October 2, 2013

Tragedy is a place called Appalachia

Note: I wrote this editorial for The Kentucky Gazette, July 14, 1998. It's still appropriate today, in some ways more than ever. — Lowell Reese

What do you think about when you think of Eastern Kentucky? Al Smith, moderator of KET’s public affairs program “Comment on Kentucky,” asked that question of three distinguished Kentuckians: historian Thomas Clark, author James Still and Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe. Their answers were indeed insightful, concise and...diplomatic.

     Clark noted the region’s natural beauty, rich timber and coal resources, and that Eastern Kentuckians feel an extraordinary and powerful sense of place—a deep emotion about their homeland, to the point that sometimes they are “almost militantly defensive and protective” of Appalachia. The 92-year-old Still said he has outlived all of the town folks and neighbors on Wolfpen Creek in Knott County, but he finds the “mindset somewhat just the same”—the pattern of attitudes toward the land, toward politics, toward religion hasn’t changed much.

     Hawpe also knows the region well (he was born in Pike County and spent summers there growing up, and he covered the mountains as a Courier reporter in Hazard). He said it’s a land of great contradictions: sweet-natured people prone to violence; suspicious-natured people who are “most open and welcoming” once they know you.

     No one said anything directly about abject poverty, forced migration and the region’s Li’l Abner image—which, by the way, many local leaders proudly perpetuate through the annual Hillbilly Days celebration held each April in Pikeville, seemingly under an illusion that someday Toyota might build a factory along the Big Sandy or Cumberland rivers and market the cars worldwide as “Made in Kentucky by hillbillies.”

     Nobody I know is smart enough to singularly figure out how to make Eastern Kentucky equal to the rest of the state in terms of material well-being. But one thing is certain: advertising the region’s workforce as “pork-chop consuming mattress testers” (Li’l Abner’s fortuitous vocation) won’t do it in the sophisticated global world we’re living in. Being a realist, Mammy Yocum might want to drag the Hillbilly Days organizers to the woodshed where Pappy Yocum sometimes took his lumps for lesser lapses.

     A tragedy is when something bad happens to a good person, or to good people; and tragedy is a place called Eastern Kentucky. These are good and decent people—still early American in much of what they believe about values, religion and work. But when it comes to having something to live on, as well as something to live for, the people of this region of our state have been left behind.

      For example, most of the eastern mountain range lies in the 5th Congressional District, represented by Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Somerset). Of the nation’s 435 congressional districts, Rogers’ district is the 7th poorest. In fact, he represents the poorest congressional district of any Republican in the United States. In every one of the 27 counties in the district, except Rogers’ home county of Pulaski, at least 19 percent of the people depend on food stamps to eat and feed their children.

     The people of the mountains are almost one-fourth poorer than the statewide average in terms of per capita income. For every dollar that people in Louisville have in their pockets, the people in Rogers’ district have 60 cents. But poverty is about more than money; it is a condition that breeds hopelessness. According to a national survey in 1994 based on how people felt about their standard of living, Kentucky’s Owsley County—in Rogers’ district—was ranked as the most pessimistic county (hopeless place) in the United States. The people of Eastern Kentucky have less hope about their future than any place in the nation, except some Indian reservations.

     One of the tragedies of Appalachia is that so many of its citizens have had to leave home over the past 50 years to find jobs—just one generation ago, more Eastern Kentuckians lived in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan than the number that stayed behind. In 1971, 55 percent of all next-of-kin listed in obituary columns in Eastern Kentucky newspapers lived in those four states.

     Country music star Dolly Parton, in a song she wrote called “Appalachian Memories Keep Me Strong,” captures the soul of Appalachia and the struggle to keep hope alive:

            “Ya oughta go North, somebody told us/’Cause the air is filled with gold dust/and fortune falls like snowflakes in your hands./Now I don’t recall who said it/But we’d lived so long on credit/And so we headed out to find our promised land.... Just poor Appalachian farm folk/With nothing more than high hopes/We hitched our station wagon to a star./But our dreams all fell in on us/‘Cause there was no land of promise/And it’s a struggle keepin’ sight of who we are...Appalachian memories keep me strong.”

     Another tragedy is the dependency on government that the people of Eastern Kentucky have become victims of; a condition that many of the region’s local elite—doctors, lawyers, merchants—are content with, because they get their slice of the government check.

     But as the tissue of real wings is woven from invisibles—like self-reliance, self-government, hopes, dreams, expectations—instead of material things, the seeds of change are the early American values, which still lie deep in the hearts of most Kentucky Appalachians. #