Monday’s talk radio experience incited heightened interest, at least within me. The individual that we often listen to out of Wisconsin was filling the slot for another, quite popular talk radio host who is broadcast nationally. The interest began to bubble for me with the entrance of the first and, to my surprise, primary talking point of the show: the southern West Virginia county of McDowell and its continuing battle with poverty. McDowell County lies within the thicket of central Appalachian coal country. I thought to myself, “What better discussion to have on national talk radio?” Granted, the Midwestern host repeatedly mispronounced Appalachia. For those who know, you get the point.
Today, the poverty rate hovers around 41% in McDowell, making it the poorest county in West Virginia. Forty-one percent is not too far behind the 1960 rate of 50%. By most accounts, the future looks pretty bleak for McDowell County and, subsequently, other Appalachian counties like it. Who would want to associate themselves with a place like this?
The answer: many people would. In fact, a majority of the calls that came in were from homegrown McDowell Countians, although displaced and dispersed throughout the country. The next question to be asked then is why? Why would anyone want to associate themselves with a place that holds a poverty rate of 41%? One caller on Monday’s show answered this why question with a subtle yet emphatic emotional response.
If you are from the place of which you are speaking, you are automatically given a certain level of authority in the conversation. This was the case with one caller who was living in Nebraska but was originally from McDowell County, West Virginia. He was given the floor and authority to speak as one who knew. During the course of his conversation this man began to weep, but continued forward with the point he was trying to get across. Subtle tears yet emphatic point.
Half-jokingly, my boss immediately began to laugh. His laughter led us both to swap a few verbal jabs. As always with him and I, though, it was done in good cheer. But in the midst of our jovial bantering, I was led to this very same yet slightly altered question of why. Instead of the why question of self-association mentioned above, the question became, “Why would this man weep over a discussion of his home county?” The truth is that these two questions are intimately related and have an identical answer. Contrasting my boss and this caller, then, for further clarity, “Why would my boss, who has lived his whole life in an urban environment, laugh while this caller, who grew up in the mountains of southern West Virginia, cry though both were being exposed to the same subject matter?”
My response: The reactions are explainable in that the caller had a strong sense and love of place while my boss, for the most part, lacks this same attribute or at least a clear understanding of it. This is the caller’s emphatic point that could have easily been missed through the subtlety of his tears. He wept and unabashedly associated himself with McDowell County because he loves McDowell County.
If you want to understand the people of Appalachia you must understand the strong sense and love of place that pervades most of the region’s populace. I say strong because others across the country have it (Case in point: My boss still listens to Wisconsin talk radio even though he lives in Kentucky. Maybe it’s not so odd after all!), just not to the same degree, I would argue, as us folk from the mountains.
Since moving outside the region, I have found my very own sense and love of place to be a point of pride but at the same time, difficult to explain to others. When those mountains come into view and those familiar voices are heard, you just know that this is home, that this is why you are who you are. And in this there is no shame, because the guiding hand of Providence has brought it about, all for the glory of his great name.