promise to fix what is broken. What remains is you and me. What is possible is what we choose to do. In Don West’s poem Mountain Boy, he writes, “What will you do for your hills, You mountain boy?”

What will you do for home?

Roger May (@walkyourcamera) is a photographer and writer living in Summers County, West Virginia. He is the director of the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem. In 2014, he started the crowdsourced Looking at Appalachia project. He speaks about his work, about the visual representation of Appalachia, and photographs on commission.

 

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“One Drop” — Reckoning With the Erasure of Native Identity in Appalachia

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The classical stereotype of the Native American is a tired and worn cliché: a dark-skinned, “noble savage” on horseback, hunting buffalo with bow and arrow. It’s an unfortunate result that comes from the informing of our realities by fiction. But, as a modern, mixed-race Native American citizen of Appalachia with nowhere else to see my own identity, I find this somewhat understandable. Popular culture and entertainment provide the most immediate references modern society has of Native Americans, a race of peoples that has all but vanished. So, it’s no wonder that people, including myself, have a hard time reconciling the perceived whiteness of a person’s skin with their underlying nativeness.

I look at myself in the mirror some days, searching for the likeness of my ancestors in the flatness of my nose, the lines in my face, the dark circles under my eyes. Even without the recessive gene of other ancestors who passed on to me my thinning copper red hair, I would likely still look at myself and think, “Am I ‘dark enough?’ Can I really call myself Monacan?” Sometimes, all I see is the whiteness, and it makes me wonder who I am. Other times, I can see the Monacan, and it makes me wonder who I was – and what does any of it mean now?

I know I have the blood of white Europeans coursing through me as much as I do the blood of Monacans. I know my ancestors were regarded as second class citizens, had limited access to schooling and medical services. I know they faced the same exact kind of toxicity that certain people of color still do. We forget sometimes that it was only 51 years ago that “non-White” people were legally allowed to marry white folks in Virginia. In fact, my great uncle and aunt initially could not get married because she was viewed as White and he as Black despite his Monacan blood.

In January of this year, the Monacan Nation finally won a decades-old fight for federal recognition. Headquartered in Amherst County, the Monacan Nation today is the largest of the Virginia tribes, with 2,000 members. And although the Monacan people have primarily lived on the same ancestral homeland for over 10,000 years, it is only now that they have the benefit of federal recognition.

What made the recognition of the Virginia tribes unique was the legislative track that it required. Normally, tribes go through a process of recognition administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, a lack of official state and federal records made that nearly impossible for my people, for a few reasons. Many of the churches and courthouses that held those vital records were either burned or destroyed in the various civil war battles that characterize the area. Monacans were also an intentionally sequestered people who were wary of early colonists’ presence, which meant the government had a difficult time maintaining accurate records.

But the biggest reason that Monacans and other Virginia Indians have trouble tracing their lineage is the result of a man named Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker.

Plecker was an outspoken white supremacist and eugenicist who headed Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. At the time, he and other fringe government officials sought to protect the white race from mixing with other races. Although Virginia already had anti-miscegenation laws, Plecker helped pass several pieces of legislation meant to propel those policies, including the Sterilization Act and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, into the mainstream of politics and legislation.

It was the Racial Integrity Act that hurt Virginian Indians the most. The landmark piece of legislation not only made interracial marriage illegal, but it also instituted a “one drop” rule that effectively classified everyone into two categories. “One drop” of Native American or African blood, made one simply “colored.” Within only a few years of the legislation, the recorded population of Virginia Indians plummeted. Plecker had all but erased the footprint of the Virginia Indian.

Some Monacans held on to their traditions and refused to be defined by manufactured racial designations. This included many of the Monacans living in Amherst who were still classified by the state as “colored” but maintained their cultural ways. Today these people and their descendants make up the heart of the Monacan Nation.

Other Monacans quietly blended into society, mindful of their roots, but relegated to watching their traditions be whitewashed by time and circumstance. Such was the case of my grandfather.

My grandfather was raised by his Monacan parents near the same area in which his ancestors had lived for millennia. He tilled and sowed the thick clay soil of the Virginia countryside like his parents before him. He worked in orchards for extra money and farmed bees for their honey. He worked as a textile fabricator and served as an Army medic in World War II.

When he went to war in Europe, he was classified as a white man, despite his Monacan blood. He received a bronze star for bravery and a purple heart. But when he came home, he found that his true racial and cultural heritage was still scorned. And even though he could surprise you with a story about his time in service, he never talked about where he came from.

I am afraid that he didn’t talk about it because of fear. Fear that he would still be judged the way his parents and grandparents were for being native, for being brown, for being other than white. Perhaps he saw too much in the war that reminded him of what that kind of prejudice can do. I fear that I will never know the rich history of my ancestors, because it was all forced-forgotten.

Like everyone, maybe he wanted a better life for his kids. Maybe he wanted his bloodline free of the prejudice that plagued his family for so long. Maybe he wanted them to have access to a greater education, successful careers, better hospitals and medical services. Maybe he wanted a better life for them and if meant quietly assuming a disguise, so be it. I can’t say I blame him.

I often think that his dedication to our country was a way of being an equal part of something that historically didn’t want him as a member.

Reflecting on current events, my family’s history gives me pause.

It makes me believe that the notion “we have come so far since then” is illusory and a dangerous assumption. We see subtle disguised versions of racism in the news everyday and naked examples on social media. Hate crimes have increased and right-wing extremist movements have taken to the streets with new fervor. It happened, here, in my own town on August 12 of last year when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians and protesters, claiming the life of an innocent young lady. So, the idea that we have come so far is comforting, but the reality is, we are still in the fight.

My grandfather and his family were the target of white supremacist ideology and legislation. Yet, he was willing to defend the country responsible for it by fighting a similar ideology overseas. When I contemplate what it means to look white and be mixed raced here and now, I focus on the responsibility I have to myself, my ancestors, and my history to remain vigilant against those who might present similar threats to others.

I look at my mixed blood as not only a sum of my parts, but a reckoning of them as well.

Flash (@FlashClark) was born and raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and holds a B.S. from Virginia Tech and an MFA in writing and poetics from Naropa University. He has worked with Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, interviewed Dr. Maya Angelou and had his work appear in 16 Blocks Magazine, The Rooster Magazine, The Collegiate Times and the Scotland-based Anything Anymore Anywhere. Flash lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, working as an author, web content writer and book editor.

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92 different kinds of Roseanne

The Problem with Expecting God and an Elegy to ‘Bridge the Divide’

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“I know we can’t bridge it, but how do we help make it better?”

That’s how journalist Salena Zito posed the question of how to approach a public reckoning with the ever-increasing ideological and cultural split between progressive metropolitan areas and conservative small-town America — as a malady of modern society without a solution.

The veteran reporter and political analyst sat down in conversation with author J. D. Vance last week at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina entitled Hillbilly Elegy and the Urban-Rural Divide. The event was hosted by the Carolina Partnership for Reform, a public benefit think tank focused on research and education about conservative policy reforms. (The organization mostly takes the form of a blog and sparse Twitter feed run by longtime Republican operatives Robert Harris and Jeff Hyde.)

The night’s discussion was ostensibly about policy-oriented solutions that bridge differences in public opinion across urban and rural areas, yet the conversation offered little in the way of tangible action. Instead, the two speakers focused on their personal experiences overcoming the circumstances of their birth and musing on how and why popular sentiments have shifted over the course of their lifetimes.

One potential thread the two identified in navigating this territory: a sort of causal relationship between the decades-long decline in church-going nationwide and how television programs portray the American people.

“It’s pretty remarkable how much of a disconnect there is between basic lived experiences of people of faith and what you see in the media,” Vance said on stage. He said he worries that politics have become “a sort of civic religion.”

He recalled a conversation with a senior Obama official who described the president’s farewell address as having the emotional weight of a tent revival.

“If a farewell address has the feel of a religious ceremony, then who is God in that story?” he said. “That just really, really worries me — that the focus on and the importance of politics is becoming people’s identity.”

Both expressed fear about not only the implications this has for our country’s morality, but what may be replacing religious institutions and other cultural touchstones. A newly emboldened focus on American individualism makes us insular — if everything is political, he argued, we’re losing the spaces where we don’t have to be scared of our difference.

Vance called this trend “new,” “unique” and “troubling.”

But most scholars suggest that the history of bitterly divisive political discourse in America is not a new phenomena, but an essential feature in the democratic process, symptomatic of periods of profound social change – like the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution or the present digital and cultural disruptions. Susan Herbst, author of Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics argues that polarization, negativity and even rudeness are natural byproducts of conflict resolution in democracies. However, Zito and Vance argue that religion is the essential  ingredient missing in the common glue that binds us.

A primary cause for this all-encompassing polarization, Zito said, is that churches don’t serve as our primary community centers anymore — suggesting that high school sports and Narcotics Anonymous meetings have replaced them in Appalachia.

While their argument about the profound loss of community and tradition resonates across the political spectrum, simplistic solutions based entirely on an ethos of individual choice obscure the historical consequences of unbridled extractive capitalism on the health of the individuals, families and communities of Appalachia.

What they’re talking about is social capital — the mutual trust and codependency that results from an interdependent web of civic engagements. This human potential is part of what makes all societies, but particularly democracies, work effectively. By tapping into these connections, Americans have historically enacted change through of the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.

Vance is nearly right in lamenting the disappearance of the structure of the community church — the concept best exemplified through the revolutionary roles of institutions like the Black church in the civil rights movement or women’s social groups on the issue of suffrage.

But social capital is fueled by empathy, compassion, justice, trust and cooperative effort. It’s counter to the stifling self-interest that implies a stint in the military and a tug on the bootstraps are all that’s needed to dig one’s way out of a cycle of generations of circumstantial decisions. Circumstances often dictated by distant, powerful economic entities with few ties to local community, and interests focused on extracting short-term economic gain, not long-term investment in sustainable community institutions.

Throughout the country’s history, it is this distinct nuance of individualism over self-interest that seems to play the biggest role in democracy as a governmental function — i.e., motivation towards actually bridging divides through shared policy decisions.

The danger with subjectivity, though, is that lack of interest in the general public (others) can lead to apathy, and without public involvement a democracy has no guidance. As modern sociologists agree, a successful democracy depends on a public that is informed about the issues, aware of the ways in which they are discussed, and regularly debates those issues of the day.

In other words, people need to talk about current events in this social capacity, outside of the binary partisan arena of politics and in contexts where they can see themselves and their communities in order to better understand their own participation in society. Meaning: yes, technically the new politics of the recent Roseanne reboot are actually good for us, but not for the reasons Zito and Vance argue.

Zito cited that the top 20 markets for the new Roseanne show included places like Oklahoma, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh — New York and Los Angeles didn’t make the cut. Folks are watching characters that look like themselves.

“The reaction shouldn’t be 92 different kinds of Roseanne shows,” Zito said. “But it should be a recognition that you show middle class people in a more respectful and authentic way.”

Vance said he hasn’t seen the show yet, but he agrees with sentiment he has seen online that mainstream political discourse needs spaces that show political disagreements that aren’t the entirety of someone’s political identity.

To that way of thinking, Elizabeth Catte, author of “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” offered a relevant criticism of Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” in an interview with Salon:

“I think it is aligned with his eagerness to deploy certain conservative politics and certain conservative outlooks. It kills me that this is a book that liberals, in particular, and college-educated people think, ‘Well, he set his politics aside just to write from the heart.’ They don’t understand, or perhaps they do and they dismiss it, but blaming poverty on poor people is a political opinion.”

Therein lies the fundamental mark that these commentators keep missing: we actually do need 92 different Roseanne’s. We need to see ourselves in our media. In Appalachia especially, we need to tell stories outside of the lens of “Hillbilly Elegyand outside too of Elizabeth Catte’s worldview.

To bridge the divide is to engage in a public conversation with room for the lived experiences of folks faced with similar struggles, and listening to how they came to a different conclusion — reveling in these differences and mediating guilt and self-interest into productive, fruitful and functional conversation in our daily lives. The “problem” cannot be solved by way of a forced return to family values, church attendance or a monolithic narrative of middle America. The way forward starts with incremental, daily work within the communities in which we already find ourselves.

Lovey Cooper (@loveycooper) is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, reporting on the intersection of politics and culture. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Vice, Rewire.News, Education Week and more.

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