On the Oppression of Appalachians: A Response to Fox Sports columnist Clay Travis
By Andrea Fekete
Today, I read a blog post titled “Kentucky V. West Virginia: The Dumbest Sweet 16 Game of All Time” by Clay Travis on Outkick the Coverage: Fox College Football Blog of Fox Sports.com, an unlikely place to find hate-speech of any kind. His verbal assault on Appalachians takes me back to the stories I grew up hearing on Buffalo Creek, stories about the man-made disaster officials of Pittston Coal dismissed as an “Act of God.”
According to Travis’ post, Kentucky and West Virginia residents are the dumbest, most uneducated people in our nation. First, let me say, I do not fit Travis’ stereotype of an uneducated hillbilly. I teach as an adjunct at local university. I am a published writer. I do the work I love. I educate a populace often told how dumb they are by people like Travis. With that said, let me be clear, this response it not at all about how we do or do not fit his stereotypes. My response is to explain why these exist.
Travis, who is supposed to be writing about a basketball game between Kentucky and West Virginia, instead attacks folks in our region with trite insults we Appalachians often hear in the media. He tells us how dumb we are, how we have no self esteem, how so few of us have Bachelor’s Degrees, how we are racist, violent, and homophobic.
The language he uses is verbal violence, hate-speech. He taunts Appalachian readers by adding that soon the comment section would be filled with “dumb people proving just how dumb they are.” Even our smart people are dumb, according to Travis. Kentucky is “number one in mullets.” We are worse than ignorant to him.
I wonder if he realizes he is merely a cog in the massive money making machines of coal barons who destroy our land and chemical companies who poison our rivers.
I wonder if he knows using a major platform to insult a disadvantaged, struggling population could possibly breed fatalism among our youth, kids who already have a difficult enough time.
I wonder if he knows what dehumanization is, what it allows.
I wonder if he realizes how his article exudes ignorance; the very trait he ironically says is our worst.
Appalachia is inhabited by a people who have historically met impossible odds with courage. We are defined by our intense love of family and of place. We have inherited a painful history, true. No one can know the strength of our people, not unless they are one of us. There is a certain kind of strength we inherit when we listen to our fathers talk with closed eyes about walking among ghosts and surviving to tell the story.
When the Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 destroyed everything in its wake in Logan County, West Virginia killing 118 people, some bodies were never found. There is a grave back home that contains the bodies of unidentified infants with a headstone that reads: “Angels Known Only to God.”
After I read Travis’ long monotonous rant punctuated by the word “dumb” every sentence or so and other cliché insults directed at us, my mind turned dark. I starting remembering stories of corpses in trees, bodies under railroad tracks, unidentified babies, and deep despair of survivors, because it is the violent hate-speech in Travis’ column that perpetuates the idea that Appalachian people are less than human, that we deserve scorn and exploitation. It is the collective blind eye to our history of oppression that allowed Pittston coal to cause the deaths of over 100 people one early morning in February.
Pittston Coal had allowed three “dams” which were not actually dams but clogs of coal slurry blocking the creek in three places to go unchecked. The water reached such a heights that when it rained for several days in February, the coal company was aware the poorly monitored “dams” might break, yet they warned no one of this impending disaster.
After the devastation, a lawsuit was filed by around 600 surviving families. They received about $13,000 as compensation for their destroyed homes and lives.
According to Kai T. Erikson, author of Everything in its Path, a 70-year-old man commented to a Pittston attorney, "I've often thought some of this stuff could have been avoided if somebody would have come around and said, `Here's a blanket and here's a dress for your wife' or `Here's a sandwich. Could I give you a cup of coffee?' But they never showed up. Nobody showed up to give us a place to stay. . .”
The website of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History reads: “In 1978, an attempt to incorporate Buffalo Creek as a town failed by a vote of 816 to 546. Incorporation would have qualified the area for federal and state rehabilitation grants. Opposition to incorporation was backed heavily by coal companies, which owned 60 percent of Logan County's land and wanted to be excluded from incorporation property taxes.”
I was born and raised in Logan County, West Virginia, right on Buffalo Creek, where mountaintop removal is rampant. Coal companies lop mountaintops off, dumping them in streams. In my hometown jobs are scarce, coal companies are still in control, and poverty is evident.
The man-made disaster Pittston Coal officials called “An Act of God” still lives fresh in our memories, even in those who were unborn at the time of the flood, like me. I was seven when I first saw photographs of the destruction. It has always been a presence in my mind.
A month ago, my father recollected the flood to his grandson, my nephew Trace, who was writing a paper on the Flood for a school assignment. I sat still listening intently, like a kid soaking up the wisdom of a war veteran grandfather.
He talked uninterrupted for half an hour. Not once did he open his eyes or relax his brow. Among his resurrected memories, one I found most striking was his story of the state police ordering him to help clean up the corpses. A police officer motioned to a flatbed truck saying, “Hop in, boys.” They drove them through the black sludge covered road. My 23 year old father picked up the muddy corpses with the help of other young men. The bodies were later piled in our school gymnasium to be identified by family. I never sat in that gym without imagining the scene.
Afterward, to prevent another similar disaster, laws were passed but not enforced.
The WV Division of Culture & History reports: “In 1973, the West Virginia Legislature passed the Dam Control Act, regulating all dams in the state. However, funding was never appropriated to enforce the law. In 1992, an official with the state Division of Natural Resources estimated there were at least 400 hazardous non-coal dams in West Virginia, many of which were owned by the state.”
I know our history well. I wrote and published one historical fiction novel about our coal miners fighting (literally) with coal company thugs and national guardsmen on Blair Mountain. They were fighting for basic workers’ rights, human rights. It was the largest armed insurrection against the U.S. government since the Civil War.
Our state is strangled by the strong hand of industry while our mountaineers are left starving in the shadows. The coal companies lie to our people, convincing them if we don’t allow them to lop off tops of mountains we will have no mining jobs at all. Then, when it is convenient for King Coal, they layoff miners anyway blaming Obama and the EPA.
Then, there are the sins of the chemical companies. In 2014 there was a major spill of crude 4- methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Freedom Industries’ negligence was to blame. Ken Ward Jr., of the Charleston Gazette, wrote, “When West Virginia inspectors arrived at Freedom Industries late Thursday morning, they discovered that the company had taken ‘no spill containment measures’ to combat the chemical spill that has put drinking water supplies off-limits for hundreds of thousands of residents.” Soon after, new protections were put in place but with a Republican majority, a bill to roll back safety standards on these chemical tanks in West Virginia was recently introduced.
As with any historically marginalized people sharing a collective cultural identity, Appalachian people have been dehumanized, have been branded “other” by the mainstream media and therefore, the sins of industry committed against us are forgotten and forgiven.
It is well known that African Americans were dehumanized to the most extreme levels in our national history. During the pro-slavery and abolitionist debates, doctors and scientists published writings in support of slavery. They used their positions of prestige to give validity to their assertions that African Americans were inferior to whites not only in intellect, but also in their hearts. These “experts” spoke of Africans’ inability to feel love, even for their children. Africans were labeled inferior, as deserving of their captivity and torture. Some “experts” even claimed slavery was best for them since a population so stupid could never self sustain. They were “better off.” Historically, Appalachians and Native Americans have also been branded with the label of inferiority. It is not a coincidence that these three groups also share a history of exploitation for financial gain.
When we talk about racism or sexism as it relates to literary theory in my Fiction and Nonfiction course, one student always asks, “But why does it seem like one group is always stereotyping another? Why?”
I always answer by writing one lonely word on the board: POWER
Without power, no group can profit off the backs of another group. The bricks of this nation are bound with the mortar of black slaves’ blood, sweat, and tears. Without making the oppressed group less than human, citizens of even the mainstream oppressive group would disagree with the abuse of the so-called “inferior” group. The stereotypes are there to maintain the hierarchy, to assure the party gaining financially will continue to do so.
How does one group convince the general public the oppressed group is not oppressed at all but rather deserving of and even implicit in their own oppression and exploitation? Through brainwashing of the mainstream, of course, but how is that achieved? The media.
Of course, it isn’t only through the media stereotypes can be widely spread and maintained. Evidently, even national chain pharmacies like to step in and help out. Walgreens carries the Halloween “costume” pictured below in their stores. I took this picture Halloween of 2014. You can see the “W” logo of Walgreens just above the package.
While I don’t attend church myself, many of my West Virginia and Kentucky family and friends are proud Christians. On their behalf, in regards to our bigots and our oppressors, I say: forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.
“Buffalo Creek.” West Virginia Division of Culture and History. West Virginia Archives and History, n.d. Web. 27 March 2015.
Erikson, Kai T. Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. Print.
Travis, Clay. “Kentucky V. West Virginia: The Dumbest Sweet 16 Game of All Time.” Outkick the Coverage: Fox College Football Blog. Fox Sports, 25 March 2015. Web. 27 March 2015.
Ward, Ken. “Freedom Industries Cited for Elk Chemical Spill.” The Charleston Gazette. The Charleston Gazette, 10 January 2014. Web. 27 March 2015.
This article first appeared at http://proudtobewv.blogspot.com/