My book taking on Trump Country narratives, J.D. Vance, and the amnesia surrounding Appalachia’s progressive side is now available to pre-order through the wonderful folks at Belt. Place your order before November and you’ll automatically receive a signed copy. Details here, including contact for advance copies, media requests, and larger distribution orders.
Despite the absence of posts here, I’ve been working 9-to-5. I wanted to round-up a few links to my writing and share from the responses, but first let me quickly say we’re in countdown mode to wrapping up things here and heading home. This is great news.
I got back into the swing of things after the New Year with a piece for Belt Magazine, “To the Rust Belt, Solidarity from Appalachia.” The Women’s March on Washington inspired sister marches throughout the world and I reflected on those that took place in Appalachia while wondering if these acts of solidarity might be enough to turn the narrative tide about Trump Country. Unfortunately, based on the pieces I’m about to link, this was wishful thinking.
I took a break to attend the Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia, but came back with an essay about the political uses of whiteness in Appalachia for the 100 Days in Appalachia Project, a multimedia catalogue of how the region is responding during Trump’s first 100 days in office. Appalachia is often coded as “all-white” despite increasing regional diversity. I ask why that myth persists and how it serves historic and contemporary politics.
Finally, I published two responses to a number of recent high-profile articles written by progressive condemning West Virginians, specifically, and “hillbillies” more generally. These reached a wider audience and came with a wider range of responses, and I’d like to highlight a very typical response I’ve received. But first, my longer essays are here in Belt Magazine and here in Salon. Both, although different, raise a question that runs through a lot of my writing: why are progressives outside the region obsessive about Trump voters in coal country when there are more significantly populated Trump enclaves in their backyards?
In disputing the answers I give in these essays, folks often raise this point, although in sometimes less polite ways. Below, from a Twitter exchange.
This point – that the electoral college vote is supreme – is not technically incorrect. But, my work is premised on a very simple push-back: if you are acting in good faith, it’s more righteous to hold individuals accountable for their racism and other harmful attitudes than the design of the electoral college. If my neighbor is a bigot and is starved out of civic engagement according to progressive hillbilly divorce fantasies, what does he become when he moves to New York and is your neighbor? It is even possible to develop an outlook that does both. In other words, it is appropriate to grant individuals their specific weight in the body politic while conceding that none of us are weightless. Skewed pieces about Appalachia written by media elites often do none of these things and, of course, I often write about why.
I spent the inauguration eve alone in a hotel during a business trip listening to Florence Reece. Many people understandably spent last weekend thinking about their children and the world they will inherit, but my mind was on women like Florence. History remembers Florence Reece as the spirit of the 1931 Harlan miners’ strike whose folk song “Which Side Are You On?” transcended as a modern civil rights anthem. To me, Florence is a woman from Sharps Chapel, Tennessee – born thirty years before my grandmother into the same community. I held Florence close not only because of her strength, but because she went home. She died in Knoxville at the age of eighty-six at the hospital where my grandmother worked, their paths only ever crossing in my imagination.
Saturday we learned that thousands of individuals across Appalachia participated in national Women’s March activities: Pikeville, Roanoke, Jonesborough, Knoxville, Charleston, Morganton, Lexington, Asheville, Chattanooga – we saw you. We also saw our friends in the Rust Belt and across the Plains take to their communities and in the process challenged divisive narratives about who or what is “Trump Country.” Thank you to all and especially to those who marched in Knoxville. I’m sure Dolly approved.
Speaking of challenging narratives, I’m happy to announce that I’m partnering with Belt Publishing to write a new book about America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of Appalachia. Yes, this is where I come for Hillbilly Elegy. This partnership is a good reminder that regional publishers are just as frustrated with local myth-making as writers and related creatives. One form of resistance is elevating voices and perspectives from our regions as opposed to about our regions, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of just that.
This means that I might write a little less here for the next few months, but feel free to reach out to me at elizabeth.catte [at] gmail.com if you’d like to connect. Of all the many things that the election means, for my family it’s confirmation that we can do our best work from within the region and we can’t wait to get back home. If you have a project or cause you’d like to discuss that might benefit from the help of a couple of historians and policy wonks, do get in touch.
For now, take good care.
Last month, I wrote an essay about the media’s overuse of Appalachia – and particularly West Virginia – as a mythic Trump Country during the election cycle. I used the word ‘mythic’ not to deny the existence of Appalachian Trump supporters, but to instead underscore that writers and photographers from prestige outlets relied on mythic qualities of Appalachia and its working class to give their pieces traction and to shore up an emerging narrative about economic anxiety and the white working class. This strategy, I concluded, was historically consistent with the broad “othering” of Appalachia as a place that represents the failures of American progress and helped explain why writers preferred to profile Appalachian Trump supporters as opposed to Trump supporters in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, or other geographies that might complicate that narrative.
McDowell County, West Virginia, received the most press attention and I’d like to quickly revisit my original essay now that we know how McDowell County voted. But first, let’s recap the highlights of “McDowell County as Trump Country.”