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



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Over the course of my first few weeks, I watched the president sign executive orders that repealed regulations designed to protect the coalfields of central Appalachia.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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There is More Than One Religious View on Abortion – Here’s What Jewish Texts Say



Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey discusses a bill that would virtually outlaw abortion in the state. Photo: AP/Blake Paterson

Alabama’s governor signed a bill this week that criminalizes nearly all abortions, threatening providers with a felony conviction and up to 99 years in prison.

It is one of numerous efforts across the United States to restrict access to abortion and challenge the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.

Six states have recently passed legislation that limits abortions to approximately six weeks after the end of a woman’s last period, before many know they are pregnant. Although the laws have not yet taken effect and several have been blocked on constitutional grounds, if enacted they would prohibit most abortions once a doctor can hear rhythmic electrical impulses in the developing fetus.

Called “fetal heartbeat” bills, they generally refer to the fetus as an “unborn human individual.” It is a strategic choice, trying to establish fetal personhood, but it also reveals assumptions about human life beginning at conception that are based on particular Christian teachings.

Not all Christians agree, and diverse religious traditions have a great deal to say about this question that gets lost in the polarized “pro-life” or “pro-choice” debate. As an advocate of reproductive rights, I have taken a side. Yet as a scholar of Jewish Studies, I appreciate how rabbinic sources grapple with the complexity of the issue and offer multiple perspectives.

What Jewish texts say

Traditional Jewish practice is based on careful reading of biblical and rabbinic teachings. The process yields “halakha,” generally translated as “Jewish law” but deriving from the Hebrew root for walking a path.

Even though many Jews do not feel bound by “halakha,” the value it attaches to ongoing study and reasoned argument fundamentally shapes Jewish thought.

The majority of foundational Jewish texts assert that a fetus does not attain the status of personhood until birth.

Although the Hebrew Bible does not mention abortion, it does talk about miscarriage in Exodus 21:22-25. It imagines the case of men fighting, injuring a pregnant woman in the process. If she miscarries but suffers no additional injury, the penalty is a fine.

Since the death of a person would be murder or manslaughter, and carry a different penalty, most rabbinic sources deduce from these verses that a fetus has a different status.

An early, authoritative rabbinic work, the Mishnah, discusses the question of a woman in distress during labor. If her life is at risk, the fetus must be destroyed to save her. Once its head starts to emerge from the birth canal, however, it becomes a human life, or “nefesh.” At that point, according to Jewish law, one must try to save both mother and child. It prohibits setting aside one life for the sake of another.

Although this passage reinforces the idea that a fetus is not yet a human life, some orthodox authorities allow abortion only when the mother’s life is at risk.

Other Jewish scholars point to a different Mishnah passage that envisions the case of a pregnant woman sentenced to death. The execution would not be delayed unless she has already gone into labor.

Jewish sources generally see the fetus as part of the mother. User: Magister Scienta, CC BY

In the Talmud, an extensive collection of teachings building on the Mishnah, the rabbis suggest that the ruling is obvious: the fetus is part of her body. It also records an opinion that the fetus should be aborted before the sentence is carried out, so that the woman does not suffer further shame.

Later commentators mention partial discharge of the fetus brought on by the execution as an example – but the passage’s focus on the needs of the mother can also broaden the circumstances for allowing abortion.

Making space for divergent opinions

These teachings represent only a small fraction of Jewish interpretations. To discover “what Judaism says” about abortion, the standard approach is to study a variety of contrasting texts that explore diverse perspectives.

Over the centuries, rabbis have addressed cases related to potentially deformed fetuses, pregnancy as the result of rape or adultery, and other heart-wrenching decisions that women and families have faced.

In contemporary Jewish debate, there are stringent opinions adopting the attitude that abortion is homicide – thus permissible only to save the mother’s life. And there are other lenient interpretations broadly expanding justifications based on women’s well-being.

Yet the former usually cite contrary opinions or even refer a questioner to inquire elsewhere. The latter still emphasize Judaism’s profound reverence for life.

According to the 2017 Pew survey, 83 percent of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. All the non-orthodox movements have statements supporting reproductive rights, and even ultra-orthodox leaders have resisted anti-abortion measures that do not allow religious exceptions.

This broad support, I argue, reveals the Jewish commitment to the separation of religion and state in the U.S., and a reluctance to legislate moral questions for everyone when there is much room for debate.

There is more than one religious view on abortion.

Rachel Mikva, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Chicago Theological Seminary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Alabama Senator to the IRS: Stop Picking on the South



Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why are the rural poor audited more frequently than other groups, he asks, citing ProPublica. Another Democratic senator adds, “There are two tax codes in America, and there are also two enforcement regimes.”

On Monday, ProPublica published a map showing where IRS audits are most concentrated. The South stood out.

The reason, we explained, was because of an intense focus at the IRS on auditing recipients of the earned income tax credit. The EITC is one of the country’s largest antipoverty programs, in the form of a tax refund for low-income workers, especially those with children. The typical EITC recipient earns less than $20,000 per year.

In practice, the IRS’ emphasis on EITC recipients means states with concentrations of low-income workers see the highest audit rates. One of those states is Alabama. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., wasn’t pleased.

“To take such a large portion of limited IRS resources and to focus them so intensely on rural communities in Alabama and the Southeast makes little fiscal sense,” Jones wrote in a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig. “Moreover, the practice appears to be blatantly discriminatory.” (An IRS spokesperson previously told ProPublica that audit subjects are chose without regard to race or where the taxpayer lives.)

The map, which stemmed from a study by Kim M. Bloomquist, formerly a senior economist in the IRS’ research office, showed that the highest audit rates were to be found in rural, mostly African American counties in the South. Among states, Alabama had the fifth highest audit rate in the country, behind Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.

“In an effort to focus its resources and ensure fair treatment of all taxpayers, I believe the IRS should undertake a full and thorough review of the policies and practices that led to such a disparate geographic impact of its annual audits,” Jones wrote. He ended his letter with a number of questions about IRS audit policies.

As we explained in December, Republicans in Congress have pressured the IRS since the 1990s to prevent payments of the credit to people who aren’t eligible for it. Meanwhile, critics, some within the IRS, such as Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, have long criticized the focus on EITC audits as disproportionate, especially since IRS studies show that far more revenue is lost through cheating by those higher up the income scale. Furthermore, in recent years, budget cuts have hampered the IRS’ ability to pursue wealthy taxpayers, while audits of EITC recipients, which are largely automated, have been slower to decline. The result is an increasingly unequal mix of audits.

Lawmakers will have an opportunity to ask Rettig about the IRS’ audit choices in a hearing next Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee.

“There are two tax codes in America, and there are also two enforcement regimes,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the committee’s ranking member. “It takes significant resources to go after wealthy tax cheats with savvy lawyers and accountants, and the IRS simply doesn’t have those resources after years of Republican attacks. Ensuring wealthy taxpayers pay what they owe shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and this will be a focus with Commissioner Rettig.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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



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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