The Appalachian Hermeneutic: Decolonizing Appalachia

For this week’s venture into exploring the Appalachian Hermeneutic, I want to point you to a post on post-colonial theory and how it might apply to Appalachia.  I am not much for using post-colonial theory to interpret the bible, or indeed any theory which is foreign to the text itself, but I think a post-colonialist look at the changing nature of life in Appalachia, especially the coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia and the rust belt of southwestern Pennsylvania, may be useful.

….Scholars and activists working on issues of social justice in Appalachia have long used the image of “colonialism” to describe their regional experience. In what should be a familiar pattern to Postcolonial Theology Network readers, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Appalachian scholars began to challenge views of the region that relied on “culture of poverty”4 and “development”5 assumptions in favor of revisionist narratives of regional history viewed through Marxist and postmodern lenses.6 Such scholarly and activist work showed how images of the region circulated in literature, popular culture, narratives of national history, and the missionary work of Christian churches have functioned socially and politically to render an entire people inferior and thus worthy of exploitation and “civilizing” projects…..

Read the rest here:

Decolonizing Appalachia: Postcolonial Theology in a U.S. American Region.

In general, I agree with Michael, the post’s author, in that Appalachia is a colony, especially those areas of industrial importance. I think he misses a few things, such as the vital role that coal mining plays, not only in the economy, but in the culture of many Appalachians. Further, he misses the mark that the unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America and the United Steel Workers of America have played in breaking the stranglehold. As I shared with Rodney, before one can begin to speak about post-colonialist theory, one has to break the colonization of the region. This is not likely to be done by theory and hermeneutic alone, but by, often times, severe action. It will not be enough to fight against the colonizers, but against the native population in their apathetic mindset. So often do we run into the mentality that ‘my grandfather did it this way’ that it is difficult to get people to understand just what that does to the community around them. It is not tradition which they preserve as much as it is change and uncertainty that they abhor.

I have worked with CORA (mentioned in the article) and it is not simply ‘gone’ but became useless through a variety of decisions detrimental to the cohesiveness of the organization. I will not go into that, but I was involved in the perimeter as I watched CORA fall into balkanization and confederation. CORA became a liberal strong hold, often times looking more like a group from Berkley than Appalachia. Itself became a part of the colonizing force. When it became defunct, a great voice was finally lost for the people of West Virginia, it was said, but in reality, that voice had turned only into embittered bickering. Now, various smaller groups are left with taking up the charge of social justice in a landscape which is increasingly becoming hostile to the concept.

In Kentwood, Louisiana, there is an old plantation home which has survived the forces of human progress and nature. If you can get a professor from Southeastern Louisiana University to take you on a tour, he will show you the old homestead and more than that, if you or your family are from the area, he can give you a general family history. Once at the site, he will tell you that when the Yankees marched through the Florida parishes of Louisiana, ‘freeing’ the enslaved, most of the former slaves stayed within a very close vicinity of the old plantation home. Some will tell you that this happened because the former slaves dearly loved their former owners, but in reality, it was because it was all that they new. ‘Freedom’ didn’t change the mentality of enslaved; they simply became enslaved in apathy and fear. They didn’t want to go anywhere else, for the most part, because they didn’t think they could survive, and in those harsh years, it was not about thriving, but about survival. So, the former slaves stayed and built communities around those old plantation homes. The mentality stayed as well – the mentality that this was the best they could ever know. Their grandfathers and grandmothers had worked the land and they would too, and so would their grandchildren.

The same thing is said for former company towns. Many Americans do not realize that company towns, and company script, remained until the late 70’s, at least in the coal fields. The capitalists who controlled the town minted their own money, script, set their own prices, established their own government, and generally ran rough-shod over the workers and their families who were essentially owned by the company. It was the UMWA which helped to break this strangle hold, not the churches and great theologians of the area. Yes, the UMWA would team up with local church leaders – which eventually would spawn the group, Jobs with Justice, which no doubt will go the way of CORA – during their organizing efforts and strikes. (Watch Harlan County, USA). But, in the absence of these company towns you still find the company mentality. Company towns, like plantations before them, didn’t simply cease to exist. One would be surprised who still owns the land where these company towns were, and where people today live in homes often purchased at rock-bottom prices. More often than not, people who live ‘up the hollers’ live in homes which they own, but sit on land owned by the coal company. These homes are immovable and exist, whether you own it or not, at the whim of the company.

Post-colonial theory may be applied to Appalachia, but for now, it is still a colony. The colony is not always from without, but in many ways, from within. Those theorists and activists who come to Appalachia to fight injustice do so at their own peril if they don’t first seek to understand Appalachians. They can view Appalachians as backwards, downtrodden, and yearning for freedom if they want, but they would often times be wrong. They can view the coal industry as an all evil, modern-day, slave-owner, but they would be wrong. These activists can sit in judgment and view the Appalachians as poor people, under the yoke of Richmond, Pittsburgh, and points west, but unless they settle in for a while and work side by side with the same people that they came to save, they will never understand. There is danger there as well, in settling down with Appalachians, living and working with them. The danger is, is that sooner or later, you will find yourself yearning to be one yourself.

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2 Replies to “The Appalachian Hermeneutic: Decolonizing Appalachia”

  1. But in doing so, they must address it from the native population's view point, and not the normal stances. The EPA is not well liked, because it is yet another outside factor trying to take away jobs.

    If the environment is to be addressed, it must be addressed in such a way as to secure jobs and (economic) independence.

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