Down & Out In West Virginia

But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

There is danger in the American Dream, for dreams are the product of sleep and life is lived by the waking. A dream never paid off a mortgage or put food in a child’s mouth; dreams have never kept a steel mill from shutting down or stopped an employer from slashing an employee’s benefits. The American Dream is predicated on the notion that there is a direct relationship between effort and outcome. It tells us that womb we sprang out of and the home we grew up in need not have any bearing on the progress we will make. Our politicians and media outlets shower us with stories of coal miner’s daughters and gangbanger’s sons who defied the odds and willed themselves to success and happiness through sheer grit and determination. But odds are there for a reason and they don’t have a damn thing to do with you. The narrative that has been spoon fed to us since we were yea high is one that showcases our ability to face adversity with the unspoken prerequisite that we must triumphantly overcome that adversity in order for our story to be told. This nation is filled with millions upon millions of people who run themselves ragged ’til they’re nothing more than a mess of bone spurs and heartaches who spent their whole lives working to keep themselves from falling over.

Now, I’m not saying that some folks are just doomed to live a life of hardship because poverty was given to them as a birthright. I believe in self-determination and the power of individual action as much as the next guy, provided that next guy isn’t Joel Osteen or the great-grandson of Horatio Alger. It’s just that where you were born is often more instrumental in shaping the trajectory of your life than anything you did subsequently. For example, state-by-state tabulations of mortality rates and lifespan tell us that someone born in the deep south1 will, on average, live 3 years less someone born in the rest of the US. Such a stat doesn’t suggest that a random child born in Hattiesburg or Mobile will die 3 years before a child born in Seattle or Pittsburgh. All it means is that the chances of that child living beyond a certain age are lessened based on the region of its birth. It’s kind of like when you go to a golf course and they have a set of amateur tees staked out 30 yards in front of the regular ones. If you have two golfers of equal ability play a hole together with one using the amateur tees and the other using regular ones, there’s no sure bet as to who will win. But, if you have those same two golfers play the hole that way 1,000 times, it’s all but inevitable that the one shooting from the amateur tees will win the majority of the time. Our country’s socioeconomic structure operates under similar principles, only it cranks the inequality quotient up to the point that some folks begin life 15 feet from the cup while others are forced to tee off from the parking lot.

If you drive through the Appalachian Mountains on I-70, through the upper crust of West Virginia and southwest corner of Pennsylvania, you’ll notice that a hefty chunk of the media around you, whether its billboards or radio ads or bumper stickers, is really concerned with coal. There are billboards paid for by anti-Obama Super PACs saying that the President is anti-coal and has labeled Appalachia a “No Jobs Zone”, while the programming on the local NPR affiliate is sponsored by some company advocating for the use of clean coal technology, whatever the hell that is, and to an outsider it’s just bizarre. With the global temperature beginning to spike and Greenland turning into a giant slushie, one would think it would be poor form to be openly promoting the use of something so ecologically damaging, but the one doing that kind of thinking would most likely not be a West Virginian.

Welch, VA resident Ed Shepard waiting in the gas station he's owned for 62 years. Photo courtesy of Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

Welch, VA resident Ed Shepard waiting in the gas station he’s owned for 62 years. Photo courtesy of Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

Virtually since the state’s founding 150 years ago, the life blood of West Virginia has centered in and around its abundance of natural resources, primarily its rich deposits of bituminous coal. Of course, it is equally true that the vast majority of West Virginians never reaped the benefits of all this black gold. Outside of American Indian and African-American populations, it is hard to think of a ethnic or regional group that has been more exploited throughout the course of our nation’s history than the residents of Appalachia. Miners in the hills of West Virginia were paid next-to-nothing to risk their lives day-in-and-day-out, hauling anthracite out of mines so shoddily constructed that whenever a man went in, he couldn’t be sure if he was ever getting out again. Especially in the southern part of the state, immigrant and local labor was exploited by businesses that turned mining into the Appalachian version of sharecropping, forcing laborers to lease their tools from the company while living in towns built and run by that same company. Thanks to the callous disregard for human life shown by these early titans of American industry, West Virginia holds the dubious distinction of being the state responsible for the creation of the US Bureau of Mines after an underground explosion at a mine in Minongah, West Virginia took the lives of 362 men.

And yet, for all of its flaws, coal was what bound the state together and, in some areas, what gave them purpose. One such area is McDowell County, a small southerly area situated square in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Before coal mining came to the area, it was about as rural as rural got, with a population of around 3,000 people in 1880 and their recently declared county seat of Welch consisting of only 3 houses and a general store. However, after the coal boom took hold around the turn of the century, McDowell County’s population skyrocketed, increasing to just over 90,000 in 50 years time. By 1950, McDowell County was one of the 3 most populous counties in the state as well as one of the wealthiest. That was before the coal bubble burst and jobs started vanishing almost as quickly as they had appeared. Much of the younger generation saw the writing on the wall and set off elsewhere as soon as they got the chance, determined to avoid the poverty that was becoming as ubiquitous in McDowell County as it was debilitating. When the floor finally fell out from the under the state and coal mining employment was cut in half during the 1980s, McDowell took a disproportionate amount of the damage because they were pretty much a one-trick pony. They did coal and they did it well, and when the coal jobs left there wasn’t anything to replace them with.

Today, there are only about 22,000 people living in McDowell County and most of them are doing well if they can tell you that they’re just getting by. 36 percent of county residents were living below the poverty line, including nearly half of all children under the age of 18.2 Income inequality isn’t really a problem in McDowell County because both their median income ($20,695) and their mean income ($31,854) were well under half of the national average. In fact, there are more people in McDowell County making less than $10,000 a year than there are making over $50,000. Put simply, they are poor and they are hurting. They’ve been poor and hurting for a long time now, but no one ever hears their story because very few people know they’re even there. Lodged deep in the belly of a state that is already the 2nd poorest in the nation, there is only one US highway, US Route 52, running through the hollows and hills of McDowell County, which makes it almost as inaccessible as it is impoverished.

There is very little chance I would have ever heard of McDowell County if it weren’t for a remarkable documentary film project called Hollow, which I serendipitously stumbled upon this past week. The project, directed and produced by documentarian Elaine McMillion, is an interactive media experience that looks at McDowell County, West Virginia through the prism of the people that live there. 20 of the 50 documentary vignettes that make up the Hollow project will be filmed by residents of McDowell County in an effort to let the people whose stories are being told guide the narrative that is ultimately the product of their experience. Now as anyone who has been following Virally Suppressed since we started last Spring knows from my repeated gushing over Lisa Biagiotti’s phenomenal documentary deepsouth, I try to spread the gospel of projects that I think are innovative, captivating and relevant to the challenges of the world we live in. I will try to do the same thing for Hollow, which should have an interactive web release in May of this year. Until then, here is the trailer for a film project that I hope will be as powerful as it is unique:


1The deep south is defined as: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Categories: Media, Social Justice

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