Appalachian author criticizes mountain top removal

When author Jeff Biggers came to speak at Northern Kentucky University, the destructive process of mining known as mountain top removal taking place across Appalachia was the main focus of his presentation.

But Biggers had a lot to say on energy use, Appalachian culture and the persisting stereotypes of Appalachia, of which Kentucky is a part of. The Northerner spoke with Biggers combining that with compiled information from Lisa Guidarini’s interview from the Web site Bluestalking Reader to find out what Biggers really thinks about Appalachia.

One of Biggers’ biggest concerns is over-energy use, especially in Appalachia, where an abundance of coal is mined, which is an issue that he believes NKU students and Northern Kentucky residents can play a role in finding a solution.

“One of the big issues facing our country – and your NKU generation – is that of our energy policy. Nationwide, we depend on coal for over 50 percent of our electricity; over 80 percent in Ohio. I think we need a new vanguard in our energy policy, specifically to pursue renewable energy sources,” he said.

Biggers said coal is often thought of as cheap and inexhaustible, but that the price paid is not just monetary but also in man power and the toll to the environment.

“In truth, the real question is at whose expense is coal cheap? In Appalachia – which includes Eastern Kentucky and Southern Ohio – coal companies have increasingly turned toward a bizarre form of strip-mining called mountaintop removal, which not only devastates the mountains, but the economies and social fabric of communities in its path,” Biggers said. “We have strip-mined a vital part of our nation’s legacy.”

Before his main presentation Oct. 2, Biggers met with the NKU community in the Loggia of Steely Library to speak on his book, which details some of the important people and places that America has to thank Appalachia for.

During the presentation, Biggers asked members of the audience to describe Appalachia, and the one-word responses he got were universally negative. Biggers said when was in his early twenties, he was no different, but after attending a folk school in West Virginia, he learned about a different side of Appalachia.

“The Southern Mountains emerged in our discussions as an international theater of war, a crossroads of cultures and a real burning ground of innovations and groundbreaking movements,” Bigger said. “These buried histories – buried under so many ridiculous stereotypes – fascinated me.”

Outsiders from Appalachia, such as critics, easily disparage the entire region, Biggers said. “No other region has been so trivialized or maligned,” he added.

It is because of this miseducation of America on the culture that Kentucky, as well as the other states the Appalachian Mountains run through, take part in that Biggers speaks and writes on the subject, as in his book “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment.”

Exposing these stereotypes is the focus of Biggers’ book. “It’s time for those of us outside the region to get over these stereotypes and recognize that we can’t fully understand American history … until we understand Appalachian history.”

Because of his strong stance on the virtues of Appalachia, Biggers says that many people write him off as a local trying to laud their “homeplace” to outsiders.

“A funny thing has happened: I’ve been introduced so many times as an Appalachian writer who wrote a book about Appalachia, as if only someone from the region would write or be interested in this book, when in fact, I’m an outside journalist and writer, and I approached this project as a broader work on American social history,” Biggers said.

The achievements of Appalachia aren’t within the lines of race, however. When asked to speak in Chicago, Biggers was scheduled for February but was later asked to change to a different date because it was Black History Month. Biggers was shocked. “They assumed Appalachia had no African American experience,” he said. He went informed the venue that “Black History Month was actually launched by a Black Appalachian coal miner, renowned historian Carter Woodson; that Booker T. Washington had been shaped by his experience in West Virginia, just like pioneering Black Nationalist Martin Delany and contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates.” Biggers went on to explain the importance of prominent African-Americans born in the area or who made a difference in the region such as Nikki Giovanni, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Lesley Riddle and John Henry. Unfortunately, Biggers was not invited to Chicago for Black History Month that year.

Besides his book “The United States of Appalachia,” Jeff Biggers has written “Sierra Madre,” a book on the mountain range that similarly is under-represented in America, and co-edited “No Lonesome Road,” a publication of the work of Appalachian poet Don West. His works have also appeared in various anthologies. Biggers also he tours the country promoting his books and speaking on Appalachian issues.