‘Appalachia’ By Catte Is A Perfect Antidote For ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

This photo, from the 1950s, includes two of my uncles. My mother’s family lived in the Cumberland Plateau region of south central Kentucky/north central Tennessee — near Albany, Kentucky. They are Scots-Irish. In J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy’s version of Appalachia, all Appalachia residents resemble this image.

As a family historian I have researched my (mostly) Appalachian roots so I feel somewhat knowledgeable about the culture. Although my paternal side is English, my maternal side is Scots-Irish (Beaty). But personal knowledge can be a small window to peer through so I seek out broader works to better understand my heritage.

Like many, I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. However, unlike many, I was not impressed with it.

I live in the region Vance details in the book. Preble County, is directly north of Butler County where much of the memoir is set. Preble County is mentioned several times and my favorite quote — with just a little tweaking — says,

When I was about nine years old things began to unravel at home. Tired of Papaw’s presence and Mamaw’s ‘interference’ Mom and Bob decided to move to Preble County…Even as a boy, I knew this was the very worst thing that could happen to me.

Despite the acceptance of Elegy, much like the tweaked quote above, the book does not resonate as an accurate depiction of Appalachia or ‘hillbillies’ in southwest Ohio. When I reviewed Elegy I included comments from Jacobin which provided a much-needed context to the Middletown, Ohio dilemma (and other regions of the country) Vance highlights. The Jacobin review mentions the entrenched systems that prevent upward mobility, a segment of the story that Vance conveniently omits. Or, as the review states in its pithy subhead: The American hillbilly isn’t suffering from a deficient culture. He’s just poor.

As I tried to understand Elegy’s runaway success, I stumbled onto a blog by Elizabeth Catte, and learned about her upcoming book: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Her blog revealed she was from Appalachia but more importantly, she was committed to a realistic representation of the culture. So I preordered her book, and found in it an author who, unlike Vance, is not attempting to package a nice ‘clean’ (i.e. profitable) version of Appalachia.

First, The Basics

The book is succinct — less than 150 pages — but the size is deceiving because a lot of interesting content is packed in between the covers. The book is divided into three parts.

  • Part One: Appalachia and the Making of Trump Country.
  • Part Two: Hillbilly Elegy and the Racial Baggage of J.D. Vance’s Greater Appalachia.
  • Part Three: Land, Justice and People

I have read both Elegy and Appalachia, and for those interested in educating themselves, Elegy pales in comparison to Appalachia. Elegy is a modernized Horatio Alger story that re-manufactures an all-white culture too lazy to solve its own problems, whereas Appalachia rejects the stereotypes and reports objectively on the region.

Part One: Appalachia and the Making of Trump Country.

Catte opens with the national media’s interest in Appalachia during the 2016 presidential campaign. In one telling section she dissects the national media’s assertion that McDowell County, West Virginia was a ‘Trump County.’ She references, among other sources, a Huffington Post article which asserts McDowell County offers a ‘glimpse at the America that voted Trump into office.’

As Catte notes, the media declared the county a ‘landslide’ victory for Trump. McDowell County, which had 17,508 registered voters in the 2016 presidential election, cast 4,614 votes for Trump and 1,429 for Hillary Clinton. As Catte says,

“if we use reported numbers we find that only 27 percent of McDowell County voters supported Trump.”

Besides the fact that in ‘Trump County’ a significant percentage of the voters stayed home, Catte further counters the ‘Trump County myth’ by revealing these facts about West Virginia — truths that defy stereotypes. For example:

  • West Virginia has the highest concentration of transgender teens in the country.
  • in 2017, filmmakers in West Virginia hosted the fourth annual Appalachian Queer Film Festival.
  • More people in Appalachia identify as African American than Scots-Irish.

As she ends this section of the book, she segues into Part Two reflecting on her college years.

“While reading Greek poetry, my professors warned us to be careful of the double meaning of elegies; they were, it seems, often written as political propaganda.”

Part Two: Hillbilly Elegy and the Racial Baggage of J.D. Vance’s “Greater Appalachia”

As Catte states, the concept of a Greater Appalachia, is not an original idea by Vance. The term is usually associated with Colin Woodard who uses the phrase in American Nations. I would argue, based solely on personal experience, that the Vance family’s migration to Middletown is fairly common in southwest Ohio. Butler County, and Preble to the north does have a heavy Appalachia-based population. But, as Catte accurately notes, Vance’s version of Appalachia is all white — which does not accurately depict Appalachia (or Butler County for that matter). This is especially true of the officially designated region of Appalachia which boasts significant African American and Hispanic populations.

But, she opens this section with the story of the 1968 killing of a Canadian filmmaker who was shot by a well-connected Jeremiah, Kentucky landowner. The landowner is eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter – serving one year in prison. She uses the story to segue into the exploitation Appalachia residents have faced over the centuries — often accomplished through ‘poverty images.’ She notes,

“Much like the visual archive generated during the War on Poverty, Elegy sells white middle-class observers an invasive and exploitative story of the region. For white people uncomfortable with images of the civil rights struggles and the realities of Black life those images depicted, an endless stream of sensationalized white poverty offered them an escape …”

For me, this section of the book is the strongest as Catte builds her case against Vance’s work. I do not want to retell her arguments because I sincerely hope people purchase her book to counter the myth perpetuated by Vance’s work. (For the record, I do not know Ms. Catte and will not financially benefit if her book sells. As a human, tired of myth creation in America, I simply want a more accurate depiction of Appalachia to be read.)

Part Three: Land, Justice and People

Catte wraps up the book building on the photo motif. She describes images of individuals significantly more representative of Appalachia than Vance. This is the section for people who truly want to meet the people who are, unlike Vance, doing work that benefits the community. The individuals range from photographers to community organizers. This section also sheds light on why, and how, the War on Poverty from the 1960s ultimately failed.

Although in this section she does rehash some fairly well-known stories, like the Harlan County, Kentucky strike and Matawan, she also includes numerous lesser-known events like an arsonist attack on Mud Creek Health Clinic. She also touches on the failed promise of political leaders in the current era concerning the private prison industry. In the 1990s, two large prisons opened in southwest Virginia and with them the promise of ‘good paying local jobs.’ As she notes, though, local workers did not receive the ‘good jobs’ instead the ‘locals’ were regulated to low-paying, menial labor positions.

My Rating: 5 out of 5. One of the sad realities of life in the United States is the books that should hit the bestsellers list — this one — will not while those that perpetuate a myth — Hillbilly Elegy — do. Besides being an engaging read, Appalachia, is also a heavily researched ‘textbook.’ Included in the book is a section of 8-10 pages of  resources and suggested reading. Although it may not be important to everyone, it is to me, as I read Appalachia, I feel Catte actually cares about Appalachia and is interested in its progress. This is a stark contrast to Elegy’s author who is simply pushing a popular, but exploitive, political agenda.

Church, located in Cumberland County Kentucky, bears my surname. The church is located about two miles from my father’s childhood home.

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Categories: 8th congressional district, Appalachia, Books I have read, My America, Politics, Preble County, Understanding Trump Counties | Leave a comment

‘Freeway’ A Tale Of Crack Cocaine And The American Dream

Although a segment of the ‘Freeway Ricky Ross” story winds through Cincinnati, Ohio, I was not familiar it. Ross is of one of America’s most successful drug traffickers. At one point, officials said Ross was worth $1 billion.

My interest in the roughly 2-hour documentary, though, is it offers a peak into the devastation caused by the ‘War of Drugs’ implemented by Ronald Reagan. (That ‘war’ help lead to Preble County’s economic demise, but I digress).

The film follows two basic narratives: the rise and fall of Ricky Ross and a background story — independent of Ross — that explores allegations of drug money being used, indirectly, by the Reagan administration to fund the Contras in Central America. This plotline is a little more complicated, but it is relevant, because Ross’ main supplier of cocaine was an individual funding the Contras.

In the documentary, Ross is portrayed as an amoral entrepreneur who surrounds himself with neighborhood and childhood acquaintances. He defies stereotypes as he eschews violence, helps his friends become wealthy, and takes a business approach to the trade. He simply sells an extremely large quantity of the highly-addicted product as a path to wealth.

This story line is engaging, intriguing, and offers a look at the societal, and political, forces that created a perfect storm for the drug’s acceptance.

Just importantly, though, is Ross’ new life. After spending 20 years in prison, the formerly illiterate Ross learn to read, write and became an activist — speaking out against drug use — and the “War on Drug” approach to addiction which left communities and families in ruin while spawning the prison industrial complex.

My Rating 4 out of 5: The film has it all: corrupt cops, reformed drug dealers, and a wide range of savory and unsavory characters. It gives a very detailed look at the drug scene in California and parts of the Midwest. My only qualm with the film is the Contra storyline. Although the Contra story and Ross’ story are intertwined, I would have preferred a Part One/Part Two scenario so the Contra story could be developed more fully.

Categories: American History, movies, Ohio, TV Shows | Leave a comment

‘Evicted’ Describes What It’s Like To Be Poor, Vulnerable

As I recently posted, years ago I realized I live in a very impoverished county. Despite this reality, some local organizations are in denial. In a December, 2017 article, the Preble County Economic Development Director detailed job openings and business investments being funneled into the county painting a rosy picture of Preble County.

She said,

“There is no better marketing strategy than the demonstration of a successful and thriving business climate.”

According to the article, the County will gain about 200 jobs, but the cost for 109 of the positions was more than $500,000 in state tax breaks and another $135,000 in incentives from the cash-strapped City of Eaton. So, it’s a mixed bag at best, but regardless it’s about selling who we are and the Director does not shy away from that.

Later in the article, she says.

Preble County is the fifth largest ag county in the state and we pride ourselves in our strong workforce and strong work ethic. These traits make it easy to market Preble County.

Make The Bums Work

Despite the marketing spin, a help wanted sign has been on display for more than 90 days at one of the companies — suggesting a labor pool problem. The manufacturing firm needs less than 20 new workers. Freedom Caucus Members Warren Davidson and Jim Jordan (see below) are convinced the able-bodied people on welfare are causing the labor shortage in the United States, but there may be another reason we can’t fill the openings. Legislators may have unnecessarily created felons in their rush to feed the private prison industry. And as these nonviolent offenders return home, they meet their first barrier to reentering society — employers who refuse to hire them due to their felony conviction.

Today (Monday, Jan. 7), in Eaton (pop. 8,200) 125 cases are on tbe Eaton Municipal Court docket. Preble County Common Pleas has 24 items and the County Jail has filled 66 of its 70 beds.

On Sunday, Jan. 7 Congressman Warren Davidson re-upped the link to an op-ed co-written last summer with fellow Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan. The dynamic due is convinced if able-bodied persons on welfare were forced to work our labor shortage would be solved.

I tend to dismiss the validity of local public relation stories because if life is as good as they say it is, I would not see empty buildings or infrastructure in need of repair. I would not see a slow crawl to expand the local jail. Nor would I see the ‘are you addicted’ signs as outside groups swoop in to financially benefit from our drug problem. In a great place to live we would not accept the exploitation.

Hard Times In The ‘Greatest Country On Earth’

When I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which deals with poverty in Milwaukee, I noticed some of the same denial in the comments of Milwaukee’s gatekeepers and leaders. In Evicted, Desmond follows the lives of eight families as they ‘struggle to keep a roof over their heads.’ This engaging book received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2017.

From my perspective the work accomplishes three things.

An Inside View Of Impoverished Life

Although there are eight families, Desmond does an excellent job balancing their stories. As their stories unfold, you can ‘see’ inside their homes and apartments, some quite filthy, and some filled with the aroma of marijuana. But, you can also see their attempts to pull out of their situation, only to be struck down by an unexpected bill, poor decision, or a landlord who arbitrarily decides to evict them for a late payment while letting a neighbor, who was also late, stay. You feel the loss of hope and insecurity as Desmond describes the ‘good, bad and ugly’ of their lives and communities.

Legal System All Messed Up

What I also enjoyed about the book was its balance. This is not a ‘poor renter’ book painting the landlord as an evil villain. Desmond creates a realistic image of the landlords’ plight as well. Although he does report a landlord’s willingness to kick out tenants, he also details the expense landlords incur in the process — destroyed or damaged property, court fees and inspections that can cost thousands. The reader quickly learns, though, that some landlords are better humans than their peers. Desmond helps uninformed readers, like myself, get a feel for how clunky, intrusive and ineffective the legal system is when dealing with the landlord-tenant relationship.

Lots of People ‘Just Doing My Job’

Those who have never faced evicted are probably unaware of the process. With just a few scenes Desmond brings it to life. The movers, including companies that specialize in evictions, invade a tenant’s home after they have been legally served by armed police officers. The movers, depending on legalities and landlord — and sometimes tenant wishes — sort through the belongings. Some of the stuff is sold, some stored, and a lot is ‘set on the curb.’ In one family’s story, the tenant hauls all her stuff to a neighboring house trailer because she knows the tenant is in the hospital. As the evictions occur, Desmond sprinkles in enough of the various comments from tenants, movers, and officers to show just how jaded they’ve become.

Don’t Skip The Ending

In some books, I skip epilogue-type content telling myself it’s nonessential. With this book the ‘after story’ is just as interesting as the book. Desmond goes into detail about the field work and his effort to not interfere with the subjects. He tried to keep the events naturally unfolding by staying in the background. I would also advise reading Amazon reviews — some of them come from people very close to the story — including Milwaukee Joe — who is critical of at least one of Desmond’s landlord depictions. However, Milwaukee Joe still gives the book a 4 out of 5 rating which, in my opinion, speaks to the book’s strength.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. This subject could easily be a boring ‘just the facts’ story. It’s not. As a reader you become vested in the outcome. The book is also a strong indictment against how the United States treats its poor. For those interested in policies, Desmond also details techniques for improving tenant-landlord laws in the U.S.

The gas station I used as a teenager has been abandoned for years. The empty building greets visitors as they enter the City of Eaton from the east.

Categories: 8th congressional district, Books I have read, Life In A Red State, My America, Preble County, Understanding Trump Counties | 2 Comments