Being Appalachian

Read Catte and Keep Your Elegies

I was looking around White Whale a couple of weeks back and spotted this book. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia jumped out at me for several reasons but I’m not gonna BS y’all, this cover is a true ambassador for the book. I looked at the red, black and almost green composition and immediately wanted to know what the woman had to say. I opened it, read a line on page 8: “It’s a strange experience to be grilled about the social decline of ‘your people’ less than five hundred yards from a refinery that gives poor African-Americans cancer, but that is what happened to us.” I knew I could count on this book to let me yell out my yesses and exactlies. Skipping the church metaphors, I’ll say that this book reminded me that the choir needs practice. I learned things I wish I had known when I moved here in 1999.

I have reached the point where Appalachia is home. I have now lived in the Pittsburgh area longer than anywhere else. But I didn’t need this book to know about geographic marginalization and unwarranted snobbery. I’m from New Jersey. I grew up in Newark where my mom moved around a bunch to look for the best we could have. When it was time for me to go to high school, she made a plan that included renting out a home she owned in Vailsburg so that she could pay rent for a side door walk up condo in Montclair. Arguably one of the best school districts in the country, I know she executed that plan because she believed in my academic talent. Telling people that I’m from New Jersey comes with a mixture of bootstrap respect and po child pity that mimics what Catte describes. I once got this reaction from someone while we stood in a library built by Andrew Carnegie in Braddock for community members who worked and lived in the shadow of the behemoth Edgar Thomson steel works. The library is dope. That plant sitting like a dragon on the banks of the Monongahela was like nothing I had ever seen growing up. It was…yes a strange experience.

Catte begins by addressing a notion I have long wanted to grapple with while living in the area. Why do people do things (like vote for folk) against their own self interests. The first question she has us consider is ummm do they? Really? The numbers of voter turnout for the region are not as telling as the images of Trump signs everywhere would make it seem. I’m not denying the stronghold in PA. I was one of those people in 2016 telling friends that I was pretty sure he’d carry PA. I also told them I wasn’t sure Scranton Joe could pull the state with him in 2020. Nah I’m not going to entertain voter fraud ideas in this piece because we’d have to get into the 2 party system, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and lying that has gone on since the inception of this here democracy soooo. But Catte’s course correction includes things like corporate bribing, law threatening, pressure and narrative spinning. What’s more important is that she straight up acknowledges that the impression of Appalachians as dumb and easily manipulated is inaccurate.

With a tour-de-force (dramatic I know but I always wanted to write that somewhere) roll call of Appalachian freedom fighters and their rich stories of not only fighting against the destruction of our communities here, Catte is here to remind her readers that the trope of needed elegies and lack of progress is not only misguided but nefarious. The Trump country and Hillbilly Elegy genres not only reify stereotypes of the region but erase legacies of resistance, art, representation and beauty that have existed here for centuries. It also serves to misdirect in favor of wealthy landowners and capitalist systems that continue to pillage resources throughout the mountains’ ranges while they profit outside the bounds of the region. Gas and oil, coal, and the prison industrial complex are all exposed in Catte’s masterpiece. She also reminds us that Appalachians have connected with and supported movements all over the country: see Standing Rock solidarity. The most important thing I took away from this book is that we don’t have to be getting it so wrong. I am hoping Black Book Lady can make its own contribution to that notion. I’ll start with the rich trove of resources Catte includes as an addendum to her text. And I’ll do what I need to survive and thrive because *that* is the testimony of being Appalachian. Regardless of whether we leave or stay, being Appalachian is being a student of self-determination. And for that there is no burial at all, only celebration.