“Looking” at Appalachia, Stereotyping the South
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"?