This is my column in yesterday’s Greenville News. Happy Birthday West Virginia! June 20,1863.
Tomorrow is June 20th, a special day in the hearts of my people; West Virginians. On June 20th, 1863, West Virginia entered the Union in the midst of a bloody struggle for the soul of the young nation. It was, prior to that, the sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater of the elegant, beloved Virginia, soul of the South. After June 20th, however, it was…well, a sparsely populated, wilderness-filled backwater all its own. But a free state that rejected slavery!
Those who live in South Carolina are generally well acquainted with my fellow West Virginians. I have a theory that West Virginians share a gene which, at various times of their lives, causes them to have an irresistible urge to drive to South Carolina’s coast. In fact, when the mines close down for two weeks every summer, untold numbers of miners and their families head to Myrtle Beach, which has been affectionately dubbed ‘the coal miner’s Riviera.’ Some of my earliest vacation memories are of the Grand Strand. My wife Jan, a true ‘coal-miner’s daughter’ has similar memories.
If you doubt the connection between SC and WV, I have a vignette: my brother-in-law Dave worked in the WV coal mines as a young man out of high school. His early cell-phone plan included, as local calls, Huntington and Charleston, WV and (you got it!) Myrtle Beach, SC.
I write about this today because West Virginia is in the heart of Appalachia, which stretches from Southern New York all the way to Northern Mississippi (passing through the Upstate of South Carolina). Appalachia is defined as a ‘cultural region,’ and indeed it is.
More to the point, I write this because Appalachia is struggling. Although poverty has improved over the decades, Appalachia as a whole still faces financial woes, much of it made worse by those who are all too anxious to kill coal, but provide no other employment options for those terminated as part of an environmental purge. As if the ‘coal industry’ is only some vast robotic behemoth, and does not represent the hopes and dreams, and often the only financial possibility, for an entire ‘cultural region’ of America.
Appalachia is also struggling with rampant drug addiction and broken by the many funerals, ruined lives and crimes that widespread addiction brings in its wake. From pill-mills dispensing oxycontin to meth labs and imported heroin, the toll in lost lives and lost hope is crushing.
When Jan and I have traveled home over the years, deeper and deeper into Appalachia, up Highway 23 through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky and then home, it’s easy to see a place of magnificent beauty, resilient people and serious, inexpressible hopelessness. I never know if the drug abuse is the cause of the loss of hope, or the result of it. Cart, horse. It’s all tragic.
Sadly enough, America frequently just isn’t interested. Appalachian people are still acceptable sources of scorn for much of urban, coastal America. They’re live in ‘flyover country.’ Trailer-trash, hicks, rednecks. People who ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,’ to quote a well-known political figure. When a culture is endlessly mocked and derided, its people get the message loud and clear. Don’t try. It doesn’t matter.
But this June 20th I’d like to speak for my ancestors, and the forebears of so many, who settled in the Mountains of WV and other portions of Appalachia after leaving the press and stagnation of Europe. I’d like to speak for those who still live there, and who find solace and connection in the ghosts of their ancestors, the starkness of the mountains and valleys, in the life, faith, culture and music of the cities and towns. Like me, they stay there because in Appalachia, the past and the present are difficult but inextricable.
And if nostalgia isn’t enough, let us remember Appalachian people keep the lights (and i-Pads, DVR’s and electric cars) on by mining coal. They also provide timber and produce, work in important industries and share their region for the recreation of any and all. All too many have also shed their blood in America’s many wars, and continue to boldly, proudly ‘stand on the wall’ around the world.
America loves to talk about its multiculturalism. And one of its greatest cultures is firmly entrenched, despite its pains and struggles, in the vast region we call Appalachia. It deserves our respect.