The April 8th opener for Saturday Night Live, “Donald Trump Goes to Kentucky,” is the latest example of what many Appalachian academics, activists, and advocates feel is outsiders taking liberties with extreme representations of our people and culture. In the skit, four Kentuckians from Boone County (not in Appalachia or the coalfields) express concerns to President Trump who is there to relish in undying support. They express their concerns. Trump replies in his vague and ridiculous manner. Each of them sit down a little shell shocked, but still wanting to believe the president they elected has their best interest at heart. Almost immediately after the skit aired, my Facebook newsfeed was ablaze with offended eastern Kentuckians admonishing the writers of the skit for stereotyping and making us out as idiots. A little later, came more blogging about liberal elitism and how the Democrats are to blame for our communities’ Trump votes.
I have felt the need to add the qualifier, I am a coal miner's daughter, to add credence to my writing or a thought I was hoping to express since the "Trump Digs Coal" slogan and his election, I've done it countless times. As far as I have been able to gather, my family ended up in this far armpit of eastern Kentucky to mine coal on all sides. We've been pioneers of the Appalachian mountains since we came over the big water, and my Cherokee family, well... this land is theirs.
The top picture is my great great grandparents on the Hansel side and where my name is descended from - Zachariah Taylor Hansel and Elizabeth Evans Hansel. The little dark headed fellow standing next to his dad is my great grandfather John Thomas Hansel Sr. The Hansels moved to Harlan from the Mount Sterling area of Kentucky to mine coal and that is where the very direct experience I have with coal miners begins.
The bottom picture is William Stephens and Amanda Sue Clay Stephens from Olive Hill, Kentucky in Carter County. They moved to Letcher County during the building of Jenkins, Kentucky which was built by Consolidation Coal Company beginning with the purchase of the land in 1911. My great grandmother who was my babysitter all of my young years was their daughter - Golda Ruth Stephens Johnson. She was born in 1912 as the first of eight children. It seems the family came around 1914 to Letcher County for coal mining. My Mamaw Johnson always told me her daddy was a Blackfoot Indian which seems kind of strange to me considering he or his family would have had to travel a long way in order get to Olive Hill, Kentucky from Montana or Canada even. Who knows though? He's definitely from somewhere.
Golda Ruth (Goldie) married Luther Johnson. Papaw Johnson was my best friend when I was small and the way we spent our days together was directly influenced by his time as a coal miner. Luther is the tall man in the second row with the pipe hanging from his lips. He was a union miner as most were in those days. Yet, he realized really fast that being in the mines wasn't going to pay him off in the long run and could potentially take him from his family and this old world. Papaw Johnson had the wit, grit, and wherewithal to find a way to get himself out of the mines and into the business of being his own boss. Weekends at the Isom Stock Sale turned into the Cowshed Trading Post, and there I "helped" him keep shop nearly every day of my childhood. The Cowshed was a kid paradise.
That brings us back to the Hansel men. Pictured below is John Thomas Hansel Sr. and Junior, both coal miners. Great Papaw Hansel lost his larynx to throat cancer, and as a kid I used to be fascinated that the piece of gauze that flapped over the open hole in his neck was the only thing that kept the outside world from seeping in to his body where it could not be rightfully contained. I will never forget the hushed sucking and choke sound that he used to create his voice with family. He didn't like the mechanical voice box to use all the time. Inconvenience, I suppose.
Papaw Hansel became an electrician in the mines and eventually took that skill and became a teacher at the vocational school in Letcher County. So, he too found a way out of the mines, but not the economy dependent upon it. When I was 8, he moved his family to South Carolina where he applied his mining skills working on machinery and such things at a fabric printing plant. He passed away of bone cancer in South Carolina just a few years ago.
So, here I am. This proud coal miner's daughter working for a place that has the commonly associated tag of "anti-coal" by some in the community. My dad supports my work and always will because he's confident in how he raised me. Here's the thing... Appalshop is not "anti-coal", we are an arts, culture, and media organization who documents and preserves life and tradition in Central Appalachia. However, you will find some related people who in their personal lives and opinions are not believers that coal mining is good for the region and especially strip mining. Yet, as with any organization, company, or workplace you will find a wide range of beliefs none of which in and of themselves represent the principles of the organization.
My dad experienced some of this directly when he worked for Enterprise Coal which was located in the building next to Appalshop at one point in time. A member of a visiting group called Mountain Justice Summer who were in Whitesburg to organize and demonstrate against mountaintop removal coal mining vandalized my dad's work truck by urinating in the truck bed and marking the paint. They were caught in the act and when my dad tried to confront them, he was spat upon. Now, someone not understanding that various organizations sometimes have to interact would leave that situation with a very strong opinion about "liberal" minded people who protest mining and because they were visiting Appalshop, direct that opinion onto Appalshop.
Fortunately, my dad knew better. He knew that many of the founding members of Appalshop were his neighbors and classmates in school. He played basketball for Whitesburg High School with one and lived down the street from another for awhile. He knew a large number of Appalshop employees were locals. Of course, he held some really strong feelings about the association and the kind of education or encouragement that would lead young people to violate the respect of their elders and personal property. I think he has mostly let that go these days. I haven't, and I won't. It's been said about us "hillbillies" that we have tribal loyalty to a fault. Maybe we do, but I plan to set this action right for the good of my community as best as I can. I want to redeem the dignity of my dad and the men and women who stay, work, and worship here.
The recent election has brought new attention of the coalfields and it seems we've become the poster children for "Trump Country" as before we were and always seem to be the poster children for American poverty. It's really laughable, but at the same time I've seen a lot of troubling behavior stem from this renewed attention. Every week, I produce a 5 minute radio news roundup of the coal industry and its place in the bigger picture of the energy profile of the United States. It's unbelievable how many ways the same thing can be rehashed with different words and published to lock in the attention of new readers. I doubt there was ever a planned "War on Coal" fueled by legislation aimed to cripple the industry. I do believe some of the legislation did not help an already failing industry.
James Higdon wrote the best article concisely explaining what I believe to actually be happening for Politico and it was published last week - The Obama Idea to Save Coal Country. He begins with the "War on Coal" and takes us through Kentucky Republican Representative Hal Rogers's RECLAIM Act which was shot down by Republican law men from the western coalfields states which is the most recent government effort to provide assistance to the barely breathing economy of the Appalachian coalfields.
I think of the information in Higdon's piece, my dad's experience with social justice activists, the media coverage of my home during the election, and the disgusting opinions of people wishing death upon Trump supporters and coal miners reflected in the Facebook comments of a radio story my colleague Benny Becker produced with Howard Berkes when it was shared by National Public Radio (NPR), and I'm embarrassed to be thought of in terms of political leanings or someone who could sit by and do nothing in response to the comments of the very people who claim to have a heart for the poor and troubled. Here are some examples from that comment thread.
"One candidate ran on improving job training and education opportunities as the means for navigating the 21st Century job market. The other candidate promised to bring back coal mining jobs. Millions of Appalachians considered those proposals and said, "I want black lung disease, too!" ~Jeff Fulmer
"West Virgina, PA, and Ohio...all solid Trump territory. They loved that the fool actually said he would bring coal back, and that he would dismantle ACA (Obamacare). For many years, people like me (considered the coastal liberal elite) fought to bring politicians into power to bring jobs and health care to these regions---services that we personally don't need in regions that we don't live in--because it was the right thing to do. But apparently, a bigoted, misogynist snake oil salesmen promising them a version of the US that looks like Berlin in 1939 was more appealing. So, this liberal American is done with the Rust and Bible Belts, and focusing on California and California only." ~Michelle Whiting
There's so much wrong with these comments and the disgusting political divide that they represent that I would have to write my own book, or create a collection of the articles already written in counter to such opinions. It boils down to the fact that a mono economy was purposefully created in the coalfields by the coal companies that wished to take the money to the bank. They wanted to make this money on the backs of people they considered as little more than property. This labor created the "coastal liberal elite" cities that Ms. Whiting referenced through the industrialization of America. When these men died under needlessly dangerous conditions and did not receive fair wages, sometimes being paid in script instead of money which could only be used in company owned stores, they fought battles against their employers and the United States government to earn Americans the fair labor laws we have today. Because coal mining was seen as a service to the nation and a vital support of the entire American economy, these men and women found their worth in mining coal and providing an honest living for their families. Americans have demanded coal to power this country for the last 100 years and now the region of America that was populated for the sole purpose of mining coal has been forgotten and looked upon with nothing less than disgusted disregard by people who would claim to be interested in the pursuit of social justice and opportunity for all. The people making these comments have no idea what our families fought for and that now, coal mining done right and well is not without risk, but fairly safe and pays really well in the $70,000 a year range with no college debt for those that go in right out of high school. Add to that, full benefits, and aside from the fact that coal has been in steady decline and these jobs have become fewer and fewer, who wouldn't mine coal? It isn't coal mining in and of itself that has caused the problems we see in coal mining. It is however, crooked politics and money that has.
Then, there was this article by the founder of Daily Kos, the left leaning group blog for those involved with "netroots activism" to further the socially progressive policies and candidates in politics - Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for.
That article solidified my questioning of being involved at all in journalism or anything that can be labeled left or right. I've never desired to be a career social activist, and I don't now. I mostly see it as hot air blowing. I'm more interested in the tangibles. My community is more interested in the tangibles. As my ancestors chose to make a life here, and stayed here to do a job they were told was important for the well being of the nation, we work in the hard rock of reality. We always have.
Last week, Daily Kos tried to redeem itself with An Open Letter to America's Coal Miners and America by former coal miner and company man, Mark Sumner. I wish Sumner had taken his letter to another outlet, or maybe he wrote the appeal as a prompting from Daily Kos as a redemptive action. However, the letter is quite good. As Higdon's article summarizes the realities of the down-turned coal industry well, Sumner encapsulates the feelings of a miner and his family in a pill that's hard to swallow. Voting for Trump was a hail Mary for the coalfields. No one representing the power in this country or the liberal or conservative elite has fought hard enough for the future of a people that in no small part helped build this country.
Some would argue that with the same vote for Trump that we expect to save some jobs, we screwed ourselves out of the best healthcare access we've ever had. Increased access to healthcare only does so much. Yes, it provides more healthcare industry jobs. Yes, it brings federal dollars into our economy. Yes, it brings some people who desperately need doctors into the clinics to receive care. What we know well is that as always, federal programs are subject to change and political whim whereas a good job is a Godsend. One statistic someone might share with me is how many of the people who are insured for free under the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid actually made it to the polls to vote. And, because our access to news is somewhat limited by poverty and lack of wide availability of broadband internet, a jaded media brought confusion by renaming the Affordable Care Act to the point of essentially doing away with the original title - ObamaCare. And then, memes like this were created.
You know what's real hillbilly of me. I wanna fist fight you people. What I want to do is scream at you and make your nose bleed. It would be wonderfully gratifying. In your social activist and liberal and segregated city bubbles, you are part of the system that have always seen my ancestors as collateral and expendable. You want people to believe that we are all lower class white people, which in my layout of my family history was disproved. If this is widely believed, you feel you have permission to publicly belittle us and make fun of us and still call yourselves politically correct. I wouldn't care if we all were the color of hospital bed sheets bleached to stiffened, you still have no right. We are human beings, and you in doing so are a hypocrite and I don't trust you to have my well being in mind or anyone else's that you see as against your social values.
When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." the Democratic party lost coal country. I understand that taken in context Mrs. Clinton's comment can be understood in a totality that adjusts the impact slightly, but not enough. Our region's economy is hurting so bad that such an insensitive comment could not be redeemed. Many of us became willing that very moment to see in tunnel vision as many working poor must, to where our next meal will come from and if our kids will have equal or more opportunity than we do, and take a gamble on the nutcase of a Republican candidate and businessman - Donald Trump. In case you want to know what those of us in the eastern Kentucky coalfields think about opportunities for our children, in the Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky the 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 65% of us said the next generation will be worse off than the current generation of working adults. To not expect us to fight for anything we can to fill those gaps, would be akin to us consuming our own children.
It was a two party and polarized political system that failed us by creating an environment where such a thing could occur. Both parties see the coalfields Appalachians as expendable or little more than pawns in a game of dollars. See as proof of this an article from the Heritage Foundation explaining away a government bailout for UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) backed pensions. The same government that created a situation where homeless veterans beg for money and food in Washington D.C. and 20 veterans commit suicide every day after they sacrificed themselves in service to the country is well on its way to allowing former, elderly coal miners to lose the healthcare and benefits they earned by retiring coal miners. This same government allowed an industry to push out the unions without requiring that they do anything in good faith to the miners who made their money. Here's one fine example of how coal miners are being thrown out with the sludge and coal ash in order to give company executives big bonuses in hopes they'll stick around even though their job won't last even with the down sizing of debt and assets. Alpha Natural Resources is just one of many. Corporate greed and government complacency.
I could go on and on and on trying to explain to you why so many of the people I know, respect and love voted for Donald Trump, but I think so many of you would continue to think of us as merely ignorant or stupid and will label us with your social justice buzz words like - misogynistic, anti-Islamic, homophobic, and white supremacists. That's an easy way for you not to claim your responsibility in the creation of this situation we're finding ourselves in, and your democracy's willingness to overlook a group of people hidden away in the mountains of Central Appalachia as a means to keep progress moving forward without facing the issues that progress was making.
I won't fight your ugly words with more ugly words. I won't hunt down the brainwashed kid who thought he was protesting "corporate greed-heads" by spitting on my dad and kick his teeth in. I won't even laugh out loud as I see those who identify with us either celebrating or debating the very simplistic and unthought provoking memoir of J.D. Vance just one more time. I mean dag gone ya'll, give it a rest. Instead, I'm going to listen to you when you speak. I'm going to take your concerns deep within, and I'm going to ask the hard questions of my community that need to be asked. I'm going to try to encourage people who are working with the concrete things that can offer some relief in our dying coal towns every day. Those who are offering things we can touch. Things we can eat. Words that give hope instead of tear apart. I'm going to keep talking about opioid addiction for the very fact that it's damn unpleasant and it is another way the people here have been exploited for the sake of a dollar. I'm going to give prescription drug misuse a human story because I've lost a stepmother and numerous friends to it. I don't care what anyone thinks about focusing on solutions rather than problems. Our problems haven't been faced in any real way yet, and until we do that, we won't see solutions, we'll see bandages.
I am going to love on people as best as I can with the gifts I have. I will share the story of my people with those in these city bubbles who do give a hoot and want to listen because I know there are more reasonable folks than there are hypocrites. The thing that keeps me going in radio journalism is the thought that someone is listening who cares or who is willing to change their mind when presented new facts. The God's honest truth is that I don't know that journalism is where I can best serve my community. I'm giving it everything in me I have to give, but I question the tangibles. I am going to share yoga with my community to help heal the deep generational trauma we have experienced. I'm going to share spiritual insights that have helped me. I am going to try my best to be a mediator between you folks and my community. I'm going to try to heal broken relationships related to this ugly rhetoric. Relationships that on both sides we should have fought harder to maintain. I'm going to write ranting blogs like this one, fiction, and poetry. I'm going to love people instead of ideas. I'm going to consciously choose the middle road.
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.
Will living here rightly prepare my daughters for being in the world?
How do I ensure that my children see the bigger picture of culture and a more accurate representation of the variety of people in the world while living in a largely homogenized location?
Will they be able to raise a family here, or make a living for themselves if they desire to remain in the mountains?
Could they develop resentment and contempt for being here if they are aware of what is outside of these hills?
I can ask these questions with a type of hindsight, as I was young in the mountains once. While I had a deep love for the landscape and culture, I longed to experience more of the world. I was endlessly curious about other cultures/peoples. I often didn't feel like I fit in well in my community, and because of that, a place where I could be more anonymous appealed to me. As soon as the opportunity arose to leave the mountains, I took it. It was also something I had been prepared for by the adults in my life. As they noticed my interests and the way the economy was turning, they encouraged me to find a place outside of the region if it was made available. They wanted more for me than what they thought I could find here. It was made clear to me that at the time I was considered the youth, it wasn't good to be young in the mountains. In fact, I was taught by several of the elders in my life that it is best to keep where I am from hushed when outside of the mountains so I won't be judged and have opportunities taken from me based on the stereotypes promoted about our home.
The conference was well attended with youth and those supporting them from throughout and outside of the region. The vibe was very upbeat and the conversations seemed energetic. I attended a workshop on applying for grants through the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and I sat in on a panel discussing whether or not it is worth it to pursue higher education if you plan to remain in the mountains. It seemed that even though we are all still very unsure about where the future in the mountains leads, we are hopeful. As a parent, I'm more hopeful than I have ever been about the increasing opportunities for my daughters to broaden their outlook and express themselves to the world while being right here at home. There was a time when we were considered an isolated and backward people, but that is quickly changing. Our young people are making themselves known in a larger sphere.
What I saw at IG2BYITM was dedicated youth. The Ghandi quote that we always see in memes and even cheesy home decor - "Be the change you want to see in the world." - sums up what they are embodying. If our youth want opportunities, they must create them. With the support of those of us who came before, they will clear a path through this dense underbrush placed in their way by previous generations who latched on to mass culture and the perpetuation of misconceptions through the rest of the country. Will we take on the mantle of the stereotypes and allow them to stand outside of the context with which they were bred, or will we use our uniqueness to bring about a time when mountain youth will be proud about their heritage and hopeful about their future here?
By the time July 2014 rolled around, I was finding that I could no longer keep up with the form of workouts I had chosen. I was doing CrossFit inspired and HIIT home workouts. I was really worried because no matter my physical size, I had always been athletic and capable of pushing myself to keep up with strenuous exercise. Not only this, but the migraine headaches that I had been having since age 13 had picked up in frequency and were becoming debilitating. I reluctantly went to my family doctor. That began a cascade of testing and seeing specialists. I have seen a neurologist (and will regularly, indefinitely), orthopedic specialist, gastroenterologist, ob/gyn, chiropractor, and a dermatologist. I've had bloodwork every 3 months, MRIs, CTs, x-rays, and cultures of various sorts. Then, the ER visits.
I had to begin taking medications that would significantly lower my heart-rate in order to help prevent the headaches that were interfering with day to day life. This meant that it was now physically impossible for me to keep up with the intense workouts. That is when I took back up with a daily yoga practice. I now practice Kundalini and Vinyasa yoga at least 6 days a week. I eat real food as well as I can manage, and I try to feed my family the same way. See, I wasn't giving up. I have three daughters to raise and provide an example for. If I gave up on myself, what would I be teaching them?
All that said, leads me to why I'm really writing this post today. This region of Kentucky is known as one of the sickest regions in the nation.
Kentucky is one of the sickest states in America, a place where too many people die too soon, and many who live endure decades of illness and pain.
I must say, that what I'm seeing in my neck of the woods, currently, around health and fitness, gives me a great hope for our future. As I research and find the resources I need to receive the healthcare and access the food that I need to live the best quality of life possible for me, I am finding other eastern Kentuckians doing the same. Not only are they taking charge of their health, but they are becoming the change that they want to see in the region.
People I went to school with who are in the medical field are offering free, daily health tips via Facebook and coming back to the region to serve their communities. When I make posts about health and fitness information, I get messages and replies asking for more information or making comments that offer me more information. Area residents seem more interested in local food options. Farmer's Markets are sprouting up all over, and people are learning more about wildcrafting. Yet, the thing that inspires me the most is what I'm seeing as an increased willingness of people to use and explore the capabilities of their own bodies in outside of the box ways. I have recently started teaching yoga in Hindman and Whitesburg and have been so pleased to have no fewer than two and as many as eleven in my classes! So many express interest and a desire to learn how to take responsibility for their health. This makes me hopeful for the health of our young people.
Nick is part owner (along with Stacie Beckett and Carrie Adkins) of the new CrossFit Experior in Williamson, and Cristin instructs and works from the box (gym). I asked Nick why he wanted to make this passion of his into a career, and his answer is so much a part of the solution I envision for the positive growth of our region.
I wanted to open a gym to make a difference in the community, to help people change for the better. I think people are more interested in a healthier lifestyle these days for many reasons, like a better quality of life, to be more physically capable, longevity of life, or maybe to prevent a future health crisis. People as a whole are learning and adapting. 80 years ago everybody smoked. It was the norm. We're at a time now where healthcare and technology make things well known. We know now smoking has many adverse health problems, eating fast food, and drinking soda everyday has adverse health reactions. - Nick Potter
Simply put. He wants to make a difference in his community. Nick and Cristin saw an issue that affected them personally and in their desire to change it for themselves, they are a part of changing it for the community at large. We live in an area that is so naturally beautiful. I see it as very possible that this region can be known for health and well-being in our future. That's part of my vision as I share yoga with those who come to my classes. I know Nick and Cristin are seeing it on a daily basis as they inspire people of all ages to good health.
Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, "I am half agony, half hope." On the days when my body and emotions feel agony, I look to hope. I'm going to fight the good fight. Others are fighting the good fight. This is just one part of the puzzle that will be rebuilding eastern Kentucky, but it is this type of revolution that makes me not give up completely. It is a clear path to goodness.
When the former Kentucky poet laureate and Perry County native, Gurney Norman, wrote his novel Divine Right's Trip, our country was in the midst of many wars. We were fighting an uncertain war in Vietnam. A cultural war was happening within our own country between those who felt the establishment was driving us to collapse and the status quo. The Civil Rights Movement was underway and gaining ground. In our very own Kentucky mountains, the War on Poverty had begun as men and women fought for their right to work for a fair wage and in the safest environments possible. It was a transitional time, much like our home is experiencing now. While we have had good times and bad times since that era, what I am realizing is that the mountain people have never transitioned completely from this upheaval that truly began long before the 60s-70s. This transition was a forced one, much like a woman's contractions in labor can be began, sped up, or slowed down on a whim through outside means, the people in mountain coal country were coerced into an economic and lifestyle model that was unsustainable. It was utterly dangerous, and if we aren't diligent and willing to "go to war", it will happen again and again.
“Yeah,” said Virgil. “It’s mighty hard times around here these days. If it wasn’t for food stamps and the Happy Pappys some folks would starve plum to death, that ain’t no lie. A lot of ‘em are hungry like it is. Of course I’ve seen it when it was worse, and a man’s got to count his blessings I reckon. My daddy mined coal in this country in the nineteen twenties, no union or nothing in here then, and you talk about mean times, them times was mean. Of course they’s not enough union left worth speaking about, but what I mean is, now, you take this Happy Pappy program. Take all this welfare stuff. It ain’t nothing but a sop to keep the people from acting up. That’s all in the world it is, and yet everybody wants to make so much out of it. Everybody give the President so much credit for coming in here and setting it up. All the President was doing was laying out a sop to try to keep the lid on things. And I mean to tell you, buddy, the lid was about to pop around here a year or two ago. It was like a time of war nearly. People were hungry, out of work, losing their hospital cards, getting their pensions cut, little old younguns going around with worms in their bellies, some of ‘em half naked in the wintertime. I mean they wasn’t nothing else to do but go to war. Big gangs of men roving up and down the highways, stopping cars, shooting, getting shot at. They was a tipple burnt ever day for two straight weeks up in your county, two or three railroad bridges went up, people’s cars and house dynamited.” -Gurney Norman, Divine Right’s Trip, 1971
If we consider the history of how these mountains were settled, we recognize the caliber of individual that chose to make them their home. It was of course the adventure filled pioneer, but it was also those considered criminals. It was the person with a fierce desire for independence. Those who wished to hide. It was the down trodden and the beaten up who sought asylum in these hills. The Kentucky mountains as much of Central Appalachia, was inhabited by a people willing to stick with their tribe in order to be fully able to "go it" on their own.
I have to agree with Virgil as he spoke in the quote above. It is hard to see that the War on Poverty has helped our region in any tangible ways. While we might not see many children running naked in the wintertime any longer, we must factor in that times have changed and how poverty looks has changed. Poverty can be hidden these days, and hidden well. This region of Kentucky is experiencing yet another mass exodus of people and minds in search of reasonable, fulfilling work as we have so many times in the past. What worries me most about this transition time is the possibility that as a people we'll let a huge opportunity once again pass us by. This is the opportunity to reclaim our land and economy to manage as our own. It is the opportunity to get back to the willpower and guts that brought our ancestors here in the first place. Independence.
Generations of men, women, and children in my homeland have been worrying and pondering as Virgil does each time this book is read anew. This type of worry began when outside influences came to tell us of our poverty and backward ways. Ideas were planted and weaknesses manipulated. We were fed pipe dreams for the purposes of a dollar. I can't help but feel that our collective unconscious was made a slave in those days and we remain so today. What new industry will come in a make the promises of coal? Natural gas? The prison industry? Will we buy into it only to be used up and left to struggle again when the industry collapses or our government sees fit to move toward another favored industry? Will we continue to accept the welfare system as our means to a livelihood, teaching our children to get the most out of it - not because we are mooches, but because we have to in order to survive? Will we continue to accept servitude over the legacy given us by our very first mountain ancestors?
"We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves." -Thomas Merton
As I have written here before, I believe the answer to our current dilemma is diversification. We begin by working with what we have. That's where we have always began. The answer isn't more government programs. The answer is in our hands. We need to reach out and grab it!
I see so many positive people in our communities working hard toward seeing this opportunity into our new reality. Families and individuals have reclaimed small scale farming as a supplemental or replacement income and are making it viable. Some brave souls are becoming entrepreneurs and sacrificing so much of their time to dedication to their business and community. Ingenious folks are working toward promoting area artists and craftspeople. Others are working toward adventure tourism. Right now, these efforts don't seem to amount to much on the large scale, but it is providing an example of the things that are possible for us. There are more ideas for all of us where those came from.
My Dad has said to me before, "What do these people think we all want to do, sit around the campfire in the dark and sing Kum-Ba-Ya all night with nothing to eat? I hope they know how to build a campfire." Those fighting in this War on Coal haven't presented reasonable solutions to the common mountain folks. As our people have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, fortified by mining jobs, without a need for college, this transition will be difficult. It is a time in which we'll have to reclaim our story as told by us. This is the time to dredge up the past, our mysterious and inspiring past, in order to give us all the umph needed to fight this war. There's nothing else to do but go to war. We have to fight for ourselves. This is a war of the heart and mind. It isn't a need of being saved. This is the reality of sink or swim.
All things good are wild, and free. - Henry David Thoreau
On Friday, I will be going to interview and tour a cottage school that I am hoping will be a fit for my daughters come August. I'm relieved. I'm nervous. I'm hopeful. This is a big move for me. It means I am also looking for good full or part time employment outside of the home. A few weeks ago, I wrote of my plan to expand my horizons in juggling motherhood, work, and homeschooling, but I soon realized that I was still stuffing myself inside a box of expectations. I was continuing to hang on to these notions of what I should be doing as a person who chose motherhood and chose it completely. I still feared letting people down.
I don't fit inside any boxes. They cannot contain me. I will not allow them to contain me.
I visited my grandparents in South Carolina this weekend. My Papaw is very ill and so is my aunt. My Mamaw is holding her own and trying to not lose her cool. I can't imagine what she's feeling right now with a sick husband and daughter. We just lost my uncle, her son, three years ago. In the midst of all the emotion my family is processing, she sat me down to talk. She always sits me down to talk, without fail. I think this talk was the most powerful I have ever had with her. She told me it was time to step out, take care of me, and show my daughters what I'm capable of. In her nurturing sternness, she instructed me to not wait around another minute. That I must do what it takes to be fulfilled, independent, and in the world. She assured me that I am a good mother. I have done an amazing job with my daughters, and will continue to do so in whatever construct my family takes.
My grandmother spoke to me like a pioneer of feminine empowerment. She was a pioneer of feminine empowerment. Once she completed her education, she worked as a paralegal. Financial independence was always important to her. She gave to those in need. She fed and raised four children. She gave in expansive ways to her community through managing an outdoor theater, writing and telling our stories, genealogy, community service, and diligent, honest work within our justice system. If there is anyone to listen to at a time like this, it is her. As she spoke to me, she revealed that she saw and concerned herself with my lonesomeness and needless self sacrifice.
It's time I allow myself to be wild, and FREE.
Adventure. Excitement. A jedi craves not these things. - Master Yoda
This quote from the wise and infinitely old Yoda has always befuddled me. It felt like a let down. A jedi's life is anything but lacking adventure and excitement. Why should not one seeking these things become a jedi? It's only been the last couple of years that I really meditated on the meaning of these words. (As if Star Wars is the undistinguished instruction manual for life compared to sacred scripture.) I understand now. They don't crave it because in their acceptance of who they are the adventure and excitement find them. They don't have to seek it out, or make it for themselves. They just have to be. I am that I am. There are no exceptions. Acceptance is destiny.
I haven't failed because I'd like to send my children to school. It doesn't mean that I am weak because at this point in time I seek outside employment and independence. Changing plans and feelings is a healthy thing not to be feared, but embraced. The ability to change our minds is an outgrowth of freedom.
My step-dad, Wiley Amburgey Jr., worked for the Whitesburg Post Office, the majority of his tenure being at the downtown location when it was the post office and not the tourism building. When I was little, going to town with Wiley was exciting. Me being a holler girl, the change of scenery was nice. There were a few locally owned shops - Hoover's, Dawhare's, Quillen's, and Craft's. The quaint, happy little restaurant and authentically eastern Kentucky and world-centric gift shop (the Courthouse Cafe and Cozy Corner) that was a creation of one of my first best friends mother finished off the corner with class. There was something to see always. The library was downtown. If nothing else, I could go in there and smell old books. My dad's apartment was at one time downtown. Caroline's Diner was there.
By the time I was in middle and high school, walking to town after basketball practice was a regular thing. The old railroad tracks led from in front of my school to town. I'd walk those, crossing the North Fork of the Kentucky River wide-stepping over cross-ties. I'd walk to Madison Ave. to the Appalshop hoping I'd see a friend hanging out waiting on a parent or a ride home. Town was a reprieve to a teenager.
I'm always thinking about how Whitesburg used to be and I think of the other surrounding small eastern Kentucky towns that are like ghost towns compared to they way they were when I was young - Neon, Hindman, and Jenkins. I wonder how to create a new town in those forgotten buildings and streets. A town that will reprieve my daughters one day. I thought about it again when I took a trip to two rural, small Kentucky towns in the central and western part of the state.
My sister and I went to Dinosaur World in Cave City with our children this passed Sunday. We had a lot of fun and saw other things we would have done had we had the time, but for every neat thing, there were two or three novelty businesses closed down. Cave City is home to Mammoth Cave and you can tell at one time it was bustling with tourist attractions.
Later in the week, we were in Calvert City and Draffensville near Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Again, I saw the emptiness. Many tourist driven businesses with closed doors. The shops that were open for the community seemed ran down and drab. For every business that appeared as if it were giving its best effort, there were as many more empty and deteriorating.
It brought me back to our little eastern Kentucky towns. A recent headline in our local newspaper The Mountain Eagle was "Coal employment down 70% here: 25 more lose jobs". With our local economy in swift decline and residents scrambling to make a life here or pack up and leave, it isn't a wonder that sometimes it feels like we are existing in the Twilight Zone when we walk down our main streets. Whitesburg can seem like a tiny oasis among the very small towns in the mountains. Adventurous folks are trying out new business. We are getting positive press (though it never seems to go beyond the "hey, look at this neat thing"). Yet, as many businesses on Main Street have closed doors as new doors are opened. The thing that the towns I visited had for them that we do not is they are off of major thoroughfares - easily accessible. Still, they are in major decline from the heyday.
I don't know if it is our collective American culture that is changing so that the interest in natural wonders and small town tourism isn't as wondrous as it was when I was small, or if it is our country's economic decline that is keeping people at home more. I consider that maybe the American spirit of entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is becoming lost as we become more technology driven and commerce and communication is changing within that landscape. It's that change that is getting at the heart of our small, rural businesses. I also believe that the desire to appear equal with the outside world drives where our local people shop and seek their entertainment. There's more excitement about a possible Target coming to Pikeville than any of the unique specialty eateries opening in their downtown.
As I begin making changes in my lifestyle toward being a working mother in the mountains, sustainability and happiness are always in the back of my mind. How best can I serve this community whilst I'm in it? What is my place here, and how will my daughters settle into their own? What will spring forth and what will remain as the whole country moves more toward the urban lifestyle? There's so many questions and possibilities. It's a brave new world among ghostly streets, lots of efforting and imagination, and many risks.
One of my new goals in all this self searching I have been doing is to move toward financial independence. I currently depend upon my husband to provide all of our family's financial needs while I remain at home house-wiving, homeschooling, doing all I can do alone on our homestead, and working on side projects. It is hard for me at times to have to think about the fact that I am spending another person's hard earned money when I want to buy a gift for my girls, or something I don't particularly need, but want. We also have to make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to make sure bills are paid and we are all fed well and kept healthy. For example, I currently have two pairs of pants that fit me the way they should and don't completely fall from my body if I take my belt off. I'm rarely out of the house, so I make do.
In looking at my options for work alongside my hopes and dreams, then factoring in what I'm actually capable of doing with little to no childcare, I can't help but think of how things have changed since my childhood. My parents had readily available free childcare from my grandparents, great grandparents, and aunts and uncles. We really were raised in a village it seems and if I am honest, I don't know what would have came of us if we hadn't been. I have very little time that is not consumed by raising my children. I'm their primary caregiver, as it should be, but there is little time to be with friends, adult conversations with a real person, or to hold a job outside of the home because my daughters' grandparents aren't able to provide daily childcare (as most of them are still working full time jobs passed retirement age) and we cannot afford a paid sitter.
Another thing I noticed as a child was how completely absorbed the adults around me were in financial concerns. Did we have enough money? While I'm concerned with our family's finances and I have a clear picture of what I'd like for us in terms of lifestyle and how effectively our money is spent, I let go of most of the worry around the amount we have available. Yet, recently, I began to see the need for me to have earnings of my own more than I ever have. While it should not be the case that money brings power to a voice, I have come to realize that it does, even within many family structures. Traditional roles of womanhood and motherhood are truly outdated if we desire to be seen as peers with our male counterparts. Tradition is not always a good thing as many are informed by outdated ways of thinking and viewing the world. I feel a movement away from these traditions and to a more balanced way of being is in order.
Southeastern Kentucky, where I reside, is once again in the midst of an outward migration of people. I see quite a bit on Facebook that friends and family are planning moves outside of the region to Tennessee and Ohio most often. Our family's choice to remain in the mountains is a big one. It is in many ways a sacrifice of opportunities for ourselves and our children. However, as we currently see things, there is much to be gained by staying and trying to create our own way of life in the region. This will always be home to us who were born and raised here. It is as integral to who we are as our heart or mind. The truth is, those who stay here will have to depend on themselves and their community to develop a sustainable life post coal in the mountains.
I don't know if my current plan will result in financial independence for me, but I will have a little pocket change I hope. My plan is to make myself available as an editor to anyone requiring those services. I'm working with one client in California at the moment. I'm teaching yoga one evening a week, and I am offering my services as a writer/blogger to interested parties. It blends my passions with what I am capable of doing while still very much within a traditional role in my family as a full time mother. My success will depend a lot on my ability to market myself within the region, but also outside of it.
My dilemma is not unlike the one that residents of southeastern Kentucky are facing now and for the future. As more coal jobs are lost and our populations decline, we are searching for ways to make life here a possibility. The most common suggestions I've seen touted are tourism, farming, and manufacturing. A recent article from The Daily Yonder written by Tim Marema reported that populations of rural counties in all states who relied on these economic replacements have all lost population since the Great Recession. The only counties seeing growth were recreation counties and those only grew by 1.4%. For counties like the one I live in and those directly around us, any of these replacements would be difficult because of a lack of infrastructure and our location away from most major interstates.
As I have diversified my possibilities of earning for myself and my daughters without a typical hired position, I believe the region will only survive from a diversified approach that utilizes the internet and technology to reach populations outside of the region. We will have to put our unique stamp on what we do to attract people in and make a visit worth the effort to get here. We will also have to accept that our lifestyles may look very different from the ones we see away from here because it has to and living here is a choice.
I may have bitten off more than I can chew with my hopes of financial independence while still choosing full time mothering and homeschooling. I have no way of knowing without trying. Trying is the only thing to do. I want to show my daughters a world of possibilities in a reality of limited options. I can't help but see that it parallels the consciousness we are striving to get to in our region. Moving past the realization that what is currently taking place is unacceptable and in spite of our realities there is a world of possibilities. We have to do the work and imagine them. We have to really try.
Looky here! I'm a hillbilly. The real deal. Bonafide. Born and raised. Generational. Go ahead. Ask me if I grew up wearing shoes, with electricity, and indoor plumbing. I've answered these questions a million times in my life. Yes, I do have all of my own teeth. Yes, it's true, some of us don't. Just like some of you don't. Ask me to pronounce "ice", "Nike", or the name of my hometown "Whitesburg". I'll say it over again a few times before I get pissed off.
Here, I'll go ahead and answer the other questions. I have lived most of my life in a trailer. I've lived in three different trailer parks. Perhaps that makes me trailer trash too. I also am a holler rat. I grew up drinking mostly pop. We couldn't drink the tap water. I know the putrid smell of sulfur water well. Pop was what was available for me. The milk was for the baby. Hmmm... what else? Oh, I have used a chamber pot for an extensive period of time, though it was used indoors. I have used an outhouse with a composting bucket in the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. That counts as an outhouse. Toilet paper was provided. I pick weeds out of my yard and eat them. I've pulled the innards of a hawk killed hen out with my bare hands. I went to two schools that were taken over by the state department of education because of poor performance. I roamed the hills as I pleased. I'm not afraid of wild animals, but I do know how to respect them. I can find my way around outside in the dark. I have accepted handouts and government assistance as needed. I've lived above and below the poverty line. Let's just say regularly hovering all around it. I haven't seen a dentist in about 10 years. No, I'm not addicted to prescription pain pills, but I do need quite a bit of caffeine to function. What else might you want to know about a real hillbilly?
My husband and I have been interviewed countless times in the recent years by students and journalists from outside of these hills. Mostly, the questions are the same. Why did you choose to stay in the mountains? Is the economy really as bad as they say it is? Are your towns dying? Are people really as poor as we've heard? Is the education system really awful? Will the death of coal be the death of your communities? And, on occasion someone will be interested in my hometown of Whitesburg. Somehow the idea that it is culturally advanced and doing things that no other town in the region is trying to do has gotten around. Some good things are happening there, but honestly, I have no idea what will come of any of it. Some days I'm hopeful, other days, not so much.
I just wonder what the wonder is all about. My people are portrayed in the media as impoverished, backwards idiots more times than not. I'll link to the positive press at the bottom of this post. Stereotypes are exploited and exaggerated. At best, they are misunderstood. It is perfectly acceptable to most people to publicly make fun of me or any other hillbilly and it happens way more than I can stand. People do it unconscious of how their words and actions are placing me below them and how I very consciously catch that sense of superiority. I want to know what these fascinated people want from us. What is their research or reporting going to do to change anything here? Is it just glorified gawking? Honestly, I think so. Unbeknownst to the well meaning enlightened.
"Oh, how great!" "You are so cool." "I can't believe you live that way." "You are my hero." Really? Being a hillbilly is a new fad - hillbilly chic. That our every day makes us cool, or a hero is frustrating. If you can navigate New York City or fight rush hour traffic in Spaghetti Junction without killing anyone, you're just as deserving of accolades. It isn't our choice to live here, or the happenstance that we were born here that makes us interesting. I wish people wanted to get to know us. We are a people as complex and deep as any other culture you could choose to study. We are so much more than coal, prescription abuse, poverty, job loss, diabetes/obesity, Mountain Dew mouth, and low educational attainment. Sure, they are some big problems, but they stem from something much bigger, and it is partly the fault of you outsiders.
Other than any privilege that being white brings me, I am not unlike the inner city African American mother who when questioned by the outside has to answer the same thing again and again. Why the violence? Police brutality? Gangs? Welfare? Or the Hispanic person looking for work who gets asked about immigration, deportation, and working for low wages. Or the Middle Eastern person who constantly answers questions about Islam, terrorism, and what it is like being a Muslim American.
As a hillbilly, I'm part of the "other" in this country. With that comes responsibility. It means sometimes being the voice of my people. As much as I want to talk about telling ghost stories with my Mamaw, eating soup beans and cornbread, how inventive my ancestors were, how mesmerizing our traditional music can be, and how dang smart we are, I will answer any and all manner of questions whether it makes my heart sing or not. I won't yell at you for repeating my words back to me in exaggerated, butchered accent while smiling from ear to ear. I won't even be upset at the shock that I am very literate and well read. I'll cater to you in a hope that somehow, I can help you see more of us. I want to change the story being told out there. I want all the truth. No exaggerations. No hope where there isn't any. All the wonderful eccentric bits left in. I want our stories told straight from the horse's mouth. It is time to change the narrative if we want to be seen for who we are and we want to find real solutions for the future that is upon us.
The more positive press:
Imagining a Post-Coal Appalachia (The Atlantic Monthly)
ZipUSA: 41858 (National Geographic)
5 Days in Kentucky: Small Town Conceives of New Life After Mining (Al Jazeera America)
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide