People from both sides of my family were born, lived, and died here. Neither of my grandfathers ever lived anywhere else. In true mountain tradition, they both gave land to my parents to build their home. When I was young, I couldn't wait to leave Kentucky. Now, as I get older, I value every day when I return. -- Shelby Lee Adams, Salt and Truth.
Yesterday, The New York Times Sunday Review published a series of photographs entitled Of Kentucky, excerpted from the new book Salt and Truth by Shelby Lee Adams, a Hazard-born photographer. As soon as I heard about the project, I immediately got my guard up.
Here it goes again, I thought. Prepare to be embarrassed.
The black and white photos depicted sad-eyed children standing among coonskin hats. Bad tattoos. A freakish funeral. I was immediately ashamed of the labels that I knew many would affix to the work:
Methhead. Skinhead. Inbred. Hillbilly.
And yet, Mr. Adams, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow, interspersed the photos with earnest statements proclaiming his love of returning to the mountains.
Every few years, it seems, Eastern Kentucky catches the eye of the national media. In the wake of Bobby Kennedy's 1968 "poverty tour", it seems our plight is newsworthy in a very cyclical pattern.
Documentaries, news specials, and even cheesy TV talent shows present the most backward hollers and the most extreme cases of poverty. It's suddenly quite easy to believe that all Appalachians speak in an unintelligible patois, use outhouses and generally live the lives of 14th century peasants.
Predictably, the outcry from so many of my Eastern Kentucky friends and neighbors never changes: "I'm proud to be from Eastern Kentucky," the bumper stickers read. "My child is a doctor/teacher/lawyer/pharmacist. It's not like that at all." Feelings are hurt and pride is bruised. And, some very valid points about success and work ethics and the beauty of the area are raised.
The other Appalachian viewpoint I often hear is one of shame, disdain, and distance. The folks who wanted nothing more than to get out forever. Those who, when they stop to mention the area at all, are quick to note that Eastern Kentucky is a land of poverty, Mountain Dew teeth, and despair.
The thing is, I grew up near Hazard, KY. About 35 miles away, to be exact. My own Appalachian experience has been uniquely filled with culture, education and general celebration of the area. Many of my ancestors were artsy and bookish, a proud array of writers, painters, and educators. My great-grandfather was a high school calculus teacher-- an amazing degree of training in 1920s Appalachia. Other relatives have overcome extreme poverty and hardships to succeed. I grew up among educators; my cousins and I never questioned that we would attend college. My own parents made sure that my brother and I saw more books and museums and battlefields as children than we could possibly count. And yet, that isn't the entirety of my Appalachian experience.
The very things that we've tried so hard to downplay -- the poverty, the drug abuse, the apathy, and the hopelessness -- are very much alive and kicking in the town where I was raised. As much as I want to turn away from Mr. Adams's images, I see folks like his subjects every time I visit the Wal-Mart. I've seen addiction and poverty and utter desperation. I've seen childhood friends and classmates rendered nearly unrecognizable from a lifetime's worth of hard knocks. And, yet, I've seen as just many flourish despite similar circumstances.
As I scan through the photos from Mr. Adams's work, I'm surprised to say that I don't feel shame or hurt. I don't find the photos funny, or charming, or heartwarming. There was a time when I would have been angry at the photographer for capturing and publishing the images, and even more angry at the subjects for consenting.
The truth is, these photos just are.