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If my father were alive to read the June 8 edition of the British newspaper The Guardian, he’d laugh and say that reporter Paul Harris had been taken out to hunt wampus cats.
Wampus cats were born of Cherokee mythology, a wild woman/mountain lion beast that haunted the hills. Somewhere in the telling of the wampus cat legend, my daddy combined it with the infamous snipe hunt. My daddy loved nothing better than to take a know-it-all visitor from Detroit or Chicago a mile or two into the woods, hand him a grass sack, tell him to bend over and hold it open.
“I’m just going over the ridge here, and I’ll herd “˜em to you,” my daddy would say in the retelling of it. “You just stand right there and hold the sack.”
Tears would stream down his face; he laughed so hard, thinking about how silly city people are to think a wild animal would kamikaze into a grass sack. The funniest rubes were those who stood there an hour or two before realizing they were the butt of a joke.
Poor Paul Harris. He’s still standing there, holding that grass sack and waiting for the wampus cat.
Harris traveled to Pike County, Kentucky, and Williamson, West Virginia, to interview the locals about Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s challenge in overcoming racism. The whittlers, tobacco spitters and other political fixtures who hang around the courthouse were quick to pick up on Harris’ drift and were more than happy to go along with his premise. One said that Obama was going to bring back slavery and another said Obama was the antichrist.
Without asking, I’m confident that those individuals later got on the Internet, read Harris’ story and howled with laughter when they realized he actually quoted them saying those things.
I worked as a reporter for 15 years, covering rural Kentucky for three of Kentucky’s four largest newspapers. I’m also a native of Appalachia, with family roots in the region that go back to the American Revolution. Many times, I watched friends spin a big yarn when the city reporters came to town. Years ago somebody came down from New York to film a documentary about coal mining and a miner friend of mine in Leslie County agreed to be interviewed. He talked at length of a daily grind of picks, shovels, carbide lights and mules when his real job was running a roof-bolter and a continuous miner ““ high voltage equipment that had retired mules 40 years prior. Another old friend sold hand-made rocking chairs and told prospective buyers that he hand-whittled and hand-sanded every piece. In fact, the chairs were hand-made and were beautiful, but when the visitors were back in their cars, headed up I-75, I could hear him hand-sanding alright, with a hand-held electric belt sander.
It’s not that Harris didn’t have a legitimate story about the issue of entrenched racism in America. There are pockets of ignorance and hate in our country and sadly there are some people who will not vote for Obama in November only because he is a black man. Those pockets, however, are not the exclusive franchise of Appalachia. Appalachia is not, as Harris claimed, “trapped in the dreadful history of race relations and the legacy of slavery and segregation” any more than many other places in America.
What Harris doesn’t know is that Appalachia is not that South. Appalachia is the part of the South that resisted seceding from the Union. Appalachia is the place that, during Reconstruction, was allied with freed blacks, Union war veterans and laissez-faire businessmen who carried on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party. Appalachia Kentucky and Tennessee was the birthplace of the United Mine Workers, who had black coal miners as delegates at its founding convention and whose membership was 20 percent black at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1988 I was working as a reporter in Hazard, Kentucky, when Jesse Jackson came to campaign during his bid for the Democratic nomination. A number of people told me privately that they wished he wouldn’t come because they were afraid someone would kill him. The tenor of those comments was not, as Mr. Harris suggested in his article about Obama, wishful thinking. It was more like Hazard did not want to be another Dallas, Texas, whose name was synonymous with the worst day in modern American public life. In the end, there was nothing to fear. Jackson filled the high school gym, and his oratorical skills were such that women were handing their white babies to him from the crowd. Jackson was so touched by the reception he received in Appalachia that for years after that he championed the region’s causes.
There are two simple reasons that Barack Obama lost big in the mountain primaries. The mountains of West Virginia, Southern Ohio, western Virginia, East Kentucky and East Tennessee have a large population of working class people, 45 and older, without a college diploma that make less than the federal poverty level. Those same people who live in Texas, New York and California also voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Obama. The second reason Obama did not do well is that he did not campaign in Appalachia. Obama essentially forfeited West Virginia and Kentucky because he did not need the delegates to claim the nomination. That’s a tactical decision and maybe, from a tactical point of view, was correct.
Seven schools take the Wampus cat as a mascot: Leexville High School (LA); Pollock Elementary School (LA); Itasca High School (TX); Clark Fork High School (ID); Atoka High School (OK); Conway High School (AR); Cambridge City High School (IN). This is the Itasca mascot.
But certainly since the 1960 presidential election, candidates have come to Appalachia to campaign, whether or not there were enough votes to swing the election. It was a rite of passage, a reminder to Democrats of the sacrifice that the region has made for coal and war, and a challenge to them to shame America into living up to its ideals. In essence, it is the same reason presidential candidates have asked black people for their vote, even on those occasions when all their votes were not enough to seal the outcome.
It never hurt a political candidate to stand on the front porch of a working coal miner’s home, shake his hand and ask him for his vote. It also never hurt a reporter to spend a couple of hours in the library learning something about a place before mindlessly repeating the biggest sin of racism: spreading a top-dressing of ignorance in a field of fear.
In my experience, if you listen long enough, you’ll learn something you need to know and you’ll be less likely to be sent out to hunt for wampus cats.