No Elegies for Appalachia: The Real Stories Are Resilience and Self-Reliance

My home region is fascinating—but not just because it's been framed as Trump Country or because it's home to a dying coal industry. At Rewire.News, we're showcasing writers in and from the region to tell the necessary, diverse narratives that rarely get published.

[Photo: Two Black cowboys wearing hats look towards the camera]
To see a vast and diverse region as being an easy explanation for President Trump’s win is to oversimplify and exclude. To see Appalachia as any one thing is wrong. Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 2016, the New Yorker ran a piece about my county called “‘I Feel Forgotten’: A Decade of Struggle in Rural Ohio.” The photo essay appeared a few weeks before the election, boosted by a building fascination with poor, rural, and white America—a fascination that has only increased since then. Reporters rushed to small towns like my own, looking to Appalachia—and select Appalachians—for answers, and looking to falsely blame the poor for the presidential race’s outcome.

Appalachia is having a moment in the media. Unfortunately, despite the increased attention to an otherwise largely neglected region, much of the media coverage about Appalachia perpetuates stereotypes, overwhelmingly depicting a demographically varied region as though it were uniformly white, rural, and desperate. Even recent reporting that doesn’t focus specifically on Appalachian poverty continues to fuel the notion that the region’s residents are isolated and ignorant. These persistent myths about Appalachia feed a panic that blocks breaking down barriers to change, and ignore the real work being done here.

In a New York Times article about a town a few miles away from my home, a national reporter described “needle-strewn bike path.” The description was so alarmist that, when I shared it with my neighbors, several of them asked, “Are they pine needles?” Because as rampant as the opioid epidemic is—and it is rampant in Ohio—we all don’t have hypodermic needles scattered on bike paths. There’s the tired narrative of towns that only have one Wal-Mart, but most rural places around here don’t have any. And is there any town, anywhere, that isn’t “proud” (a favorite way to describe Appalachian communities)?

Hyperbole doesn’t solve problems, and it doesn’t create an accurate picture of life in contemporary Appalachia, which is more than broken windows, rotting trailers, and tricycles parked in the weeds. Images like this are compelling, and narratives of misery are romantic, but they have built up a mystique without context, creating a fascination with Appalachia that’s simplistic, misleading, and rooted in the past.

In response to these harmful, recycled narratives, Rewire.News last year launched a reporting project devoted to reporting on the region. For this project, we focus on Central Appalachia, including Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Central Appalachia is an area that includes cities and rural areas, great poverty and great culture, economic struggle and economic growth.

Traditionally known for the Appalachian coalfields, Central Appalachia is working to redefine itself on its own terms. Appalachia has its own writers, its own reporters and publications, its own photographers and documentarians. We’re harnessing their talent and have published stories on everything from the recent West Virginia teachers’ strike and health concerns after a massive chemical fire in the same state to articles on how Kentucky is addressing teen pregnancy, queer parenting in the region, and how low-income Tennesseans are fighting to keep Medicare coverage.

Many stories published about Appalachia still have to do with coal, an industry that has not supported Appalachia for decades, or opioids, an addiction crisis that is capturing mainstream attention in part due to its impact on white people.

But Appalachia isn’t just white people. To see a vast and diverse region as being an easy explanation for President Trump’s win is to oversimplify and exclude. To see Appalachia as any one thing is wrong.

Appalachia is wide-ranging, encompassing more than a dozen states. It includes mountains, coal mines, farms, and fracking wells—but also cities, universities, art organizations, coalitions, and companies. Appalachia is home to environmentalists, immigrants, organizers, people of color, people who are queer, people who voted for Trump, people who voted for Hillary Clinton, people who voted for other candidates, people who didn’t vote.

But Appalachia captures the imagination like few other places in recent memory, in part because people are looking for answers to explain the rise of Trump, and in part because of the area’s uniqueness. The landscape is stunning—foothills, cliffs, caves, fields, and forests—and the kindness, humor, and generosity of my neighbors makes Appalachia the most beautiful place I have ever lived and the only place I have felt at home.

It’s also an extremely complicated, contradictory place. The poorest county in Ohio is also home to a university, organic farms, art and music scenes, green energy companies, and many successful small businesses. My child’s public school is top-rated, but more than one in four children in the county struggle with food insecurity, significantly higher than the national average.

But that’s my Appalachia—the Appalachia of rural Southeastern Ohio—which is different than the Appalachia of Charleston, West Virginia, or Madison County, North Carolina, or Harlan County, Kentucky. That’s what Appalachia is for one person. What Appalachia actually is: a multilayered, many-voiced region with distinct experiences (not all of them white) and distinct landscapes (not all of them rural).

You should be fascinated by Appalachia, but not because of a dominant narrative of desperation and ignorance, dramatized by reporters who are often strangers to the region. You should be fascinated by Appalachia because it has many narratives. It has elite systems of power as well as generational poverty, systematic barriers to health care alongside medical innovations.

You should be fascinated by Appalachia’s diversity and resilience. More than 200,000 square miles and home to more 25 million Americans, it has such a venerable history of organizing, community action, and struggles for justice. With a long tradition of environmental stewardship, Appalachia is and has been on the front lines for environmental justice, a movement led by women, especially older women and women of color. Appalachia is full of towns rising up against outsider interests, working together to build clinics, save lives, and improve their own communities.

So many stories focus on Appalachia’s past: coal, the War on Poverty. But history is not destiny, as a North Carolinian recently said to me.

What about Appalachia’s future?

What are local coalitions doing to improve their own communities? How are local health-care providers and patients dealing with changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act? How do federal and state policies affect people locally? How are communities responding to opioids and other crises among their most vulnerable members?

So many stories are told by strangers to Appalachia, reporters parachuting in and getting only brief, filtered glimpses of what day-to-day life is like in a city or town. But what about the people who live here and live daily with the consequences of policy at work in their own communities? Who are the people whose stories aren’t told?

Public historian and Rewire.News contributor Elizabeth Catte (whose book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, was published last month) wrote on her blog: “One form of resistance is elevating voices and perspectives from our regions as opposed to about our regions.” We at Rewire.News highlight not only stories of the region, but voices on the ground. We seek to challenge the usual media narratives of Appalachia with humanizing coverage that is intersectional, empathetic, and nuanced; to emphasize solutions; and to focus on people having agency in their own lives.

You should be fascinated by Appalachia, but not because it was forgotten. It has been working this whole time. There is no one story of Appalachia—and there is no single song, but many. And they’re not elegies. They’re marches.