My Granny Della would feed any hungry child that came through her door.
This was true when my mother was growing up in Christopher, Kentucky, in the 1950s and 60s, when Granny would make enough food to feed her six children, and any other neighborhood child at lunchtime. It was also true when I was growing up next door to her at the head of the Left Fork of Maces Creek in Viper, Kentucky. Any time I’d make the trek down the hill to her house, and wade through the hanging ferns and flowers on her porch to go visit, she’d feed me some of whatever she was making, whether I was hungry or not.
My parents grew up protesting against injustice and fighting for their neighbors’ right to exist in their place. This inherent compassion has never waned and rules the way they live to this day. My Dad’s friend and coworker needed money recently because his cancer treatments left him incapable of working. Mom and Dad wrote a check. Mom heard about a student’s parents not being able to buy a new washer. She gave them her old one that still worked like new.
They see needs, they fill them, without ever stopping to think about it, just like their ancestors before them. And they do not represent a minority in Appalachia. In fact, this way of living – giving whatever you can to help those around you, without condition, simply because they need help – is by far, the prevailing understanding of life in the mountains. It’s why coal miners and their wives stood on picket lines through the mine wars and union strikes of our past. It’s why teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky are protesting unfair policies enacted by out-of-touch legislators in our present. And it’s why grannies and grandpas will forever be making enough food to feed themselves and any child that might need a hot meal well into our future.
We take care of each other in Appalachia.
Author and public historian Elizabeth Catte said it well in a recently published post on her blog, when she quoted a speech she made at West Virginia University, “I think being Appalachian is running toward your friends when they need you.”
This has been my understanding of my place explicitly for the last five years since I’ve been working at a community economic development organization that seeks a just economic transition for the region in a post-coal future. Despite our challenges, despite what outsiders might perceive as reality, despite the steep hill we must climb, I have always known we’ll reach that bright future of which so many preach because we Appalachians “run toward our friends when they need us.”
Which is why I’ve found it so difficult to reconcile the Appalachia Studies Association’s behavior in the face of our current realities as a region. At this year’s ASA conference in Cincinnati, they allowed an interloper in the most extreme sense of the word – JD Vance – into their midst and did very little to control his presence in a constructive and nonharmful way.
Scholarship about Appalachia is certainly vital, and definitely has its place. For decades, the region was largely ignored and mostly maligned by academia as a place not worthy of study. As a region, it was looked over by anthropologists, sociologist and the like in favor of more distant locales, like sub-Saharan Africa and South America. There was seemingly no value place on the people of Appalachia by the academic world.
Not unlike the ways in which modern-day Appalachians have to consistently fight to be taken seriously in mainstream media – especially now in the face of one particular non-peer reviewed take-down of Appalachian culture masquerading as a memoir – Appalachian scholars had to fight to be recognized and respected. In the 1970s, a group of those scholars formed their own conference, the Appalachian Studies Conference, as a way to legitimize themselves, their work and study of the region.
The ASA and its yearly conference have existed for 41 years as a testament to standing up for the region and preserving and protecting it through scholarship, activism and organizing.
However, as with any long-established institution, there comes a time for self-reflection through which the organization will either dig in its heels and refuse to evolve, or do the difficult work of intersectional, radical transformation. Now is such a time for ASA, and never has that fact been so highlighted than at this year’s conference during a session that, quite frankly, never should have been.
The session, which you can read about here and here, was a panel designed to discuss the opioid crisis in Appalachia, and included Vance. As mostly young women activists and scholars peacefully protested Vance’s appearance, they were dressed down by older, white men sitting on the panel in paternalistic and disrespectful ways. This display demonstrates a growing disconnect between ASA and the communities and people from which it extracts its scholarship.
The fact that JD Vance was invited to the ASA conference in the first place is egregious. His book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” has set the work of Appalachian just economic transition back decades in the national psyche. It is a shaky defense of the ill-informed boot-strap, Culture of Poverty narrative about the region that has shaped people’s understanding of us as a people not worth saving because we can’t even and have no desire to save ourselves.
Vance is perhaps the single most detrimental figure to Appalachian scholarship of our time, and inviting him into the ASA universe is a move that lends further unearned credibility to his offensive, subjective and backward-looking view of the region – a view that the ASA has sought to eradicate since its founding.
The young activists and organizers in the session were told they should be quiet and listen to what Vance had to say. They should participate in a dialogue with him, and I’m assuming, come to some mutual understanding of one another that could further so-called mutual aims. Imagine if the coal miners on Blair Mountain, or in Harlan County, or the teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky had been told to just work out their disagreements with their oppressors through dialogue rather than protest. Imagine if you looked in the face of a family member of one of the miners killed at Upper Big Branch, and told them to just reason it out with Don Blankenship. What a preposterous suggestion to make.
This year’s conference organizers made great pains to include community members from the region who are working every day toward a brighter future. They dedicated the entire Saturday of the conference – prime conference time – to including community folks who were invited free of charge. Conference organizers are to be commended for this.
However, those efforts should not overshadow the very real institutional challenges the ASA faces. The divide between some older membership and scholars, and their derision of young participants and members, has very clearly permeated into conference programing. This was demonstrated by the way young ASA members, activists and scholars were treated in the Vance session.
Academia tends to silo itself from the community, and the ASA is not exempt from that. It’s an issue not native or limited to the ASA, either. Nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and economic development organizations serving Appalachia all tend to silo themselves away from one another. For decades, these institutions have at least claimed to be working toward the same goal: Building a better future in the region. But, over that time, they’ve mostly only worked in their own lanes, and only invited each other into their respective spaces as a courtesy rather than as full collaborators and partners.
And the fact is, at this particular moment in the region, when coal has completely collapsed, leaving communities is utter economic disarray; when the heroin and opioid epidemics have ravaged entire generations; when white supremacy has tried to claim our young men into its ranks; and when backward-looking narratives about us are being spouted on every national outlet from the New York Times to CNN to best-selling books, we simply cannot afford to continue separating ourselves from one another. We must join together – academics, scholars, activists, community workers, economic developers, elected officials, one and all – to do the often difficult work of coming together across whatever lines divide us, and work together to build a better tomorrow for all. We must build on what is perhaps the single most unifying identity of being Appalachian: running toward our friends when they need our help, because by God, Appalachia needs our help now like never before.
ASA was born out of a protest of the way Appalachian scholars were being treated at the time. They weren’t being taken seriously and they weren’t being respected for their work. They built their own conference and their own association so they could begin to show the academic world that they had value, and that they mattered, and that the work they were doing was of vital importance.
Appalachian scholarship remains crucial and indispensable. We need it just as we need money for economic diversification. But ASA should not ignore issues raised at the 2018 conference. They should address them head-on, and recommit themselves to the idea of radical transformation, creation and inclusion that brought the organization into being, and they should lead the way as the academic arm of Appalachia’s transition into a just economic future.
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