Friday, December 06, 2019

Appalachian writer suggests three recent books that provide a more complex treatment of the region than most

Ivy Brashear
Appalachia is frequently presented in pop culture through a series of tired stereotypes—often negative—that belie the complex nature of the people and the region, Ivy Brashear, a native of Viper, Ky., , writes for Yes! magazine.

"To this day, Appalachia is a largely misunderstood place and people," Brashear writes. "National reporters have flocked to the region since 2014, the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and again in a wave of fervor after the 2016 presidential election, to seek an explanation for the nation’s ills by trying to define us and tell us who we are. For the most part, these waves of reporters have sought the easy answers—the bootstraps and hardhats narrative; the hopelessness narrative; the brain-drain narrative. And the region has suffered for their unwillingness to seek the answers to why the conditions the region faces exist at all."

There's no single narrative that captures the full reality of Appalachia, but seeking out more accurate depictions and discussions of the region is critical in order to address the complex problems it faces, Brashear writes. Toward this end, she suggests three recently published books that present a more nuanced picture of Appalachia.

Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks (West Virginia University Press, 2018) by Lon Kelly Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers provides an in-depth account of a 1912-13 coal miners' strike in West Virginia and the complicated tug of war between the major players: the coal miners, the union, organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, coal companies, and law enforcement. The book underscores the role of women in activism, especially relevant today as Appalachian workers in many sectors are losing jobs and rights, Brashear writes.

In Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018), Meredith McCarroll examines Appalachian stereotypes throughout the ages, and notes that journalists' periodic fascination with the region happens every 20-30 years when the nation is seeking explanations for major economic or political shifts. McCarroll also, interestingly, suggests that Appalachians be referred to as "unwhite" because Hollywood doesn't portray them quite as white people nor quite as minority people of color, Brashear writes. McCarroll also says that "One of the most effective means of controlling a people is controlling their image," and notes that Appalachians have little control over the stories told about them on the national level.

To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2018) by Jessica Wilkerson stresses the vital role women have played in Appalachia. They've been front and center in every labor struggle in the region, they've cared for their families, including husbands disabled in the mines, started medical clinics, organized across racial lines, picketed and held the line in strikes, and even worked in the mines themselves as a way of asserting workplace equality, Brashear writes.

"Women, people of color, young people, and queer people have held this place together, and held it up, making sure we kept our eyes on the importance of working together to address the challenges we face, as Wilkerson points out through the story of Appalachian women activists," Brashear writes. "And yet, their names will rarely, if ever, be seen in print, on TV, or in the movies. Children will not learn about their efforts in school. It’s a whole lot easier to keep Appalachia in an easily digestible box than it is to make the story more complex, and in so doing, more real."

Brashear is Appalachian transition director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky., and a former graduate assistant at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, for which she wrote many items.

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