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.

 

 

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Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

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.

What it means to be a “soul sister” in a southern kitchen

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Dora Parker, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.” Photo credit: New York Times.

I encourage readers of Pop South to read today’s New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Sharpless providing historical perspective on Dora Charles, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.”

Ms. Charles, who helped open Deen’s restaurant Lady & Sons as well as train other cooks who worked there, was recently interviewed by the Times about her relationship with Deen.  That interview is, in many ways, even more revealing about who Paula Deen is than the deposition she gave in the lawsuit brought against her by a white woman, Lisa Jackson.

I also encourage you to read Rebecca Sharpless’s book, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (UNC Press, 2010). It’s a great read.

Being Gay in the South–Uncle Poodle Is Beside the Point

I wish to take a few minutes, in the spirit of civility, to respond to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post columns (in spite of the condescension and the personal barbs) which have taken aim at my New York Times op-ed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all.”  For the record, the idea of using Uncle Poodle’s appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a hook (not an argument) was not my own, but that of an editor. The real argument was based on my own personal experience.  I could have shared dozens of stories, because as he learned from my friend Helen, both she and I and all the other gays and lesbians I know living in the South are indeed consequential and not because we were or were not raised in an urban environment.  I made it clear in my editorial that there was a real limit to acceptance in the region.  The point was that being gay in the South should not be seen in black or white, all or nothing, because there are clearly shades of grey.

What I saw coming out of Capehart’s columns and also some messages I received was a disagreement with me for countering the narrative about the South as a cold, angry, place where gay people could not possibly want to live and would set out for New York, DC or San Francisco as soon as they got the chance.  Some of them surely have, but many others have not.  And the decision to leave may have to do with the limits of acceptance, and maybe not. Perhaps they simply want to experience a different part of the country. The decision to stay, however, is often (in my personal experience) that they don’t want to leave their families or communities.  If they leave the small town South, they often move to larger cities in the South.  New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, even Charlotte.

As this map shows, New Jersey had the highest hate crime rate in the nation in 2008–more than any other southern state, including Texas. For more recent statistics from the FBI see: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-12-agency-hate-crime-reporting-by-state-2010.xls

Capehart used the case of the gay Texas couple who was recently harassed by the local minister and received threatening messages from his followers to make his point “that this says more about the South than ‘Uncle Poodle’ ever will.” Really?  Is this a southern phenomenon?  To read his piece, you’d think it is.  I know that it was timely in that it fit his argument, but hate crimes take place in the urban North (New York, DC, Minneapolis, etc) that don’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention. Yet when it takes place in the South, the national media makes hay of it, because it supports the narrative of a sinister South where such things must only happen here.  This does not mean that I don’t condemn what happened to the couple in Texas because I absolutely do.

The Uncle Poodle reference–again, an editorial decision–was used because of it’s pop culture relevance, but is beside the point.  I have lived a very rich and wonderful life in the South and wouldn’t choose to leave.  Has it always been easy? No, but I could have said this had I been raised in another region of the country.  Are there problems still? Yes, and here in my own state of North Carolina I voted against the marriage amendment and will support Equality NC in its efforts to derail it. I’d also have to do this in several other states, not all of which are in the South.  However, neither that amendment nor a hateful evangelical minister (there is one who proselytizes in the free speech zone on the campus of UNCC with some regularity) is enough to make me flee because this is my home.

In the end, and despite the criticism, I am pleased that my editorial ignited a conversation about the South as a place where LGBT people can and do live happily, work, and have families, etc. because it’s a much more complicated and nuanced region than it’s given credit for being.

Dear Jon: Let’s Talk “The South” when you’re in Charlotte

If you’re breathing, there’s a good chance you know that Charlotte, North Carolina, is hosting the Democratic National Convention (DNC).  This is an exciting time for the Queen City as we play host to conventioneers, politicians, and journalists.  There will also be a lot of kvetching over traffic and street closures, but I for one am very thrilled to see that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will be setting up shop at Imaginon, home to the city’s Children’s Theatre and Library.

In fact, I’d really like to be on the show to discuss the media and its southern stereotypes.  I’ve written about it before here on Pop South (See posts on DNC Announcement and the one on Martin Bashir over at MSNBC), and I’m certainly scouting out other journalistic blunders on this score, but right now I am waging a campaign to be a guest on the Daily Show to talk about the subject.  And why not?  The Daily Show has numerous reports that have been tagged “the South.”  The earliest one, on Strom Thurmond, dates to 1999.  And the most recent?  On Chick fil A, of course.  I suppose the region is a gift that keeps on giving, as seen in the report on “Tarred Heels” (below), which led Jon Stewart to conclude that North Carolina is the Democrat’s “South Carolina.”  Ouch!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Tarred Heels
www.thedailyshow.com
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Tarred Heels (watch video above)

So, Jon, if you’re listening, I’ve got a book on the topic of the South in popular culture, this here blog, and hell, I’ve even written an op-ed for the New York Times. I’m also a fan of the show, if that helps.  And, I’d love to talk “the South” with you while you’re in Charlotte.

Pop South readers: Join me in my campaign and tweet to get @Sassyprof on the air.  Tweet this message:  Give @Sassyprof a guest slot to discuss the South and the media @TheDailyShow #CharlotteDNC

Call me “Professor Swamp People”

Troy Landry, one of the stars of History Channel's "Swamp People"

I was recently interviewed by Cara Bayles at the Houma Courier in Louisiana about the flood of reality television shows that are set in Louisiana.  We had a terrific talk that lasted a good half an hour, but all that ended up in the paper was a couple of sentences, which you can read here.  Just before we hung up the phone, I asked Cara “How did you find me?” to which she responded “I Googled ‘professor swamp people.'”

When I set out to write Dreaming of Dixie, I had no idea that it would lead to my becoming some “expert” on reality TV shows set in the South, although “Professor Swamp People” has a nice ring to it.  It began with the op-ed in the New York Times, which led to an interview about “hixploitation” for the Louisville Courier-Journal(KY) and similarly-related articles elsewhere.

Ernie Brown, Jr. a.k.a. "Turtleman," from "Call of the Wild Man" on Animal Planet

It may seem a huge leap to go from an analysis on the impact of Gone With the Wind to that of Swamp People, but from where I sit the purveyors of popular culture have, since the early nineteenth century, simply decided to emphasize what it believes to be the South’s cultural distinctiveness–whether or not it applies to the broader region.

And yet, therein lies the problem. So often nonsoutherners (including seasoned journalists) who don’t know the region’s history and have not spent time in the South, will often buy into those differences they find in popular culture. And as long as they do, I will continue to answer to the name “Professor Swamp People” when called.  Choot’em!!