A message to the future of Appalachia

In late February, I gave a talk at West Virginia University. I was honored to be invited and felt that it was important to directly address young people for two specific reasons. The first is that JD Vance, who is known for many things that are the opposite of youth empowerment, spoke at the university a week before me. The second is that I came to West Virginia in the middle of its historic strike. Education and public workers cited many reasons for their collective action, but one that wasn’t receiving wider purchase in the national conversation about the strike at that time was the deep conviction teachers’ had for envisioning a better future for their students. I wanted them to know their solidarity was seen, and felt. Jessica Salfia, an English teacher, wrote from that perspective here.

As you may know, a small cohort within the Appalachian Studies Association invited JD Vance to speak at our most recent conference and participated in the abuse of young members who stood in dissent. There are many things I want to and will likely say about that, but for the moment, I am going share part of the remarks I made at West Virginia University. For them. For us. For the future.

My book is called What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and people like to speculate who the “you” is in the title. Is it JD Vance, his fans and supporters? And they’re not wrong – that is definitely the direction in which the book started. But as it developed, I started to see that the “you” was me and that I was writing against an experience where people with more power tried to tell me what I should think and feel about my history and identity. They were happy to tell me what I was getting wrong about Appalachia, and usually the thing I was getting most wrong, according to them, was that there was any hope for the future.

“Coal is dead. Just move. I hate that you’re stuck there.  If it wasn’t for welfare there wouldn’t be any signs of life in the mountains.” And so on. But I believe that within our history we have the tools to help us move forward. I see this when I look out at rallies of teachers and public employees wearing red bandanas, connecting their actions not only to the 1990 teachers’ strike but further back, to the mine wars. And what I hope to leave you with is a sense that the heritage we share isn’t some ridiculous ethnic component and it isn’t about how long your people have lived here, and it isn’t about how you make your cornbread, although now I fear assassination or at least a decline in book sales for saying that. Our heritage is the way we have shared and supported each other in struggle – in the past, in the present, and in the future, here at home and beyond our borders. If we did not have the power to create change, we would not be the heirs to a 150 year old propaganda industry designed to tell us and the world we are powerless.

You know, people ask me now, all the time, what it means to be Appalachian. If it’s not a mediocre memoir, if it’s not dependency narratives, if it’s not Scots-Irish heritage, if it’s not black and white poverty photos – what is it? And I like to decline to say because I think self-definition is power and if I tell you what or who you are I have taken some power from you and I do not want to do that. I want you to ask these hard questions of yourself and get more powerful for the work that must be done. But I can tell you what flashes through my mind when I’m asked that question.

There’s an old documentary called Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, about the miners’ strike against Duke Energy in the 1970s. Many of you will know it. Barbara was a very young woman from New York when she started making this documentary but grew close to her subjects because they were all in danger – their fates became connected. A strikebreaker indiscriminately firing a gun into a crowd was just as likely to hit her or one of her crew as a miner. And there’s a very important scene in this documentary – a blink and you’ll miss it scene – where there’s a physical altercation on the picket line. And what you can hear but not so much see is a breathless Barbara Kopple running toward that altercation and throwing her big boom mic between the strike breakers and her crew and the miners. In other words, I think being Appalachian is running toward your friends when they need you. So here I am.

Image by Robert Gumpert via the Appalshop archive.

5 thoughts on “A message to the future of Appalachia

  1. @W

    Still re-writing this, and here you go.

    Thanks to Charleston West Virginia
    in the blessed valley
    encrusted sustained soluble
    in the dwindling chemical factories
    that ate men too proud to mine coal
    men who stood twisting valves and
    molecules mined from exhausted gushers
    barged up the locks at Winfield through the
    Kanawha River no one dares touch
    or fish or drink
    because the MCME that cleans coal
    smelling almost of licorice and the
    magnates who bought the golden dome
    their capitol their capital
    to justify their profit
    prophets of honor at trickling down jobs
    a man could feed his family in the
    weathered asphalt sided shacks in the flood
    plain broad enough to build a city to
    build fourteen plants to feed to thrive Nitro
    where you abandon your attics
    Institute where you educate the black
    men who dream of more than their grandfathers
    who escaped penury of mind and white
    men learning enough English to mete out
    the laws of the road.
    Charleston, that bright jewel paved prettier in
    fresh concrete over rusting rotting hulks
    of abandoned factories producing
    only ghosts to haunt the new townhouses
    built on the bones of urban renewal
    to accompany shiny malls to spend
    abundance of hope and fear and credit
    due past do so bright colors breathe the world
    shining copper colored streetlights glowing
    the river’s fog lighting the coal mine dark
    night and dank odor of sweat and chemicals and exhaust
    trapped in the inversions of the mountains
    fogging the valleys sending the message
    out that you need not eat off the coal
    companies largesse and tailings
    but can stand and work and buy into the


  2. lacy

    I moved back to southeastern Kentucky seven or eight years ago. My husband and I were only three hours away but it was calling us so loudly that we had to answer. Over the past couple years, I have seen so many of my peers and colleagues venture into their own passions searching for a path to make their way here. Mostly artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs, these people (myself and my husband included) struggle and hustle daily to make a living in the place that we love. We don’t want to leave it. We will not give up on it. We want to work together and help each other thrive. We’re still putting the puzzle together as to how to make it all work but much like you said, we are running toward our friends when they need us.


  3. Peter Shenkin

    “I think being Appalachian is running toward your friends when they need you.”

    Barbara Kopple was also running toward her enemies, which is harder.


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