Appalachian Stereotypes Ignore Region’s Complex Social History

CJ Blair, Columnist

Being a Kentuckian at Oberlin puts me in a strange position. While my home state is only four hours away, every day quietly affirms that it’s farther than anywhere else in the country. This feeling stems from my ties to Kentucky’s Appalachian region, one of the most enigmatic places on Earth. Though I wasn’t directly raised in Appalachia, generations of my family on both sides have lived there, and I’ve come to accept it as a permanent part of my identity. As one of only a handful of Kentuckians at Oberlin, I quickly realized that almost no one here understands what Appalachia is, and any opinions they have fail to account for the complexity of the region.

Appalachia is a place known for its stereotypes, and it’s because of these hackneyed impressions that the rest of the country turns a blind eye to it. The rest of the U.S. sees Appalachia as a land of crippling poverty, poor education and endless drug use. While these are blunt generalizations, the statistics make it easy to see how such perceptions could arise. My mother’s tiny hometown of Middlesboro, KY, is one of the top 10 cities in the country for drug-related deaths. Fifteen to twenty-five percent of Appalachians live below the poverty line, and only 15 percent of adults receive a bachelor’s degree, seven points lower than the national average.

The causes of these problems aren’t easy to pinpoint, but the coal industry certainly deserves part of the blame. While advocates of mining point to the jobs the industry creates, they neglect to mention that mining towns in eastern Kentucky have a poverty rate that’s twice the national average. Mining provides work for only a fraction of a town’s working class while monopolizing the local economy so that no other industries can be successful. It also permanently destroys the soil, water and air quality.

This explanation homes in on specific causes, but the crux of Appalachia’s identity comes from its effects — these injustices shape the attitudes of many Appalachians today. It would be wrong to speak on their behalf, but based on what I’ve learned from my family, I can offer an informed guess as to why some Appalachians refuse to leave the region and secure a better life: They might not know anything else.

A few weeks ago, my mom spoke with an old friend from her hometown whose brother had just died. He sustained a cut on his little finger at work that became infected, and because his employers said they wouldn’t cover the medical expenses, he never received treatment and died in his 40s. Through the whole incident, he said that whatever happened was God’s will and he just had to be thankful for what he had.

There’s something to be said for being grateful, but when gratitude leads a person to die young from a small injury, something is seriously wrong. Cubans have made their way to Florida in homemade rafts and Cambodians have travelled across the Pacific to California, but some Appalachians won’t drive two hours from Pineville to Louisville. It seems nonsensical but given the circumstances of the region, it might be easier to see why this is the case.

If many Appalachians live their lives surrounded by friends and family who dropped out of high school, got hooked on drugs and were screwed over by corporations, then it may appear as though no other options are available. Appalachia is one of the only places where families have fallen victim to the same injustices for so many generations, and yet many do not consider any alternatives.

It’s easy to view Appalachia as a melting pot of ignorance, but this narrow idea fails to explain why this has happened and presupposes that it’s not a region worth helping, which is simply not the case. For the sake of the land and its people, I suggest trying to view Appalachia through a wider frame, one that displays a panorama of gorgeous land whose residents are deprived of its beauty and their livelihoods, and are still trying to move on in spite of what they’ve lost.