Education, the American South, and Strangers with Cameras

[Note: This post was crossposted from my Daily Kos account.  Its similar to an earlier post I did, called Stranger With A Camera, but has a more political bent than the anthropological bent of the first post.]

Recently, there has been a lot of talk of how the Republicans have become a southern, regional party, and a lot of polling done on all sorts of topics, such as where are the Birthers primarily located, who believes that North America and Africa were once part of the same continent, and so on. And the tone underlying some of these posts, whether or not it was intentionally, is one of condescension. When presented with the polling data that shows that white Republicans are the majority of the Birthers, shock and dismissal are the reactions.

Throughout all of this, there hasn’t been any mention of education. Why do you think some many people in the South don’t know that Africa and North America were once part of the same continent, or that Barack Obama was really born in the United States? 7 out of the bottom 10 states for high school graduation rates are in the South. Standing here and gawking at their problems isn’t going to fix any of them; in fact, its probably only going to make them resent us more.

But people from other regions going into the South and telling them we can help them isn’t going to work either. The documentary Stranger With A Camera shows that you have to work with the community rather than try to impose upon it. In the early 1960s, many film crews from television networks and documentary productions came into the South and filmed only the poorest of the poor, leaving out all other aspects of Southern, especially Appalachian, life. The people in Appalachia who saw this going on felt that their communities were being used as propaganda for the War on Poverty and that all of the good aspects of their communities were being lost. People, primarily college students, on the VISTA program came from all over the country to Appalachia and were tasked with trying to help improve these communities, through things like working in schools, helping to develop community centers, and other things.

But people did not like this imposition. They felt that they were being told that they were unable to help themselves, that they needed help from the outside. One man saw a film crew filming on his property and shot and killed one of the, director Hugh O’Connor. One of my bosses was in the VISTA program while she was in college and was assigned to live with a family while trying to develop programming for a community center. While she was there, she was poisoned by the family with which she was staying. Now, this post is of course not condoning their actions. But it is indicative of their feelings that they felt like they had to do this.

All of this to say that we need to stop blanket generalizing any region or any people, but especially the South. What we need to do is to truly understand them and push for better education by working with insiders. Working with community organizations is how we can get this to work. The goals of Appalshop, the people who produced Stranger With A Camera highlight what needs to be done if we are serious about helping people in need.

Our goals are to enlist the power of education, media, theater, music, and other arts:

* to document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia;
* to tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell, challenging stereotypes with Appalachian voices and visions;
* to support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways;
* to celebrate cultural diversity as a positive social value; and
* to participate in regional, national, and global dialogue toward these ends.

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