Little Cities of Black Diamonds employee Daniel Clepper shines a light onto an unidentified filmstrip during a tour of the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee, Ohio, on April 16, 2018. The filmstrip, dated 1936, would have likely been in rotation during the region’s industrial heyday when the theater was home to musical performances, sporting events, and movies for Shawnee’s residents. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia
Happy Thursday, friends!
It’s hard to believe it – we’ve arrived at my last post in this series. Over the past month, we’ve dug into several stereotypes of Appalachia that are common in popular media portrayals of the region: the place itself as degraded and incapable of saving, Appalachian culture as inherently violent and barbaric and Appalachians themselves as a placeless people. The final stereotype I’d like to talk about is one that’s so prevalent that it actually encompasses all the media examples we’ve been discussing over the past three weeks: the idea that being Appalachian automatically translates to being white.
If you think back to all the media portrayals of Appalachia we’ve looked at this month, hardly any of them feature characters of color at all, much less in any sort of prominent role. And yet, nearly 20 percent of the population in Appalachia is nonwhite – including Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous folks, as well as other races – and has become increasingly diverse since 2010.
You’d think that might lead to increasingly diverse portrayals of our place, especially in the last decade or so. But the connection between Appalachianness and whiteness remains so strong that Appalachian author Elizabeth Catte wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The Guardian that her most recent Google search for “Appalachian photography” pulled up “three times more images of white people in coffins than living people of color."
What’s interesting to note about these representations of Appalachian whiteness is that Appalachians are often positioned as an “other” type of white, separate from a general or “normal” whiteness. Meredith McCarroll writes that Appalachians are often portrayed using many of the same tropes used to represent people of color, marking Appalachians as “phenotypically white [yet] hierarchically nonwhite” – a categorization she terms “unwhite.” In doing so, these representations serve to uphold and privilege some sort of “true” whiteness while simultaneously erasing the existence and contributions of people of color to the region’s history and culture.
In most popular media portrayals of Appalachia, whiteness is something seen and not heard; these representations simply systematically portray white people when Appalachia is concerned. However, some media about Appalachia does get explicit about race – and about Appalachian whiteness as something distinct from general whiteness. Let’s dig into what’s being said.
Media execs when someone asks why Appalachian characters always have to be white.
White Appalachia: Phenotypical Whiteness and POC Erasure
The distinction of Appalachian whiteness as something different from “normal” whiteness can be traced back to a time before Appalachia was even recognized as a cultural or geographic region. An 1847 article on the South Carolina backwoods titled “The Carolina Sand-Hillers,” for example, describes the rural folk as “peculiar in dress and looks…as distinct a race as the Indian.”
Later writers distinguished Appalachians as neither “white” nor “nonwhite” but as what Anthony Harkins describes as a distinct “‘Cracker’ race in all ways so debased that they had no capacity for social advancement.” A correspondent from Boston’s Daily Advertiser confirmed this attitude in 1866, predicting that “time and effort will lead the negro up to intelligent manhood…but I almost doubt if it will be possible to ever lift this ‘white trash’ into respectability.”
There’s a lot to unpack in there.
Following the establishment of Appalachia as a region, popular media began to make explicit the whiteness of Appalachians. The popular comic strips Barney Google and Snuffy Smith and Li’l Abner of the mid-1900s (originally discussed in my first dispatch) also focus on their characters’ whiteness, albeit in different ways. DeBeck’s Snuffy Smith emphasizes the in-between social hierarchical space that his Appalachian characters occupy by demonstrating their position below “normal” white characters but above African American characters. Harkins explains this positioning further:
Whereas numerous characters in positions of status and authority (businessmen, bankers, judges, lawyers) commonly refer to Snuffy and his kin as “hill-billies,” “yokey(s),” and, even on one occasion, “back-woods trash,” black characters almost never call him anything other than “suh” or “boss.” […] In panels such as this, DeBeck asserts unequivocally Snuffy's whiteness through his domination over African-American figures, a quality that is meant to mitigate the degrading aspects of his character and to reinforce his role as mythic hero.
Capp’s Li’l Abner, on the other hand, emphasizes Appalachian whiteness by excluding Black characters from the comic completely. This omission can be attributed in part to a mandate of all newspaper syndicates of the era to avoid potentially controversial topics and a deep-seated (but incorrect) belief that the Southern mountains were a place untouched by slavery and racial tensions. But Capp’s exclusion of Black characters also says something about what his Appalachian characters are meant to signify, as Harkins continues:
[T]he mountaineers in this strip took the place of their black counterparts in other comic strips and throughout Depression-era popular culture; they are the clownish buffoons, the country innocents in the big city, the servants of socially superior white employers, or, in the case of the murderous Scraggs, the violent savages who threaten social order.
Again, it’s just a lot.
Ultimately, these images reveal a deeper assumption: Although whiteness is essential to Appalachianness, they are a different, “other” white.
News accounts of the Appalachian diaspora in the 1950s similarly emphasized the mountain migrants’ whiteness. As Harkins explains, in addition to a focus on Appalachians’ backwardness and potential criminality, these reports described a people who “despite their ‘superior’ racial heritage threatened the comity of the industrial heartland.” James Maxwell’s 1956 article “Down from the Hills and into the Slums,” which we originally discussed last week, describes Appalachian migrants in overtly racial terms. Harkins summarizes the article’s opening lines:
After opening with a quote from an Indianapolis resident fearful of an uncivilized and dangerously independent population, Maxwell then informs his presumably shocked readers that this group was not Puerto Ricans or Mexicans but “white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” a group “usually considered to be the most favored in American society.”
The 1958 Harper’s article “The Hillbillies Invade Chicago” (also discussed last week) contains similarly racialized language, opening with the claim that “The cities' toughest integration problem has nothing to do with Negroes” but rather “involves a small army of white Protestant, Early American migrants from the South.” This reference to integration, especially, indicates an underlying distinction between Appalachian whites and a more general whiteness.
Appalachian whiteness was used to further other political and social agendas, as well. The whiteness of Appalachian people was often a central focus of War on Poverty-era media, always containing the implicit argument that Appalachian poverty was an urgent matter because white people should not be poor. Michael Harrington’s influential novel “The Other America” (discussed further in my first newsletter) put the whiteness of both Appalachian residents and migrants front and center, presenting the region as “the locus of white poverty in America, equivalent to the Black poor of the nation’s inner cities.”
Much War on Poverty-era media similarly focused on white poverty, “offering proof that poverty was a problem facing the entire nation and not just inner-city minorities” and thus should be swiftly eradicated. In this way, the distinction of Appalachian people as white meant that their disadvantaged position needed to be corrected, though their poverty nonetheless marked them as something inherently different from middle-class white Americans. More modern media on Appalachian poverty, like ABC’s “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” and even J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” contain similar implicit arguments, though they focus less explicitly on whiteness.
I’d like to end with one final note: By highlighting this trend in national and popular media, which effectively erases the existence of people of color in Appalachia, I don’t mean to contribute to this erasure myself by ignoring the essential work being done by scholars, activists, and artists of color in Appalachia. Scholar Phillip J. Obermiller says it best in a review for the Journal of Appalachian Studies:
Charges of a “whitewashed” Appalachia ignore the works of Fayetta Allen, Edward J. Cabbell, Omope Carter Daboiku, Wilma Dunaway, Wilburn Hayden, Jr., bell hooks, Cicero M. Fain III, John C. Inscoe, Ronald L. Lewis, Joe William Trotter, William H. Turner, Thomas E. Wagner, Althea Webb, and this reviewer; the poetry of Effie Waller Smith, Frank X Walker, and Crystal Wilkinson; and the memoirs of Robert Armstead, Kojo (William T.) Jones, Jr., and Memphis Tennessee Garrison. Dissertations, book chapters, blog posts, and documentaries, along with newspaper, journal, and magazine articles add to this canon, rendering the trope of Black Appalachian invisibility to a form of vincible ignorance.
Media made by and featuring Appalachians of color certainly exists and deserves to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, though, the work of many of the above scholars and artists has largely gone unrecognized on a national scale. Similarly, while the existence and work of Appalachians of color are recognized and celebrated by organizations, institutions and individuals throughout the region, the unfortunate fact remains that popular representations of Appalachia – those which are most likely to be seen by an “outside” audience – tend to be overwhelmingly white.
Popular media tends to portray Appalachians as one singular demographic: white. In addition, they’re usually Christian in religion and often male in gender. But that’s only one way of life in the region, when in reality there are so many more! Here are some of my favorite contributions to the project that highlight the diversity of life around Appalachia:
For one final time, I’d like to pass it over to you. What experiences from your own life, your family, or the history of your community could serve as a counter-narrative? Here are some questions to get you thinking:
What diverse communities exist in Appalachia? (This could be an ethnic, religious, or other community.)
What organizations or individuals of color are doing work in Appalachia that needs to be highlighted?
What historic events have occurred in Appalachia that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve?
What’s another example in popular media that contributes to the stereotype of Appalachian whiteness? How does it contribute?
As always, if any of those questions piqued your interest, you can submit a response to be featured on our website.
And that’s a wrap on my time with this newsletter! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Appalachian media representation as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing about it. Like I said in the beginning, it’s important to recognize that stereotypes of our place occur for a purpose and have an actual impact on our lives. That’s why it’s up to us to take back the narrative – to tell our real stories on our own terms.
If you enjoyed this series, I hope you’ll consider making a submission to the site. Your story matters! Even if you don’t, I’m always up to answer questions and talk all things Appalachia via email or DM.
Hope you have a wonderful Thursday and a happy rest of your month.
With thanks, always,
P.S. In lieu of my normal recommendations for further reading, I’d like to highlight some fantastic work by Appalachians of color, both modern and historical: