Clapping Back: West Virginians and the Power of Social Media

Geo-map-USA-West-VirginiaLast night, as hilarious memes of Chris Christie at Donald Trump’s press conference circulated on social media, the Daily Show tweeted the following:

It’s one of a genre of “jokes” about the state that comedians have relied on for decades for a cheap laugh. Before social media, about all West Virginians could do was shake their heads and express their frustrations among family and friends.

Not any more.  Social media has changed the rules of the game.  People from the state may not have the national audience that Trevor Noah has, but they can certainly clap back when it’s called for.  And boy, did they clap back.

And then my own:

I may not agree with all of my West Virginia kin on a variety of topics, but I’m pretty sure we are all in agreement that it’s time to put this worn out excuse for “funny” to bed.

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Looking at Appalachia: Fifty years after the War on Poverty

LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.
LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.

During his State of the Union address in January 1964,  President Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled his plans to address the nation’s poverty, which then hovered at a rate of nineteen percent. The major legislative initiatives in what became known as the War on Poverty included the Food Stamp Act, the Social Security Act (which created Medicare and Medicaid), and the Economic Opportunity Act (which created Job Corps and the Volunteers in Service to America programs).  This year marks the 50th anniversary of War on Poverty and, as with most historical anniversaries, both the media and scholars have weighed in with critiques and analyses of its legacy, often leading to statements about how we, as a nation, have lost the war on poverty.

But will any of it make a difference in how we view those in poverty?  And will we continue to dismiss the real struggles of the men, women, and children living in poverty with biased and uninformed assumptions about their bad decisions, their alleged laziness, or their desire to live off the government?

Very often, stories and images of Appalachia are used to illustrate the nation’s poverty.  This was the case in the 1960s and it’s still this way today. The New York Times does so with regularity.  (See, for example, this article or this one.)

Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.
Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.

But hope abounds.

There’s a terrific documentary photography project called Looking at Appalachia that operates from a different set of assumptions. Poverty is not just about statistics, it’s about human beings. More than that, poverty is not always a choice. And as for Appalachia, despite its issues with poverty, it is also home.  The images from this project reflect the beauty of the landscape and the people without succumbing to stereotype. And here is where art makes a difference.

As the Looking at Appalachia project notes:

Many of the War on Poverty photographs, whether intentional or not, became a visual definition of Appalachia. These images have often drawn from the poorest areas and people to gain support for the intended cause, but unjustly came to represent the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.

 

Tent revival in Pike County, KY.  Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.
Tent revival in Pike County, KY. Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.

The project’s director, Roger May, is a documentary photographer from the Tug Valley region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  I asked Roger about how his project might help to dispel these stereotypes:

Well, it’s important to realize that this project can’t or won’t single-handedly dispel decades worth of stacked myths and stereotypes. We all know how powerful images can be. We certainly didn’t get here overnight, so I don’t think we’ll reverse course that quickly either. What I like about the idea of this project is that it’s purpose isn’t to negate those pictures and ideas, but rather hopefully it’ll dilute them to a point that folks who both are, and aren’t, familiar with Appalachia will have another frame of reference for people and place. I see these photographs as added voices to a conversation that started well before the War on Poverty was declared and ones that’ll be around for a long while to come. We can’t ignore stereotypes and at the same time, we can’t deny elements of truth in them. What we can do is keep our hands to the plow of reminding folks that people are people no matter where you go. If we’re collectively willing to sit a while, listen, and try to understand on an individual level, we might surprise ourselves with what we find.

Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.
Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.

And what has been the impact of this project so far?

“The impact I’ve noticed from the project so far has been positive. Folks seem to be generally excited about Appalachia being shown in a different light, a more modern take on a place we all tend to see stuck in the past. Appalachia is one of those places that’s easy to romanticize and quite often the “othering” that happens there is, I think, somewhat self-induced. That’s really OK, but I think it’s important to pursue and embrace change, whatever that might look like. Traditions don’t have to be sacrificed for modernity, but let’s be truthful in our representations.”

Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.
Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.

Aside from the project’s website, what are your plans for extending the life of the project?

In early 2015, I’ll be working with the project’s editorial and advisory boards to work through the online images and make selections for print. We’ll be coordinating with galleries, colleges, and universities throughout the Appalachian and outlying regions to host exhibitions of the work and would like to see it travel throughout 2015 and 2016. I’d love to see a companion catalog of work release next year as well, but funding will dictate most of this. At this point, we haven’t secured an grants or private donations. Moving forward, I plan to continue the project as long as there’s an interest and folks are willing to submit images. I’d also very much like to see a quarterly print publication evolve from this.

Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014
Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014

I encourage readers of Pop South to take visit the Looking at Appalachia website as well as Roger May’s personal site called Walk your camera.

One final note from Roger: I’d just really like to take an opportunity to thank the folks who have helped so much with this project behind the scenes and who helped get it off the ground. Aaron Blum, Kate Fowler, Chris Fowler, Raymond Thompson Jr., Megan King, Susan Worsham, Pat Jarrett, John Edwin Mason, Pete Brook, Joy Salyers, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Rob Amberg, Nic Persinger, and many, many others. This project couldn’t move forward without their help and support. And of course, all the photographers who have submitted work so far. This project belongs to everyone.

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.

 

 

Faith and Conviction in Southern Appalachia: The Death of a Snake-Handling Pastor

Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Just this past weekend the news came down from the hills of Kentucky that Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Middleboro, had died after a bite from a timber rattler while ministering to his church.  This is a scenario that has been repeated for generations in this small sect of Appalachian congregations, most of which exist in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Yet what sets Coots’ death apart from the others is that he was the star of a popular series on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.”

I admit to having my doubts about what National Geographic was up to when I first heard about the show.  I even wrote a blog in which I pondered about this being another retrograde reality show on the region.  I worried about the fact that the pastor’s last name was “Coots,” because I’m sensitive to the fact that people might poke fun at what they saw as a “hillbilly named ‘Coots.'”  I’m originally from Appalachia, so I know the cruelty that people bestow upon hill people.

So, I watched several episodes of “Snake Salvation.”  With a cynical eye at first. But my cynicism gave way to sincere interest and even appreciation. Because what I saw was a show that took seriously the faith and conviction of Jamie Coots and his family and of his protegé Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of another snake-handling church in nearby LaFollette,Tennessee. The series, I believe, helps viewers better understand their religious beliefs, which are similar to Pentecostal sects throughout the South, save one difference–the emphasis on Mark 16:18 on taking up serpents.  And unlike TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Coots and his family do not act like, nor have they been made to look like, buffoons.

Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Pastor Coots wanted the viewers of “Snake Salvation” to understand that, as people, they were more than about hunting and handling poisonous snakes. And while the show emphasizes that part of their faith, one also can surmise that these are people who love and care about one another and who have daily challenges beyond finding snakes for a church service. Theirs is a deep conviction, and while I personally do not hold their views about religion or snakes (or the role of women, for that matter), I can respect what makes us different. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In the few days since his passing, people have cast harsh judgement on Pastor Coots, his family, and this sect in the most insensitive way imaginable. Read some of the comments on the NPR post about this story and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t bear repeating here.

National Geographic will air a tribute to Pastor Coots and I encourage you to watch it and consider what I’ve written here.  And if you are so moved, read Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

The story of this man’s death should not lead people to judgement, but to a better understanding and respect for differences in faith.

Another Kind of Southern Pride: What we can all learn from the town of Vicco, KY

Facebook and Twitter were all aflutter this week about Vicco, Kentucky, thanks to a wonderful segment on The Colbert Report about “People Who Are Destroying America.” The segment zeroed in on Mayor Johnny Cummings, the openly gay major of Vicco, which also happens to be the smallest town in the country to pass an LGBT fairness ordinance.  In typical Colbert fashion, the segment exposes the hypocrisy of the idea that if the LGBT community is offered any kind of equality then we are all going to hell in a handbasket.

One would assume that Vicco, a coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky, would be repressive on such issues.  It’s in a conservative southern state and we all know that gays and lesbians cannot possibly live openly in the South–at least that’s what mainstream media usually tells us.  But as I argued in an op-ed in the New York Times last October, the South is far more nuanced about LGBT issues than its often given credit for. A few months later, the Times concurred with its own piece on Vicco from which the Colbert Report probably got the idea.

This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.  Here, in North Carolina, citizens voted to amend the state constitution to make doubly sure that there would be no such thing as gay marriage in the Tarheel State.  It was already illegal, but conservatives felt the need to batten down the hatches in order to protect traditional marriage.

And yet, today marks the beginning of Charlotte Pride Week celebrating all things LGBT.  It will culminate with a two-day festival in Uptown, which last year attracted more than 20,000 people and is increasing its number of corporate sponsors.  This South exists, too.

We could all learn something from Johnny Cummings, his friends, and the town of Vicco–namely, that the South is not a monolith and while religious, right-wing zealots within the region may push their own agendas, they don’t always win.

Snake Salvation: Praise the Lord and Pass the Snakes

Snakes alive.  We’ve got us another southern-based reality television show.  “Snake Salvation” focuses on a small Pentecostal sect in Appalachia that takes the Gospel of Mark 16:18 to heart: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”  Essentially, they prove their faith in God by handling poisonous snakes–mostly rattlers–and if they’re bitten, they believe in the healing power of their Lord to keep them alive.  They also believe that if they don’t handle snakes, well, hello Hell!

Pastor Andrew Hamblin is one among a new generation of snake-handling ministers.

The show, which premieres on National Geographic on September 10th, features Jamie Coots (did they have to choose a man named “Coots?”) of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. and Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn.  According to the show’s description, “Hunting the surrounding mountains for deadly serpents and maintaining their church’s snake collection is a way of life for both men.” Not many churches can say they have a snake collection.

The earliest years of my life, just to age 6, were spent at the Rock of Ages Church in Huntington, West Virginia.  When I watch the video below, I recognize a similar type of preaching and inflection among the snake-handlers that I witnessed as a young child. They minister to their flock using a singsong kind of expression. “I belieeeeve-ha. In Jesus Chriiiiist-ha.” That sort of thing.  At Rock of Ages, I didn’t have to fear snakes, just that giant portrait of Jesus wearing a thorny crown with blood dribbling down his forehead. THAT terrified me.

I do remember, though, my Maw Maw Cox telling me about some snake handlers that showed up at the funeral home where my Uncle Roger worked. As it turns out, one of the members of the snake-handling church had died and when it came time for visitation the church members came to pay their respects, but they weren’t alone. They brought their snakes with them and asked to slip a few into the coffin.  This caused the staff at the funeral home to scatter, and eventually, the police arrived and forced them to take the snakes away.

Rev. Coots and Rev.Hamblin hope that the show will allow the public to see that their lives revolve around more than hunting and handling snakes, though I’m not so sure viewers will notice much more.

I’m going to try to reserve judgement until I’ve seen the show, but I can’t help but wonder about this latest attempt to examine the white underbelly of the South. And I emphasize white, because nearly all southern-based reality shows focus on whites who are generally, from the lower class or outright poor.  In fact, Andrew Hamblin falls into this category. According to an article in the Christian Posthe is struggling to support his wife and five children and is doing the show to attract more followers.  It will be interesting to see if the show takes off or simply slithers away.

(Note: If people really want to understand this particular religious group and their beliefs in a serious way, I’d recommend reading Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.)