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.

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Be a good neighbor–support your local animal shelter

"Mama" was Hilda's cat who is now in a shelter. She's 8 years old, good with other animals, and an door cat. Call the APS in Yanceyville to adopt her!  (336) 694-4921
“Mama” was Hilda’s cat who is now in a shelter. She’s 8 years old, good with other animals, and an indoor cat. Call the APS in Yanceyville to adopt her! (336) 694-4921

This past week, a dear friend of mine named Hilda Brody, passed away.  She was a great animal lover and helped to found the Animal Protection Society of Caswell County, the county seat of which is Yanceyville, North Carolina. Throughout her life, she gave generously of herself–often taking in cats, dogs, and even horses–because she valued the lives of animals and knew the gift of love and loyalty that animals give us, as humans, in return.

The APS of Caswell County, like so many animal shelters across the South, struggles to stay afloat. In counties racked by rural poverty, local governments are less likely to support the efforts of organizations devoted to animals rather than human beings.That means that much of the work to maintain the shelter is left to volunteers or individuals who work for pennies on the dollar. Their budgets are often stretched thin and the need for both money and supplies is constant.

So many of us out there know the joy and love that our pets bring to us each and every day.  So, why not honor them by assisting another dog, cat, or the other animals that shelters care for?

What can you do to help?  Be a good neighbor and support your local animal shelter.

If you have some money to spare, consider making a donation to support the many things a shelter does (including spaying and neutering).

My cat, Halen, and my dog, Phoebe, were both adopted from an animal shelter.
My cat, Halen, and my dog, Phoebe, were both adopted from an animal shelter.

And if you don’t have much, consider donating old blankets, towels, newspapers, old placemats, gently used toys, leashes, collars, litter, or grooming items.  Check here for Top Things to Donate to an animal shelter.

And when you are ready to offer an animal “forever home,” consider adopting from your local shelter.  You’ll be glad you did.

On behalf of my shelter-adopted pets, we thank you.

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.)

Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto

After watching the first two weeks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the tragic comedy reality show on TLC, it’s clear that some “hixploitation” is going on at the network.  The cast of characters–at the center of which are Mama June and her pageant queen daughter Alana–are what you might call “country ghetto.”  They rattle off phrases (“A dolla makes me holla” and “I’m all that and a pack of crackers”) that Helena Andrews writes makes them appear as if they channeled an “angry black woman” from a ’90s sitcom. (See her article in The Root, Aug. 15, 2012).

Alana and her family

Yet, Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family are firmly situated in rural Georgia, and what I see is more than just the language of the ghetto.  This family literally lives IN a country ghetto.  They are, as a friend suggested, like the Evans family on the sitcom “Good Times” because they have to laugh to keep from crying about the poverty which they can’t seem to escape.

I see the cycle of rural southern poverty on full display.  Underneath all that sass is a family that struggles to stay afloat financially, while also gambling on Honey Boo Boo.  If you listen closely, in between all the colloquialisms (ignoring the subtitles even when they aren’t needed), you’ll hear Mama June tell you that her “baby daddy” works 7 days a week and that she got pregnant at 15, which meant that her education was cut short, although to her credit she finished her GED.  And now her 17 year-old daughter is repeating the cycle of teen pregnancy, and there will be one more mouth to feed.  In addition to “extreme couponing,” June also goes to food auctions and her family happily accepts a deer carcass, even if it was roadkill, because the meat they preserve from it will save them money.  Her older daughters complain that their mother considers anything over $5 expensive.

People may find it irresponsible that Mama June would spend the money she’s scraped to save to invest in Alana’s pageants. But this is consistent with people who live in poverty who pin their hopes on a gamble they hope will pay off.  It’s no different than if they were playing Powerball or scratching off tickets–maybe one day they’ll hit the jackpot, although the odds are stacked against them.

This isn’t just moralizing on my part, because I’ve experienced poverty and can remember a time as a little girl when my Mom (a single mother who scraped by on a secretary’s salary) gave me $2 to purchase a raffle ticket in hopes of winning a new car since we didn’t have one. I still remember the look in her eyes that even she knew this was a long shot.  Of course, we didn’t win, but I hoped with everything we would because it might make life a little easier.  I can see this in little Alana.  She’s a sassy kid, to be sure, but underneath she’s vulnerable and still just six years old. She desperately wants to win that Miss Grand Supreme title and it hurts her a little more each time when she doesn’t.  It hurts June, too.  This is what makes it hard to watch, because I understand how poverty makes you feel “less than” and so I also hurt a little for them.

Maybe they have hit a small jackpot with their show (no doubt TLC has).  During commercials, you’ll see that the network is offering ringtones of Alana’s sayings like “a dolla makes me holla.”  I just hope TLC is cutting Alana a check for those ringtones, since it is profiting by exploiting her.  Maybe she will earn enough to fund a college education, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and escape the country ghetto.  I’m rooting for her.