Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

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Mis-Remembering the Civil War

May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory.  Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans.  While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.

Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape.  But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war.  It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.

Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24.  I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga).  I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this.  We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.

Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background.  My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.

The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union.  And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many.   Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery.  And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights.  Both are wrong.  The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners.  But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863.  Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.

To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder.  This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.

I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it.  Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865).  But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country.  But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.

Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities.  That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart.  There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.

It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction.  And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political.  For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact).  This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.

Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves.  Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men.  Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves.  In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men.  They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.

And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy.  It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle.  It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.

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