The shape of Appalachia to come

We’ve all been bitten
We’ve all been underground
We’ve all been beaten, battered, bruised
Told to get down
—Refused, The Shape of Punk to Come

This past weekend, I returned to Cincinnati, OH—where I lived for many years in the Over the Rhine and Lower Price Hill neighborhoods—to attend the Appalachian Studies Association conference. It was my first time attending the ASA.

Volumes have been written about Appalachian culture; the music, the dance, the quilting, the basket-weaving, the story-telling, and poetry. I appreciate it. It’s what I grew up on. And there was lots of it on-hand at the ASA. But, that’s not what I went for.

I went for the ideas and politics. I went for the people fighting for a better Appalachia—and a better world. I went to meet author-activists like Elizabeth Catte, Crystal Wilkinson, and Barbara Ellen Smith. I went to discuss the history and future of Appalachian struggle. I went to the ASA to connect with young Appalachian activists that have been organizing against nazis in places like Knoxville, TN and Pikeville, KY. I went to meet the Black and queer Appalachians doing the work of fighting white supremacy. I went to get the buzz on the wildcat strikes of education workers in West Virginia and Kentucky.

I did not go to the ASA to hear recycled culture-of-poverty tropes and thinly veiled racism from the likes of JD Vance. His mainstream, blame-the-victim outlook is what we already hear in the mainstream media day-in and day out.

§ § §

I (perhaps, naively) assumed that everyone within Appalachian Studies agreed with that assessment. I was surprised that Vance was a panelist, during one of the final sessions, on the opioid crisis. Who thought that was a good idea? Haven’t we already heard enough from him? Shouldn’t our efforts, as Appalachian scholars and activists, be focused on a counter-argument to Vance?

So, I cheered when organizers protested inside his session. These folks stood in a long, proud tradition of speaking truth to power and combatting the backward politics of charlatans like Vance.

And, despite the demands of some organizers for respect and decorum (sprinkled with a topping of paternalism and sexism), along with the reminder that the conference was in “our house” (Cincinnati, presumably), the protests continued.

This year’s ASA was billed as the first to be organized by a community organization (The Urban Appalachian Community Council) rather than an academic department.  That should, in my opinion, invite more activism; more outspokenness; more messiness. Not less. Besides, academia can never—and shouldn’t—be somehow inoculated from protest. Especially when there are serious ideas at hand.

And, the “our house” claim is disingenuous. I was a teenager in Cincinnati during the late ’80s and early ’90s. When I became a young activist, there was an unruly, unapologetically radical group of urban Appalachian activists. I learned a lot from them; in fights for housing, to stop the closure of the Milner Hotel, against gentrification in Over the Rhine, and the meaning of solidarity. We protested anywhere and everywhere. I’m glad to see that tradition of organizing—even in the hallowed halls of academic conferences.




Recipe for a red-state revolt

A HAINT is stalkin’ the mountains–the living memory of a century of class struggle in West Virginia.

Some people might have been surprised when West Virginia workers staged one of the most militant labor struggles in decades. Mostly “white” and hailing from a region branded alternatively as “Trump Country” or “Coal Country,” mountaineers are often depicted as poor, racist and reactionary.

But the West Virginia wildcat strike has renewed interest in the mine wars and other high points of Appalachian workers’ struggles. These rich traditions, both recent and historical, are one aspect of the militancy seen in the teachers’ strike.

Another is the deep social crisis, underway for decades in the region, that affects every aspect of mountaineers’ lives. Ecological destruction, compounded by a catastrophic public health disaster, are two important components to include in the background to the teachers’ strikes.

The bitterness produced by more than a century of underdevelopment and neglect in Appalachia–overseen by both Republicans and Democrats–is what underlies the appeal of a demagogue like Donald Trump, who had his greatest popular vote margin over Hillary Clinton in West Virginia.

But this anger can also be an ingredient for explosive working-class rebellions like the teachers’ wildcat strikes–which can change the political environment for the left very quickly.

The Effects of Ecological Catastrophe

Two years ago, West Virginia experienced a terrible “one in a thousand-years” storm. Flooding took the lives of 24 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Then-President Obama declared West Virginia a major disaster area, and the National Guard was deployed for cleanup. Many families are still recovering.

Mountainous topography is naturally prone to flash flooding, but the 2016 storm had a man-made aspect: Climate change causes abnormal extremes when it comes to rainfall, from drought to the torrential rains that caused the massive flooding two years ago. Combined with the coal companies’ destructive practices of mountaintop removal and surface mining, erosion, landslides and catastrophic floods are much more likely.

Moreover, flooding disasters in West Virginia aren’t just about water. There’s also the coal, the sludge and all of the processing chemicals used by the mining industry that wreak ecological devastation.

The worst example of this remains the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County, West Virginia. A Pittston Coal Co. dam burst and flooded the area with 132 million gallons of coal waste. Some 128 people were killed people, and thousands were left homeless.

Just four years ago, Freedom Industries leaked 10,000 gallons of poison into the Elk and Kanawha Rivers. The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used for cleaning coal, affected 300,000 West Virginians and sent hundreds of people to the hospital. It was the third major chemical accident in the Kanawha River Valley in five years.

Meanwhile, gas companies are destroying forestland and mountaintops to expand their system of pipelines.

The sheer level of ecological pollution and destruction in the Appalachians can only be understood as a result of the capitalist system. Massive energy corporations, in conjunction with their investment partners, have conspired with national and local politicians to get the energy industry deregulated, so they can increase their profits. Environmental considerations and the health and safety of West Virginians always come last.

But this destruction hasn’t taken place without a fight. Protesters have occupied land, sat in trees and gone to jail to protest pipeline contruction and mountaintop removal. This legacy of resistance–as seldom talked about in the mainstream media as labor battles are these days–is another ingredient in the volatile mix that produced the teachers’ wildcat.

A Many-Sided Health Care Crisis

The extraction of profit from Appalachia doesn’t just destroy the land. It also destroys people.

In 2010, 29 miners lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in southern Raleigh County. They were, of course, only the latest in a long list of miners killed for coal company profits, dating back to the 1907 mine explosion in Monongah, West Virginia–the worst mining disaster in U.S. history–and long before.

The owners of the Upper Big Branch mine–Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy–shirked any responsibility. CEO Don Blankenship, the most hated man in West Virginia, was sentenced to a single year in prison for his role in the cover-up and conspiracy. Fresh out of jail, Blankenship recently bought up another energy corporation–and filed to run for senator of West Virginia this November.

Explosions aren’t the only hazard in the mines, of course. Black lung disease, caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust in the mines, has a long and cruel history in West Virginia. Tragically, the disease has reappeared in startling numbers among miners across the region–right at the moment when the Trump is planning to eviscerate regulations meant to protect miners from black lung disease.

As with environmental issues, there is a history of struggle over health care. The danger of black lung disease was confronted head-on in a post-Second World War strike wave and the later rank-and-file rebellions in the coalfields.

The United Mine Workers union embarked on an ambitious plan to create its own health care system for miners and their families. The Miners Memorial Hospital Association (MMHA), as it was known, eventually crumbled when the union’s membership went into decline because of mechanization and organizing setbacks. The “nonprofit” Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) system acquired some of the MMHA’s hospitals, while others, like the Man Miners Memorial Hospital, were left to rot.

In 2007, certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses (LPNs), housekeepers, and maintenance and clerical workers, represented by the United Steelworkers union, staged a month-long strike against ARH. That was followed some months later by a three-month strike of registered nurses, members of United American Nurses, which has since joined National Nurses United.

In addition to linking the causes of labor and health care justice, ARH nurses invoked the history of miners’ struggles by wearing the red bandanas that gave rise to the term “redneck.”

While these strikes won important concessions regarding staffing, the region’s health care crisis has since spiraled out of control.

Particularly devastating right now is the opioid crisis. Addiction is concentrated in former industrial strongholds like West Virginia, both because of the history of corporate neglect of workers’ health and safety and the despair caused by unemployment and poverty.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, flooded Appalachia with opioids that it claimed weren’t addictive. No other region of the country has experienced the same devastation–there are counties in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky where the death toll from overdoses has risen between 5,000 and 8,000 percent.

The Opportunities for Socialism

While the mainstream media acknowledge that West Virginia hasn’t always been a “red state,” rarely is the rich history of mountain socialism discussed.

The Socialist Party organized in West Virginia in the early 20th century and grew significantly. By 1906, Eugene Debs was campaigning vigorously among mountaineers. Frederick A. Barkey’s book is the best examination of the socialist movement in West Virginia. Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States–soon to be reissued in an updated edition–is another valuable resource.

This history has echoes of the social justice questions that figured prominently in the teachers’ strike. For example, Don “Few Clothes” Chain–a Black socialist famously depicted in John Sayles’ movie Matewan–was a prominent leader in the early years of the mine wars, underlining the essential role that Black and immigrant workers played in the fights against the coal bosses and the politicians that serve them.

Now a new generation of West Virginia workers has written another chapter of labor history. As in the past, their struggle was driven not only by economic concerns like wages and benefits, but all the social issues that are bound up with public education–and wider ones raised by the social crisis that West Virginia has suffered through.

The left will benefit from understanding how this background, both past and present, contributed to the rebellion of the West Virginia teachers.


Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.


This article originally appeared at

The enduring relevance of Don West

Don West was an unapologetic radical and antiracist militant. He was an educator and co-founder of the Highlander Center and, later, the Appalachian South Folklife Center. He was also a popular poet. Largely relegated to footnotes in left literary tomes today, West’s essays and poems remain strikingly relevant.

This is the introduction to his classic collection of poems, Clods of Southern Earth, followed by “Listen, I’m an Agitator.”


Don 3 jpg

Introduction to Clods of Southern Earth (1946)

ONCE upon a time, not too long ago, authors wrote mainly about kings and nobles-the aristocracy. Many stories and poems were filled with debauchery and intrigues. Writers occupied themselves in turning out tales about the purity of lovely ladies and the daring of gallant gentlemen who never did a useful day’s work in their lives.

The fact that systems of kings and nobles, of aristocratic ladies and useless gentlemen, were always reared upon the misery of masses of peasants, slaves, or workers was carefully omitted from most books. The idea that these same peasants, slaves, or workers might them selves be fit material for literature would have been heresy.

You may think this a strange sort of way to begin an introduction to a group of poems. You may be one of those Americans who say you don’t like poetry anyhow. No one can blame you for that. I’ve often felt that way, too.

Maybe it’s because too many poets write in the old tradition. Using an obscure and “subtle” private language, they write only for the little clique of the “highly literate” elite. But in spite of their high and mighty intellectual snobbery, one finds them, after all, concerned mostly with minor themes. Such literary gentlemen, writing only for the “elite” ten percent, spurn the “crude” and “vulgar” masses. They still have their eyes full of star dust. They see neither the dirt and misery nor the beauty and heroism of common folk life.

You say you want a poem with its roots in the earth; a poem that finds beauty in the lives of common people, and perhaps a poem that may sometimes show the reasons for the heart ache and sorrow of the plain folks and some times point the way ahead. I don’t blame you. I sort of feel that way, too.

Does this sound like a strange notion about poetry? Maybe it is. Some people say I have strange notions anyhow. I don’t know. Lots of things I don’t know. I’ve been a preacher, and I’ve preached the working-man, Jesus, who had some strange notions himself about the poor and the rich and the slaves. I’ve been a coal miner in Kentucky’s Cumberlands and a textile worker in Carolina. I’ve been a radio commentator in Georgia and a deck hand on a Mississippi River steamboat. I’ve been a sailor, a farm owner, and farmer. I am now a school Superintendent. And I’ve wondered why it always seems that the folks who work less get more and those who work more get less. That puzzles me some. I’ve a notion it shouldn’t be that way, and some say I have strange notions.

Maybe it’s because of family background. You know, some people go in for that family stuff. I do come from an old Southern family. You’ve heard that one before, yes? Well, I don’t mean what you think. Mine is a real old Southern family. Oh, I’m no sprig off the decadent tree of some bourbon, aristocratic, blue-blood family of the notorious slave-master tradition. That’s what is usually meant. You know the professional Southerners who claim to be kind to Negroes-the tuxedoed gentlemen, the silk underweared, lace-dressed ladies coyly peeping from behind scented fans. No, I don’t mean that. I’m more Southern than that. That represents only the small minority. My folks were the men who wore jeans pants and the women who wore linsey petticoats. They had nothing to do with the genteel tradition. Some were the first white settlers of Georgia, and some were already settled when the white ones came.

Yes, on one limb of my family tree hangs a bunch of ex-jail birds. They were good, honest (I hope, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference now) working people in the old country. They were thrown in jails there because they were unemployed and couldn’t raise money to pay their debts.

How in the devil a man is expected to pay a debt while lying in prison is hard to see. Maybe it satisfied the creditors to take it out on their hides. Anyhow, there they were, hundreds of them, and a man named Oglethorpe, who had a big warm heart and a real feeling for folks, asked the old king to let him take a group of these prisoners to the new land.

The king didn’t warm up to the idea much at first, but finally he was convinced. These out casts would make a nice buffer protection for the more blue-blooded settlers of the other col onies, against the Indians and Spanish. The place later to be known as Georgia was just the spot. The colonies warmed right up to the idea, too. Nice to have a gang of tough jail birds known as “arrow-fodder” between them and the Indians. So, you see, Georgia was started. The plan worked.

Some Southerners love to boast about their families. And I reckon I do too, a little. At least none of mine ever made his living by driving slaves. There’s nary a slave owner up my family tree. The old story that we don’t look too closely for fear of finding a “horse thief” is common place, of course. Indeed, wouldn’t it be shameful to find one of our grand-paws doing such a petty theft? Who could be proud of a great-grand daddy with ambition no higher than stealing a horse? B’gad, we Americans go in for big stuff! Steal a horse?  No!  But steal a continent, a nation; steal the lives and labor of thousands of black men and women in slavery; steal the wages of underpaid workers; steal a railroad, a bank, a million dollars-oh boy, now you’re talking! That’s the real class. Those are the ancestors America’s blue-bloods worship. But steal a horse-aw, heck, the guy might have been hanged for that!

Guess I’d better tell you about that other limb on my family tree now. From what I can uncover, it had just two main branches with a few sprigs sprouting off. A forked sort of bush, you know. On that other fork hangs a white slave (indentured servant) in Carolina and a kind hearted old Indian of the Cherokees in north Georgia. To make a long story short though I think it is a beautiful, if tragic, one this white slave girl and her lover ran away from their master in the Carolina tidewater country. The girl was pregnant, but the master had been forcing his attentions on her and that was more than her lover could stand. They set out toward the Indian country of north Georgia. Hearing the pursuers close behind, the man stopped, telling the girl to keep going and he’d overtake her if he got a lucky shot. He never overtook her. She went on and finally, weary and near death, reached the Indian settlement around Tallulah Falls in north Georgia. The Indians put her to bed and cared for her. The baby, a boy, was born. The child grew up as an Indian, married into the tribe, and had other children.

This, then, is the other limb of our family tree.

Do you think I’m telling about this tree just because it’s mine? You’re partly right. But the main reason is that, to a greater or lesser degree, it represents the great majority of Southern whites. And their real story has never yet been adequately told. Someday I intend to do it, to tell about these people with rough hands, big feet, and hard bodies; about the real men and women of the South.

That old Southern family stuff that you’ve heard so much about, always meaning the aristocratic, slave-owning tradition, is worn about as thin as the blood of those families today. Our people, the real Southern mass majority of whites, are the ones the Negroes were taught to call “pore white trash.” And we, in turn, were taught the hateful word “nigger.” Nice little trick, isn’t it? Hitler used it, too. And it is still being used today, by the whites from the big houses, who engineer lynchings and make it seem that the responsibility is the white workers’.

Our people, and the Negroes, made up about 98 percent of the Southern population before the Civil War.

In addition to all this, I’m a “hill-billy.” My folks were mountain people. We lived on Turkey Creek. And what a place that is!

Turkey Creek gushes in white little splashes, around the foot of Burnt Mountain and down to the Cartecay. The Cartecay crawls and gurgles—sometimes lazily, sometimes stormily—down the valleys and hollows between the hills to Ellijay. Over the cataracts and through the fords these waters have gone on since nobody knows when – except that summer when the drouth saw sands scorching dry, and the river bed looked like a pided mocassin turned on its back to die in the sun.

Mountain houses are scattered along the banks of Cartecay. Mountain people live there, plain people to whom it is natural to ask a stranger to stay all night. They have lived there for generations – since the first white man pushed through the Tallulah gorge, and others came up from the lowlands to escape the slave system. Indians have also lived on the Cartecay. It was once their hunting grounds. But most of them were rounded up and marched west toward the setting sun. Mountain men on Cartecay have gone west too, in search of opportunity, but some have stayed.

The men who first settled the mountains of the South were fearless and freedom loving. Many, in addition to the prisoners, came to escape persecution in the old country. They had been outspoken in opposition to oppression and denial of liberties. Some came later into the friendly mountains seeking a few rocky acres they could till and call their own. They fled from the ever-encroaching wave of slave-holding planters in the lowlands. The “poor whites” in slavery days found themselves burdened down with slave labor competition. Their lot in many instances was very little better than that of the slave. In the lowlands of the planters they were considered a blight upon the community. They were pushed off the desirable lands. Left to them were the submarginal, un desirable ridges or swamps. Many, therefore, fled to the great mountain ranges of north Georgia and other states, where freedom of a sort was to be had. Disease, starvation, and illiteracy were the lot of tens of thousands of these “poor whites” who were forced to live in the hard, unfertile regions of the South prior to the Civil War.

Now you may have thought, as I once did, that the old South was divided simply into whites and blacks-slave and master-and that everybody supported slavery from the beginning. I was taught that in school, from the his tory books, about my own state. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I didn’t learn from the school text books. Here it is: Oglethorpe and the first settlers of Georgia were bitterly opposed to the whole institution of slavery. They fought resolutely against slavery ever coming to Georgia.

I dug this up from some old dusty records. Here is what Oglethorpe himself wrote in a let ter to Granville Sharpe, October 13, 1776:

“My friends and I settled the Colony of Georgia . . . We determined not to suffer slavery there. But the slave merchants and their adherents occasioned us not only much trouble, but at last got the then government to favor them. We would not suffer slavery . . . to be authorized under our authority; we refused, as trustees, to make a law permitting such a horrid crime…”

But this isn’t all. How deeply this idea of freedom and justice was planted in these early Georgians is further shown, by a resolution passed January 12, 1775, endorsing the proceedings of the first American Congress, by “the Representatives of the extensive District of Darien, in the Colony of Georgia.” It said:

“5. To show the world that we are not influenced by any contracted or interested motives, but a general philanthropy for all mankind, of whatever climate, language or complexion we hereby declare our disa probation and abhorrence of the unnatural practice of slavery in America . . . , a practice founded in injustice and cruelty, and highly dangerous to our liberties ( as well as lives), debasing part of our fellow creatures below men, and corrupting the virtues and morals of the rest; and laying the basis of the liberty we contended for . . . upon a very wrong foundation. We, therefore, resolve, at all times, to use our utmost endeavors for the manumission of slaves in this Colony . . .”

There it is! These were men who indeed did not fit into a system of power and privilege for a few. But eventually their opposition was beaten down (though never destroyed). There went on a general infiltration of the blue-bloods who wanted slaves to do their work. Finally there was a civilization, a ” culture,” an aristocracy reared upon the institution of slavery, built upon the bent backs of human beings bought and sold like cattle, and upon the misery of the overwhelming majority of non-slave-holding Southern whites.

This, then, is the so-called and much lamented “culture” of the “lost cause”! The basis of wealth and privilege was the ownership of slaves. This privilege was concentrated in a very few hands. The total population of the South prior to the Civil War was about nine million. There were about four and a half mil lion slaves, over four million non-slave-owning whites, and, at the most, not more than three hundred thousand actual slave owners.

Culture, education, and wealth were limited to this narrow oligarchy of a few hundred families. Since the overwhelming majority of Southern whites owned no slaves whatsoever, they had little voice in government. The local and state governments were virtually executive committees for the slave masters. For lack of free schools, ignorance and illiteracy were the lot of the poor whites who were bowed down under the heavy burden of taxation of a slave-master government.

And so there grew up in these Southern mountains, communities of non-slave-holding farmers, scratching a bare livelihood from the stubborn new-ground hillside patches. They hated the slave system and the slave masters. Many of them refused to fight for the “lost cause” in the Civil War. They reasoned: Why fight for a system that oppresses us as well as the black slaves?

Yes, these were my people. I come from the Devil’s Hollow region close by Turkey Creek at the foot of Burnt Mountain in north Georgia. Earliest memories are woven around the struggles of my Dad and Mother to dig a living from our little mountain farm. Life always seemed hard-like an iron fist mauling them in the face, knocking them down every time they tried to get up. But they wanted their kids to go to school, get educated. We went, the whole bunch of us. There were nine kids, three now dead. All of the survivors today are progressive thinkers, working for a better South.

Yes, I got something in schools-Vanderbilt, Chicago University, Columbia, Oglethorpe, University of Georgia, in European schools. But my best education has not been from class rooms and formal professors. My real education has been beaten into me by the everlasting toil and hunger I’ve seen, by the struggles in textile and coal mining centers, where our people were tolled down from the hills with fair promises of a better life; by the hunger I have seen in the faces of sharecropper kids; by my own sister, wife of a sharecropper, dying young from over work and worry. It is this education of life of prisons and jails for innocent men- that caused a determination never to seek to rise upon the shoulders of others; to rise only when the great mass of plain people can also have a richer life. And some day we will!

I love the South. Like hundreds of other Southerners, I dislike some things about its customs and ways. But our folks have lived and died there. Our roots are sunk deeply from generations back. My own Dad died young-toil and hunger, too much work, and too little of the right kind of food are the only honest reasons any doctor could have given.

We had big hopes when we left the mountains to become sharecroppers in the cotton low lands. But those hopes were dead long before we buried Dad in Hickory Grove Church Yard.

So I pass these poems on to you who may care enough to read. They are little pieces of life-and death-picked up along the way. May they help to kindle little sparks that will grow into big flames!

Don West Lula, Ga. March, 1946

Listen, I’m An Agitator

“He stirreth up the people. teaching …”

    Listen . . . !
I am an agitator—
    They call me “Red,”
The color of Blood,
But do you of the toiling South
    Know me?
Do you believe these things
    About me?
You croppers, factory hands—
Poor whites, and you youth
    Who look
Into a dark future,
    You who love
The South as I do—
    Do you understand?
Do you see that I am YOU,
    That I
The Agitator am
    You . . . ?

I am Don West, too,
    The poet—
A lover of peace and quiet places
    A working man
With rough hands that know how
    To toil
When there is work.
    But the poet
Is a cry for justice,
    The Agitator
Is the restless soul of the
    Toiling millions—
Stirring, stumbling, groping
A new world, a world of plenty
    And peace!

I am the son of my grandfather,
    Of old Kim Mulkey.
His blood burns my veins
    And cries out for justice!
I sing to a submerged South,
    And she responds
With deep sobs of misery,
    She stirs
And anger sets on her lips.

I’m no foreigner;
With calloused hands is foreign
    To us!

I’m Jim West’s boy,
    The one
Who saw his Daddy die
Overworked, underfed—
    With pellagra.
It’s not nice to say that,
    To say
We have pellagra
In the South.

But I was raised on a hillside farm
    Where my Daddy’s sweat
Salted down the red clay.
    I’m the son of my mother
The woman who plods between
    The cotton rows—
And I’m an Agitator!

And that means I want bread
    And homes
    And clothes
    And beauty
For all the hollow-eyed babies.
    I want songs
On the lips, and joy in the eyes
    Of you anxious mothers
Who scrub, and hoe, or weave
    In a factory.

Do you hear me?
    I love
These things more than I love
    Peace and quiet,
Or the gentle murmur of
    The Chattahoochee
Dragging our old red hills
    Down to the mighty ocean.

I am speaking—Listen!
    I, the poet
In overalls, working man,

What is a Hillbilly?

“We’ve got some hillbilly kids out of control.”

That’s how Dick Cheney, in one sentence, harnessed a century of stereotyping to explain the horrors of the Abu Ghraib torture chambers during the US occupation of Iraq. The UK’s Daily Mail echoed the same sentiment in an interview with the convicted torturer Lynndie England in her West Virginia hometown. The Mail dubbed her “the trailer trash torturer,” as she lamented that she “…can’t even hunt squirrels no more, because I’m not permitted to own a firearm.”

No high-ranking officers were ever convicted for these crimes of racism and imperialism. The occupation authority continued on with its business of occupation and slaughter. Rather than an indictment of the US government’s regular practice of mass murder, pillage, and torture, Abu Ghraib was seen as an aberration; one to be pinned on deviant “hillbillies” like England.

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Cheney’s specter of the deviant hillbilly was an old one. It harkened back to the violent, sexually depraved characters in the movie Deliverance. It fed on the myth of a lower class of white people, isolated in the hills, that departed from the norms of white civilization long ago. But, the myth-making of the hilbilly “other” is no anachronism—it continues in the form of “hillbilly elegies” and Trump-country narratives today.

Origins of the Hillbilly

Now widely understood as “white,” the hillbilly is a social construction that has mutated over the last one hundred years. Some historians have mistakenly traced the first use of the word in print to an April 23, 1903 newspaper article in the New York Journal, which described a hillbilly as “…a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”

Yet, an 1896 newspaper article in Our Mountain Home reported on “…a small political sensation in the shape of a tall mulatto running for coroner” in “Talladega County, where the hill-billies live,” who “appeals to the Republicans and Peoples party for support.”

During the mid-1890s, the southern Democratic party—the party of the white supremacist Confederacy—was facing a new challenge in the midst of the Populist upheaval. As the Democrats scrambled to disenfranchise Blacks, it also instituted strict new laws that disenfranchised many poor whites. Faced with an economic catastrophe, the onerous crop-lien system, small farmers and landless whites gravitated toward the Republican Party and the newly organized People’s Party, which grew out of the various farmer’s alliances.

White planters, firmly in control of the Democratic Party, sought to villainize poor whites who made the traitorous mistake of rejecting the party of the white man. Frank Burkitt, for instance, left the Democratic Party for the Populist movement, attacked restrictions on the franchise, and advocated for free public education for both Blacks and whites. The Klan reacted by burning down his office. Responding to Burkitt’s departure from Mississippi, an 1893 newspaper article in the Vicksburg Evening Post recalled the “prejudice” which “‘Hill-Billies’ cherish” against the Delta’s ruling-class.

Large plantation owners, fighting to defend white supremacy deep in the heart of the Black Belt were routinely frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm for their Democratic Party by the “hill-whites” of eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky who upset the mythology of the “solid south.”

The “hillbilly” was born in the midst of the agrarian revolt of the 1890s and soon became synonymous with the people of Appalachia.

From “Mountaineer” to “Hillbilly”

Although the term only began to appear in print in the 1890s, the people of the southern Appalachian region had long been characterized as something other than respectable white people. While early settlers in the region were celebrated in popular accounts for their adventurous individualism, the development of the timber and coal industries required a different conception of the mountain people. As capitalists scrambled to exploit the Appalachian region’s rich resources, mountaineers were recast as “squatters” on valuable land. Local color novelists published dozens of books, depicting mountaineers as uncivilized, gun-toting savages.

These were followed later by popular cartoons.

and movies

…which lead to advertising opportunities

and wrestlers!

and board games

FeudinTime HasbroBoardGame jpg

and Saturday Night Live skits


With this history of the social construction of the hillbilly in mind, we must understand the current media characterizations of Trump-loving “coal country,” ravaged by an epidemic of opiods, where people stupidly vote against their own interests, as part of the process where poor and working-class Appalachian people are cast as an “other” that doesn’t fit the norms of respectability and whiteness. The legacy of racism is what continues to make this possible.

Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

A Hillbilly Syllabus

“Some people call me Hillbilly
Some people call me Mountain Man
Well, you can call me Appalachia
’Cause Appalachia is what I am”
—Del McCoury

Since the publication of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, just before the “election” of Donald Trump, the people of Appalachia have been discovered again. Perplexed by the specter of white poverty and apparent backwardness, liberals and progressives turned to Vance’s Elegy to understand Appalachians. Instead, what they found was a blame-the-victim and culture of poverty narrative that wouldn’t pass the smell test of racism in any other case.

Unfortunately, Elegy is now the touchstone for any discussion about Appalachia. Yet, there is a rich tradition of Appalachian scholars and writers, writing from the Left, about the topics of poverty, racism, underdevelopment, and struggle.

This is a partial list of some of the most useful resources that I’ve come across and recommend for people to read after/instead of Hillbilly Elegy.


§ § §


For starters


Race & Class in Southern Appalachia

a talk by Eric Kerl at the Socialism 2015 Conference

For generations, southern Appalachia has remained among the poorest places in the United States. Now mostly white, Appalachians are still ridiculed as “hillbillies” and worse. Yet, a rich tradition of interracial class struggle and socialism is an inextricable part of Appalachian history. This talk will examine the development of capitalism and racist ideology in the Appalachian region along with the response from Black Appalachians and the mountain “hillbillies” often considered less than “white.”

Listen here.



Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

by Steven Stoll

In Ramp Hollow, Steven Stoll offers a fresh, provocative account of Appalachia, and why it matters. He begins with the earliest European settlers, whose desire for vast forests to hunt in was frustrated by absentee owners―including George Washington and other founders―who laid claim to the region. Even as Daniel Boone became famous as a backwoods hunter and guide, the economy he represented was already in peril. Within just a few decades, Appalachian hunters and farmers went from pioneers to pariahs, from heroes to hillbillies, in the national imagination, and the area was locked into an enduring association with poverty and backwardness. Stoll traces these developments with empathy and precision, examining crucial episodes such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the founding of West Virginia, and the arrival of timber and coal companies that set off a devastating “scramble for Appalachia.”

At the center of Ramp Hollow is Stoll’s sensitive portrayal of Appalachian homesteads. Perched upon ridges and tucked into hollows, they combined small-scale farming and gardening with expansive foraging and hunting, along with distilling and trading, to achieve self-sufficiency and resist the dependence on cash and credit arising elsewhere in the United States. But the industrialization of the mountains shattered the ecological balance that sustained the households. Ramp Hollow recasts the story of Appalachia as a complex struggle between mountaineers and profit-seeking forces from outside the region. Drawing powerful connections between Appalachia and other agrarian societies around the world, Stoll demonstrates the vitality of a peasant way of life that mixes farming with commerce but is not dominated by a market mind-set. His original investigation, ranging widely from history to literature, art, and economics, questions our assumptions about progress and development, and exposes the devastating legacy of dispossession and its repercussions today.

Read an excerpt here.



What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

by Elizabeth Catte

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

Read an excerpt here.



Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945

by Ronald D. Eller

In Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945, Eller examines the politics of development in Appalachia since World War II with an eye toward exploring the idea of progress as it has evolved in modern America. Appalachia’s struggle to overcome poverty, to live in harmony with the land, and to respect the diversity of cultures and the value of community is also an American story. In the end, Eller concludes, “Appalachia was not different from the rest of America; it was in fact a mirror of what the nation was becoming.”



Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change

by Stephen L. Fisher

Sixteen original essays document the extent and variety of citizen resistance and struggle in the Appalachian region since 1960. The contributors-all organizers or activist intellectuals-describe how and why some of the dramatic Appalachian resistance efforts and strategies have arisen.



Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

by Joe Bageant

Years before Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash, a raucous, truth-telling look at the white working poor — and why they have learned to hate liberalism. What it adds up to, he asserts, is an unacknowledged class war.

By turns tender, incendiary, and seriously funny, this book is a call to arms for fellow progressives with little real understanding of “the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks.”

Deer Hunting with Jesus is Joe Bageant’s report on what he learned when he moved back to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia. Like countless American small towns, it is fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. Two in five of the people in his old neighborhood do not have high school diplomas or health care. Alcohol, overeating, and Jesus are the preferred avenues of escape.


§ § §


Racism, Gender, and Culture


Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation

by John C. Inscoe

African Americans have had a profound impact on the economy, culture, and social landscape of southern Appalachia but only after a surge of study in the last two decades have their contributions been recognized by white culture. Appalachians and Race brings together 18 essays on the black experience in the mountain South in the nineteenth century. These essays provide a broad and diverse sampling of the best work on race relations in this region. The contributors consider a variety of topics: black migration into and out of the region, educational and religious missions directed at African Americans, the musical influences of interracial contacts, the political activism of blacks during reconstruction and beyond, the racial attitudes of white highlanders, and much more. Drawing from the particulars of southern mountain experiences, this collection brings together important studies of the dynamics of race not only within the region, but throughout the South and the nation over the course of the turbulent nineteenth century.


Blacks in Appalachia

edited by William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell

Although southern Appalachia is popularly seen as a purely white enclave, blacks have lived in the region from early times. Some hollows and coal camps are in fact almost exclusively black settlements. The selected readings in this new book offer the first comprehensive presentation of the black experience in Appalachia.

Organized topically, the selections deal with the early history of blacks in the region, with studies of the black communities, with relations between blacks and whites, with blacks in coal mining, and with political issues. Also included are a section on oral accounts of black experiences and an analysis of black Appalachian demography. The contributors range from Carter Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois to more recent scholars such as Theda Perdue and David A. Corbin. An introduction by the editors provides an overall context for the selections.

Blacks in Appalachia focuses needed attention on a neglected area of Appalachian studies. It will be a valuable resource for students of Appalachia and of black history.



Reconstructing Appalachia: The Civil War’s Aftermath

edited by Andrew L. Slap

Families, communities, and the nation itself were irretrievably altered by the Civil War and the subsequent societal transformations of the nineteenth century. The repercussions of the war incited a broad range of unique problems in Appalachia, including political dynamics, racial prejudices, and the regional economy.

Andrew L. Slap’s anthology Reconstructing Appalachia reveals life in Appalachia after the ravages of the Civil War, an unexplored area that has left a void in historical literature.
Addressing a gap in the chronicles of our nation, this vital collection explores little-known aspects of history with a particular focus on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods. Acclaimed scholars John C. Inscoe, Gordon B. McKinney, and Ken Fones-Wolf are joined by up-and-comers like Mary Ella Engel, Anne E. Marshall, and Kyle Osborn in a unique volume of essays investigating postwar Appalachia with clarity and precision.

Featuring a broad geographic focus, these compelling essays cover postwar events in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. This approach provides an intimate portrait of Appalachia as a diverse collection of communities where the values of place and family are of crucial importance.
Highlighting a wide array of topics including racial reconciliation, tension between former Unionists and Confederates, the evolution of post–Civil War memory, and altered perceptions of race, gender, and economic status, Reconstructing Appalachia is a timely and essential study of a region rich in heritage and tradition.



Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon

by Anthony Hawkins

In this pioneering work of cultural history, historian Anthony Harkins argues that the hillbilly-in his various guises of “briar hopper,” “brush ape,” “ridge runner,” and “white trash”-has been viewed by mainstream Americans simultaneously as a violent degenerate who threatens the modern order and as a keeper of traditional values of family, home, and physical production, and thus symbolic of a nostalgic past free of the problems of contemporary life. “Hillbilly” signifies both rugged individualism and stubborn backwardness, strong family and kin networks but also inbreeding and bloody feuds. Spanning film, literature, and the entire expanse of American popular culture, from D. W. Griffith to hillbilly music to the Internet, Harkins illustrates how the image of the hillbilly has consistently served as both a marker of social derision and regional pride. He traces the corresponding changes in representations of the hillbilly from late-nineteenth century America, through the great Depression, the mass migrations of Southern Appalachians in the 1940s and 1950s, the War on Poverty in the mid 1960s, and to the present day. Harkins also argues that images of hillbillies have played a critical role in the construction of whiteness and modernity in twentieth century America. Richly illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawings, and film and television stills, this unique book stands as a testament to the enduring place of the hillbilly in the American imagination.



Hillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern Appalachia

by Skye K. Moody (Kathy Kahn)

“This book tells what it means to be a woman when you are poor, when you are proud, and when you are a hillbilly.”

First published in 1973, Skye Moody’s Hillbilly Women shares the stunning and raw oral histories of 19 women in 20th-century Southern Appalachia, from their day-to-day struggles for survival to the personal triumphs of their hardscrabble existence. They are wives, widows, and daughters of coal miners; factory hands, tobacco graders, cotton mill workers, and farmers; and women who value honest labor, self-esteem, and dignity. Shining a much-needed light into a misunderstood culture and identity, the stories within reflect the universally human struggle to live meaningful and dignified lives.



Our Appalachia: An Oral History

edited by Laurel Shackelford and Bill Weinberg

The words on the page have the ring of truth, for these are the people of Appalachia speaking for themselves. Here they recollect an earlier time of isolation but of independence and neighborliness. For a nearer time they tell of the great changes that took place in Appalachia with the growth of coal mining and railroads and the disruption of old ways. Persisting through the years and sounding clearly in the interviews are the dignity of the Appalachian people and their close ties with the land, despite the exploitation and change they have endured.


§ § §


Political Economy


Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley

by John Gaventa

Explains to outsiders the conflicts between the financial interests of the coal and land companies, and the moral rights of the vulnerable mountaineers.


The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860

by Wilma A. Dunaway

In The First American Frontier, Wilma Dunaway challenges many assumptions about the development of preindustrial Southern Appalachia’s society and economy. Drawing on data from 215 counties in nine states from 1700 to 1860, she argues that capitalist exchange and production came to the region much earlier than has been previously thought. Her innovative book is the first regional history of antebellum Southern Appalachia and the first study to apply world-systems theory to the development of the American frontier. Dunaway demonstrates that Europeans established significant trade relations with Native Americans in the southern mountains and thereby incorporated the region into the world economy as early as the seventeenth century. In addition to the much-studied fur trade, she explores various other forces of change, including government policy, absentee speculation in the region’s natural resources, the emergence of towns, and the influence of local elites. Contrary to the myth of a homogeneous society composed mainly of subsistence homesteaders, Dunaway finds that many Appalachian landowners generated market surpluses by exploiting a large landless labor force, including slaves. In delineating these complexities of economy and labor in the region, Dunaway provides a perceptive critique of Appalachian exceptionalism and development.



Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History, 1730–1940

by Paul Salstrom

In Appalachia’s Path to Dependency, Paul Salstrom examines the evolution of economic life over time in southern Appalachia. Moving away from the colonial model to an analysis based on dependency, he exposes the complex web of factors―regulation of credit, industrialization, population growth, cultural values, federal intervention―that has worked against the region.

Salstrom argues that economic adversity has resulted from three types of disadvantages: natural, market, and political. The overall context in which Appalachia’s economic life unfolded was one of expanding United States markets and, after the Civil War, of expanding capitalist relations.

Covering Appalachia’s economic history from early white settlement to the end of the New Deal, this work is not simply an economic interpretation but draws as well on other areas of history. Whereas other interpretations of Appalachia’s economy have tended to seek social or psychological explanations for its dependency, this important work compels us to look directly at the region’s economic history. This regional perspective offers a clear-eyed view of Appalachia’s path in the future.



Transforming the Appalachian Countryside:Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920

by Ronald L. Lewis

In 1880, ancient-growth forest still covered two-thirds of West Virginia, but by the 1920s lumbermen had denuded the entire region. Ronald Lewis explores the transformation in these mountain counties precipitated by deforestation. As the only state that lies entirely within the Appalachian region, West Virginia provides an ideal site for studying the broader social impact of deforestation in Appalachia, the South, and the eastern United States.

Most of West Virginia was still dominated by a backcountry economy when the industrial transition began. In short order, however, railroads linked remote mountain settlements directly to national markets, hauling away forest products and returning with manufactured goods and modern ideas. Workers from the countryside and abroad swelled new mill towns, and merchants ventured into the mountains to fulfill the needs of the growing population. To protect their massive investments, capitalists increasingly extended control over the state’s legal and political systems.

Eventually, though, even ardent supporters of industrialization had reason to contemplate the consequences of unregulated exploitation. Once the timber was gone, the mills closed and the railroads pulled up their tracks, leaving behind an environmental disaster and a new class of marginalized rural poor to confront the worst depression in American history.



Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case

edited by Helen M. Lewis, Linda Johnson, Donald Askins

Colonialism in Modern Americais a series of essays exploring the economic and social problems of the region within the context of colonialism. It is a relatively simple task to document the social ills and the environmental ravage that beset the people and land of Appalachia. However, it is far more difficult and problematic to uncover the causes of these tragic conditions.



Who Owns Appalachia?: Landowndership and Its Impact

by Charles C. Geisler  and The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force

Long viewed as a problem in other countries, the ownership of land and resources is becoming an issue of mounting concern in the United States. Nowhere has it surfaced more dramatically than in the southern Appalachians where the exploitation of timber and mineral resources has been recently aggravated by the ravages of strip-mining and flash floods. This landmark study of the mountain region documents for the first time the full scale and extent of the ownership and control of the region’s land and resources and shows in a compelling, yet non-polemical fashion the relationship between this control and conditions affecting the lives of the region’s people.

Begun in 1978 and extending through 1980, this survey of land ownership is notable for the magnitude of its coverage. It embraces six states of the southern Appalachian region―Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. From these states the research team selected 80 counties, and within those counties field workers documented the ownership of over 55,000 parcels of property, totaling over 20 million acres of land and mineral rights.

The survey is equally significant for its systematic investigation of the relations between ownership and conditions within Appalachian communities. Researchers compiled data on 100 socioeconomic indicators and correlated these with the ownership of land and mineral rights. The findings of the survey form a generally dark picture of the region―local governments struggling to provide needed services on tax revenues that are at once inadequate and inequitable; economic development and diversification stifled; increasing loss of farmland, a traditional source of subsistence in the region. Most evident perhaps is the adverse effect upon housing resulting from corporate ownership and land speculation. Nor is the trend toward greater conglomerate ownership of energy resources, the expansion of absentee ownership into new areas, and the search for new mineral and energy sources encouraging.

Who Owns Appalachia? will be an enduring resource for all those interested in this region and its problems. It is, moreover, both a model and a document for social and economic concerns likely to be of critical importance for the entire nation.


§ § §


The Radicalization Last Time


Hillbilly Nationalists: Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy


The historians of the late 1960s have emphasized the work of a group of white college activists who courageously took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam and continuing racial inequality. Poor and working-class whites have tended to be painted as spectators, reactionaries, and, even, racists. Most Americans, the story goes, just watched the political movements of the sixties go by.

James Tracy and Amy Sonnie, who have been interviewing activists from the era for nearly ten years, reject this old narrative. They show that poor and working-class radicals, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and progressive populism, started to organize significant political struggles against racism and inequality during the 1960s and 1970s. Among these groups:

+  JOIN Community Union brought together southern migrants, student radicals, and welfare recipients in Chicago to fight for housing, health, and welfare . . .

+  The Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry organized self-identified hillbillies, Chicago greasers, Vietnam vets, and young feminists into a legendary “Rainbow Coalition” with Black and Puerto Rican activists . . .

+  In Philadelphia, the October 4th Organization united residents of industrial Kensington against big business, war, and a repressive police force . . .

+ In the Bronx, White Lightning occupied hospitals and built coalitions with doctors to fight for the rights of drug addicts and the poor.

Exploring an untold history of the New Left, the book shows how these groups helped to redefine community organizing—and transforms the way we think about a pivotal moment in U.S. history.



Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening

edited by David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson

In The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1962, Rupert Vance suggested a decennial review of the region’s progress. No systematic study comparable to that made at the beginning of the decade is available to answer the question of how far Appalachia has come since then, but David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson have assembled a broad range of firsthand reports which together convey the story of Appalachia in the sixties. These observations of journalists, field workers, local residents, and social scientists have been gathered from a variety of sources ranging from national magazines to county weeklies.

Focusing mainly on the coalfields of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and north-central Tennessee, the editors first present selections that reflect the “rediscovery” of the region as a problem area in the early sixties and describe the federal programs designed to rehabilitate it and their results. Other sections focus on the politics of the coal industry, the extent and impact of the continued migration from the region, and the persistence of human suffering and environmental devastation. A final section moves into the 1970s with proposals for the future. Although they conclude that there is little ground for claiming success in solving the region’s problems, the editors find signs of hope in the scattered movements toward grass-roots organization described by some of the contributors, and in the new tendency to define solutions in terms of reconstruction rather than amelioration.



Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.