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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

August 7, 2013: Back to Virginia: Sorry, West Virginia

[Two years ago, when the boys and I last traveled to Virginia, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the state’s AmericanStudies connections. We’re headed back to my home turf in a week, so here’s another series on Virginia histories and stories. Add your Virginian takes for a weekend post that’s for AmericanStudies lovers, y’all!]
On ignorance, humorous and less so.
I’m not sure if this is true across the nation—although I suspect that it might be—but at least in Virginia, West Virginia seems mostly to serve as the butt of jokes about ignorance, inbreeding, and assorted other social backwardnesses. A fair number of the jokes I heard most frequently as an adolescent revolved around making fun of our northwestern neighbors for those qualities—and like most jokes, they were funny because they seemed (at least to me, then) to capture essential truths. That is, just as jokes about ignorant Poles or Irishmen reflect those nations’ relationships to their “superior” neighbors, so too did West Virginia jokes illustrate how much we Virginians used the state to feel good about ourselves in contrast.
My titular apology is partly for my part in making and laughing at all those jokes—but it’s much more for how ignorant I was of the most fundamental part of West Virginia history: the reason for the state’s existence. In the spring of 1861, a group of Western Virginia counties and legislators met in Wheeling, events that would come to be called the Wheeling Convention and that produced a striking outcome: these counties voted to repeal Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession and rejoin the United States, as an entity known as the “restored government of Virginia.” The rest of the state did not, of course, follow suit, leading to this region becoming for all intents and purposes a separate state—an identity that was confirmed two years later, when West Virginia was admitted to the Union (one of only two states admitted during the Civil War) in June 1863.
This is pure speculation (at least I’m willing to admit it!), but it seems quite possible to me that the stereotypes and jokes about West Virginia developed at least in part because we Virginians were ashamed of this history, and of the ways in which it reflected on our own state’s heritage of slavery and secession. More crucially, West Virginia’s history makes clear that secession was not a given even within the South, even within the state that would host the Confederate Capital. I believe most Americans are aware of the various moments and ways in which the North was divided over the Civil War—but far too few of us, Virginians included and especially, know of West Virginia’s resistance to the Confederacy. And that’s no laughing matter.
Next Virginia post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginia connections you’d share for the weekend post?

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