Wildflowers in Hostile Environments: What Do People of Color and West Virginians Have in Common?
Updated: Nov 24
A Black friend from WV and I were discussing classism and racism in Appalachia and beyond. “Yeah, you’re white, but you’re from WV. You’re the wrong kind of white,” she said, chuckling. As a Black woman in Appalachia, she had a unique perspective. Life hasn’t been so easy for either of us mountain-grown wildflowers.
I just moved from WV to a city 13 times bigger than my home. As a Caucasian, I am on equal footing with white people here until they realize I‘m originally from West Virginia.
After over a decade of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed illnesses and various forms of preventable suffering, I left WV for better opportunities, adequate healthcare, and resources. I’m happier and safer here already.
I tell my friends ”I country mouse around the city“ using country mouse as a verb, meaning I behave just as I am, my behavioral and ideological differences standing out as blatantly as my southern twang, truth sticking out like knives.
I choose to embrace this authenticity rather than struggle to suppress my natural linguistic tendencies.
My novel Waters Run Wild is about the debt bondage of my people in WV, which included my own coal-mining family and those of all my friends. To shed my accent would feel traitorous since I built my reputation as an author discussing worker‘s rights, immigrant and women’s roles in the 1921 coal mine wars, and their survival of systemic oppression. Plus, some people love my accent.
Not everyone. Once some people know I’m from Appalachia, they shuffle me in their hierarchy of whiteness, changing my ”place” in their class and racially-stratified world. They presume much about the content of my character and intellect. My accent gives it away every time. “Gosh. Where are you from anyway?” they ask, sometimes with thinly-veiled disdain. Some even outright mock my accent.
A guy from a dating app quipped, “Your photos are gorgeous but you get on the phone and sound like ‘yuk yuk yuk’!” He did his best Goofy impression mixed with Daisy Mae.
An Uber driver remarked she had some “ghetto hillbilly family from WV, too! ha!“ laughing at her own tasteless jokes. “We might have a few small cultural differences,” I replied, my opinion of her ill manners politely contained.
I knew their narrow views weren’t on purpose. They are mere wooden (headed! ha!) cogs in a grander machine. Like racism, this dehumanization has a function. This is important, so I’ll repeat it: stereotypes don’t exist to hurt your feelings, they serve a powerful function or rather a function to maintain power.
DL Huguely, a Black comedian, once made an insightful joke about how not all whiteness is created equal. He said, “Black people be shopping for whiteness on Ebay and see West Virginia whiteness listed on there for sale and say, 'oh, no, that whiteness comes with OxyContin and food stamps. You can keep that whiteness. We don’t want none of that!'”
My white skin comes with benefits. Am I likely to be shot for merely driving a car or jogging? No, I can safely walk through an upscale neighborhood. I could probably even threaten people with a weapon and be arrested alive; that's almost certainly not possible for a person of color.
But I know the same type of collective pain and anger. I’m from Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, smack dab in coal country, a land historically raped for all its resources and exploited by Big Pharma and King Coal. It’s mostly white. My maternal grandfather was a Mexican immigrant, paternal side Hungarian immigrants. Most people don’t know “coal country“ is filled with immigrants because that wouldn’t serve the function I mentioned.
Wealthy men and their WV pals in legislature have poisoned our water, our land, cut the tops off our mountains, dumped them into streams, and murdered hundreds of people in mine disasters like the infamous Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 and the Sago Mine Disaster all in the name of money. Jeff Ellis, an award-winning singer-songwriter from my hometown wrote a song about that. You can see him perform it Here.
The rest of the nation calls us fatalistic. It’s similar to blaming rape victims assaulted by a date they invited over for dinner or blaming a Black man shot by police during a routine traffic-stop: They were asking for it people say. Why? psychology 101: if you blame the victim, you feel immune from their fate.
If you dehumanize them you’re free of guilt and fear when they die. It’s a measure of self preservation. You tell yourself, “they don’t deserve better, but I do. I’m safe.”
Race is a social imaginary, while ethnicity is real: the language you speak, foods you eat, clothes, hairstyles, shared history, shared trauma, etc.
Color only has significance and symbolism when one assigns meaning to it. This is normally a task performed by whomever owns the wealth.
White culture decided Black skin means a host of negative things that earn Black people their death: violent, stupid, lazy, angry, crazy, loud, law-breaking, dangerous, drug-addicted, etc.
But in reality it’s just a color, providing no information about intellect, morality, talents, deficits, emotional IQ or personality. You cannot judge a book by its color. Appalachian people are similarly books with shoddy covers stereotyped as lazy, stupid, violent, dirty, but add toothless, incestuous, illiterate, gun-toting, and of course, racist.
During slave-era, doctors, scholars, and scientists reported their “professional findings“ that Black people were naturally inferior morally, intellectually, and emotionally to all other races, including Asians. You can learn about that here.
Generations of people believed these authority figures concluding Black people were therefore fortunate to be enslaved. It was thought slaves needed someone of superior intellect to feed and clothe them, give them purpose like a domesticated animal needing a master to teach it tricks,
and a nice tall fence to keep it safe.
And that’s how whites who didn’t own slaves but failed to challenge slave owners slept at night. Stereotypes that haunt Black people to this day are the same sort that dog Appalachians—dehumanizing lies are the sweet elixirs bystanders drink to help them sleep at night while crimes are committed against both very different, but similar groups.
Mainstream media today is owned and controlled by mostly affluent non-Appalachian whites (the “right“ kind of white). They have a lot of fun with my image.
You can find disparaging versions of me in journalism, books, TV, music, and movies. Even on store shelves in the form of Halloween costumes.
Do you see the similarities to “Black Face”? Ignore the skin color. Think about the “personality traits” and socioeconomic circumstances of the “character” and this costume’s power function. What does it say about Appalachian people? What does it teach? Who made the costume? Who benefits and who suffers from the “joke”? Now ask yourself why people still think it’s acceptable to laugh at this?
I found the above "costume" at a CVS in Huntington, WV in 2015 around the same time Vogue published the line: “Hollywood is as incestuous as Appalachia.” I never read Vogue again. Stars appear on Jimmy Fallon and say appalling things about West Virginia. I could go on. Every now and then we get good press.
We’re so used to degradation we collectively gasped when Anthony Bourdain visited my hometown in Man, WV and had kind things to say.
This is my mom and Anthony Bourdain at a bar called Keith's Bar & Grille in Man, WV taken during that 2017 trip. I was told he liked the peach moonshine the best.
Anthony Bourdain bonded with my backcountry people. He talked with us. He saw us for who we are rather than who the rest of the country say we are.
So who did he meet exactly? People who had to adapt to a difficult, impoverished environment using whatever creative means, a scarred people with deep wounds going back generations.
My mom’s dad spoke little English and like my dad’s dad could only spend his “pay” —a special currency printed by the coal companies called “scrip”— at the coal company-owned store. This was the modern form of slavery known as debt bondage in existence into the1960s.
Since human’s natural design is adaptation for survival like a rare flower in a desert or tundra, from this long painful history and government-sanctioned exploitation sprung, just like flowers, lovely variations of the human being.
When raised in the middle of nowhere with no public transit, to thrive you must become an artist or creative of one sort or another.
Oral histories, storytelling, music, foods, and fascinating, intricate folklore exist in WV. You can read more about that in a wonderful series of books called Foxfire. I grew up singing, dancing, reading, drawing, and writing. We all did. This is the human side of WV Bourdain recognized.
There are so many singers and talented people in my family I can’t count them all. If you wanted to hear live music, you had to find somebody’s back porch where someone was sitting and picking guitars. The nearest ”real” mall or bookstore was an hour away, too. No theater or art.
Our joy, music, and sometimes our wine had to be homemade, no one imported it.
West Virginia is full of pain. I am just now learning to leave behind our historical trauma as not part of my cultural identity to take pride in, but unfortunate circumstances within which I adapted and grew in beautiful ways to survive.
As Appalachians, like many marginalized genders and cultures, we have been collectively brainwashed and often we embrace our history of oppression and survival as part of our cultural identities. I argue it’s time we stop discussing who we are at every single academic conference and instead contribute to the broader cultural landscape with Conversations and ideas about something, anything other than our history of oppression.
We reframe, yet still own, these stereotypes as if they are romantic. They’re not. It’s time we let them go. I’m no longer an Appalachian woman writer. I’m an American writer.
We should trash the paintings of the coal company houses, smash them, leave the scrip in museums where it belongs rather
than hang it on our walls.
We have to stop decorating with coal mine buckets and hardhats as if our suffering is part of who we are when it’s the times we looked outside of that which made us who we are.
Our fathers destroying their lungs with coal dust for lack of better chances in life was not romantic; it’s sad and makes me angry. It should make us all angry.
WV is brimming with old pain but also magic, which is the part I keep. I carry it in my pocket everywhere I go: our stories, our knack for humor, art, music, all the talents I developed when there was nothing else for me to do but survive that desolate environment. I was surrounded by poverty, given a low-quality public education, handed misdiagnoses and survived having witnessed many traumas.
I’m so glad to have been able to leave.
I’m laying down my roots in a richer, healthier soil, unafraid. Let them bring on the dehumanization and bad jokes, because Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia mountain flowers?
We can survive anywhere. We have that in common with our Black brothers and sisters, we have that in common with all humans.
The human soul has no cloth or color, just love at its core, a yearning for beauty and art in even the harshest of climates, that same gorgeous ability to adapt. Our souls, not our suffering, is where music comes from, dance, romance, poetry, and laughter.
Let us all remember what makes us similar and hold it in our hearts where everybody‘s blood is the same color.
West Virginians grow hardy and beautiful, and like Bourdain said, deeply unique, from a “place that moved him like no other, and he’s been everywhere.”
Andréa Fekete's literary novel of the historical coal mine wars, Waters Run Wild, (2010, 2018) explores women's & immigrant life in the coal camps of West Virginia. Her poetry & fiction appear in many journals & anthologies such as Chiron Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Kentucky Review, The Montucky Review, The Smithville Journal, The Adirondack Review, ABZ, and in anthologies such as Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction & Poetry from West Virginia, among others. She co-curated Feminine Rising: Voices of Power & Invisibility (2019) a collection of poetry & essays from 70 award-winning & emerging women writers in 12 nations & every corner of the US. The book took the Silver in Foreword's Indie Book Award of the Year in Women's Studies. An excerpt from her newest unpublished novel Native Trees was a finalist in Still: The Journal's 2019 Fiction contest. In 2016, she was awarded a Fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Foundation for the Arts to take residency at the internationally renowned Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
There are many publications on the subject of Black history in Appalachia as well as the diverse cultures and genders in Appalachia. You can access a list here courtesy of Center for the Study of Gender in Appalachia.