If you ask people in the county where I'm from - Letcher County, Kentucky, about my family, they would say that I come from a good home and good people. They would be right. I knew love throughout my entire childhood and I know love from my family today. In Part 1 of this series, I shared some of the moments from my coming into adulthood. When I shared the post on Facebook, several comments were about how real it "seemed" or "felt", and how they were sucked into the story. I wrote the piece in second person. I answered them that it felt real because it was; it was my own experience and every bit true.
I shared my personal experience because I am not ashamed of it and I believe it isn't an uncommon one. Part of me believes that the things I described are more related to living in a certain economic class of people and family dynamic in the United States than it is a uniquely Appalachian experience. It is maybe the truly severe bits that I didn't tell of that would fully couch my early life experiences more in place. The experiences I could share of joy and honest sadness would as well. I purposefully did not tell my most tragic of memories. The Appalachian experience gets plenty of attention for the tragedy of it. The unfortunate reality is that this tragedy is most often displayed or filtered through the eyes and mind of an outsider looking in and distributed through the national media outlets. Very little have I seen someone completely embedded in Appalachia and particularly eastern Kentucky telling the story and it reaching far and wide. For, if it were an eastern Kentuckian in complete control of the telling, the complexity of the Appalachian experience would be revealed. It would demand to be thought about instead of gawked at. To be digested and integrated instead of judged and laughed at. The truth is we are a people who have for over a century now have been told that our way of life isn't normal, isn't proper, isn't fulfilling, isn't joyfilled, isn't healthy, is poor, is backward, is ignorant... is less than. So, I ask. What do you expect to witness from the people who live in arguably the most beautiful natural landscape in all of the United States when for generations we have been told by nearly everyone that comes to visit that they can offer us something better, or that we need saving? Then, in turn, they exploit our hard working ways, our strong backs, and our common sense for their personal gain of ego or profit. What do you expect to see? What?
Now, I come to the part where I have to call out the most well meaning among you to think for a moment about what impact you want to make in my community. Why are you here and what do you want to offer us? And, if you offer, are you going to deliver and do what it takes to understand us well enough that you can? Otherwise, please, just enjoy yourself while you are here, make good memories, spend a lot of money, and pass on through. We aren't here for saving or for boosting anyone's ego. We are a people in transition. We will either succeed and be a story that renews the viability of the American Dream for the average and less than average person or we will fail and be a lesson to the country in the many different ways slavery can still occur in this country legally to line the pockets of the rich white men in control while others bank off the tragedy in their own ways under the guise of morality and ethics.
My people have been in the Appalachian mountains since before written record... since before the white man. My Cherokee ancestors made their home in these hills, respecting the land and managing the resources for posterity. My great great grandmother walked with a lame leg from New Echota/Calhoun, Georgia into Dayton, Tennessee at age fifteen. She followed the ridge as her people taught her to escape violence from white men as her mother wasn't able to do and the family who were separated from her through the Trail of Tears long ago and were in Oklahoma on Indian Territory and couldn't save her from the hardship. She had made the trip herself to Oklahoma several times with her parents. So, she walked. No, she ran away to never look back.. From Dayton, TN, she ended up in Hazard, Kentucky where her husband worked in the mines and was eventually killed in them. She remarried a British man there as I understand.
My Scotch Irish people came into these hills to escape the slums and prejudice of the cities. They wanted to find a home that reminded them of the Old Country so they settled in these mountains where they wouldn't be bothered. They developed a strong sense of place here, becoming clannish and protective of one another and their land. It was a sensibility born of necessity that has been passed down in our DNA as a trait that is as natural to us as breath. Many see it as mere violence and stupidity. We know that for us it has been necessary to fight for home, family, and freedom on our own soil more than it has been to fight in foreign wars. It has become our way to be wary of a stranger. It is a way we have survived. So many of us cannot be convinced to resist this instinct because we are not yet comfortable in this country, but we are at home in these hills.
I have spent all but seven years of my 37 in eastern Kentucky. I have seen very little of the United States or the world with my own eyes. I have only seen the ocean twice as an adult. I can't say I will ever see it again with any certainty. I have lived most of my adult life without health insurance. I've paid my own way in this world since I was sixteen. I have had to go to food banks to eat. I have had to use a chamber pot to relieve myself in my own home for months. I have had to have my teeth worked on at a RAM (Rural Area Medical) clinic, waiting all day in very uncomfortable conditions with a thousand or more people receiving medical care in an open very public place. I have lived with a drug addict. In fact, she was my stepmother. She'd make me pay my car insurance twice sometimes eventhough I had record of my having paid it. I know where the money went. She's dead now. I'm pretty sure drugs were the cause. She left my dad beforehand, but she was my stepmother from the time I was nine until I was 24 or so. I know addiction. Honestly, I know too many good and very intelligent people who have lost their lives to drugs either literally or because they are just a ghost of who they should be. People I love. People that have so so much to offer our place. I love them still and my heart aches for the loss of them and their contribution.
I have had to shelter my brother and sister under my arms and usher them into the house like a mother hen because our neighbors, two brothers, would take to shooting at one another. They lived in small campers and peed in the creek and crapped in the woods where we played. I don't know if they bathed. And yet, when my baby sister put a knife through her hand in the front yard, it was one of them to came to her aid using his shirt to put pressure on her hand. He saved her quite literally. It was one of them who worked on small motors and rigged bicycles to be motorized, buzzing up and down the holler. He chased an emu down the holler once calling - "An ostray... an ostray." That was funny. Almost as funny as when he came and demonstrated for us his Achy Breaky Heart dance.
Another neighbor had a hog farm. I watched many a killing there and can recall the smell every time I fry bacon. I put a rusty nail through my foot at their barn once, jumping from the loft. Another let their toddler run in the holler road with a sagging diaper. And later, one of their toddlers would get bit twice by a cooperhead on two different occassions walking through the grass barefoot at dusk. They lived in a trailer that most of the time had no running water or electricity.
I know what it feels like to have the wind blow hard on my face and through my hair from riding on the open highway in the bed of a pickup truck. I know what it feels like to be an adolescent girl and be looked upon by the eyes of a very drunk man and how the room smells after someone has holed up and went on an alcohol and cigarette binge. I know what it is like to share one bathroom and three bedrooms with five adults and six children. I have also seen what it takes to bring yourself out of a dark hole and run your own store as my great grandfather showed me with his Cowshed Trading Post. I know family secrets that would make you cringe.
And, again. I am confident none of this is uncommon. What I take issue with most of all is the shame we are made to feel about images in the media that others don't understand. The shame that comes with having these stories exposed to outsiders without any of the context. Books could be written, are being written, and should be written on how and why things are as they are here. Why aren't more of us being trusted to tell our own story to the world? A set of photos, an article, an essay is not enough to reveal anything much of substance that an outsider can understand. While we are seeing attempts at bringing more fullness into the display of our tragedy as shown in the recent series release by VICE, it still isn't enough to produce much more than gawking.
I put myself through college and I have a bachelor's and master's degree. I educated myself at the encouragment of a few good teachers, the cultural programming in my school provided through Appalshop, and my grandmothers who both encouraged me to be bookish. I now work at Appalshop as the Public Affairs Director of the radio station there - WMMT-FM. As others in our community are aware non-profits like Appalshop are often questioned in this region. As a young person, I would have never dreamed that I would be able to attend AMI (Appalachian Media Institute) or to work at Appalshop someday. Eventhough I had some friends whose parents worked at Appalshop, I was aware that many people there weren't from my town or weren't of families I knew. I knew no one who had gone through the media institute and spoke about it. When I met the kids from the institute, they all were from somewhere else it seemed. Other than a few, it did seem like people from somewhere else documenting our lives. People who had gone to fancy colleges and travelled a lot. People not like me and my family. I was in awe of them and their life. I wanted a life like that.
Things are a little different these days, or maybe they are the same and I'm just now understanding the reality. Most of the folks I work with are Appalachian, eastern Kentuckians, or long time residents. Not all of us graduated from college. All the kids attending AMI this summer are from eastern Kentucky except for one, I think. Appalshop is working closely within the community and with community leaders in a variety of ways. We are helping to initiate cultural programs in the schools again. And, WMMT is making radio that tells our story in our own words as well as the news that is important to us on a weekly basis.
I mention this because we have an outlet for our voice and the truth of our story that has the potential to be seen nationally. We have this resource right in our yard. Yet, I am well aware of the distrust and I totally understand where it comes from. I also think I know how to change that with many in the region.
What I urge us to do as we begin to reframe the stories being told about us in national media is to have a strong voice. Don't shy away from the images like those taken by Stacy Kranitz and displayed through VICE. I know these images are real. They tell a truth. It is a truth we need to address and if I am truthful myself, we aren't doing what we can to tell this story and to address this truth and people are dying because of it. We want to keep images of drug use, violence, and poverty confined to the urban experience and maybe even the urban minority experience, so we can confidently say, this is not us. No, that particular image is not us, but the images Kranitz gives us is. Period. The people in the pictures gave consent to be photographed. Why do you imagine they did? Were they paid and desperate for money? If Kranitz is acting ethically, no. Can we imagine a minute that it is because they are in pain and they want someone to know, understand, and offer some support for finding an answer or simply aknowledge their humanity? Can we think that just for a moment we need to own these pictures? Own them, talk about them, respond to the truth they reveal. I fully do not believe that we can see any triumph in this place until we own the tragedy and stop trying to push it back in favor of the few positive stories we are seeing, that are happening in spite of the tragedies out of tremendous perserverance and unbendable will. These stories should be told side by side as two sides of the same coin. We must expand the story and include even the ones in our communities that do not get told, for there are many. In eastern Kentucky, it's all real and comes from the same beginning.
We can revive a squaredance. We can create a state park. We can grow a pretty garden and sell at the farmer's market. We can promote art and music. All are important and necessary for moving forward. It is important to our children because it helps instill a pride for their place in them which we hope and pray doesn't get trampled by outsiders telling their story. Tell me though, what does that mean to the drug addict sitting in a haze on their bed wondering if they will have a meal today? What does that mean to the man who's life experience is described like this - "A true redneck don't give a shit about nothing but putting food on the table, working, and getting drunk." -Patrick Green from VICE (What it Means to Be a 'Redneck' or 'Hillbilly')? And, then you have a community with an outrageous unemployment rate. What does it mean?
I suggest we all not be ashamed of the tragedy. I suggest that we own it. We don't make excuses for it, but we analyze how it happened to our people and we begin to promote those stories. We praise those lifting themselves up and finding opportunities to be fulfilled here and to help their communities. We also understand that it is because of who they know, unending effort, continuous learning, and a little luck that it happened for them. It's true, and that's ok.. I know because my life could have looked very differently had I not had certain traits and support. I am a lucky one.
I urge us to not jump to defend ourselves every time these types of stories come out. We should stop that because it isn't nearly as interesting as the story itself, it will widely get overlooked, and it will not stop sensational media from being created. Ask anyone living in Compton, Mexico City, Baghdad. Yeah, do we know what life is like there? Instead, put our own images out with our own stories. Be loud until it can't be ignored anymore. Tell the truth everyone wants to hear, but give them the whole picture. While at it, share the story of the kid who made a film about her teenaged pregnant friend, or drug addicted parent, the dirty water coming through the pipes in their home, or how their vision for the future includes tolerance, inclusion, love, and peace.. Hear our young people when they say they don't need protection from transgendered people, but they need some resources to deal with the drug addicted people in their lives. They need some money for college. They need you to care how literate they are. They'd like to know and understand fresh food and clean water. Every year in the hospital in Manchester 200 babies are born. One-fourth of them will be taken to Kentucky Children's Hospital in Lexington because of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) or drug withdrawl. It costs about $53,400 to treat one baby with NAS. Most of that is covered by Medicaid. Then, what about after effects? Tell our children there is a future here when they are born to these statistics and with everyone arguing over whether or not Obama is the anit-Christ, there is a War on Coal, how good Christians don't condone this gay stuff, and how we are going to get ammo after they cut us off. We are side tracked by lies. Our children are being born into statistics we aren't addressing and we want to highlight the positive as a means for what? An Appalachian born child is well aware of what they have to overcome to have a life seen as meaningful to the outside world. We've been expendable for a long time, even to the people helping us. Tell us our tragedy matters and it didn't happen because we are stupid, ignorant, inbreed hillbillies. Tell us you see our tragedy and you see us too and we are beautiful.
Ok, I'm tired. I've been writing almost three hours. Can of worms... out. My contribution may not be very academic. I'd talk more with anyone in person if this at all feels convoluted. This contribution though is real. It came from my heart.
You are six years old. You live in a trailer park on the hill. Sometimes the rats and mice chew the noses and fingers off of your dolls. Your mom found a dead one in a pot one morning and cried. Your friend has told you there is a witch that lives in a house up a side holler that has a graveyard in it. It scares you when you walk passed there with your dad at night. This friend is a little older and right now she is drawing pictures of nude people and tying them to these puffy white flowers that grow on a bush. You call them snowballs. She takes the flowers with the attached pictures and throws them through the opened window of the trailer where the new boys moved in. They're teenagers. She's ten. She wants a boyfriend. Suddenly, as you both are ducked behind the bush, one of the boys pokes out his head and invites you and your friend in. You go in and they direct you to a room. The room is empty all but some boxes and a mattress on the floor. Before you know it, one of the boys throws you down on the mattress, climbs on top of you and begins kissing your mouth. "You want to kiss little girl?" he says. "Here's a kiss." That's how you learn what boys and men think about girls. It won't be the last thing you learn in that trailer park. Far from it.
Across from you sits your sister. She has a different mother and father. She belongs to your stepdad, but you feel like you were cut from the same cloth. You've been best friends since you were eight. You're 14. She's nine months and three days older than you. She says, "I don't know what to do." "What?" you answer. "I'm pregnant." Her boyfriend was much older. She began to cry. "What do I do?" she asked, beginning to punch her fists into her lower belly. "I have to make this go away." "It'll be ok. We'll figure this out," you say. You don't know how, but you know that you won't let anyone do anything to hurt her. You would risk your life for her. No one. No one knows you like she does and never will. You both manage to keep the baby a secret until at 5 months along your sister becomes very ill and the pregnancy is discovered. She spends the next several days on the couch at your house in and out of a fevered delirium. Everyone is really quiet and somehow you are relieved. Later on, when you ask permission for her to come to one of your eighth grade dances eventhough she attends a different school, you are excited when your guidance counselor says yes. As you begin to go in the building for the dance, this same counselor looks at your sister's stomach and asks you to call your parents to come back because they can't let your sister in. The night ends with alarms, cops, a ride in the police car, accusations, and your boyfriend trying to save the day. You are a straight A and B student. Always have been. Always will be. Yet, you and your friends are treated as if you are a problem. You realize that day what people really mean when they call you a "freak". In November when your sister has her baby, your parents make you stay at school. You feel like throwing up because you told her you would be there. You thought you'd be there. When you go to the hospital, they won't let you see her. They won't let you see the brand new baby that you were the first to know existed. There wasn't anything to save you from. Why were they keeping you away? Your sister breastfed and had an unmedicated birth at fifteen. That day you learned the power of a woman from a teenager. From that day on, she has been your hero.
You find yourself stretched across an unmade bed with your friends half dazed in a trailer heated by a coal stove, covered in what can't be just simple mess - it has to be debris? There are places where the daylight seeps through between floor and wall. Cats are on the counter eating some foul smelling leftover chicken. Something has to have happened here. Right? Nothing happened there but life, the life of teenagers unsupervised by a mentally ill middle aged woman who very occassionally raises her head and mumbles incoherently from her place stretched out on a couch as you and your friends pass through? This is normal and every day here. The boys who live here write poetry and think deep thoughts.
Working at McDonalds pays your rent. You've been working there since you were 16. Now, you are 18 and living in a house with four other people and paying your way through your general education courses at the community college to save money. You got a Rotary Club scholarship. It paid for your books. You'll spend the summer wondering how you will emancipate yourself from your parents so you can use only your income on your FAFSA and actually receive enough financial aid to pay your way through college. No one is going to pay it for you The only college money you had was from your great grandmother who took it from you and allowed others to spend it when you decided to move in with your dad in order to get away from a bad friend situation when you were 15. Now, you pay for everything. Medical bills keep coming from where you cracked your tailbone and realized after going to the hospital that your step mother really wasn't going to help you pay for it. In this moment you are sweaty. You smell like french fries and dehydrated onions. Your manager has had you and another female co-worker scrubbing the stainless steel and baseboards with toothbrushes to prepare for a health inspection. You both are begging him for a break. With a greasy smile, he says, "No, bend back over there and keep scrubbing so I can see that ass." Your heart burns, but you don't know what to do. You can't walk out of there just yet. You have bills to pay and want to go to school.
At the trailer park where you live a bleach blonde woman is your neighbor. She listens to the same Uncle Kracker song over and over so loud that you can hear it inside your trailer. It drives you nuts and makes you laugh at the same time. Her husband is a Mexican man. He's nice, but seems inebriated most of the time. They have twin boys. One of them has fetal alcohol syndrome. His mother shares that with everyone she talks to. He's sweet and reminds you of a wolf. The boys push their bikes up and down the lane and in circles instead of riding them. They did have motorized riding toys, but they got reposessed. You didn't know those kinds of things could be reposessed. You are studying English Literature at one of the closest state colleges to your hometown. You just got married. You are twenty. You had been dating your husband for five years. You both hated your off campus living situations and wanted to live together. You both came from families who would look down on that. It didn't much bother you, but you didn't want to disappoint your dad. Your husband gets some school money from his parents and they helped you get emancipated for your financial aid, so you definitely didn't want to offend them. So, one day, when he was helping you dye your hair burgundy, you asked him if he wanted to get married. He said yes. So you'd have an engagement ring, your sister talked a guy who was in love with her into buying one of the $99 diamonds at Wal-Mart. You wore it long enough to show your parents. Now, you have a nice little trailer all your own. $178 payment every month. But, it's yours and you can relax a little that there is no one. No one. No one you have to answer to anymore... but your husband.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.