Tag Archive: West Virginia


Is this you? (Photo of our Kentucky cousins by Shelby Lee Adams, copped without permission from the Internet.)

“We are going to a new world… and no doubt it is there that everything is for the best; for it must be admitted that one might lament a little over the physical and moral happenings of our own world.”
– Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 10,  Written in 1759

It’s fun to dream of a Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia where bright, optimistic people create opportunities for themselves, and aren’t reliant on somebody else—government, for the most part—to take the lead in every aspect of their lives.

West Virginia, in central Appalachia, is often described as the ultimate Appalachian state. It’s the only state that is entirely within the region the federal Appalachian Regional Commission defines as Appalachia. The word Appalachia has been stigmatized, made synonymous with poverty and ignorance, and West Virginia, as far as many observers are concerned, epitomizes Appalachia. If you don’t believe that, simply Google the word and see what you come up with.

Wikipedia defines Appalachia as a cultural region, mentioning that popular media continue to perpetuate the image of Appalachia as a culturally backward region, and that poverty continues to blight our prospects. The list of resources that pops up on the first page of Google includes Images of Appalachia, four thumbnail photos of toothless old men (all white, by the way), hound dogs, and shacks surrounded by debris.  ‘No, no,’ we Appalachians who think of ourselves as middle-class, protest. ‘That’s not an accurate picture of who we are,’ and we hasten to show images of gleaming, mirrored towers of commerce in the state capitol of Charleston.  Some real estate companies try their darndest to depict a West Virginia that looks like Everywhere Else, USA.  The photos in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, a state publication, show lovely locales in the state.  ‘That,” say we indignant West Virginians, ‘is more like it.’

Or is this you? (Photo of happy diners somewhere in the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia by unknown photographer, shamelessly copped from Google Images of Charleston, WV.)

But recently it has come, irrefutably, to my attention that activities in the gleaming towers of commerce in Charleston are directly related to the stereotypical images of poverty that is the Appalachian brand throughout the world.  And the activities in the gleaming towers are inextricably connected to what transpires under the ornate gold-plated dome of West Virginia’s capitol building. 

Lately I have hesitated to write a report from the Transcendent New Nation, as I am bogged down by the realities in the Current Nation of Appalachia. One way of dealing with reality is to ignore it.  Another is to deny it, and yet another is to accept it and build a life around what is. The latter, it seems, is the tactic most often employed by West Virginians and others in the central Appalachian region.  

That tactic no doubt contributes to fatalism, the infamous characteristic most often ascribed to us as a people, and the characteristic that leaves us at the merciless disposal of tyrants.

My usual Panglossian optimism has been severely challenged lately, as I share office space with a new organization called WVGreenWorks.com.  Every day, as I observe the executive director of WVGreenWorks endeavoring to bring opportunities to West Virginia that are commonplace in other areas—opportunities such as fast, convenient access to excellent training in weatherization and energy efficiency—I marvel at systems entrenched here that are designed to firmly anchor West Virginia at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and to crush any fledgling opportunity. 

The images of West Virginia that we so often protest are in fact only the tip of an iceberg of inertia and ineptitude compounded by avarice. That’s right, folks.  Supposedly well educated people in well paid positions work every day to see that West Virginia doesn’t budge an inch from the status quo. Thirteen thousand nonprofit organizations are out there supposedly striving to improve the lot of West Virginians—three thousand more than in Haiti. Yet things remain very much the same here in Wild & Wonderful, as an editorialist in the Daily Mail also observes, quoting Henry Harmon, president and CEO of Triana Energy, as saying, “It seems we ask the same questions decade after decade.”

Perhaps the truth is that life ain’t all that bad for the folks in power, and the rest of the populace has learned to cope with their reality.  “We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day,” to half-quote Randy Newman.

I’ve colored a lot of the front page of today’s Charleston Daily Mail bright yellow, highlighting passages that strike me as ironic, outrageous, shameful, or all of the above. 

For example: 

New life for old schools not easyThe East End’s Roosevelt Neighborhood Center, housed in the former Roosevelt Junior High that closed in 2000, has gas and electricity bills that often top $8,000 a month in the winter.

Note that millions of dollars have come to the State of West Virginia earmarked to train people in weatherization jobs, and there are no training programs to show for it. 

Or how about Disability numbers on rise—that entire item is neon yellow with highlighter, but this passage stands out:  Another 14,835 West Virginians were listed as dependent spouses or children of those (91,273 persons) on disability, bringing total beneficiaries to 106,108.  More than five per cent of our state’s population is considered disabled.  State Senator Dan Foster says our high ranking can be attributed to poor health habits.

Note that, during the 2009 legislative session, a group of chortling state legislators were shown on the evening TV news sucking down biscuits and donuts as they defeated a bill designed to improve their constituents’ health.

Today’s Charleston Gazette didn’t provoke as much highlighting, except for Ken Ward’s story on a WVU study linking C8 with unhealthy levels of cholesterol in children in the Parkersburg region of the Ohio Valley, and the oddly comforting quote on the editorial page from former U. S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “If a person goes to a country and finds the newspapers filled with nothing but good news, there are good men in jail.”

And so the Transcendent New Nation disappears once again albeit temporarily, obscured by current issues in the Land as We Know It. 

Check back tomorrow for thoughts on “If you’re smart and you ain’t here, why you should be.”

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See how responsible I am?

Sorry I’ve been absent so long.  I never lack for subjects to write about; the big problem is time.  It just occurred to me that time management is more likely the issue, but this week, it’s definitely a lack of hours in the day exacerbated by a lack of sleep.

I have been debating all day:  should I write, or should I seize the moment of opportunity to nap before the next onslaught of fun? 

The reality of the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia first occurred to me one evening in the late 1990s when I was standing on the porch of Halliehurst, a magnificent remnant of the Gilded Age that stands on the campus of Davis & Elkins College, in Elkins, West Virginia.  The final week of five devoted each summer to traditional music, dance and craft was in progress then, and a more congenial, fun-loving, talented bunch of folks I had never encountered.   Augusta, short for Augusta Heritage Workshops, takes its name from the proposed 14th American colony that never was.  The story goes that George Washington was planning to decamp to this region if the Revolutionary War had not gone his way.  A substantial number of Washingtonians and their neighbors, along with others from a wide variety of places around the globe, escape regularly to Augusta now.

I’ll be back on the porch of Hallihurst this evening at some point, where multiple music jams will be occurring simultaneously, and singers will be forming in ad hoc groups to share harmonies.  If you’ve never sung harmony and have no frame of reference for understanding the total body experience that harmony singing produces, think of it as a full body buzz that’s a combination of massage and…well, let’s just say that it’s an intense physical as well as aural pleasure. 

So I’m at Augusta once again for a week that is packed full of singing and music and dancing and laughing.  I’ll post photos, and maybe even some video if I can get it together. 

It’s 7:18 p.m., and I’m on my way to a “student” show, where the folks who have paid to come here for a week to hang out with master musicians and dancers will strut their stuff.   Many of the students are accomplished musicians and dancers who have come to expand their repertoire.  At 10:30 the grand do wop begins in the Ice House.  More about that later, too.

My nap time is gone, but I feel better now that I’ve checked in with you.  Stay tuned for more reports from Ground Zero of the Transcendent New Nation.

Loose Him and Let Him Go

An AP photo taken during Byrd's funeral, yesterday.I’m surprised at myself, that Senator Robert C. Byrd’s death has made such an impact on me. Usually I take a fairly cynical view of government, the people who choose it as a career and the sycophants who toady up to them. I’ve hardly been Byrd’s adoring fan, but a recent project allowed me to get a glimpse beyond the marble cage of national politics to where the real man lived. 

I felt compelled to make the six-hour trip to Washington DC for Byrd’s funeral. I kicked the idea around, knew it was crazy to go, that I had my own business to attend to. Then on Monday at 2 p.m., I decided on the spur of the moment that I must.  My husband and I jumped in the car and off to DC we went. 

I was glad we got there early.  At about 8:45 on Tuesday morning, we were among the first in what would become a long double and triple line of friends, family, acquaintances, and maybe some like me, who were fascinated by this moment in American history. The line wrapped around the outside of the Memorial Baptist Church on Glebe Road in Arlington.  We stood there until 10:15 in temperatures that were already approaching 1000 until we were allowed inside the church, which was large, bright and airy, but not showy.  Sharp-eyed ushers knew we were strangers—nobodies?—and deftly ushered us into the balcony, which was fine with us.

The front rows on the left section of the main sanctuary filled up with dignitaries.  I recognized Senator John D. Rockefeller and his wife Sharon, Governor Joe Manchin, Congressmen Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, and I’m told that some of the Kennedy family was there.  In the center front was Byrd’s family, which looked like a small gathering of the United Nations. Byrd’s daughter married Mohammed Fatemi, a man of Iranian descent, and a grandchild married an Asian. 

The rest of the congregation included a substantial number of African-Americans. In the balcony with us was a black man sporting the most impressive set of coiled dreadlocks I have ever seen. From my balcony perch, I watched as an older white woman made her way toward the family, her long gray hair piled on top of her head in the fashion of Pentecostal Holiness women in rural Appalachia.

The first person in Byrd’s family to speak was his niece, a daughter of one of Byrd’s eight brothers left behind in North Carolina when he was adopted as an infant by his mother’s sister and brought to West Virginia. Jassowyn “Jackie” Sale Hurd had never heard of Byrd until she was 18, when her mother enlisted the senator’s help in locating Sale’s father. “He was the only one of the brothers who ever showed an interest in me,” Jackie Sale said.  In his honor, she sang an acappella version of an old hymn, “On the Wings of Dove,’ in a quavering voice, saying Byrd was like a dove from God to her.

I went to the funeral because I figured I would learn about a side of Byrd that wouldn’t be spoken of anywhere else, and I was right.  The family told stories about their Papa, a man who, after Erma’s death in 2006, cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. 

Aside from his now-retired pastor, the hospice chaplain, and Senate chaplain, his grandchildren were the main speakers about Byrd the man.  Erik Fatemi spoke of his Papa Byrd quizzing him about American history and civics beginning when he was five. Correct answers were rewarded with a quarter coin. “I learned at an early age the awesome power of appropriations,” he said.  Byrd’s daughter,  Marjorie Byrd Moore, read a poem Byrd wrote extolling the virtues of his girlfriend, Erma James, when he was 15. 

At the funeral, I learned that Byrd and Erma were baptized in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church, in Raleigh County, West Virginia. I learned that one of Byrd’s favorite stories from the Bible was about Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus.  Byrd liked the story so much that he chose a portion of a verse from it to be inscribed on his head stone:

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.” (JOHN 11:44).