Quoting the Bible out of context as the authoritative Word of God is a uniquely American phenomena—one that is, sadly, becoming the primary tool of Christians who want to ignore their responsibility to the nation’s poor. Continue reading (Un)Christian Blame for the Poor
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.
I’d like to be more excited about my November vote, but I can’t quite get there. If I were a politician, I’d have a hard time coming to the place where I could stand up and say enthusiastically, “I stand here today to endorse Hillary Clinton.” I’m pretty certain that what I’m about to say will never be retweeted from Hillary’s Twitter page, though I’ll support her in November.
Why? I’m a child of poverty who overcame adversity to become a teacher. I’m the daughter of a coal miner who was often out of work and who died of black lung. I’m the sister of heroin addicts who knows first-hand the devastation of the opioid epidemic. I’m a cancer survivor who wouldn’t be alive without good health insurance that paid for an expensive new drug with no generic equivalent. Though I’d never be invited to Hillary’s box if she is elected, I could be one of those visual props presidents like to point to during every State of the Union address.
But if Hillary Clinton does become president, it will be because of me and people like me. Continue reading Clinton Email Investigation Closed?
“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.
Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.
How many of our presidential candidates have made campaign stops in the rural areas of our country most impacted by poverty? Could it be that their lack of attention has something to do with the electoral votes these states carry? Here are five of those areas, which cross the racial lines that divide us, affecting African-Americans, Native Americans, and whites with equal force:
Eastern Kentucky 8
Southern West Virginia 5
South Dakota 3
Instead of visiting areas where Americans struggle the most to rise above the poverty line, candidates schedule rallies in populous urban areas in states that offer the greatest number of electoral votes, or in early voting states that offer the best opportunities for national media coverage.
All five of these rural states’ electoral votes have gone to Republicans in every presidential election since 2000. The last time any went to a Democrat were in 1996, when Bill Clinton carried all but Mississippi to win a second term in the White House.
Democrats have long since ceded these states—and their poverty-stricken residents—to the opposition. Republicans give them little attention either. But they do play on voters’ anger and fear, an easy campaign strategy given that many liberals dismiss the people in these areas as uneducated, gun-toting racists.
Having grown up in one of those pockets of poverty and then having moved to a state in the shadow of our nation’s capital, I find it exasperating that it seems impossible for the media to move past the stereotypes of the poor in both areas. At the risk of stating the obvious, not all poor African-Americans in urban areas are criminals who are killing each other. And neither are all poor white people in rural areas lazy and racist.
We know this, of course. But we allow our politicians to operate as if the stereotype is the single story of the poor in America.
Candidates on both sides of the aisle are allowed to perpetuate these stereotypes in ways that are both explicit and implied. They spout platitudes about helping Americans and renewing hope in the American Dream, but none seem to understand the magnitude of what poor Americans face in their struggle to survive.
What would happen if even one of these candidates would do as Kennedy did during the 1960 campaign? I was four years old when he came to my hometown, and I have no memory of his standing on that iconic kitchen stool in front of Shaheen’s Grocery to tell voters that if they elected him, he would do his best to help them. But I do remember that for most of my childhood, I heard adults, even those who usually voted Republican, talk about how Jack Kennedy listened more than he gave speeches—and that that is how he won over an electorate that was initially distrustful of a millionaire. Fifty years later, in an interview for the Logan Banner, Joe Cottone, one of Kennedy’s volunteers, had this to say:
I loved him. He just had this ability to relate to the common guy. One time, he met with some coal miners between shifts. At first, they wouldn’t shake his hand. But he sat down on a rail outside the mine and asked them about their economic situation and job security, and when he was done, one of the miners stood up and said, “I want to shake hands with a president.”
Though the pervasiveness of visual media would make that kind of conversation harder in the current climate, social media could also work to the advantage of a sincere candidate who isn’t getting air time in the mainstream media. A candidate who could somehow figure out how to meet the poor where they live and find common ground would, as Kennedy did, come away changed.
And perhaps might even come away not just as president—but as a president worthy of our respect.
Dear Mr. Coates:
As a child I, too, stood in the face of a brandished gun. Like you, “I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream.” Like you, I did not tell my teachers, and I did not tell my friends.
I did not tell my parents. Because they were there. My mother, too, stared down the barrel of the gun—a gun wielded by my drunken father.
Like you I asked, “What was the exact problem? Who could know?” It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to understand the demons that drove my father to hold the people he loved at gunpoint. Continue reading Who are the Dreamers?
Today’s post is a repeat of a January post. I was one of the lucky ones who was lifted up by the people around me. Who will lift up today’s children?
This week I took the Accuplacer, a College Board placement test currently used by many community colleges. Thank God, I’m “college and career ready.” I say “thank God” because I believe that my performance on that test owes little to my intellect and reasoning ability. I struggled so much with the test that I was surprised when I got my scores that I seemed to have only missed one question on reading and one question on sentence structure. Here’s the thing: I graduated both high school and college at the head of my class, I attended college on scholarships and grants that left me with no college debt, I earned an MA that certified me as a reading specialist, I taught English for 30 years, and I’ve worked in my district’s curriculum office for over eight years.
Take a moment to absorb that. Continue reading Is the Accuplacer Accurate?
“He’s just talking to hear his head rattle.” This was a comment I heard often from my mother during election cycles. It was her way of dismissing politicians she considered empty-headed and devoid of ideas.
As I listen to presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle talk about income inequality, my mother’s comment swirls in my own overcrowded brain as I try to sort through whether any of the candidates offer practical ideas for restoring some sense of balance to our country. And for the first time in my life, I am an undecided voter. Continue reading What does history tell an undecided voter?
Today I repeat a post from November 2014. Instead of forgetting our children each time a crisis like the one in Baltimore fades from the news cycle, we must find a way to make our nation’s children–and particularly our poor children and children of color–believe again that the American Dream is possible. We can only do that by accepting the reality we have created for them and working to change their circumstances and give them hope.
Is the American Dream Just a Dream?
“You’ll git the education I didn’t git, so you can have a better life than I’ve had.” This was my father’s mantra. He quit school in fifth grade, and he began working in a coal mine when he was only fifteen. He was functionally illiterate, and my mother read every important document to him in the privacy of their bedroom. He went to such great lengths to hide his illiteracy that even his five children didn’t know for years that he couldn’t read.