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.

Stranger With A Camera

Today, at my work, we watched a film called Stranger With A Camera, which told the story of murder of a Canadian filmmaker, Hugh O’Connor, by Hobart Ison when O’Connor was filming a family who lived in a rental house on Ison’s property.  Ison’s anger was the expression of anger felt by many throughout Appalachia, who felt that film crews and photographers were taken advantage of their situation.  Shows like Charles Kuralt’s Christmas in Appalachia emphasized the extreme poverty in which many of the people lived but completely ignored people who were doing much better.  The entire region was labelled as being in poverty and needed to be helped out of this state; many of the residents resented that label and became angry at the notion that they needed help.  People in the area portrayed by the film were fiercely independent, and even if they didn’t have much, what they did have had been earned.

One anecdote that one of my bosses told us after the film was how she was sent to this exact area as a part of the VISTA program established as a part of President Johnson’s Great Society.  When she got there, as a college student from New York, she was greeted with suspicion and hostility.  She wasn’t able to do much of any of her stated goals, which included programs and classes at a local community center.  At one point she was poisoned by one of the residents and was sick for three straight days.

All of this is to say that programs like VISTA, which aims to fight poverty, must first establish a rapport with the people whom they are trying to help.  Sending college kids into impoverished areas for a summer, like the VISTA program did, is not going to really help anything.  You have to understand the community with which you are working first; when I was watching the film, the Clifford Geertz’s idea of thick description came to mind.  In order to understand a community, you can’t just look at the actions they are performing, but you must also look at the context in which they are performing them.  Geertz used this in his studies of tribes in Indonesia, but its principle can be applied here as well.

A blog that I sometimes read, Blue Virginia, has as its slogan “Think Globally, Blog Locally.”  I think that phrase can be adapted to many walks of life, including this.  The further away from the local level you get in government or any sort of aid organization, the more difficulity there will be in actually helping people.  Appalshop, the organization that produced the film Stranger With A Camera, is a local organization whose goal is to “support communities’ efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable way.”  These types of organizations are the ones who do the most good in a community since they are a member of that community.

Drive through Orange and Caswell Counties

About a week ago, I took a drive through rural Orange County and Caswell County, and took some pictures that I think are interesting on the way.

Old abandonded gas station in Yanceyville, NC

This gas station has been closed for so long that there are no pumps there anymore; just this sign remains as a reminder of how cheap gas used to be, even within my own lifetime.

Thrifty Tog Shop, Yanceyville, NC

I enjoyed the Thirfty Tog Shop just because of the awesomeness of its name. When it was actually open, it was probably a regular thrift store or consignment store or something like that, but I commend the people who thought of that name.

There are more pictures, and I’m gonna spread them out over one or two more posts, and actually write some thoughts about how buildings become abandoned.

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a book about the nature of violence in America. It tells the story of a family, the Clutters, who were murdered by two former inmates of Fort Levenworth, in Kansas. To me, the two most interesting parts are the buildup to the murders and the trial and appeal process.

The buildup to the murders show two different kinds of lives in America: the lives of a rich, rural family and the lives of two paroled ex-convicts. The Clutters had may have seemed like the all-American family, and in a way I guess they were. The farther was a strict but compassionate businessman. The son as somewhat of a loner, good with his hands. The daughter, beloved by all but told by her father to break off her relationship with her Catholic boyfriend. The mother with some sort of mental illness, perhaps a kind of depression, going off to various mental hospitals. This book could have been rewritten as a study in mental illness, focusing on the mother and the two criminals, especially Perry. The personal life of the criminals is a story of poverty: one criminal, Dick, had a fairly normal childhood, if poor; the other, Perry had both a poor and abusive childhood. Both seem to be trying to improve their station, but the means by which the think to do this is through robbing a rich farmer.

The trial and appeals process delved more deeply into the theme of mental illness. In Kansas at the time, the test for whether or not an insanity defense could be used was called the M’Naughten Rule. This rule stated that if the defendant could distinguish right from wrong, no matter how else their mental illness affected them, they were legally sane and could be tried normally. However, Capote mainly uses this as a way to talk about the law; I wish he would have used it to delve more into the nature of mental illness and America.

It does seem like this book tries to concentrate on too many elements, and is too bound by the exact timeline of how things happened. The backstory, the childhood of the criminals is only revealed when the police are told this backstory. This leads to a 20 page interlude right after the criminals had been captured, which could have been well put elsewhere.  Overall, however, I liked this book.