West Virginia might be the most misunderstood state in the union. How can outsiders, and its own people, understand it better?
The best answer, of course, is to empower and celebrate storytellers from West Virginia — like memoirist Neema Avashia, or Steve Novotney in Wheeling, WV and Brianna Hickman in Moundsville – who write about their home communities.
Emily Hilliard, the state’s folklorist from 2015-2021, has written Making Our Future (UNC Press, 312 p., $24.95), a rich, witty, deeply-reported and impassioned survey of West Virginia folklife, and a plea for “collaborative ethnography”.
That’s a way of reporting “in a place like Appalachia, where journalists and cultural workers have extracted stories and cultural resources without community input, benefit, or respect, employing narratives that frame the region’s faults as individual failures rather than systemic problems.”
For her kinder, more human approach, amplified by a relentless and refreshing curiosity, Hilliard chose eight specific stories: the history of the Scotts Run coal-mining community and its museum; the inspiring, heart-melting songwriting of four working-class women; the food and culture of Helvetia, WV, a Swiss community of 59 people; the landscape of the stories of legendary fiction writer Breece D’J Pancake in Milton, WV; the West Virginia teachers’ strike; hotdogs and the so-called “slaw line”, which demarcates where coleslaw is added; independent pro wrestling; and the video game Fallout 76.
The nature of her work as a public folklorist, she writes, “is to offer my assistance to local communities in recognizing themselves as collectivities with some shared identity and history (even if contested), communities that, through shared reactive expression, can together realize the power of self-determination in making their future.” (As University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me after we premiered our oral history film Moundsville in the town’s it’s about: Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about
interaction, collaboration and growth. Self-knowledge can give a community political power.”
When Hilliard moved to West Virginia from Washington, DC on Halloween, 2015, she discovered a wildly diverse state.
Today there are still actively practiced African American, Serbian, Lebanese, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, Greek, and Polish traditions…West Virginia is also home to newer Syrian, Haitian, and Burmese refugees, and a quickly growing Latinx population. A new Hindu temple opened in Dunbar in 2017, and the Islamic Center in Charleston, a multiracial and multiethnic faith community, has over 400 active members. It is important to note that while West Virginia is declining in population overall, notably among its white population, communities of color in the state are growing.
One of West Virginia’s most expansive exposures in the last decade has been the best-selling video game, Fallout 76, which takes place in post-apocalyptic West Virginia, 25 years after a nuclear war has decimated the world. Players emerge from a bunker in Flatwoods, WV, and are charged with fighting two-headed opossums, giant ticks and mangy beavers, and the Scorched, a zombie-like army, securing nuclear silos and making the world for rebuilding and repopulating.
Rightly, Hilliard spends an essay exploring the game’s cultural significance. It is, after all, global. She quotes Norwegian Anders Isaken: “I have been playing Fallout 76 and I have to admit that I have developed a love for West Virginia. I have never been to the USA but if I were ever to get a chance to visit your wonderful country West Virginia is high on my list of places I want to travel to. Your local culture, folklore, nature and people seem absolutely lovely. Without the game you and your amazing state would just be a word on a map. Now it is in my heart. Country Roads take me home.”
The game is full of West Virginia tourist sites, including Harper’s Ferry, the Mothman Museum, the Moundsville prison, New Vrindaban, and the Greenbrier resort. “The in-game portrayal of Helvetia, the remote mountain village of population 59, founded in 1869 by Swiss German immigrants, is particularly accurate,” Hilliard reports. “Though the game designers swapped a few building locations, the scale and aesthetic is impeccably simulated and everything is there, down to the hand-painted signs, the historic bootmaker shack, Cheese Haus, Honey Haus, Hutte Swiss Restaurant (called Freya’s Restaurant in-game), the Kultur Haus/general store/post office, mask museum, and even the assortment of instruments in the museum that belonged to the original members of the real Helvetia Star Band. Though I never played the game, when I watched a friend navigate through virtual Helvetia, I was able to direct him to where to go based on my familiarity with the town.”
The world of Fallout 76 “is a West Virginia that has been returned to the frontier it once was.”
Fallout 76, is also an example of extracting a cultural resource, and could possibly overwhelm the tourist capacities of small towns. It’s also expensive and difficult to play for people without decent incomes and good broadband. Hilliard argues that “as a next step beyond documentation, contextualization, and presentation, folklorists, myself included, should be more attuned to the future life of traditions beyond sustainability, and actively work in collaboration with communities to combat the outside destructive forces, such as privatization, extraction, and austerity, that disrupt them and block their agency to negotiate the transmission of their traditions.”
The book shines brightest when Hilliard is on the ground:
Leaving Charleston and heading southeast, the road is immediately hedged in between the mountains on the left and the Kanawha River on the right, with the railroad crossing back and forth over the course of the journey. In Malden, I pass the former location of the saltworks where Booker T. Washington worked as a boy. In belle, smokestacks and cranes stretch up into the sky, competing with the mountains for the view. A group of Black girls with new glittery pink bikes ride by a group of white girls holding signs advertising a yard sale. I drive past cinderblock auto shops and neat former company houses and churches (so many churches!)—Church of Christ, Church of God, Catholic, African Zion Baptist, First Baptist, Memorial Baptist, and the mysterious “House of Non-Judgement.” There’s an old three-story brick elementary school, Dollar Generals, and a barbecue restaurant, a couple Taco Bells, the beloved West Virginia chain Turdor’s Biscuit World, and a Shoney’s Buffet with a sign that reads “Reopening Soon.” Past Cedar Grove, hand-painted boards advertising a hot dog joint are stapled to telephone poles every few yards and campaign signs are scattered along the berm. In London, the transport system for the Mammoth Coal Processing Plant arches from the hillside over the road to a looming metal tipple, standing guard.
The book’s title comes from a conversation Hilliard reports with a high school student while covering the West Virginia teachers strike. She also quotes the poet Audre Lorde: “We are making the future as well as bonding to survive the enormous pressures of the present, and that is what it means to be part of history.”
However West Virginia makes its future, I pray for more of what Hilliard lovingly demonstrates: encounters with neighbors close and far, not judging, just listening, noticing, and noting. The stories will come.
John W. Miller
What a great piece about what sounds like a great book!