My father, who was from eastern Kentucky, headed with millions of other Appalachian people for the “promised land” after the great depression. The promised land in that day consisted of cities such as Dayton, Detroit, Gary, and Cincinnati, out of which rose great factories that employed thousands on giant “campuses.” They thrived through the vigor of this transplanted workforce – uneducated like my father but full of gumption, tenacity and work ethic.
My father tells of begging for a job: when turned down by Personnel, he went running, not walking, to see the foreman who put him “right to work that night.” It was in those factories that my dad and other “immigrants” found good middle-class pay…if little in the way of inspiring work. But, he and the others were not picky, as necessity was the mother of this invention.
Today the world is different. Many of the workers who left for jobs in other cities are returning home to Appalachia – and not entirely by choice. Many of them are being laid off from the auto factories with little else to turn to but family and ties to “place”.
This creates a new challenge to areas like Appalachia and my region, eastern Kentucky. These are no longer inevitable geographies of distress; certainly they are no more challenged that those of the former dreamscapes up north around the Great Lakes.
The media will be slow to see this change. Recently CNN focused on the poorest of the poor in Clay County, Kentucky in ways that fit the media stereotype as a home to the ignorant, the racist and the sexist. They even quoted a Clay County woman who observed that “Hillary’s place was in the home.”
The media is not the only group stuck on the old images. From Kennedy’s famous tour to LBJ’s announcement of the War on Poverty in 1964 from a front porch in Inez, Kentucky to John McCain’s visit during the primary, the region has proven to be an enigma to presidents and policy makers who abhorred the intractable poverty they saw there. It just wasn’t right that an America of plenty would have that “other” “third” world so resistant to the policies and dollars designed to provide transformation.
In the past, policies were implemented that alternately featured the fundamental nature of the people – not always flattering – to absentee ownership and the exploitation of its rich minerals by outside interests. Or they reflected radical policies and programs that did not take into account the unusual ties to local culture and the strong sense of place and community – attributes that are not often in line with of the culture of consumerism and national mega-corporate prominence.
Have we reached a turning point where the peeling away of the onion reveals not a past assessment of red America as epitomized by sound bite depictions but one of lessons that can be learned? We were surprised if not alarmed by a Greenspan who admitted that he too was caught off guard by the crash of 2008. We were lulled into believing that Harvard and Yale graduates really do know more and are smarter than the rest of us. We were lulled into believing that just one more plastic Santa or TV set made in China was going to fill the void in our busy lives.
Have we turned a corner? My father tells of his father making mandolins to supplement his small income as a dirt farmer. He also tells of crops failing and of meager, if existent, Christmas presents. But each spring this man with ties to the land and place reminds me to “plant my corn when tree buds are the size of squirrel ears.” Now I don’t know the first thing about planting corn or even what a squirrel ear looks like. But as we move through the current crisis and a reassessment of the American Dream, I hear echoes of a desire here not to embrace modernity but to seek a return of front porches; local foods and farms; a desire for something beyond the cold flickering computer screen in the middle of the night; and an understanding that we may have, if not more information, perhaps more wisdom than those who hold themselves out as experts.
All this will be critical as we consider people returning from the Great Lakes and the big cities back to Appalachia. Rather than seeing them as new victims, or unreconstructed red staters, the Obama Administration needs to regard these people as assets for renewing a part of the country that, always close to last, can begin to fulfill its own potential on its own terms.
Sylvia L. Lovely is the Executive Director/CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities and the founder and president of the NewCities Institute. She currently serves as chair of the Morehead State University Board of Regents. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her blog at sylvia.newcities.org.