When I saw the clip of the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart aping a misinformed West Virginia voter in May, I had a flashback to a Saturday Night Live “Appalachian ER” skit, which featured rocker Neil Young embroiled in a mess of incest and depravity.
How the media loves its hillbillies.
Makes me wanna holler: 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.
Yet, for a media quick to scapegoat or collect a sound bite for the evening news, the ignorant hillbilly gets trotted out of the woods as the exclusive symbol of the region, or, in fact, as the last acceptable slur in the country. Just as SNL has never aired a “Jewish ER” or “Black Sambo ER” skit -- thank God, recognizing that our nation has grown up on these matters -- the Daily Show’s host probably will never track down and mock an elderly Jewish voter in Florida or an older African American in Michigan. Let’s hope not.
Take hillbillies, on the other hand. 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.
One guest blogger for the environmental website Grist, a wonderful venue for investigative writers, completely wrote off the region as the “Deliverance” vote. Did this blogger ever consider the fact that the “Deliverance” vote in West Virginia overwhelmingly elects liberal Democrat Jay Rockefeller and anti-Iraq war icon Robert Byrd to the Senate, or that both senators have endorsed Obama?
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, hands down one of the most insightful writers in the country and one of my literary exemplars, simply concluded in his latest missive: Goodbye Appalachia. (New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who launched the newspaper on its course for world acclaim in the 1890s, came from Appalachia and modeled the Times on his Chattanooga editorial approach.)
Let’s compare the coverage of the West Virginia with Rhode Island primaries. Unless we want to split hairs, a similar number of voters -- 8% versus 5% -- ranked race as the SINGLE most important factor in their vote for Senator Hillary Clinton. The media, though, never raised any concerns about racism in Rhode Island. This is New England, home of the free and brave, and the leaders in our nation’s historical pursuit for independence, emancipation, and a higher literary purpose.
In West Virginia (and Kentucky), on the other hand, disregarding the fact that the Clintons have had a several decades-long relationship with southern Democrats in West Virginia, that Bill Clinton’s folksy southern accent still goes down among the aging electorate like molasses, that Sen. Barack Obama ran a poor operation and did very little campaigning in the state and mainly invoked his Illinois coal state credentials in an anachronistic pitch for votes, the media preferred to dwell on the region’s perceived legacy of backwardness. In truth, Obama blew it in Appalachia; Hillary reaped the rewards of the Clinton legacy.
Still, most reporters, exclusively interviewing older voters, went out of their way to find the most outrageous examples to confirm their hillbilly-biased pronouncements.
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.
Sut Lovingood and Jon Stewart notwithstanding, if the media had done a little homework on the true legacy of Appalachia, they have might had the chance to take a more profound look at the region’s voters.
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 brief look at the larger mountain region further debunks this backward misperception.
Long before Rhode Island bucked the British Crown or their Boston neighbors tossed a little tea into the harbors, backwoods folks in Appalachia had already declared their independence from the British in 1772, incorporated their own articles of association, elected their own courts and sheriffs, and declared themselves the District of Washington.
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.
Jeff Biggers is the author of United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America