Like people in every culture, Appalachian people are complex. Why, then, do we insist on clinging to the single narrative that plagues its people and obstructs solutions to its overwhelming problems?
In my 30 years of living in southern West Virginia, I had many friends and acquaintances who fit the stereotypes. But I also have lifelong friends, still living there, who do not.
My favorite teacher is an avid reader and a gardener whose manicured lawn and radiant flowers were the envy of my mother, who struggled to get anything to grow in her stereotypical dirt yard. My mother’s best friend is a female lay minister in a progressive church who uses her skill to advocate for the poor and the elderly. One of my best friends is a former teacher turned small business owner, who is married to a lawyer. Another was the office manager for a United States congressman who was voted out of office when the once blue state turned red. I attended a progressive church there where the wife of a doctor spent her life engaged in philanthropic projects, not the least of which was to establish a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. The pastor at the time was a learned man with a PhD in theology—a man who later became one of the first leaders in the Presbyterian Church to advocate for LGBTQ persons.
These are not the people we hear about—the people who have the credibility and the knowledge that could bring about change if given the right resources.
The single narrative we hear has changed little over time. Consider that defining narrative of the early years, the story of a bitter feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The drama of the bloody battle between two families that threatened to engulf two states has been re-enacted at an amphitheater in West Virginia’s Grandview State Park for over fifty years. For many years, summer visitors from out of state carried that single view of the passion and violence of Appalachians back home with them as a memory of its people.
Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, first published in 2005, told a similar story of the poverty and mental instability of the people. Her tale of her own grit and her escape from this world remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over seven years, and it is scheduled to be released this year as a movie.
Most recently, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of the author’s escape from abuse, addiction, and poverty. It is a tale of admirable strength in the face of adversity, but, to me, the people in his family sound much like the characters in the Hatfields and McCoys saga. He concludes, “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.”
As a child of Appalachia, I have lived among the vulnerable, those who, despite their faith in God, can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps—those whose voices are not heard in the most well-known tales about my culture. Though the men in Vance’s story sound somewhat familiar to me, the women bear no resemblance to most of the Appalachian women I know.
Even my experience is only a single story. A personal story is just that—one person’s story. The danger is when the stories we hear follow the same basic plotline and create a single perception of an entire culture.
Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, says in her famous TedTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Yet even Adichie is guilty of stereotyping—as are we all. In her novel Americanah, she creates one character who hails from West Virginia. That character argues with the narrator’s professor boyfriend about white privilege: “How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.”
This story of Appalachian people is the single greatest barrier to finding solutions to poverty, not just in Appalachia but across our nation.
Even President Obama, who I believe cared deeply about the poor from all cultures, stereotyped people in rural America during his campaign: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This grave mistake allowed his opponents to use his stereotype to stoke the anger of the people he hoped to help.
Over and over again, the single story threatens to become our national narrative. We generalize about every culture. We generalize about immigrants. We generalize about sexual orientation. We generalize about religions. We generalize about the media. We generalize about our elected officials.
And in the end, because of these stereotypes, we can do nothing more than stand on opposite sides and lob insults at one another.
We need to begin to listen to one another’s stories—to all the varied perspectives that make us a colorful and complex people. The storytellers need to avoid the urge to editorialize—to allow the stories to speak for themselves without pushing a political agenda. The story-hearers need to listen to hear, not just to respond with their own political views.
This is a tall order. Like Adichie, we will not always be able to live up to this ideal. But if there is an American story, it is one with thousands of subplots.
If we want to avoid a tragedy, we must outgrow our need to believe in a simple story in a picture book with an unrealistic rescue at the end.
The American story is an epic, not a fairy tale.