Saturday, May 24, 2008



JEFF BIGGERS, HUFFINGTON POST The hand-wringing aftermath of the recent presidential primaries in Appalachia -- from western Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky -- says more about the media's prejudice and misperception of the Mountain South than any insights into the voting ranks and their racism or religious narrowness.

In the process, most pundits missed the two best kept secrets about Appalachia: In a region that has historically witnessed tremendous industrial upheaval and transition, there is no single Appalachia or Appalachian culture. Secondly, Appalachia has been a burning ground of change and an arena for rebellion and innovation for the past 250 years. . .

Dating back to the 1850s, when George W. Harris created the character of Sut Lovingood, the "durn'd fool" with his "brains onhook'd" from eastern Tennessee for a New York newspaper, the media has obsessed over hillbillies, as if they have cornered the market on provincialism or racism in America. From bloggers on the liberal Daily Kos to untold television interviews, this same obsession has reared its ugly head in one commentary after another, blinding the writers from any historical truths about Appalachia. . .

Outside of NPR, most of the media completely overlooked a new generation of deeply rooted activists, extremely organized around the critical issues of mountaintop removal and sustainable development, that has emerged as a strong voice in Appalachia. . .

Consider this: Though Obama was trounced in the coalfield regions, the United Mine Workers of America holds the distinction of being one of the oldest integrated unions in the country, and in fact, endorsed Obama this week; that Black History Month founder, Carter Woodson, emerged out of the coalfields of West Virginia, as did 19th Century African American spokesman Booker T. Washington, and pioneering black nationalist Martin Delany; that the legendary John Henry pounded those rails through Appalachia. In more recent times, imminent African American critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard University emerged out of the West Virginia experience, as did acclaimed novelist William Demby, one of the last living writers from the Harlem Renaissance. . .

A generation before New Englander William Lloyd Garrison launched his anti-slavery crusade, Appalachians launched the first newspaper dedicated to the anti-slavery issue in 1819, sent out abolitionist emissaries to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and eventually trained the famed Boston liberator. Garrison recognized Appalachian preacher John Rankin as the godfather of the anti- slavery movement.

In 1861, Rebecca Harding, a young woman writer from western Virginia, shattered the indifference of New England's literary elite to the working class and immigrant travails by publishing "Life in the Iron Mills," the first story of literary naturalism in the hallowed Atlantic Monthly and the nation. Harding Davis went on to deal with the issue of race and misperceptions by outsiders as early as the 1870s.

Nearly a century later, self-proclaimed "radical hillbillies" at the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia trained the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movements -- including Rosa Parks, four months before her historic refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 -- and refashioned and taught the anthem "We Shall Overcome" to young civil rights advocates as early as 1946. The first school to graduate an African American youth from its integrated high school ranks took place in the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee.

Random examples of Appalachia's progressive heritage? No, this is the backstory on our contemporary elections that should have informed some of the knee-jerk reactions to the region's complex role in the Democratic Primaries.

Perhaps the media, and Sen. Obama, will make a better attempt to understand Appalachia in the general election in November.


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