A Requirement for Respect


by Rebec­ca Gayle Howell.

Orig­i­nal­ly deliv­ered on behalf of Ken­tuck­ians For The Com­mon­wealth, at 21c Muse­um. Louisville, Ken­tucky. Decem­ber 06, 2009.

The peo­ple of East­ern Ken­tucky – West Vir­ginia, East Ten­nessee – have been treat­ed as the ‘Oth­er Amer­i­ca’ for more than a cen­tu­ry. From Lil Abn­er to Shel­by Lee Adams—from Charles Kuralt to Diane Sawyer— we cre­ate and prop­a­gate images of our own peo­ple that solic­it, at best, a pathos of tin pan pity, and at worst, no empa­thy, at all. Do we know them? Shift­less, con­niv­ing men. Des­per­ate women. Chil­dren too poor to eat any­thing but dirt. Our fever­ish faith in Cap­i­tal­ism requires a sto­ry, a para­ble for why Amer­i­cans who strug­gle are to be blamed for their own strife.

The Oth­er Amer­i­ca. The Hill­bil­ly. The Amer­i­can who – let’s say it out loud – deserves to suf­fer at the hands of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism because he is idle, and because his mind is so sim­ple, he can­not man­age com­plex work.

Or, to dri­ve home the point, the Amer­i­can who deserves to be exploit­ed, because he is too fool­ish to insist on a com­plex local econ­o­my, a net­work of indus­tries that might actu­al­ly sus­tain his community’s well­be­ing and growth.

Now, we find our­selves in the age of glob­al warm­ing. And, the wis­dom of hind­sight allows for some clar­i­ty: all the while that the car­toon­ist Capp was con­vinc­ing us of his Dog­patch, Ken­tucky, the coal indus­try was con­vinc­ing us it was the great provider, the only provider, of a way out of Dog­patch. Sears and Roe­buck cat­a­logues on the front porch. Gar­dens shriv­el­ing in the sun. Through­out Amer­i­ca, in Appalachia and beyond, we believed elec­tric­i­ty meant con­ve­nience meant civ­i­lized liv­ing meant dig­ni­ty, hope. But in Appalachia we made a sec­ond dan­ger­ous pact: a code­pen­den­cy with a sin­gle indus­try, an extrac­tion indus­try, that would become, dur­ing these same years, our only plan for eco­nom­ic progress—a sin­gle indus­try that would coin­ci­den­tal­ly become the lead­ing con­trib­u­tor to our cli­mate cri­sis. Our men were sent to work. Our women went to the pick­et lines. Our region became, unwit­ting­ly, the domes­tic front of what is now sure­ly a glob­al ener­gy war.

In this con­text, it is plain to see that the degen­er­a­tive imagery so often repeat­ed of our peo­ple is, in many ways, just bor­rowed. Bor­rowed from the colo­nial­ist imagery of Africans, bor­rowed and made to fit our white fear of white pover­ty. This is impor­tant, because this kind of pro­pa­gan­da is con­firmed in its abil­i­ty to teach us how to turn a blind eye, how to allow for peo­ple, once uni­fied and self-sus­tain­ing, to be divid­ed against them­selves so that their labor can more eas­i­ly be exploit­ed. It is an old machine. It has proven productive.

But our real prob­lem does not lie with out­siders. It lies with­in. My moth­er is from Per­ry Coun­ty, Gay’s Creek. But I was raised 30 min­utes away from here, in a smoke-filled kitchen, lis­ten­ing to my fam­i­ly den­i­grate them­selves. Cig­a­rettes to lips, telling sto­ries about how igno­rant the peo­ple in East­ern Ken­tucky were. They were ashamed of them­selves, of where they had come from, of what the world said it all meant. To be a Ken­tuck­ian is to be a self, divid­ed. In Louisville, we too often act as if we are annexed, a met­ro­pol­i­tan state all our own. In Lex­ing­ton, like we are the Ellis Island for those who man­age to make it out of the hills. This semes­ter, in More­head where I teach, one of my stu­dents explained to me that he under­stood moun­tain­top removal coal min­ing was hap­pen­ing, but that he, who had been born and raised in Rowan Coun­ty, was not Appalachi­an, so it didn’t affect him. We under­stand it is humil­i­at­ing to be asso­ci­at­ed with the stereo­types that go by our name. We under­stand it is humil­i­at­ing to be asso­ci­at­ed with wide­spread destruc­tion and oppres­sion. And so, we do dou­ble-time, all the time, to say, “yes, but that’s not me.”

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