Appalachia — without the classism and caricatures
By Sana Saeed
“OK, let’s start thinking of a series idea — something about the environment, the energy industry. Use DAPL as your springboard.”
This was the mandate my team of four AJ+ producers was given in November, some days after the U.S. presidential election. We not only had jobs to do, but now, more than ever before in our young careers, we had to become harbingers of accountability and sanity in a time in this country — and in this world — when more and more people arguably had little of either.
The Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) was in its seventh month, and we had covered it extensively. The protests were a reminder not only of the incredible resilience of the indigenous communities of this continent, but also how the energy industry just isn’t interested in the way its policies impact the lives of everyday people. We wanted to tell those stories — the ones about the Americans at the center of the energy industry.
Our discussions led to the topic of the coal industry and the Americans who live in Appalachia. The conversations followed the same predictable route.
“Appalachia is the poorest region in the country.”
“It went to Trump — even some places that were for Obama in ’08 and ’12! How?!”
“The accents will be interesting!”
Our rhetoric was your typical, bubble-induced, classist talk that, while lacking ill intention, reduced the experience of Appalachians to only the reductive images and tropes we, ourselves, had been exposed to.
When we thought of Appalachia, we saw poverty, Trump and cultural caricatures.
We should have known better. We all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences; my own family lives in a rural town in Canada dominated by the energy industry. But that’s the thing about ideas and perspectives: You can hold some that are contradictory and not realize that they are, in fact, contradictory.
Our weeklong trip to eastern Kentucky — the site of the coal industry’s former glory, and now its graveyard — would leave us with a better awareness of the misrepresentations of Appalachia, as well as the coal industry’s deep impact across the region.
Getting to Appalachia isn’t easy when you’re coming from warm, sunny, dietary-restrictions-friendly San Francisco. We knew the weather would be cold (the lowest temperatures we experienced were about 9 degrees Fahrenheit), and the two of us whose tummies weren’t of U.S. coal and steel grade knew that food was going to be an issue. Before booking our flights, we had already scoped out potential eating spots — and found mostly fast food options.
Three of the four team members took the trip: Maggie, Michael and myself, Sana. We flew from San Francisco to Knoxville, Tennessee, and from there, drove two and a half hours to Harlan County, the infamous site of a bloody, fierce, pro-union miner strike in the 1970s.
Harlan County isn’t unknown in American pop culture. It was featured in Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning 1976 documentary, “Harlan County, USA,” about the protest movement. It was also the setting of the popular FX show “Justified” — which doesn’t exactly leave you with the most positive and glowing image of the area.
To me, though, it looked like the small, rural, tar sands Albertan town where my parents live. It was cold, gray and surrounded by natural beauty; there were few people on the streets, but lots of trucks and semis.
We went in hoping to tell the story of the coal industry and its impact on the region without falling back on familiar tropes of Appalachian poverty and despair.
We met and spoke with some incredible, intelligent and warm Appalachians who were all, despite their ages and history, actively involved in reviving and preserving their culture, environment and community.
There was Carl, a retired coal miner and Marine Corps vet who could tell you stories for days. (I think he actually might have.) After years of working for labor rights in the United Mine Workers of America, Carl is dedicated to promoting sustainable and renewable energy alternatives. Carl grew up in Benham, one of several towns that was built specifically by coal companies for workers.
We also dined at Daryl and Brad’s Heritage Kitchen in Whitesburg. Daryl and Brad, who are a couple, left their corporate jobs in Lexington to open a restaurant in rural Kentucky. They are trying to preserve classic Appalachian cuisine while also promoting local, healthy eating.
In Harlan, we sat in awe and inspiration of Kim and Roy, another couple who own a small business. Despite having the opportunity to leave Harlan (and they did for a time), both have made a conscious effort to center themselves where their families had lived for generations. Having experienced extreme poverty, their goal is to help cultivate jobs and a diverse economy through their own small welding business.
There was Destiny, a fiery filmmaker who wanted nothing more than to dispel myths about Appalachia. And Eric, an enthusiastic man with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center whose focus is pushing through policies to facilitate a transition away from a coal-based economy.
We sat with Jeremy, an electrician in the coal mines, who doesn’t wonder if he’s going to lose his job, but when.
We listened to Rutland, a retired coal miner, Vietnam vet and anti-mountaintop-removal activist, tell us the history of black coal miners in Appalachia — a demographic often ignored, if not erased, from stories about the region.
And then there was Herb, a filmmaker running one of the single most important institutions, as we learned, in Appalachia: the Appalshop Appalachian Media Institute. The institute has been instrumental in not only promoting film and art in the area, but also in preserving the history of Appalachia.
We went to a Christmas party at a local tattoo parlor in Whitesburg where young men with follicle fortitude that would make any young urban hipster green with envy, played old-time Appalachian music, drank beer, shared their art and met with friends.
We attended a Sunday morning church service, filled with locals and travelers who sang hymns and carols together.
In a way that I still don’t understand, the entire experience was emotional. Maybe it’s because I saw my neighbors from northern Alberta, Canada, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Maybe it’s because there was a stillness in life that you can’t find in urban areas. Maybe it’s because many of my assumptions, which I didn’t even realize I had, were proven false.
As I’ve mentioned, we didn’t want to do a story of poverty and despair in Appalachia — but not because that isn’t there.
The poverty and despair are evident as you drive through the towns of Harlan, Lynch, Benham and Cumberland. They’re evident when you cross the border into Virginia, into small towns, which at a glance seem abandoned.
And yes, Appalachia is home to some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the country.
All of that is part of the story of Appalachia, of coal country — but that’s not really The Story.
Appalachia is a region that gave its youth and blood to build America through an industry that ultimately chewed people up and is still slowly spitting them out. But despite that pain, Appalachians remain proud of their history and what they see as their sacrifices in service to this country.
There are paradoxes all around. While the region went to Trump in the election, the numbers of those who went out to vote weren’t exactly overwhelming. And none of the Appalachians we spoke to, including the one who voted for Donald Trump, believed their next president was going to improve their economic conditions and future.
We consistently heard about how they had been forgotten.
And we kept encountering, in an almost humble way, this incredible pride in the region’s civil rights history and the sacrifices of black coal miners.
Wherever we went, we saw representations of black coal miners that weren’t just a forced tokenized nod to diversity; it wasn’t a superficial homage to their labor, sacrifice and the injustices they faced, but a real recognition of it.
We consistently heard about how, after working together as brothers in the coal mines, black and white workers would emerge from the earth into a Jim Crow world that separated them based on their skin color.
And that just didn’t make sense to many of them.
Carl, who grew up playing with Rutland, poignantly said, “Our schools were segregated, but after, we’d play together, go eat at each other’s homes.”
There are many scars across eastern Kentucky: from Vietnam, from black lung, from the constant uncertainty of being able to provide food for your family.
But in spite of those scars, there are people like the ones we spoke to who are working tirelessly to rebuild their communities, protect their environment and preserve their cultures.
That’s the story of Appalachia.
For more, here’s the first in our three-part series: