ublime silence surrounds me. I have walked to the top of the hill,plopped myself down to watch the world around me. I have no fearhere, in this world of trees, weedsand growing things. This is theworld I was born intoa world of wild things. In it the wildernessin me speaks. I am wild. I hear my elders caution mama, telling herthat she is making a mistake, letting me run wild, letting merun with my brother as though no gender separates us. We are makingour childhood together in Kentucky hills, experiencing the freedomthat comes from living away from civilization. Even as a child I knewthat to be raised in the country, to come from the backwoods left onewithout meaning or presence. Growing up we did not use terms likehillbilly. Country folk lived on isolated farms away from thecity; backwoods folks lived in remote areas, in the hill and hollers.To be from the backwoods was to be part of the wild. Where we lived,black folks were as much a part of the wild, living in a natural wayon the earth, as white folks. All backwoods folks were poor bymaterial standards; they knew how to make do. They were not wantingto tame the wildness, in themselves or nature. Living in the Kentuckyhills was where I first learned the importance of being wild. Laterattending college on the West Coast I would come to associate thepassion for freedom, for wildness I had experienced as a child, withanarchy, with the belief in the power of the individual to beself-determining. Writing about the connection between environments,nature, and creativity in the introduction to A Place In Space, GarySnyder states: Ethics and aesthetics are deeply intertwined. Art,beauty and craft have always drawn on the selforganizing wildside of language and mind. Human ideas of place and space, ourcontemporary focus on watersheds, become both models and metaphors.Our hope would be to see the interacting realms, learn where we are,and thereby move towards a style of planetary and ecologicalcosmopolitanism. Snyder calls this approach the practice of thewild urging us to live in the self-disciplined elegance ofwild 38 mind. By their own practice of living in harmonywith nature, with simple abundance, Kentucky black folks who lived inthe backwoods were deeply engaged with an ecological cosmopolitanism.They fished, hunted, raised chickens, planted what we would now callorganic gardens, made homemade spirits, wine and whiskey, and grewflowers. Their religion was interior and private. Mamas mama,Baba, refused to attend church after someone had made fun of theclothes she was wearing. She reminded us that God could be worshippedeveryday anywhere. No matter that they lived according to Appalachianvalues, they did not talk about themselves as coming from Appalachia.They did not divide Kentucky into East and West. They saw themselvesas renegades and rebels, folks who did not want to be hemmed in byrules and laws, folks that wanted to remain independent. Even whencircumstances forced them out of the country into the city, they werestill wanting to live free. As there were individual black folks whoexplored the regions of this nation before slavery, the first blackAppalachians being fully engaged with the Cherokee, the lives of mostearly black Kentuckians were shaped by a mixture of free sensibilityand slave mentality. When slavery ended in Kentucky, life was hardfor the vast majority of black people as white supremacy and racistdomination did not end. But for those folk who managed to own land,especially land in isolated country sites or hills (sometimesinherited from white folks for whom they had worked for generations,or sometimes purchased), they were content to be self-defining andself-determining even if it meant living with less. No distinctionswere made between those of us who dwelled in the hills of Eastern orWestern Kentucky. Our relatives from Eastern Kentucky did not talkabout themselves as Appalachians, and in Western Kentucky we did notuse the term; even if one lived in the hills where the closeneighbors were white and hillbilly, black people did not seethemselves as united with these folk, even though our habits of beingand ways of thinking were more like these strangers than those ofother black folks who lived in the cityespecially black folks whohad money and city ways. In small cities and towns, the life of ablack coal miner in Western Kentucky was more similar to the life ofan Eastern counterpart than different. Just as the life of hillbillyblack folks was the same whether they lived in the hills of easternor western Kentucky. 39 In the Kentucky black subcultures, folks wereunited with our extended kin, and our identities were more defined bylabels like country and backwoods. It was not until I went away tocollege that I was questioned about Appalachia, about hillbillyculture, and it was always assumed by these faraway outsiders thatonly poor white people lived in the backwoods and in the hills. Nowonder then that black folks who cherish our past, the independencethat characterized our backwoods ancestors, seek to recover andrestore their history, their legacy. Early on in my life I learnedfrom those Kentucky backwoods elders, the folks whom we might nowlabel Appalachian, a set of values rooted in the belief thatabove all else one must be self-determining. It is the foundationthat is the root of my radical critical consciousness. Folk from thebackwoods were certain about two things: that every human soul neededto be free and that the responsibility of being free required one tobe a person of integrity, a person who lived in such a way that therewould always be congruency between what we think, say, and do. Theseancestors had no interest in conforming to social norms and mannerswhich made lying and cheating acceptable. More often than not theybelieved themselves to be above the law whenever the rules of socalled civilized culture made no sense. They farmed, fished, huntedand made their way in the world. Sentimental nostalgia does not callme to remember the worlds they invented. It is just a simple factthat without their early continued support for dissident thinking andliving I would not have been able to hold my own in college andbeyond when conformity promised to provide with a sense of safety andgreater regard. Their Appalachian values, imprinted on myconsciousness as core truths I must live by, provide and provided mewith the tools I needed and need to survive whole in a postmodernworld. Living by those values, living with integrity, I am able toreturn to my native place, to an Appalachia that is no longer silentabout its diversity or about the broad sweep of its influence. WhileI do not claim an identity as Appalachian, I do claim a solidarity, asense of belonging, that makes me one with the Appalachian past of myancestors, black, Native American, white, all people of one bloodwho made homeplace in isolated landscapes where they could inventthemselves, where they could savor a taste of freedom.
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