"Give me your poor and wretched Appalachians.............."
by Janet Crain
While I agree that politicians and reporters have always gone to Appalachia to find poor people, why stop with Richard Nixon? It is still occurring today. I am sure Diane Sawyer drove past beautiful expensive homes on her way to the rickety trailer houses. But she was looking for a story. And why are minorities always ignored? What's up with that?
Children in sepia-toned clothes with dirt-smeared faces. Weathered, sunken-eyed women on trailer steps chain-smoking Camels. Teenagers clad in Carhartt and Mossy Oak loitering outside long-shuttered businesses.
When policymakers and news organizations need a snapshot of rural poverty in the United States, Appalachia — the area of land stretching from the mountains of southern New York through northern Alabama — is the default destination of choice. Poverty tours conducted by presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, almost every member of the Kennedy clan, and religious leaders like Jesse Jackson have all painted the portrait of Appalachia the same way: poor, backward, and white.
While the economic despair and major health epidemics are an unsettling reality for the region, a glaring omission has been made from the "poverty porn" images fed to national audiences for generations: Appalachia's people of color.
"When we tell the truth about Appalachia, it's only then that we tell the real story about who we are," said Aaron Thompson, executive vice president and chief academic officer for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
Growing up as an African-American outside Manchester, Ky. — a coal town home to the lowest per capita income in the state, according to US census data — Thompson has become one of the few outspoken role models for young people of color in his mountain home. "There's no one story of Appalachia, no one voice. It's time for everyone to feel like they can speak up, like their story is important."