Thompson gives two catalysts for writing this book. First, she discovers that one of her ancestors was a Union sympathizer. As someone who grew up in southern Appalachia hearing (inflated) stories about how much Union support up there, I was a bit bemused at her overreaction. Thompson’s second catalyst is the disappearance of sorts of the South. This is certainly true, but only to a point. W.J. Cash’s closing paragraph still rings true today. Thompson sees the South as defined by, first and foremost, two cultural institutions: slavery and evangelical Protestantism. The small fact that slavery no longer exists does little to lessen its influence today. The ruts and scars are still there. The South has always been religious, and even as the ubiquity of religion has faded its intensity has grown.
The first step to writing a nonfiction book like Rising Out of Hatred is to have a good underlying story. Saslow has a great one. How does the scion of a leading white supremacist family and the heir apparent to the movement go from that to rejecting white supremacism in the space of just a few years?
Derek Black is the son of Don Black. As a teenager, Don (former KKK Grand Wizard and the founder of Stormfront) carpooled to a white supremacist conference with David Duke (former KKK Grand Wizard and elected member of the state legislature in Louisiana) and Joseph Paul Franklin (serial killer and maimer of Larry Flynt). He was shot in the torso in high school by the brother of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s assassin) while attempting to the steal the membership list of a rival white supremacist organization. Don would later go on to marry Duke’s ex-wife and sire Derek, who Duke would treat like a godson. Small world.
I learned two things when I opened White Working Class. One, I am a class migrant (“someone who has moved from one class to another”). Two, apparently I’m not working class at all, and never was. Williams curiously defines “working class” to mean middle class.
She defines working class as: “Americans . . . with household incomes above the bottom third but below the top 20%.” She adds in as well “families with higher incomes but no college graduates,” highlighting the increasing relevance of education to class in America. This results in a range of family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962. Williams has a point when she says that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class. But calling couples who make $130,000 a year “working class” is silly. Williams contrasts the working class with “elites,” i.e., “Americans with household incomes in the top 20% and at least one member who is a college graduate.” This elite is largely a professional and managerial elite (PME).
By this measure I was only working class for a brief few years between grad school and law school. Otherwise I have been poor or elite my entire life.
(I don’t like Williams’ definition, but for the purposes of this post, when I say “working class,” I mean working class as she defines it.)
I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry). Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia. Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).
Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed. It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy. Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky. The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal. It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.