Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hidden America: CHILDREN OF THE MOUNTAINS

Let me say before I write anything else that I am VERY proud of where I am from...where I was born and raised and where my family has lived for generations. I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, deep in the Appalachian mountains of Southeastern Kentucky. I am the granddaughter of a coal miner (and the great-granddaughter, and great, great granddaughter), and my mother grew up in a coal camp in the 1940s and 50s. My family was there during the struggles of Unionization, there when the coal industry was down, and there when it thrived. My family was a part of that industry for decades. I am a product of the region. I am proud. I love my "home," the people of the mountains, and the beauty that is so abundant there.

I am also protective of those things. That is why I get so infuriated and frustrated when the national media and journalists from the "outside" come into our mountains and portray the area as a wasteland. The main stream media has for decades portrayed the people of the mountains as backward, uneducated, dirty, poor and lazy. I admit that I expect the worst when I see a media van or hear about the latest prime time news show coming in to do a special report. I have seen them before, and they are NEVER positive. They come in with a VERY narrow scope, visit the worst communities in the region, portray that as "standard," offer no suggestions as to how to help, exploit families and, especially, the children, shake their heads and cluck their teeth at "those poor, barefoot hillbillies" and leave. Nothing happens. Nothing except that stereotypes are perpetuated, self esteem is made even lower, and our children question their worthiness of access to education and something better. In a nutshell, they exploit the people and the region.

With that said, Diane Sawyer and ABC is responsible for the latest focus on Appalachia. She specifically visited Martin County, Kentucky, and Harlan County (MY county) to film families and coal miners. I watched an interview Ms. Sawyer did on The View promoting the piece, and after seeing it...well, let's just say I'm not optimistic. She discussed how the babies' teeth are all rotting because the mothers spend their money on Pepsi cola to put in their bottles instead of milk. She talked about how the children of the region are "forgotten," and apparently no one in the region is capable of doing anything about it because we're ALL uneducated, poor and helpless. A friend told me that the first question she actually asked one of the families was, "So, tell me about the incest" (Does it sound like this reporter has allowed stereotypes to affect her professionalism? I can't even COMMENT about this!). She drones on and on about the drug problem that has infested the mountains and how nearly every family is affected by it.

I have a news flash for Ms. Sawyer. You can go to any region in this country and find a drug problem. You can go to any region and find people who are poor and uneducated. THIS is not an "Appalachian" problem, this is an American problem. Does she discuss the programs like the University of Kentucky's Robinson Scholars, a scholarship program that awards full scholarships and assists children of the mountains in gaining access to higher education? No. Does she talk about the cuts to programs that would help buy food for families who need it, provide medical and dental care to children, or train injured miners to work in other fields? I doubt it. Does she discuss how outsiders come into our mountains and threaten the livelihood of our people because they disagree with coal mining and its effects on the environment? I would be completely shocked. Most people who disagree with underground mining do so because they are not informed and educated well enough about the industry to know better. Environmentalists, don't get me wrong, have their place and do much good, but they have also helped to shut down mining production in our region that puts food on the tables of many families. Mining, when done carefully and within certain parameters, DOES NOT harm our environment. It does NOT threaten wildlife or watershed when done the right way. Again, many environmentalists, just as the journalists, go in with that narrow scope and report ONE VERSION of the issue. What happened to full, fair and accurate reporting?

I had the PLEASURE of working with the UK Robinson Scholars Program for nearly a decade. During that time, I worked with hundreds of "Children of the Mountains." While there were certainly families who did not have much and struggled to get by, there were also families who thrived. I bet you won't find ONE of those families in Ms. Sawyer's report. I bet you will not see her highlight any of those students who have gone to college, graduated and moved back to the mountains because they love it there and want to help the region. Many are doctors and lawyers and dentists and physical therapists and teachers. They work in the fields of forestry and engineering. THEY are a product of the region as much as the other families in Ms. Sawyer's report. Are they highlighted in a special segment? Of course not.

I am skeptical. I do not believe that this report will be any better than any of the others that came before. Another exploit. Another slap in the face of our people and our region. Another national airing of something that will only perpetuate the stereotypes we have fought so hard against our entire lives. Am I bitter? Probably. Am I angry? You bet I am.

So...Friday night, 10pm eastern, 9pm central. I'll probably be seething. But I can only hope that Ms. Sawyer is professional enough of a journalist to report accurately and fairly. So far, it doesn't look hopeful.

Here's the link to the promo. Try not to cringe when you see it.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar7a9SK7eMQ


Photographs above are courtesy of (in order): www.ky.gov website, flikr.com. Harlan County Mountain range, the Harlan County Courthouse in downtown Harlan, Aerial view of the City of Harlan, Underground miners in Harlan County.

The photos below were taken the last time Michael and I visited home...Harlan. Most are taken from the top of Pine Mountain on Little Shepherd Trail.

My mountains...aren't they beautiful?
Rebel Rock, Little Shepherd Trail
Michael and Max (can you find him) exploring one of the rock formations.
Because we were visiting in winter, we could see views that just aren't possible in the summer when all the leaves are on the trees.
The Mountains at Twilight. Beautiful, rugged, hauntingly enchanting, breathtaking.

So, this former Child of the Mountains will leave it at this for now, and reserve my next comments for Saturday morning after I have had time to calm down.

17 comments:

Sharon said...

Thank you Child of the Mountains for your view on this upcoming 'news' show. When I first saw the preview, I wondered just how slanted it would be.

I love the Smoky Mountains - moved away 21 years ago. Wish I could move back.

The Victorian Parlor said...

Paula,

I applaud you for standing up for your heritage and your people! My mother's family are from the mountains of WV and the same thing is said about them. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith of which I am quite proud. Generally speaking, much of the south is portrayed in this light which is very disturbing. Your pictures are beautiful and your post very passionate.

Thanks for visiting my blog today and leaving a kind comment. I look forward to visiting your blog again:) It appears we have much in common:)

The Victorian Parlor said...

BTW, I just read your comment on the bookclub blogspot-please join us we would love to have you be a part of our group! We are all at different parts of the book-just post on the section designated for the specific chapters:)

Also, I noticed that you were 'Marianne Dashwood' when you took the Jane Austen test-so was I:)

ladybug said...

Beautiful and heartfelt post. And so needed to help balance out what the rest of the country/world is seeing. Isn't it amazing how we accept as reality what we see on the little box in our living rooms? People need to remember that television is more for entertainment than news...if you want to know about something....read. Do a little research, and then go and see for yourself. When ever I travel, I tend to see which direction all the tourists go....and then I walk the other way. I've met some wonderful people by being willing to walk off the 'main street' of what we are supposed to see.

When I think of your beautiful country, I think of the mountains, people who aren't afraid to work hard, the music and the family lines that run deep and very strong. I know that all who live there may not be 'educated' but I've also known some college grads who are not well 'educated' either! ;)

Keep singing your song. It's important for others to hear it.

Karen said...

I've never been to the Appalachians, but in my mind's eye, I picture something beautiful. Your pictures are gorgeous. I think the media distorts things as much as they educate people. I'm always very skeptical anymore when I watch the news shows. I've never cared much for Diane Sawyer, and now even less. You're right, the problems that America faces are in every community and state and city. And you will find good, hardworking people everywhere, too. It just depends on how you look at things. Shame on Diane!

Anonymous said...

Paula,
Thank you for your views on our beautiful part of America.I am proud to be living in Martin County. I choose to live here. It is my home and I pray to finish my days here. Yes we have problems, but so does the rest of America. Appalachia does not have a patent on drugs and proverty. I would think that Diane Sawyer could find more noteworthy news items to report. I do not appreciate her or her ignorance in putting down not only my hometown but yours.
I was blessed to have hard working parents to taught me about work, compassion and love for my country. I do not live in a mansion, but I do live in a nice home and have raised three wonderful hard working children who also live in nice homes. There are many fine homes in Martin County. It is also home to doctors, lawyers, educators, and yes coal miners. I apologize for mine long note, but I too get angry when busybodies with nothing else to do try to destroy others. Maybe she is jealous because God did not bless her to be born in Appalachia.

Sarah said...

I'm with you 100%, Paula. I'm Appalachian to the core. I love the wonderful people, the scenery, the food, the music, the literature. There's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Kimmy said...

Applause goes out to you, Paula!!! So much of the view we get on our government, lifestyles, war, economy, etc. stems from the narrow tube the media seeks to show for sensationalism and viewer ratings. And do we believe it--you betcha--because we trust them to tell us what is going on in the world. But we forget that they are narrow opinions by individuals who are being paid to exploit stories and people for the almighty dollar.

Pearl Maple said...

Found your link on Louise's new Cape blog and really enjoyed visiting your blog for it's positive minded messages.

Love your blog template, is it one of the blogger standard ones? Really lovely to look at.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found your blog, Paula. I live in the Southern Appalachians, in the NC mountains, where there never has been coal mining, and which is now in the heart of tourist country.

However, I just finished watching "Hidden America" and was incensed. Everything you predicted about the program was accurate. It's curious that the term "stereotype" was introduced because that's exactly what they promoted. It was so one-sided and shallow, aimed at evoking sympathy but not understanding.

Interestingly, someone I know here who has written about outsiders' perceptions of Appalachia, told us the other day that a person from ABC called him and asked him that very question about incest! He was so astounded that the questioner was taken aback. She should have been! As someone who lived a good part of her life in the New York area, I think I can rightly ridicule those in the Big Apple who are so out of touch with the rest of the country.

One caveat about your comments, though. You criticize outside environmentalists who condemn underground mining, perhaps justly. But what about mountain-top removal, which is definitely both an environmental hazard and a threat to the way of life of people in the mountains? Perhaps this is a bigger problem in WVa than in Kentucky, though.

Take care and continue to carry on the good fight!

Paula said...

Thanks so much everyone for your feedback, support and thoughts on this posting and on the program that aired tonight. It was tough for me to watch, and what I saw was exactly what I was expecting. And what do I think this has accomplished? Only the same old stereotypes perpetuated - toothless, uneducated, poor, dirty. It was all there...all the classics. And now what? What will change?

One of you asked me about mountain top removal. I think it devastates our beautiful mountains, rapes them of their resources and leaves the land scarred forever. That's why I was clear to point out my support of underground mining and not MTR or strip mining. The "experts" quote all the safety data in support of MTR and stripping, but I wonder who is looking out for the safety of our land? Once a mountain top is removed, it cannot be "put back." It's gone forever. It destroys the natural habitat of wildlife. It leaves an ugly sore that will never heal.

I've heard both sides of MTR issue...the so called benefits, as well as the pitfalls. I will never understand the argument in support of this practice.

Anyone else have thoughts on the practice of mountain top removal?

amjp said...

Paula,

I am the person who asked about mountain-top removal. I agree with everything you said about it. I think it is a sin. It devastates the mountains and ruins the area for the people and wildlife who live there. It only serves the interests of the mine owners. It should be stopped. Strip mining is only marginally better. I have seen places in Alabama where land that has been strip mined has been restored to reasonably good condition. It may be a necessary evil. But I see no virtue at all in MTR.

Sharon said...

Just thought I'd pass this link along
http://www.ilovemountains.org/
about mountain top removal. There are some good videos at this site to educate the public.

Anonymous said...

How does coal mining have no effect on the environment?

Paula said...

Hi, Anonymous (post of 11/10/09),

Thanks so much for reading my blog post. I don't think that I've said that mining doesn't have any effect on the environment. In fact, I pointed out in a follow-up post how I feel about moutain-top removal and strip mining. I'm against those, and the reasons are stated. What I meant to say, and perhaps I should have made it clearer, is that mining does not have to have a negative effect on the area if done properly. There are good mining practices and bad practices. Some companies do a tremedous job in protecting the area and the workers who mine the land. Others not so much. But mining is necessary and important, and coal is a valuable resource. I hope that the industry continues to improve their practices, outlaws mountain top removal and strip mining.

Kim said...

Just read this post again, Paula. Hear, Hear!!!

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Harlan. I love the pictures so tired of hearing how uneducated people are in my hometown. I went to college and now pursuing a higher degree at UNC Charlotte. I am smart have had a good career and looking to make more of me but now as of late I keep thinking of my home. The pictures are beautiful. My grandfather and his father opened a furniture on main street and central. Star Furniture I feel such a heart and soul connection to the town. Thank you.