Photo: Mike Nelson
I spent my entire childhood thinking of West Virginia as a dumping ground full of uncultured, uneducated, unfriendly, and uncouth people. This description didn’t really fit anyone that I knew, not my teachers, not my parents, or my neighbors, but I knew because this was the West Virginia that was all around me.
I knew from violent, ogre-like criminals in movies with a backwards outlook on life and southern accents as thick as tree roots. I knew from ignorant, bucktoothed country cousins in overalls that came to visit main characters in the cartoons I watched. I knew from history books that portrayed my home as this place spilling over with bumpkins too dumb and too weak to defend themselves and their land from big business. And I knew from jokes on the radio and on TV that made it ok for people to use the words “redneck” and “hillbilly” without understanding that it was (and is) extremely demeaning and insensitive to an entire culture.
I never questioned these stereotypes because I knew they had come from the outside, from somewhere bright and urban where everyone was tolerant, well-educated, kind and fair. True, I had never been that far outside of my home state because my family had very little money, but I just knew that if I could curb my accent, acquire a taste for the right clothes and the right food, and learn to love concrete, I could rise above a home that I understood as a prison.
What I didn’t know and wouldn’t know until I was in college — trying hard to pass as a kid who hadn’t grown up on a farm and who considered camping a few counties over a big vacation — was that my understanding of West Virginia was born out of a general hatred of poverty and a deeper, underlying hatred for the people who had come to work the land.
West Virginia was, and is, a state that nobody wanted. It isn’t quite Southern and it isn’t quite Northern, and the big boom in population came from other states pushing out or resisting to accept certain people — who ended up in West Virginia to work in coal mines, mills, on the railroad, or in other industries. I may have continued living the rest of my life in ignorance, but when I was a sophomore in college I was fortunate enough to have the then poet laureate of the state, Irene McKinney as a professor for a semester. If not for her, I may have never known that my accent wasn’t an improper way of speaking, but a dialect, and that much of the slang and colloquialisms came from those people who had come to West Virginia because they had no place else to go.
If not for Irene, I may have never realized that by attempting to “cure” myself of my accent, I was turning my back on my ancestors, I was saying that I was better than they were. Irene worked all semester to help my classmates and I understand why we should defend our identities as Appalachian. My becoming more knowledgeable about myself and my state made me question my unwavering distaste for West Virginia, but it did nothing to deter my dream of escaping. I decided I would keep my accent, but I was still working steadily towards a goal that I would never and could never get to.
I thought I had reached it though when I was named a Fulbright Scholar during my senior year of college. I thought that my acceptance into this group of intellectuals meant that I had done it. I, a girl from a farm in West Virginia, who had never been on a plane until she was twenty, who came from a town called Hico — that’s right, Hico, it’s pronounced Hy-co, but still — had proved to everyone that she was different from the other people in West Virginia: I was smart, classy, and sophisticated. Then reality smacked me so hard that I saw stars for weeks. The moment I was outside of West Virginia or in a group of people who were not Appalachian I was transformed into an oddity.
People would tell me how cute my accent was and ask me to say the same word over and over. One of my Bulgarian students asked if people in West Virginia were cannibals like in Wrong Turn. A man who was chatting me up in a bus station in Bucharest asked me where I was from and when I told him, he said, “Oh, you mean where everybody marries their cousin?”
People would use the word “redneck” as an umbrella term to imply either ignorance or bigotry and then turn to me and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean you.” Once a concierge in Sweden even commented on how impressive it was that I still had all my teeth considering I was from, “the American South.” I had known that these stereotypes were out there, but I had always assumed that people outside of West Virginia understood that they were exaggerated. Everything that Irene had said about being proud to be from Appalachia, from West Virginia, flooded back, and I began to see my heritage as more of an identity than a secret burden. So I took off my mask, and stopped justifying myself as an exception from the stereotypical West Virginian, and instead, I just understood myself as someone who was from West Virginia.
However, last year, after working with young women from West Virginia, I realized that the laughable, yet insulting, stereotypes I encountered while living outside of the state don’t always inspire people, but instead cause them to conform. According to every fairytale, if you wish hard enough for something, you can make it happen, but I prefer my great-grandmother’s saying: “If you look hard enough for something, you’re bound to find it”. Yes, some of the “You might be a Redneck…” jokes are funny, but they’re also harmful and so are all the questions mentioned above. If you are told by enough people for long enough that you’re trash, that you aren’t smart, that you are the lower rung of society and nobody ever tells you any different, you become exactly that.
Many visitors to West Virginia often complain that the people here aren’t friendly, or they paint a picture of trailer parks infested with drugs and desolate children. Do these things exist in my home state? I suppose so, but don’t they exist in all states? If you come to a place with a certain understanding of it already in mind, then your expectations will be met. I encountered some jerks while I was living abroad, but I didn’t go looking for them and most of the people I met were friendly.
As an adult who spends the majority of her time attempting to preserve Appalachian heritage and change perceptions about the place, I get asked a lot why I do what I do. The answer isn’t simple, except that it is. West Virginia is my home and I love my home, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s mine. My ancestors came here because they really had no place else to go and worked to make themselves and this place better. I feel as though it’s my privilege to continue that work. Sometimes they didn’t do such a great job at it and sometimes neither do I, but I keep going because I want to preserve and pass on the idea that West Virginia is more than a state made up of negative misconceptions.