Guernica Magazine

Elizabeth Catte: Appalachia Isn’t Trump Country

The historian on J.D. Vance, colonial logic, and the end of coal in the region that outsiders love to imagine but can’t seem to understand. The post Elizabeth Catte: Appalachia Isn’t Trump Country appeared first on Guernica.
Photo: Josh Howard.

Appalachia is more than just a region in the eastern United States. For some Americans, it’s an important element in the story about why we have the president that we do. A case and point: Hillbilly Elegy, the 2016 bestselling memoir set in Appalachia, was proclaimed by the New York Times as one of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” But for Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and activist from Appalachia, it’s a place that many people just get wrong. The popular image of Appalachia as a home to a backwards, white population that’s trapped in a culture of poverty is a falsehood that people believe to avoid taking responsibility for social problems, she says. “I think it’s a basic kind of psychological desire that there is a place where everything that’s toxic and not progressive can be compartmentalized.”

Catte grew up in East Tennessee, and writes about an Appalachia that we outsiders don’t hear much about in the news. It’s a place rich in diversity, with communities whose members include LGBTQ and people of color, and where the working class is not just made up of white male coal miners. Catte knows the region has problems, but says they are only made worse by false views of Appalachia that have a long history rooted in racism. And when Hillbilly Elegy, a book that Catte argues only perpetuates these dangerous stereotypes, became a national bestseller, she decided to write her own book to correct the record. Her work, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a short, compelling read, steeped in history, and serves as a wonderfully intelligent antidote to the untruths of our political moment. Also, depending on your notion of Appalachia, it can be transformative.

I spoke with Catte recently over the phone about these “imaginary Appalachias” that bewitch our nation, why they have power over so many people, and the racism that underlies them. We talked about why she’s hopeful about the region, and how she, a person deeply interested in the history of the underrepresented, can help. “What is often lost to the public is that

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