Rural Lives Matter Should Be the Next Big Equality Movement
Perspective Born in West Virginia’s Mountains
I recently read a book titled Blood Feud about the infamous battles between the Hatfields and McCoys on the border between West Virginia and Kentucky in the heart of Appalachia in the late 1800s. Author, Lisa Alther, points out that ninety-two silent films featuring feuding mountaineers were made between 1905 and 1928 following the feud’s conclusion in 1891.
At the end of these films, feudists were usually arrested, and “…after a brief flirtation with anarchy, urban audiences emerged from the darkness of the movie theaters knowing that they were different from, and superior to, these vicious outlaws prowling the Southern mountains.” I read this and wondered to myself, in about 100 years since these silent films, exactly what has changed in the presumptions urbanites make about people from rural areas?
To my eye, nothing has changed. In fact, biases have broadened, encompassing not only aberrant behavior like the feuds but also nearly the sum of all country life. Those living outside urban centers are automatically labeled lazy, illiterate, racist, homophobic, and any number of other negative characterizations.
In an informal linguistics review, I thought it might be telling of our perceptions to pretend I was someone from the city who was unfamiliar with what to call someone from the country. To that end, I completed a Google search for antonyms of “urbanite.”
Holy moly! I was bombarded with a smorgasbord of offensive terms like “bumpkin,” “hick,” “hayseed,” “hillbilly,” “redneck,” “yokel,” and “white trash.”
Then I flipped my search, pretending I was someone from the country unfamiliar with terms for city dwellers. Unfortunately, a one-word descriptor for rural inhabitants akin to “urbanite” that’s used for urban inhabitants doesn’t really exist. “Ruralite” and “ruralist” are technically part of the lexicon but are so uncommonly used as to be mostly unhelpful.
Searching antonyms for “ruralite” prompted Google to ask if I meant to search for the opposite of reality. Wishful thinking sometimes, but no Google, that’s not what I was searching. In lieu of a single word, I settled on “rural inhabitant” as the closest-matching neutral phrase I could come up with and searched for its antonyms to complete my rough little language review.
If you’re hoping for similarly colorful terms as those revealed by my first search, you’re going to be disappointed. This query returned innocuous or even complimentary words like “citified,” “metropolitan,” “cosmopolitan,” and “sophisticate.” “Townie” and “city slicker” were the nearest I came to finding anything even mildly derogatory.
It would seem that us rubes don’t even possess the vocabulary to express the narrow-minded and judgmental attitudes often attributed to us. In a war of words we’d be matching a pea shooter against a bazooka, as our supposedly enlightened urban adversaries would win the state fair’s bigotry ribbon by a country mile.
Through both words and actions, rural people generally, and Appalachians particularly, endure harsh stereotyping rising to the level of contempt by affluent whites residing in cities and judging from afar. Skin tone aside, in both perception and socio-economic reality we have more in common with disenfranchised minorities than with these privileged, urban whites. Perhaps this seems an unlikely pairing, but it’s far more accurate than pitting the downtrodden against each other as elites would have us do in their effort to control the narrative and divert our attention away from their exploitation of both groups.
Even when not overtly prejudiced or manipulative, they make no attempt to understand our culture. Our beliefs are rejected out of hand as uneducated and uninformed without any real knowledge of what exactly is being rejected.
Clearly, I’m not imagining all this either. One of President Biden’s first actions will be to sign an Executive Order on equity that, along with identifying many other underserved communities, specifically recognizes people living in rural areas.
His action may indeed represent a step in the right direction if other headline-grabbing interests like LGBTQ+ and racial minorities don’t gobble up all the protections it affords. I remain skeptical of real change, however, as rural people traditionally aren’t outspoken advocates for our own interests. More often, we quietly accept mainstream rejection as we stoically go about the grind of eking out our day-to-day existences.
I flirted briefly with the urban, elite worldview that’s pushed on us all. I certainly value common sense goals like equality and respect for others’ viewpoints, so if that was what they were espousing I wanted to understand and embrace it.
Unfortunately, those noble ideals are not at all what they’re really about when you dig a little deeper. Rich people like to spout a lot of highbrow rhetoric about equality and then rig all the rules to remain rich. In keeping with the dismal reality of human nature, tolerance and empathy are also in short supply the second a material disagreement arises.
Maybe I’m not much better. If I had any money I’d protect it by any means necessary too, but I like to think I wouldn’t also double down with the flagrant hypocrisy that seems to define so many of them.
Though I’ve moved around a bit in my lifetime and am not completely naive to the ways of the world, it took relocating a few years ago to a notoriously wealthy, urban area — Philadelphia’s Main Line — for me to really begin to understand the depth of this thinly veiled animosity many urbanites have for the rest of us. Repeatedly seeing people from similar backgrounds as my own being called racist and homophobic without evidence by rich overlords wore me down, and it reached a crescendo in 2020. Every time some tragedy like a police shooting vaulted into the national headlines the name-calling grew louder, whether we had anything to do with whatever had happened or not (and we never did).
I wondered how all these smart city people could react so stupidly, unless maybe they weren’t so smart after all. Maybe they just weren’t reading the right books. Were they even reading any books or were they just pretending to be informed? My bad — you caught Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix so now you’re an expert.
I felt backed into a corner and attacked. I’m sure others like me felt the same.
I wasn’t beating the black lives matter drum either, and that was also misunderstood. They saw my silence as complicity. I saw it as authenticity. Rather, I’m not a hypocrite, and the truth is that unless we’re counting the fact that many more of us than probably realize it actually descend from mixed race backgrounds, I have only a few black acquaintances and no black friends.
Before jumping to the conclusion that my lack of black friendships is prima facie evidence of racism, take a minute to contemplate my background. Though someone from a multicultural area might find the demographic details of my upbringing difficult to picture, my reality is not particularly unusual in rural America.
My hometown is located in North Central West Virginia. During my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, it was even smaller and whiter than it is today. Consequently, in that nearly all-white town I attended nearly all-white schools.
My family went to one of those boring white churches where the pathetic attempts at singing are always off key, and there’s no rhythm whatsoever to the music. Not only are white people lousy at jumping, we mostly can’t sing or dance either. C’mon, allow yourself to laugh at that and resist the temptation to throw that convenient r-word around again.
When I graduated from that all-white school, I got a job at an all-white company. I didn’t purposely segregate myself. That’s just the way it was — a whole bag filled with the yellow M&Ms and none of the other colors.
In a short divergence from whiteness, I was a part-time Strength Coach for a racially diverse college football team for two years. Political correctness would compel them to fire me for writing this essay if I still worked there, and true to my combative nature, I’d sue them and win a fat settlement. We only had the players for about an hour at a time and used every second to try to help them become stronger. We didn’t have much time for chit chat. Sports truly is a great equalizer in my experience, and our focus was on pushing them to work hard to improve, regardless of skin color.
When I do have some interaction with a minority, I treat them with my usual surliness like I treat anyone. The point I’m driving at here is that, due to our admittedly sheltered backgrounds, many from rural areas, myself included, are probably not the best spokespeople for minority issues, and we know this. But that’s all I’m saying, so kindly stop calling our self-awareness something ugly that it isn’t, particularly when your baseless judgement often emanates from the comfy sanctuary of your own lily white urban oases.
Something tells me, Karen, that you’re not hearing me through the soundproof windows of your Escalade as you cautiously roll through the ghetto on your way out of town to your upstate weekend getaway at the lake, so let’s try it differently. Remind me again of the last bereaved parent candle lighting ceremony you attended? Oh, you’ve never been to one? You’re not a bereaved parent like me? I see.
So then if you’re not at the candle lighting that must mean you hate people whose children died or even those dead children, right? “Heaven’s no!” you exclaim.
M’kay, gotcha. Why then are you calling me and everyone from the country racist when our real shortcoming here is letting those who are presumably more qualified to speak have the stage (though I’m starting to question the wisdom in that logic)?
Furthermore, why do you assume you know anything about us when you’ve never been anywhere near where we live and repeatedly show your ignorance by not even being able to find us on a map? Here’s a little Hillbilly History 101 to bring you up to speed on all those lessons you must have skipped.
The schism that split the nation in two during the Civil War did the same thing to Virginia. The slave-holding aristocracy in the Eastern part of the state joined the Confederacy in 1861, while the Western part of the state remained loyal to the Union. We’re not perfect by any means, but we were on the right side of history in that one and President Lincoln made us a state in 1863.
West Virginia hasn’t been the western part of Virginia for over 150 years. We’re a different state altogether, thanks, and I don’t live anywhere “near Richmond.”
I doubt a little ancient history is going to change anyone’s mind though. You’ll likely still back me into a corner with your virtue signaling venom about my implicit racism, whatever that is. When you make that choice, just don’t then be surprised by my reaction.
As the saying goes, not every cornered dog cowers. Some growl and lash out.
Neil Young tried cornering some dogs once back in 1970. Here’s what he wrote:
Southern man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your good book said. Southern change gonna come at last. Now your crosses are burning fast.
That was a catchy tune. This retort by Lynyrd Skynyrd isn’t just catchy; it’s an anthem for the South:
Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her. Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down. Well, I hope Neil Young will remember. A southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.
You want to assume things about me without ever meeting or talking to me? You want to hate me for no reason or for some fiction you fabricated in your crazy head? Okay, go ahead, but I’ll hate you back. And I’ll hate harder and deeper, because I didn’t grow up pampered like you.
I may have been sheltered about some things, but I learned an eye for an eye well in that hill culture of feuding and union organizing violence. I don’t have time to educate you on all that, so maybe you should just trust me for once.
I might even bring a gun to the fight… gasp. Hey, at least you got one of your assumptions right. People in the country really do have guns, and we’ll give you your blood feud if that’s what you want.
Run along now back to your crowded cities. Choke on your smog and spread your diseases before you really get yourselves hurt out here. You were welcome here until you made it so abundantly clear we’re not welcome there, not that we’d want to go anyway. Now that we understand how you feel about us, we’re happy to reciprocate in kind.
You never came here and contributed to our communities in the first place. All you did was double talk us with legalese and outright lies, raping us of our natural resources and even blowing the tops off some five hundred of the glorious mountains that gave us our identity. We may as well be Native Americans a century before, watching our buffalo slaughtered by the thousands.
I’m finally past that pathetic naïveté where I’d forgotten where I come from and why it matters and was trying to fit in with all you civilized folk. The wool has been pulled from my eyes and I see you clearly now for who you really are.
Stone thrower in your glass house. You’re far more prejudiced against me than I’ve ever been against any minority.
My head was filled with your noise and I almost succumbed. At last I remembered exactly who I really am.
I’m proud to be from Appalachia, and I don’t care what any city snob thinks about me. I have about as much retroactive guilt over my ancestors’ racism as the privileged sons and daughters of thieves have over their ancestors’ reckless capitalism.
Maybe it’s time we too got our own “-ism” and sued our rich oppressors for reparations. Nah, whining isn’t the rural way. Instead, maybe it’s time we heed the words on our own flag, holding our heads and rifles high in defiance just like our feuding, outlaw ancestors did.
Montani Semper Liberi