It was not a place known for opportunity. Poor, rural and shut off from the glitter of the big time, it was a quiet town on the fringes of America, enveloped by stillness in which many thrived and many suffered.
Today, my hometown is much the same as it was when I graduated from high school: poor, white and isolated, a teensy burg of several hundred souls scratching out a living along the Potomac River. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two decades since I was a teen running wild, in the shotgun seat of my best friend’s T-top Camaro—but such is time, slow in seconds and fast in years.
Last week, my thoughts turned homeward while vacationing in another town cupped in a lush valley surrounded by rolling green mountains that appear misty blue from a distance. But other than geography, Asheville, North Carolina has about as much in common with Paw Paw, West Virginia, population 500, as London, England does with New London, North Carolina, population 600. I don’t regret my upbringing, but strolling a vibrant city where hillbilly and hipster are one and the same, it was hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy for those privileged to experience both the mysticism of the Appalachians and Asheville’s rich tapestry of art, culture, music and other delights. To be honest, as a young girl, I would’ve been dazzled to simply have grocery stores and hospitals that weren’t a 45-minute drive away.
The experience also made me think about America. If you’ve lived among poor, rural whites long enough to become familiar with their rhythms and ways, you’ve seen misery unfold firsthand, the health and wealth deficits, drug abuse, alcoholism and avoidable deaths. Today, as we focus so very much on the injustices and pain unfolding in our cities, many of us—including me—may have forgotten about the plight of our neighbors out in America’s hinterlands.
In the years since I moved away, stories from home have trickled my way through friends, some happy, many not; for every marriage, birth and success, an overdose, a foreclosure, divorce, sickness, jail, a child snatched away by cancer, a young woman brutally murdered in a trailer on a hill. Would the boy have lived if they’d caught it earlier, or if the good hospital weren’t two-and-a-half hours each way? Would the woman, a teen, really, have escaped her terrible fate if cops were closer, and if drugs and ill intents had been buffered by opportunity and city lights?
Many think rural life idyllic, and it can be. It can also bring forth awful experiences and an early grave.
Just last month, someone I knew in high school died unexpectedly. No one would say why, at least not on Facebook, where our acquaintance has been confined for many years. But based on his posts about depression and injuries serious enough to earn him a steady supply of opioids, I expect it was suicide or overdose. These are not uncommon fates anywhere, particularly not in West Virginia (nor Duval County). He was white like me, liberal like me; he was one of the smart kids at school, like me. Unlike me, he did not get out, at least not very far and not for very long (he’d moved a couple of towns over). He was also funny and sweet and kind. And now he’s dead.
Since November 2016, urban dwellers have been scratching our heads and wondering where all this resentment came from in white, rural America, why these “privileged” people feel angered by their lots in life. Many—including me—have probably wondered if they are audacious, or racist, or narrow-minded. But as I contemplated the distance between Asheville and Paw Paw last week, and later thought of my old friend’s probably avoidable death, along with the sorrow and pain of so many others with whom I shared classrooms, streets and experiences in youth, I felt a rush of sympathy, empathy and shame.
Yes, rural white Americans may not be as socially progressive, or liberal, or accepting of people different from themselves as I might prefer. But their children don’t deserve to grow up with a gas station as their grocery store, an 800-square-foot building staffed by a disgraced quack as their hospital, and absolutely nothing and no one as their therapist, drug treatment or career counselor, staffing agency, or leg up in the world. And they do not deserve to be scorned
and disregarded when they look around the world and ask why no one seems to care about them anymore.
I still care about them. Though you may doubt him, Donald Trump made rural, white Americans feel like he cared about them, too. While I know that you may not agree with their politics, their religion, or their biases, I’m asking you to care about them, too. If you can’t do it out of the goodness of your heart, do it for the good of your country.