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Essay: Appalachia as 4th World PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Irwin  


Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say “no” and that’s environmental injustice.

-Dr. Robert Bullard

My grandmother once told me of an idea. She said that some felt that the rest of the country viewed the Appalachians as a “fourth world”. By this, she explained, they meant that practices which would not be acceptable for our country to do to a third world country, were considered acceptable in Appalachia. Appalachia is America’s fourth world.

Later this idea haunted me after I got back from the Peace Corp in Africa. My job was in natural resources management (NRM) and I took part in significant erosion control programs in Guinea in West Africa. Millions of American tax dollars, World Bank dollars, and USAID dollars are spent every year to try to protect watersheds, stream health and forest health in other countries in the “third world”. While I was in one of those programs I helped plant thousands of trees, build erosion control terraces and fought bush fires while there. I also saw the clear line where a field would end and the rain would begin with the forests. I saw millions being spent to preserve the watersheds and forest of Africa—to keep the streams clear of sediment, to preserve the soil and reforest the land.

After this I lived in Northern California where I did a tour in Americorp doing Chinook salmon habitat restoration. Protection of the streams and riparian zones were considered vital in preservation of habitat and the California countryside. Financed by tax dollars I helped plant weeping willow to contain stream banks, cruised timber sales to check culverts to make sure they were working, and walked 4 miles of river a day to make sure stream health was being maximized. I saw multiple agencies spend millions trying to protect California’s streams and forest against sedimentation of streams, poor logging practices, sloppy mining and destructive industries.

It was after these experiences that I came home to Tennessee and I witnessed clear cuts in the Appalachian forest. The US Forest Service is spending tax dollars to assist the logging and destruction of those forests. I see TDOT blasting roads through the country through highland watersheds, turning streams to chocolate and causing dust storms from the resulting dirt. I see that the Tennessee River I played in as a child is the most heavy metal contaminated river in the world due to all the mercury and witches brew (pardon witches) from Oak Ridge, the heart of the tax dollar financed American nuclear weapons productions complex. I see chip mills eating up miles of Appalachian forest at a time. I see the Holstein River is basically an industrial drainage ditch with over 200 companies having discharge permits including the Holstein munitions facility. I come back to my home town in Knoxville and gasp for air the pollution is so bad. Blood red moons rise above a toxic shimmering haze which makes it hazardous to breath somedays. 

All of this convinced me, Appalachia really is the forth world. The rest of the nation does things to our land and people in direct opposition of what our agencies tell people to do overseas. The practices I was paid to combat in Africa and California others are paid to do in Tennessee and Appalachia in general. My grandmother was right, Appalachia really is Americas 4th world.

Land is tied into the common stereotypes of our region in the mass media. Our region being portrayed negatively makes it easier to exploit us. I believe that this portrayal is a tool enabling a few to extract our resources and abuse our rivers, streams and people at the expense of the many for the few. 

Redneck, Hill Billy, inbred, racist, over-all wearing, ignorant, intolerant, violent, dumb, slow, slovenly, speakers of fractured english, illiterate, feuding, vicious, snake handling, speaking in tongues, in deep poverty and naive. What region am I writing of?
What region in America am I describing? You know already, why do you know? It’s a completely negative and crippling image of a region. Jed on the Clampets found oil on his land shooting at a possum and the rich west coast banker and out of state oil corporations made him rich! The truth is, Jed didn’t get a dime, they flashed a mineral deed at him and had the states sheriffs come lock him off his own land. His children did have to leave the Appalachian Mountains to find work, that much is true. This is how the mass media portrays us. These are the words that are used by the media and public in cartoons, movies, comics, books, television and radio. Negative stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes of the Appalachian Mountains and her people. The source of these images is obvious, the corporate owned mass media. Here are some of those images:

* The hillbilly lifestyle of the Ozarks was parodied in the comic strip Li’l Abner, which inspired a Broadway musical and movie by the same name.

* Another comic strip, Snuffy Smith offers a less gentle hillbilly family parody, featuring a lazy father, a hard-working church-attending mother, and a simple son “Jughaid” who wears a pan for a hat.

* Ma and Pa Kettle were very popular characters in comedic movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

* In the 1960s American sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, the Clampett family were supposed to have come from the hills near a fictionalized hamlet in Arkansas known as Bugtussle. While Granny was from “across the river” in Tennessee, Jed and his family were from Arkansas as noted to the references of Tulsa and Joplin being close by.

* Festus, a prominent character on the TV series Gunsmoke, belonged to a hillbilly clan.

* An episode of The Dukes of Hazzard saw Bo and Luke rescuing Daisy from being forced to marry into a family of sociopathic hillbillies.

* A recurring character on The Simpsons, Cletus Spuckler (aka the “Slack-Jawed Yokel”) and his family are stereotypical hillbillies.

* The 1960s American sitcom The Andy Griffith Show has two contrasting stereotypes of recurring hillbilly characters: The ignorant but kindly, impoverished but generous Darling family, portrayed by bluegrass band The Dillards and Denver Pyle; and the belligerent, paranoid, frankly violent buffoon, Ernest T. Bass, portrayed by Howard Morris.

* In 1970, the author James Dickey published the novel Deliverance, a story about four men going for a canoe-trip on a river in the mountains of Georgia. They encounter several sociopathic hillbillies and are subsequently attacked, captured, tortured, and raped by them. (Based on a real canoe trip in which he was actually helped by friendly mountaineers.)

* On Nickelodeon’s The Amanda Show, starring Amanda Bynes, a recurring skit titled “Hillbilly Moment” would be featured. Amanda Bynes and Drake Bell would appear as stereotypical hillbillies and behave accordingly.

* A popular television comedy-variety show “Hee Haw” starred several well-known country singers and regularly lampooned the stereotypical hillbilly lifestyle.

* In the popular late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live, hillbillies are portrayed in the skit Appalachian Emergency Room, with injuries only associable with the common media representation of hillbillies.

* The Arkansas Chuggabug, driven by Luke & Blubber Bear - hillbillies in a wooden buggy driven by a coal-fired range in Wacky Races is an American animated television series from Hanna-Barbera Productions.

* In the 2006 Disney/Pixar hit film, Cars and the video game of the same name , there is hillbilly tow-truck driver named Mater.

* In the Nickelodeon animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, the episode “The Swamp” features a tribe of swamp-dwelling waterbenders which speak and behave like stereotypical hillbillies.

Ask yourself, who profits from these images of Appalachia? The same people who profit from the physical destruction of Appalachia. Answer this question and you have your perpetrator. It’s the strip mine owners, the coal plant owners, the nuclear power industry, the nuclear weapons industry—simply put, those who pollute and destroy our land and profit from that destruction the most. We are portrayed as stupid, ignorant, inbred in order to make it acceptable to turn streams bright orange and to blow up entire mountains and destroy highland watersheds forever. We are naive so of course companies and at times the federal government have seized whole Appalachia towns. We don’t know how to take care of our land, mountains, coal, watersheds and resources, of course its great for the corporate carpetbagging out of state corporations to come and exploit us.

One, of several examples, of this destruction of Appalachia for the benefit of the rest of the nation is the Kanawha valley in West Virginia. The Kanawha valley in West Virginia is the chemical production center for Union Carbide, DuPont, FMC and other chemical corporations. A local high school there is called “Nitro” high school. The industry located in that valley to contain their waste. The Appalachians are Americas toxic dumping ground.

Another example is Oak Ridge Tennessee—the heart of the American nuclear weapons production complex is located there. It used to be the tiny Appalachia farming community called “Wheat” before the government seized the town and made it into a nuclear weapons production complex. Many people only had two weeks to evaluate their farms, they were told the checks for their loss were waiting for them at the Knoxville post office. Some of the people who lost their land had already been evicted from their land by TVA (Tennessee Valley Awfulthority) so they could flood their land and towns from dams—twice turned into refugees over federal projects.

During the manufacture of nuclear weapons over 1?2 the world’s mercury was used in that complex. Much of this mercury went down a stream into the Clinch River which flows into the Tennessee. As a result the Tennessee River has the highest heavy metal concentrations of any river on earth. Plus nearby Watts Bar Lake has detectable amounts of plutonium in the sediment. More examples of deadly corporations and the destruction includes strip mining, massive clear cutting, chip mills and in general the most destructive and poisonous industries in America.

TVA also means the Appalachians play host to the most ambitious nuclear power program in the nation—which means toxic barrels of toxic nuclear waste and cutting edge 1970’s nuclear plants throughout our region. Appalachia is Americas forth world.

Real Appalachian history is largely ignored by the mass media, and that it may be a clue as to greatest tool we have to fight this mischaracterization of a people and region. The Appalachians have a long and proud history of resistance to power, arts, craft, political thought, discourse and music. The reality is that the people of Appalachia have contributed to the cultural and economic life of America to a degree few other regions can match.

One of the uniform images of the Appalachians is of the confederate flag and the mishistorical idea that somehow the Appalachian people were pro-slavery and racist to this day. This completely flies against the history of the region. In East Tennessee the majority voted against leaving the union. The mountains of Appalachia never lent itself to the plantation system of the south.

Furthermore, the first two papers geared just for the Abolishment of slavery were in East Tennessee, one was the Emancipator. Published by Elihu Embree at Jonesborough in 1820, the Emancipator was the first newspaper in the United States solely devoted to the abolition of slavery. Embree had previously published a weekly newspaper, the Manumission Intelligencer, in 1819, and it was followed by the Emancipator from April to October 1820. According to Embree, the purpose of the Emancipator was “to advocate the abolition of slavery and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject.”

The heart of the Underground Railroad was through the Appalachian Mountains, we have entire trails named after Harriet Tubman in East Tennessee. One route to safety and freedom on the Underground Railroad passed primarily through the ridge and valley section of East Tennessee. On this route, there were many hiding places, and while it was not as difficult to traverse as the mountains themselves, the route was still treacherous when traveling by foot and usually in the dark of night.

In Blount and Loudon Counties, around the Little Tennessee River, the route brought slaves from the deep south states of Alabama and Georgia, as well as Tennessee. After crossing Tennessee, they went through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky, on into Ohio and ultimately into the province of Ontario, Canada. The caves that appear frequently along the waterways often served as hiding places. While many abolitionists lived in East Tennessee, it was the Society of Friends, or Quakers, that apparently were the most active in organizers and conductors of the Underground Railroad.

America is a racist society, the images of race are used as effectively to denigrate and dehumanize African Americans as effectively as they are used to do the same to the Appalachian region, and perhaps for similar underlying reasons-exploitation. There is no region in America that has magically escaped generations of racist images and programming—but portraying the Appalachians and her people of somehow being extra racist is historically inaccurate.

In Appalachia Coal miners revolted against horrendous conditions in Caryville Tennessee and fought off federal troops when slave conditions were forced on them. When convicts were brought in by the state to break the strike the strikers seized the convicts and freed many of them. There is an entire history of underground miners organizing and struggling to improve their conditions which the public high school and media completely ignores.

Miners in the Appalachians were some of the first to strike and demand humane living conditions. Direct action and organizing models from the grassroots union organizing in the Appalachia’s continue to influence the tactics used by other grassroots movements in America today. Appalachia has a long rich extended and deep history of resistance to arbitrary power and injustice.

When we embrace the true history of the Appalachians and refuse to be treated as a forth world all of us will benefit. Being a colony rarely works out for that colony. Understanding this cycle is the first step towards combating it. Our land demands we defend it and our history has shown that we will. By learning about our true history we can best combat the negative stereotypes and destruction which threatens our future.

Our greatest tool in resisting and fighting back against this imaging is the truth. Real history. The people of the Appalachia Mountains have a strong oral history tradition. To capture some of this history United Mountain Defense is starting an oral history project, to collect this history. Education about the real history of these mountains is the first step to overcoming lies with truth. 

You can discover the rich history of Appalachia yourself. Ask the people around you for their stories of the region and land in which we live. You can google “Appalachia stereotypes” and you will get a ton of research material. The American missionary movement played a big roll in creating Appalachian stereotypes for their fundraising pleas which are not even touched in this article. It’s a fascinating study in propaganda.


Pointing out a misrepresentation of a region benefiting a few corporations is not the same as saying the Appalachian people are any better than other regions. To argue that somehow the people who live in the Appalachians are in anyway anything other than just people is to just perpetuate more myths for the benefit of a few. But reality is that the mass media does not present the public with a balanced real image of what people in the Appalachians are really like.

We must combat this relegation of Appalachia to a forth world status. As long as the images and stereotypes are allowed to run unchecked corporations and government agencies will continue to destroy our watersheds, mountains and forest. We will be treated as a colony as long as we act as one. The Appalachian Mountains are the most diverse and lovely on Earth. By embracing our true history we will be better equipped to fight for a better future.

(edited) 

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