Today I watched The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Addams’ Appalachia, a documentary about the Appalachian people of Kentucky. I found this documentary strangely compelling. I felt a huge kinship with these people, living poorly by our standards, leading simple lives, and making music to amuse themselves. I think I feel such a kinship because my grandfather’s people come from the hills of Tennessee. Grandpa Brown was a man of few words with a wry sense of humor, and who could fish like nobody’s business. He made his own fishing lures and then stuffed the large fishes he caught. One that he stuffed was displayed on the wall in the house where I grew up. My grandfather played the fiddle and my Grandma played the piano. I remember listening to them both playing hymns together and my aunts and uncles sitting around clapping, singing, or dancing.
My grandmother’s people came from a long line of God-fearing preachers of the independent Baptist variety here in Illinois. Many a night we listened to Grandma talk about the farm she grew up on and the chores she had to do. The tale she tells is of seeing my Grandpa for the first time coming over the hill toward their farm looking for work. He had walked and hitched rides to Illinois from Tennessee. He was 19 and she was 17. They were married a year later. My favorite picture of my grandfather is one where he is sitting on the floor of a porch attached to a cabin in the middle of a forest. I believe it’s the actual cabin where he grew up with his mother and father and sisters and brothers. His knees are drawn up and his arms are resting on his bent knees. He’s wearing a hat and staring off into the distance. The lines of outdoor work are heavily etched into his brown, leathery face. I have a great respect for those who can capture true emotions and lives on film and Addams can do that. When Addams interviews people outside of this culture, there are those who express suspicion, stereotypical attitudes, and fear of the subject. It points out to me how much people fear things outside of their own sense of place and familiarity and the patronizing attitudes that comes from such an attitude. And that works for rich and poor alike. I have a huge respect for documentarian filmmakers who can share the experiences they have lived with us. There are those who wish that the stories could have accompanied the pictures and perhaps we would lose some of the stereotypes if we knew those stories.
I think the reason this film resonated so much with me, by listening to their speech patterns and observing their faith, I can so see myself and my family members in them. There are some that want to politicize the subjects. Oh what education could do, they ponder. It becomes like a media zoo when someone goes into the woods or the midwest or into small towns like a modern-day Margaret Mead and “observe the natives.” Oh what shall we do about poor white folk? Look at those strange beliefs! Oh my God they still slaughter their own animals! We should feel sorry for them! Is it exploitative? When you photograph them, put them on display, and walk through such galleries and thank the powers you no longer believe in that you aren’t that poor, it’s easy to make fun of things you don’t know anything about. It’s easy to romanticize poor lives or imagine that they inbreed or other unnatural things. It’s easy to imagine you have just what they need to “fix” them.
And what shall we say about religion in Appalachia? Addams’ explores the serpent handlers of this area, whose practices are based in the last chapter of Mark. They believe in the signs of the Kingdom of God literally; speaking in tongues, handling serpents, and drinking poison. The folk in this area handles rattlesnakes even though it’s illegal in a public area. Churches are considered public areas, so they have services in their homes. They also drink strychnine. Addams captures the stories behind such beliefs and thankfully provides just the stories others are asking of them. I’m glad he did that, because I can’t say I wouldn’t be one of those who made a snap judgment if I just observed them in a book. When you think of all the popular cultural stereotypes, especially in the movies, about people who live in ‘hollers’ and those in the woods, I can only say I’m glad these folks are unaware that we use their family lives as fun fodder for our movie going habits.
All I could say after watching this and reacting with such a gut reaction is, these people could be my people. Oh, no doubt, these are very, very hard lives. They are dirt poor. They live in shacks, and they are often dirty, missing teeth, or sick with some disease. My family would be considered several rungs up the social ladder from such a life, so I count myself among those that stereotype easily. But as I get older, I have learned to empathize with so much that is different from my world. And I thank those people who have shown me love and encouraged me to do just that. I’m glad I watched this film. I encourage you to do so as well.