With Liberty and Justice for All*

 

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March 16, 1965: A college student calls for an ambulance to aid a fellow demonstrator, while an injured girl is carried away in the background. Mounted police broke up a march for voting rights in Montgomery. | (AP Photo/Perry Aycock)

The following is an excerpt from a reflection I wrote December 2015.


It was a warm afternoon when we arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Our Blue Toyota Corolla was overflowing with camping gear, the large Thule setting us apart as travelers, not locals. We’d never been in Mississippi, but as soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Not fear, nor nervousness necessarily, but I was unsettled. The words of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation at Berea College spoke clearly in my mind, “I still fear when my son travels into the south.” I looked back at the kids and knew we were okay. We were white. I felt sick to my stomach. Continue reading

Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We’ve Lost Who We Are

Appalachia, VA – Photo by Nick Mullins

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be? Continue reading

The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

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Photo by Nick Mullins

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience. Continue reading

The Manipulation of Southern Pride

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Stone Mountain, Georgia | Photo by Jim Bowen

When I was a teenager, I went to a meeting of the new Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in my home town. I quickly became caught up in the ideals of the SCV and hoped desperately that I could find a Confederate soldier within my lineage so I could join. I was not racist thanks to a good upbringing, nor were many of the SCV members in my home town. The head of the chapter made it clear to newcomers that racism would not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Despite this fact, we were nevertheless engaged in downplaying the atrocity of slavery to reconcile our past and defend our identity as southerners.
Continue reading

As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

 

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Abandoned Company Home – Trammel, Virginia. Photo by Nick Mullins

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing. Continue reading

The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy” by R. Mike Burr

I’ve had multiple people asking my thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy. Between the article below by R. Mike Burr which I have reblogged here, and another article by Ivy Brashear titled “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia” there is not much for me to add. They have thoroughly iterated my sentiments about the book and it’s faux hillbilly author, J.D. Vance.

The danger that I see is that Hillbilly Elegy has garnered too much publicity for a remarkably shallow insight into Appalachia’s issues. Not only do I blame the media and public at large for taking this book to heart, I blame Vance for taking on the role of “explainer-in-chief of Appalachian issues.”

Sadly, the literature that does explore the depths of corruption and economic exploitation in the region, problems that have created the intense poverty and all the symptoms you would expect of it, seldom receive the level of media attention necessary to educate the public. If one wants to understand what has happened in Appalachia so as to begin a dialogue about a just transition I would suggest…

Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945  Ron D. Eller

High Mountains Rising  – edited by Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blothen

Night Comes to the Cumberlands – Harry M. Caudill

 

Tropics of Meta

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As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance…

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The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia

 

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today. Continue reading