What do you call 32 West Virginia beauty queens? Punchline: A full set of teeth.
That was the joke that was instantly told when a person I had just been introduced to asked where I was from, and I responded that I was from West Virginia.
I cannot fathom how someone could think that this was acceptable. To have such little regard for a person’s background, heritage, family or feelings – it astounded me. I was angry; my stomach clenched in knots, and all I wanted was to make this person see that what he had just done was not acceptable.
Unfortunately, the social situation we were in would not allow it, and I am much better at expressing my thoughts in writing than in the middle of hostility.
Let me explain what I feel about my state.
I feel love. I feel sadness, I feel hate, I feel pity, I feel hope, and I feel the pull of home.
I feel love that is my youth; love that is my family homestead, and love for the mountains where I learned to drive and that speak to my soul. It is beauty and grace and a wild ruggedness that captivates and overwhelms. I love the history that runs as deep as the veins of coal through her hills. I love its gentle calm; its fierce rawness and its people. I love its festivals and fairs and pageants. I love its music and its heart. I love West Virginia.
I feel sadness that everyone cannot experience the joy that is my West Virginia. I am saddened at the disregard for its beauty by government and business. I feel sadness for its people who are under educated and isolated, but who are strong with such potential and who may never be helped. I am sad because they are among the last acceptable groups of people who can be publicly ridiculed -backwoods, redneck, toothless, feuding, hill folks sipping shine and kissing cousins, illiterate, inbred, strung out, banjo playing, accent-speaking Hillbilly – an “acceptable” joke.
I feel hate that I cannot protect my home. I hate the lack of jobs and options, and I hate the feeling of helplessness that haunts me. I hate the strip mining that cuts through the mountains and leaves its scars, and I hate the poverty that oppresses its people. I hate that when coal leaves so will so many of her citizens, and I hate that no one seems to care. I hate that we are so easily laughed at and ignored. I hate that our youth are looking outside of our boundaries for a solution, some type of answer, looking to shrug off the stereotype, to “correct” their accents and look forward to acceptance.
I feel pity that people are so small they cannot see the harm they are causing. I pity those who will never know the warmth of a small town; who won’t understand when they are waved at by a passing car or when a stranger smiles. I feel pity that the world will never know its swimming holes and small museums, nor the struggles of its small communities and the secrets it holds just around every mountain curve.
I am hopeful that West Virginia will grow and flourish. I feel hope that with each year there is another change, another chance. I hope that we can find our place and make our stand and to show what we can offer and what we can overcome. I hope that the world will understand and learn to appreciate my state and see our struggle and help us. I hope that our youth will come back to our hills to bring new life and ideas. I am hopeful that West Virginia will rise to the challenge and show the world who we are.
We are mothers and fathers, coal miners and farmers. We are 4-H and FFA; we are actors and musicians. We are scientists and engineers; we are politicians and businessmen. We are frontiersmen and civil rights activists; we are history and hope. This is our home and we are mountain strong.