What Appalachians Want: ‘Honorable Work at a Living Wage’ — ‘Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?’

In a new essay, Kentucky-based writer Robert Gipe argues for a hardheaded humanist approach to tackling Appalachia’s issues. Applying the lens of national politics — an easy, entertaining method for big newspapers, website, and TV stations — usually hurts discourse. “The national political rhetoric plays on our worst selves and drives us apart,” writes Gipe in the essay, which was published Friday by the New York Times. (As regional newspapers struggle, big media bears an ever greater responsibility for careful, levelheaded coverage that brings out people’s best selves.)

As the story of Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) shows, people in Appalachia are busy working out their future. “We still are looking,” writes Gipe, “but that is more difficult to do when we are pitted against one another.”

One answer, suggested in Moundsville, is to take Trump and other faraway figures out of the conversation and rebuild a shared narrative, based on reality and the lived experience of individuals. Yes, that narrative is messy. As Gipe points out:

Appalachia has been going through rapid, often painful changes for the past hundred years, and our communities have been working hard to rebuild our economies. Over the past decade, many of us have put aside partisan politics to work together to do what’s best for the places we live in, the places we love.

Instead of dividing the region according to its pro- and anti-Trump factions, outsiders would do well first to acknowledge the truth of what’s happened, and the basic human needs of people in the region, which, as he points out, encompasses parts of 13 states, and 25 million people.  Writes Gipe:

We all crave honorable work at a living wage. We want success tied to the success of the community. We want to be safe. We are weary of fear. We are exhausted by hate. We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

One joy of making this movie has been connecting to a community of people pushing back against stereotypes, condescension and manipulative political rhetoric, like Gipe, public historian Elizabeth Catte, who wrote What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, and her Cleveland-based publisher, writer Anne Trubek, founder of Belt Publishing.

In fact, I am an outsider – my home is Brussels, Belgium – and not an academic expert on the region. I have lived in Pittsburgh (yes, that’s Appalachia, since 2011) and I am a professional journalist, and I love the region and believe there can’t be enough of the work of reaffirming the humanity of people ignored by our coastal celebrity-obsessed culture, and nudging the national conversation toward stories of earnest, interesting people who believe in hard work, honesty and keeping your word.

Another writer doing this work is The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, whose book Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into The Heart of America with his wife Deb is an exploration of down of American towns from Charleston, WV, Erie, PA and Louisville, KY to Rapid City, SD, Bend, OR and Riverside, CA. (Fallows has also written two posts about Moundsville, here and here.)

In his chapter on Charleston, WV, the Fallows attends a performance of Mountain Stage, the public radio Appalachian musical variety show and talks to its host, Larry Groce.

The list of artists who had their first live-broadcast exposure to a national audience under Groce’s auspices is so long and impressive that at first I didn’t really believe it (but then I checked it out.) The performers include Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Barenaked Ladies, Alison Krauss, Ani DiFranco, Phish, Counting Crows, Lucinda Williams, and many more.

Later, the Fallows visit Groce at his house, and interview him. Groce is originally from Dallas, Texas, and has an easy time explaining his appreciation of Appalachian values. One is a lack of pretension: “A hillbilly isn’t an ignorant fool,” he tells Fallows. “He’s a straightforward, self-effacing, ‘what you see is what you get’ person. He relies on his friends because he doesn’t trust a lot of other things. He is not necessarily formally educated. But he is smart.”

Another value he names is generosity, which makes me think about the time that my car wouldn’t start in Moundsville, and Phil Remke broke away from his day to help me find a garage. Phil is the mayor of Moundsville. “I appreciate you being here,” he told me as I apologized over and over again for the bother.

Although many older people are “looking backward,” Groce tells Fallows in the book, younger people “are starting new businesses and families and projects.” In the last 10 years, “there has been a renaissance,” he says. “It’s easy to go to a place because the money is good. It’s different because you like being there. I am optimistic about this place.”

John W. Miller

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