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?
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.