“Looking” at Appalachia, Stereotyping the South



9 comments
Kelly Baker

In his lovely Flashes of Southern Spirit, Charles Reagan Wilson seeks to understand the "construction" and the "performance" of "southern spirit," an evocation of the interstitial relationship between region, race and dominant evangelical Protestantism. Spirit, Wilson notes, is by its very definition ephemeral, fleeting, transitory and abstract. In this edited collection, Wilson documents the presence of spirit in folk art, the music of Hank Williams, and Lost Cause religion to only name a few. Included with his essays are David Wharton’s photographs of the variety of forms spirit takes in the American South with churches and signs, baptisms, memorials, re-enactors and worship. The photographs illuminate religious practice by both white and black Southerners. His book is as much about spirit as it is about haunting, the presence of the Civil War and its discontents still haunts the South. Yet rather than dwell of the common stereotypes of the South and southerners as backward, uneducated, and dramatically religious (the list can go on), Wilson illuminates the complexities and contradictions of the region, its people and its religions.

I was thinking of Wilson when both Ed Blum and Chris Baker brought my attention to CNN’s photo essay, Life in Appalachia. This collection of photos subtitled, “Regression to the Mean,” by Stacy Kranitz, was supposed to “demystify stereotypes,” but the images seemed to only support stereotypes. The opening images were of a burning cross and a snake handler with the suggestion that these images were representative of “everyday” life for Appalachia. When CNN originally published the photos, their presentation of Kranitz’s work suggested that Appalachia was a place of “strange” religion, dramatic racism, and poverty. Kranitz, however, challenged CNN’s representation of her work. And now, the photo essay is now in a different order, with some of the original images replaced (significantly there is one less Klan image too).

When I saw the original CNN essay, I was not surprised by the choices for the first photos. The Klan is bound to the image of the South in unavoidable ways, much like snake handling appears in cultural representations of Appalachia. Roger May does a nice job of interrogating CNN’s motives and thinking about the visual stereotypes of Appalachia here. May ponders what is to be gained by representing Appalachia as white working class. He also notes the vehement response of people who live in Appalachia against this representation. As someone who now lives in Tennessee (and studies the Klan for goodness’s sake), these images feel as predictable as they are problematic. The revised photo essay contains images, which range from a hazy mountain morning to laying on of hands to feet washing to children playing inside and outside to a spooky church sign to a coal miner to the snake handler and a burning cross flanked by Klansmen as well as many others. Religious practice appears dominant, and class status becomes apparent.

The subjects are overwhelming white with the notable exception of a Native American dancer at a gas station in North Carolina. He just happens to be surrounded by Confederate flags, an intriguing juxtaposition. The sheer whiteness of images was staggering but not entirely surprising. Wilson argues that images of impoverished rural whites have a long history as a key image for the representation of the South. More importantly, the demographics of region attest to white dominance. Yet, I wonder about the content of the photos and why this content proved appealing to the editors of CNN. Is this what CNN imagines the Southern spirit to look like? One must ask: What is to be gained by representing “everyday life” in Appalachia this way? What nervousness does this signal about the people who live there?

In his beautifully complicated The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzeoff claims “the right to look,” the ability to see even when someone tells you there is nothing to see (1). This significant ability to see one another becomes the basis of political subjectivity. Who can look? Who can’t? While some can represent, others are represented. Authority emerges, then, in visualization. Images become normal and natural. The visual classifies us. As Ed demonstrated, how looks matter. Though Mirzeoff writes about colonialism, slavery and war, his insights on who can look and who is looked upon proves helpful here. If looking/looks is the venue to authority and subjectivity, then stereotypical representations of a region and the people who live are powerfully problematic. If seeing is “believing,” then these images function to collapse all the complexities that Wilson documents into caricature. The images affirm what some already want to believe about the South. They become “evidence” of all that is wrong with the region. Who represents? Who is represented?

Recently, my Religions in the U.S. classes presented group projects relying upon course themes of class, gender, region and race, and many of the groups presented projects on popular representations of religious movements and peoples compared to demographical data. Moreover, many of my students from Tennessee presented projects that sought to counter the popular stereotypes of the South and Appalachia as a region in particular. Overwhelming, my students were bothered by how they were represented. One group examined religious southerners were portrayed by mainstream media and the political advantages of that portrayal. And they played this clip:

 

My class was not entirely sure how to react. Some laughed, some gasped and some were shocked. Who has the right to look here? Who looks away with a "there's nothing to see here"? 

9 comments:

rjc at: May 18, 2012 at 11:39 AM said...

Really, really interesting stuff, Kelly. That video is something else. I'd like to see what laughable images we'd get if Alexandra Pelosi filmed people at a Bill Maher party...

But what's really interesting to me about both the video and the Kranitz photos is how they BOTH reinforce stereotypes yet ALSO represent real people. Part of the problem of representation is misrepresentation -- selecting images that highlight certain stereotypes or ideologies that do not represent "everyday life" accurately. In that case, the solution is more accurate selection or framing of images. But part of the problem is also that some peoples' "everyday life" is unfathomable, repulsive, or laughable to other people. The old problem of cultural centrism.

How do we move past the distaste we feel when a photo essay on Appalachia depicts small houses, hands-on religion, and coal-covered miners so that we can recognize that this IS everyday life for lots of folks? How do we move past our shock at Pelosi's Mississippi video (on Bill Maher) to consider that there are communities that these folks DO represent? How do we work through the muddy and tangled difference between misrepresentational stereotypes that reinforce distinctions of class, race, gender, and power (often connected to region), on the one hand, and accurate representations of people whose politics, religions, aesthetics, language, and economic status appall "outside" viewers? The former requires correction. The latter requires viewers/audiences to turn a critical eye back on themselves to ask why those images are so disturbing to them.

On the subject of Appalachia and who has the "right to look" (a huge subject in Appalachian Studies), I recommend two resources: First, one of my favorite books dealing with some of the topics you raise in your post -- Kathleen Stewart's "A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an 'Other' America" (Princeton 1996). Second a film by Appalshop titled "Stranger with a Camera" (http://appalshop.org/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=44&products_id=235)

I apologize for going on and on here, but I do find the issues Kelly raises to be intriguing.

rjc at: May 18, 2012 at 12:00 PM said...

Should have mentioned that of course a huge part of the problem here is taking a space like "the south" or "Appalachia" to be some sort of real, and unified, object that can be represented in full by a few images.

Michael J. Altman at: May 18, 2012 at 12:47 PM said...

Funny that you posted this today--I caught 10 minutes of a PBS documentary "The Appalachians" last night. Anyone ever seen the whole thing? Is it any good?

Great post, Kelly!

Kelly Baker at: May 18, 2012 at 1:02 PM said...

Chip, these are all excellent points, and I will definitely look up the books you suggested.

One of things that I struggled with when viewing the essay and the Maher clip (and writing the post) was how do we become critical viewers on the look out for stereotypes while simultaneously trying to understand that this is the everyday life of folks.

At Slate*, there was an interesting article on the popularity of the reality show _Swamp People_ and folks in Louisiana that hunt gators So, why is this so popular? Why do audiences want to look? Why do I want to look?

This goes to your question about the "muddy and tangeled difference" between misrepresentation and accurate representations to which I don't really have a good answer. I assigned Sean's _Divine Hierarchies_ , which provides an achingly good critique of class stereotypes to my classes mentioned in the post. And many of those students walked away with the idea that stereotypes are simply right no matter all the work Sean did in the book and I reaffirmed in class. I wanted them to realize the difference between misrepresentation and accuracy, but this is a slippery concept.

As you might guess, I am fairly invested in trying to figure out why certain religious expressions and peoples prove "disturbing" by confronting stereotypes and thinking about self-representations. The Klan's class status, no matter the historical evidence, is generally assumed to be working class. I always stun people when they find out Klansmen in the 1920s were firmly middle class.

Finally, I hope you didn't get the impression that I am taking the South or Appalachia to be a "real" object, rather I was hoping to convey the way these regions are conjured and constructed. Maybe I was unclear or maybe I just take that granted. Either way, it is an important thing to note. Wilson does a nice job of problematizing "the South" in _Flashes of Southern Spirit_.

*http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/04/history_s_swamp_people_ratings_success_for_a_louisiana_bayou_based_reality_show_.html

rjc at: May 18, 2012 at 1:09 PM said...

Kelly, no I didn't think you'd taken the South or Appalachia to be "real" -- but it looks like CNN and Bill Maher sort of did, the former by naming the photo essay "Life in Appalachia" (represented by 16 photos), the latter by taking a three minute video as representative of Mississippi (or, as Maher says as he introduces it, of "real Americans in the South").

Kelly Baker at: May 18, 2012 at 1:32 PM said...

Chip, it is intriguing that the photos and the videos becomes evidence of a whole region or state for both Maher and CNN. Complexity disappears for sure in these representations.

When I first moved to Tennessee, I was surprised by all the people that welcomed me to "east Tennessee." At one point I made a joke about whether the rest of Tennessee was unsure about my family, the very nice woman, then, responded she couldn't speak for the rest of the state. The joke did not go over well. East Tennesseans are serious about in-state regionalism.

tipper at: May 19, 2012 at 6:16 AM said...

I've been following the story of Kranitz’s photos and CNN-that's what led me here to your site.

Your post is fascinating as are the comments by others.

I live in Southern Appalachia and could find folks like the ones portrayed in the maddening video you shared-as well as in the photos by Kranitz-BUT only a few folks would fit those parameters-the majority of people who call Appalachia home would not.

Since I write about all things Appalachian in an effort to both preserve and celebrate my rich cultural heritage-its hard for me to be totally objective about this issue-but I thank you for giving me much to think about.

esclark at: May 19, 2012 at 6:37 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esclark at: May 19, 2012 at 6:40 AM said...

Great post and great subsequent conversation! I'll second Kathleen Stewart's work as a good place to look into the question about culture and the look of Appalachia (probably because I'm a former student of Chip's!). Also, I'll give a plug for the Journal of Southern Religion's roundtable discussion on class in southern religion and a jsr article a few years back by John Hayes on religion, class, and interracialism in the South.

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