Ignorance – Fighting the Appalachian Stereotype


This is a subject that a lot of people wish to avoid, but it needs to be addressed…
Courtesy: Berea College
Appalachians have been looked down upon, made fun of, and dehumanized based on the stereotypes of being “uneducated,” “backwards,” or just down right “ignorant.” Because of this, people now tend to tip toe carefully around the subject of Appalachian intelligence. I myself would often denounce such stereotyping, but as of late I cannot help but acknowledge  that many Appalachian people are beginning to fulfill the descriptions placed upon them.

The older generations of Appalachians were not uneducated, ignorant, or backwards. They were skilled and crafty; capable of living off the land and knowing who could and could not be trusted. For the majority of Appalachians, their handshake was as good as any legal contract, and their beliefs often centered upon the golden rule of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” For many, this often translated into loving thy neighbor and other lessons such as “giving is better than receiving.” Such knowledge and understanding became the fibers from which some of the most tight nit communities in our nation were weaved and was essential to making a life of subsistence and freedom possible in the mountain wilderness.Mountain people were only considered “uneducated” or “ignorant” by societal standards, the same societies who measured people’s worth by the amount and rarity of useless materials one could purchase, or the amount of people they could enslave/employ to obtain more material wealth.

Those in the mountains who could not read or write effectively were often denied the ability due to the lack of good public schools and/or the need to stay at home and tend to the chores necessary to continue their lives of basic homesteading. Though their education was not from schools, books, or universities, the traditional Appalachian family’s knowledge of the land, and their passion for living upon it in freedom, could have easily equaled that of having a Ph.D.

Mountain Homestead – Photo by R.L. Mullins

 

This “down home” intelligence, as I refer to it, far outweighed a college degree making any derogatory statements about the intelligence of mountain people utterly and morally wrong. Times have changed however.

Our ancestors were forcibly transitioned from subsistence living to economic living. They were forced into a materialistic society. As this occurred they were made to work in the coal mines to keep their families alive. Their lack of access to education, coupled with the mono-economy put in place by the coal industry, sealed the fate of our forefathers and literally damned them to a life of coal company servitude. Starting unions, fighting the greeds and control of coal companies, and doing what they could to be good neighbors despite the circumstances is the true heroism and self-sacrifice I associate with the coal mining profession.

 

Courtesy: antiwarsongs.org
Coal mining today doesn’t carry with it anywhere near the same heroism and self-sacrifice in the absence of resistance to the company’s status quo.
Successive generations starting in the 70s (to include myself) were raised in a purely economic way. The ability to homestead—to live off of the abundance of the mountains themselves—had been eradicated during the years of industrialization by outside interests. During this time, improvements in both the educational system and communications technology began providing future generations with the opportunity to broaden our horizons beyond working in the coal mines; something every coal mining parent with any common sense wanted for their children.
While the education system in the mountains was still nowhere near the caliber of those found in other parts of the nation, children who truly applied themselves had the opportunity to continue their education.
This is where the line is drawn, and we must begin to judge intelligence based upon personal choices. To illustrate, I shall digress.

Had I applied myself more in the Dickenson County school system, terrible though it was, I could have gone on to college. Had it been a regular, non-coalfield school system, the question of going to college would have been answered with a definite

Courtesy Dickenson County Schools

yes, but I must admit there were many students not outside of the affluent who worked hard and went on to college where they did surprisingly well. I, and so many, others did not.

Without a college degree I found myself lured to the idea of making $50,000+ in a job that did not require my intelligence so much as a few hand eye coordination skills and my willingness to risk life, limb, and long term health. In the mines, I met many people from varying backgrounds. Some did decently well in high school, but like me, lacked the perseverance to go on to college. Some folks actually had a little college but preferred mining. There were also many folks who did not do well in school, succumbing to the idea that they were just not capable of doing school work and either squeaked through school to get their high school diploma, dropped out of high school and pursued a GED, or had neither a GED nor diploma. In the past few years I even heard stories of people dropping out of high school knowing they can make just as much money in the mines as a college graduate.
What I would like to point out here is not so much the level of education, but the choices that were being made by the individuals. I do not like to use public education as a gauge of intelligence, because, as I previously mentioned, some of the smartest and best people on this earth barely stepped foot into a school.
That being said, I have begun to base Appalachian intelligence upon the choices people are now making.
Here are just a few things to consider….
Do people:
  • Continue working in the coal mines for large paychecks while knowing they can be killed and will ultimately suffer debilitating long term health problems?
  • Intentionally ignore scientific evidence regarding the detrimental health effects upon families who live near mining as a result of mining processes and the mono-economy perpetuated by the coal industry?
  • Choose to ignore the history of Appalachian struggles against the coal industry and instead embrace a new found love of the industry by blindly accepting everything the industry tells them?
  • Continuously sacrifice the environment necessary for the good health of our children and future generations?
  • Go into tremendous debt for recreational items and/or unnecessarily large homes and vehicles based upon the income of an industry proven to have “booms and busts,” a decision that ultimately puts their family’s well-being at risk?
  • Choose to use hearsay as their basis of knowledge in political decision making rather than taking the time to perform the proper research on various issues themselves?
  • Choose to be racists or bigots?
  • Support organizations such as “Coal Mining Our Future” that promotes the idea of their children being coal miners who will eventually face the same debilitating health and economic problems?
  • Intentionally withdraw from the workforce to pursue government assistance while supporting a substance abuse problem?
  • Currently stand up for their neighbors in a fight for the betterment of Appalachia even if it involves going without a big paycheck (similar to what our fathers did)?

 

While there are many who would consider the first choice to be a matter of heroism and self-sacrifice for one’s family, let me remind you that the newest generations had a much better chance to pursue a career outside of coal mining thanks to somewhat better schools and communications. Let me also be the first to say that when I became a coal miner I succumbed to the idiocy of heroism and self-sacrifice, sucking off the heritage of my forefathers who were forced into the mines. For a while I also made the poor choice of ignoring the struggles of my forefathers and actually believed the coal companies had a change of heart and wished to help the people of Appalachia. I’m sure Rankin and Bass would have thrown up in their mouths ….

Today, when I look at Appalachia as a whole and I see the amount of “Friends of Coal” stickers plastered on people’s vehicles, I begin to realize that few folks have stopped to research what “Friends of Coal” really is and have made some pretty poor choices with regard to those I mentioned. So I’m on the fence with all of the stereotyping of Appalachian intelligence these days. Could it be that we have

A truck in Hazard, Kentucky – Photo by R.L. Mullins

started living up to the old stereotypes? When I think back to previous generations, I believe emphatically that it was wrong to call our ancestors “ignorant hillbillies.” Today, it’s hard to take in the many choices my fellow Appalachian people are making. I often wonder if they haven’t begun living up to the stereotypes placed upon us. Who else would agree that cancer rates are on the rise in their hometowns, yet choose to ignore peer reviewed scientific reports on how coal companies are poisoning their water sources and then turn around to support the companies who are causing it all? Who would ignore a history wrought with honest to God human struggle against the power of the coal industry and instead begin singing the praises of companies who have never, and will never, care about the health and welfare of Appalachian people?

There are some truly wonderful and intelligent folks who are fighting the coal industry like hell right now to save Appalachia for our children, but sadly, those people are the minority and are even cursed at by their fellow Appalachians. So, where does the line get drawn? Does the stereotype fit modern day Appalachians?
I’m sorry but those of you who are making poor choices by uplifting the coal industry based on your personal materialistic wants are not making Appalachia look terribly great. You really need to rethink who you are supporting—rethink who  you’ve sold out our heritage and our children’s future to—and start working harder for a better, healthier future for our children.
Senator Mitch McConnell

Start by getting rid of your debts and using less. Learn your history and learn about the scientific reports regarding environmental health and coal mining. Then start cleaning house of politicians whose campaigns are funded by the coal companies—whose cell phones are on the coal association’s speed dials.

Put in representatives willing to work towards a diverse economy, a better education system, and who will work to create jobs by 1. Making coal companies clean up their messes and 2. Bring in industries that really do have a future—such as those in energy efficiency.

It’s not just about making the smart choice; it’s about making the right choice…

Train Watching – Photo by R.L. Mullins

 

5 thoughts on “Ignorance – Fighting the Appalachian Stereotype

  1. I grew up in a place called Pruden coal camp, Pruden TN, just down the road from Fonde KY. My grandparents that I lived with were hard working and good people as was everyone else in the camp. Today, that part of the country has an economy based on entitlements and meth. Very few people work for a living and so many are strung out on drugs. It isn't the Appalachia of my childhood.

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  2. I know what you mean. It is a complex situation where people want to remain in their ancestral home, but the coal industry has done a good job protecting their coal reserves. Each bust comes with another out migration and the powers that be, often influenced by the coal industry, do little to prevent it–sometimes even promoting it. After all, it is easier to move a meth head off of a mountain to get to the coal than it is to relocate families who are making a decent living at something other than coal mining.

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