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.
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.