By Nerissa Young
I was in a bus riding around the back roads of southeastern Ohio. The trip through this neck of Appalachia was part of last weekend’s commemorative symposium about President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty speech delivered on the campus of Ohio University.
Half a century ago, Johnson vowed to help the region known as Appalachia achieve what the rest of the country had — equal opportunities for jobs, education and quality of life. It was the first instance in which he referred to the Great Society, journalist Sid Davis reminded us during the symposium.
We stopped at a food pantry, a Head Start classroom and environmental and cultural landmarks in our journey to discover what had changed, if anything, about Appalachia in the intervening years.
Johnson’s speech launched a trove of social programs and the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that funnels federal money to this impoverished region. We saw a lot of worn-out homes and communities, leaving us to wonder how great the society really is.
We also talked about what it means to be Appalachian. When I was growing up, I never called myself an Appalachian. I was a Monroe Countian, a Summers Countian, a West Virginian and sometimes a hillbilly but never an Appalachian. That was a label someone else gave me.
Fifty years ago, it made sense to refer to this region as Appalachia because the Appalachian Mountains form the spine of it. Yet, people who live in the Rocky Mountains aren’t known homogeneously as Rockians. Neither are residents of the Ozarks referred to collectively as Ozarkians.
From a sociological point of view, the term “Appalachian” is a political and social construct, not a native one formed by the people whom it describes. It was a way for the government and others to talk about us without calling us ridge runners or hillbillies.
But that’s not what the outside world saw. The images generated by the War on Poverty showed us as dirty, hungry, uneducated people living in shacks on rutted roads. Those images showed everybody else we were ridge runners and hillbillies.
About halfway through the tour, that epiphany hit me. In southeastern Ohio, I was an outsider looking at these hillbillies but, in reality, I was looking through the microscope at myself. That made me uncomfortable. And then it made me angry.
During our lunch lecture, the speaker showed some of those images. Afterward, I looked around for an arrogant Northerner I could slap.
Invariably, how others saw us came to be how we saw ourselves. I frequently heard my grandparents say they didn’t know they were poor growing up because everybody was poor. They didn’t know until somebody told them.
The War on Poverty was that great telling that could never be untold.
LBJ did the right thing. A sizable chunk of the nation was being denied civil rights due to geography. While the famously coined pockets of poverty still exist, those pockets would be far deeper without the ARC.
And every time Congress tries to do away with the ARC, I figure the rest of the country got its; by the grace of God and the ARC, we get ours. They owe us for all our fighting men and women who died to save the country, all the minerals the outsiders extracted and profited from without putting anything back, and all the hard jobs our people do to keep the lights on everywhere else.
I just wish they hadn’t told us who we are.
Young is a Register-Herald columnist and lecturer in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
© Nerissa Young 2014