Black folks have a gift for complicating the stories that Americans like to tell about themselves. Our presence, for instance, makes it hard to accept the notion that the United States was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It’s a comforting myth and a useful one as well. Abraham Lincoln put it to good use when he spoke those words at Gettysburg, rallying the Union in a time of crisis. But, as history, this foundational myth was undermined by the centrality of slavery in the economic and political life of the new nation.
Our presence complicates other American stories, like the ones that get told about Appalachia. Historian Ronald Eller has pointed out that the region has long been seen as the “other America,” defining what the nation as a whole is not. According to this myth, America is prosperous, while Appalachia is poor. America is modern and progressive, while Appalachia is mired in the past. America is racially and ethnically diverse, while Appalachia is uniformly White, a land of hillbillies and moonshine.
Myths about Appalachia linger in the national subconsciousness and rise to the surface when politicians and pundits find them to be particularly useful. In the 1960s, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson made Appalachian poverty the face of his War on Poverty, believing that voters would be more willing to support programs that seemed to be aimed at poor White people than poor African Americans.
Recently, myths about Appalachia have been recruited to explain the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. As historian Elizabeth Catte points out in her important new book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, the myths of poverty, backwardness, and homogeneous Whiteness have made it easy to paint Appalachia as “Trump Country.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election, an entire journalistic genre emerged that ignored Trump’s support among White voters of all income levels and in all regions of the country and instead focused on White working-class voters, especially in Appalachia. Somehow, the ignorance and racism of this “other America” had propelled Trump to victory, not the votes of middle-class suburbanites in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas.
The Whiteness of Appalachia is one of its most enduring stereotypes.