I live in the state of juxtapositions.
For the past week I’ve been in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, home to Shepherd University, where I am enrolled as a graduate student in Appalachian Studies. It’s a program I’ve been a part of for the past couple of years.
What is a 64-year-old woman doing pursing a Masters in Appalachian Studies? It’s a good question. I mean it’s not like I’m going to be hot property for the job market once I complete my studies. I won’t be pursing a PhD, or seeking a tenured position at some university somewhere. Although, I’m open to such offers, I’m not in pursuit of them.
I first applied to a similar grad program at a different university a decade ago, and while I was accepted, it just wasn’t the right time. I had a lot going on. I was teaching at Central Washington University, and working on that trilogy of books that led me even further down the Appalachian trail.
For the newly initiated, I didn’t come to Appalachia by happenstance. My mother and father were both raised up in Hawkins County, Tennessee, the setting for my novels. My early growing up years were steeped in the storytelling traditions of Appalachia. A life void of podcasts and technology, television and theater; our storytellers were preachers and neighborhood pontificators, grannies and grandpas, aunties and uncles, and for me, Mrs. Blizzard, the lanky woman who lived atop the hill from Granny Spears, and Aunt Cil, who lived with her mute step-son at the corner of Christian Bend and Miller’s Bluff.
These were my people, and when I grew into a writing woman, it was their voices I heard in my head, telling the stories, teaching me about the God of Love and the murder and mayhem committed by God’s people. It was their voices I strove to lift up when I took story to paper. It’s their voices I seek yet. That’s why I am here in West Virginia.
I came at the invitation of Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, Director of Shepherd University Center for Appalachian Studies. I first met Dr. Shurbutt in Huntington, West Virginia, when my novel Mother of Rain earned the Weatherford Award for Best in Appalachian Fiction. Writer Silas House pointed her out to me and told me how she had been a champion for my novel. She would have been hard to miss given her regal presence and striking red hair. She’s a person who turns heads because of the essence of authority that propels her forward in every endeavor she undertakes.
There would be no Center for Appalachian Studies at Shepherd University were it not for Dr. Shurbutt. I’m convinced this Georgia native could persuade the Taliban to happily step aside and let women lead. Dr. Shurbutt is clear about what the mission of the Appalachian Studies Center: It is to help the rest of the world understand that Appalachia is about so much more than the stereotypes. Or as the more formal mission statement says: “To develop an understanding of the geographic region known as Appalachia, through the study of its cultural traditions and the ethnic heritage of those diverse people who call themselves Appalachians. ”
A complex place full of a complex and diverse people.
Any of us who have ever spent any time in the 13 states that comprise Appalachia know this, of course. We know that Appalachia is much more than apron-wearing, snuff-dipping grannies driving dented pick-up trucks and heaving shotguns across their shoulders. And we are not all coal-miners daughters, as Marie Manilla says. Manilla is author of the books Shrapnel and The Patron Saint of Ugly, and this year’s Appalachian-Heritage-Writer-in-Residence at Shepherd. Manilla grew up an Italian Catholic in West Virginia.
If it surprises you that Italian Catholics have long called Appalachia home, it’s only because of the stereotypes that have been thrust upon you.
Poet Ellen Ward is a Black Jewish Latino woman from Appalachia.
As I sit typing this poolside in West Virginia, a woman is swimming and speaking Polish to her partner. If you are unaware that Scots-Irish aren’t the only ones who immigrated to Appalachia but that Polish people did as well, it’s not your fault. It’s because media, Hollywood, and DC’s Beltway have stuck to one narrative about Appalachia: That of uneducated lazy poor people who believe in Jesus and Trump.
This week, while in West Virginia, I have caught snippets of the news reports on the ongoing challenges happening in Congress as Democrats seek to push forward a plan to help all Americans. More than once, I’ve heard pontificators make disparaging remarks about how you’d think Senator Joe Manchin would want to do more to help out those poor people in West Virginia.
Without question there is a wealth gap in West Virginia. Governor Jim Justice is the state’s richest person. Justice made his money the same way Alex Murdaugh in South Carolina made his before he botched a few murders, the same way Trump made his before he threw over the entire country – Justice inherited it. Of course, the other thing Justice shares with Trump and Murdaugh is his reluctance to pay his bills on time. The thing a lot of America’s wealthiest share with one another, no matter what part of the country they are from, is a willingness to making money off the backs off of the country’s underinsured, underpaid work force.
That’s the very thing that Joe Biden, who didn’t inherit wealth from his daddy, is seeking to change. Biden is seeking to help not only the working class in West Virginia, but also the working class in Oregon and California, in Michigan and Wisconsin, in Wyoming and Alabama.
In case you haven’t noticed, there is a growing wealth gap throughout the nation. It’s not just a West Virginia or Appalachian problem. New York state has the largest wealth gap, followed by the District of Columbia (where all the politicians reside), Connecticut, Mississippi, California and Florida. West Virginia’s wealth gap is pretty middling, equal to that of Arizona and Washington State’s.
Yeah, because the stereotype thrust upon West Virginians or Appalachians in general doesn’t really line up with how we view residents of Washington State or Arizona, who we typically see as better educated and better off.
I get it. Most Americans don’t have time to ferret out the facts for themselves. And those who do have the time, often don’t make the effort. That’s the responsibility of writers like myself. Tracking down the facts and presenting them in a way that defies the one-story narrative pushed out of the Beltway and out of Hollywood so that rich people can continue to fleece the general worker.
I don’t know if I will get over my frustration with Director Ron Howard for elevating one of the worst voices to ever come out of Appalachia (just barely), that of J. D. Vance. Howard should have known better. He should have done better by the people of Appalachia. But Ron Howard isn’t the only person to fall victim to the one-note narrative. CNN did their share of elevating the voice of this very well educated racist and misogynist. So did almost every other new media outlet.
Here’s the thing that completely befuddles me: When a journalist is in need of a voice out of Appalachia, why do they elevate the voices of men like Vance instead of the trusted expert advice of a woman like Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt?
Why would you rely on the voice of a self-serving Congressional Candidate whose blind ambition is glaring versus that of a woman who has spent decades of her career lifting up the diverse voices of Appalachians from around the globe?
Unless, of course, you just want to continue to perpetuate a one-note narrative that demeans and diminishes Appalachians.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain and the forthcoming Murder Gene. For more information on how you can become of Ally of Appalachia click here.