Appalachia, the American South and Urban Condescension

"The smudge of the country. . ."
“The smudge of the country. . .”

It happened again last week.  Another journalist took a swipe at my beloved Appalachia.  Yet it’s difficult to stand tall against national media outlets like the New York Times. Even I know this. As someone who has published op-eds in the Times, I am very familiar with its impact.

Right now, Annie Lowery’s email box is probably filling up with reactions to her piece “What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky“.  She’s also feeling the wrath of Appalachian writers decrying Lowery’s “urban condescension,” as the essayist and playwright  Anne Shelby put it.  Shelby lives in Clay County, Kentucky, the county that, according to Lowery, has the distinction of being dead last in the country for “quality of life.”

At least that’s case based on statistics drawn from metrics a Times “data-analysis venture” calculated.  I can get down with statistics.  I can even agree with them.  But where’s the broader context and where are the people in this story?

Shelby is spot on when she calls Lowery out for “urban condescension,” because that’s what it amounts to.  Lowery and other journalists often fall into the trap of treating urban living as “better” than rural living. There’s also some regional condescension going on as well when she refers to the Deep South and Appalachia as “the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh.”  The “smudge?”  Really?

Me in the country just outside of Huntington, WV, ca. 1966.
Pre-blogging days in the country just outside of Huntington, WV, ca. 1966.

We also get a lot of rhetoric about where the folks from Eastern Kentucky should move if they want a better quality of life, but what’s missing is an understanding that, despite its poverty, Appalachia is their home. I have lived in the South all of my life.  I was born in West Virginia and when asked I will always claim it as where I’m from.

Sadly, many people have left the region to pursue jobs or an education elsewhere, so Lowery’s point about declining populations in Appalachia is well taken.  And yet the stereotypes implicit in Lowery’s piece, and others that take patronizing aim at the region’s poverty, do absolutely nothing to better our understanding of the people or the place.

Thankfully, there are writers like Anne Shelby and Silas House who speak the truth about Appalachia.  And, then there’s this wonderful guy named Roger May, a photographer who is directing a project called “Looking at Appalachia” that takes direct aim at the negative ways that the War on Poverty has visually defined the region for more than two generations.

He knows, and I know, there is beauty in those hills and hollers, and it includes the people who live there.  And that’s no statistic.




4 thoughts on “Appalachia, the American South and Urban Condescension

  1. Well said! I see the same phonomena on the West Coast when coastal, urban writers talk about California’s Central Valley (they sometimes dub it the Appalachia of the West). The attitudes behind this writing are disturbing. Urban condescenders often seem to think it’s fine to imply pollution, poverty, poor health, and unemployment are a direct reflection of the moral weakness of the people who live in unfashionable rural areas. In doing so, they conveniently ignore how disinvestment and exploitive industry have had a much greater role in creating these problems (all while creating wealth in far off urban centers).

  2. An excellent post. I’ve had the opportunity to live in nearly every region of this county, in big cities in small towns, and, for me, at least, my quality of life is directly correlated to my ability to get out in the country, away from crowds and enjoy time by myself in woods, fields, swamps, etc. A big city is great to visit, but I’d never want to live there. That said, I understand that for some big cities are ideal; what I don’t get is why some urbanites can’t recognize that there are those who feel the same way about the Deep South, Appalachia, Great Plains, central California, etc. Is it really that hard to understand that we don’t all like the same thing, and that home, whether actual or adopted, is where one feels most comfortable?

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