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South to America by Imani Perry Book

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South to America by Imani Perry Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: "An elegant meditation on the complexities of the American South—and thus of America—by an esteemed daughter of the South and one of the great intellectuals of our time. An inspiration." —Isabel Wilkerson

A Most Anticipated Book From: The New York Times

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An essential, surprising journey through the history, rituals, and landscapes of the American South—and a revelatory argument for why you must understand the South in order to understand America

We all think we know the South. Even those who have never lived there can rattle off a list of signifiers: the Civil War, Gone with the Wind, the Ku Klux Klan, plantations, football, Jim Crow, slavery. But the idiosyncrasies, dispositions, and habits of the region are stranger and more complex than much of the country tends to acknowledge. In South to America, Imani Perry shows that the meaning of American is inextricably linked with the South, and that our understanding of its history and culture is the key to understanding the nation as a whole. 

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South to America by Imani Perry Book Read Online Chapter One

An Errand into Wilderness


THE MAN CALLED THE “EMPEROR OF NEW YORK” was also known as Shields Green. He was born into slavery in South Carolina. As a free adult, he met John Brown at the home of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. Inspired by the firebrand White abolitionist, the Emperor joined Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. On December 16, 1859, like Brown, he was executed as punishment.

There isn’t much in the way of documentation of Green’s life. For example, we don’t know why he was called Emperor, much less of New York. We don’t know whether to trust contemporaries who described him as incomprehensible, disagreeable, and “very” illiterate. More certain is the fact that he had “a Congo face,” meaning dark skin. He was small of stature and muscular. According to Douglass, he had a speech impediment: “[H]e was a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken, but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.” We also know that George Washington’s great-nephew Lewis was his hostage and found the Emperor’s bearing absolutely intolerable for a Black man. The Emperor was tried for treason, an impossible crime for a Black man to commit given that he wasn’t a citizen by law. He was executed anyway.

Although Frederick Douglass had introduced Green and Brown, he didn’t join the raid. Brown wanted Douglass to agree to be the president of the provisional government he was planning. Douglass declined. He considered Brown’s plan a suicide mission. He was right. Harriet Tubman reportedly said no to Brown’s invitation because she was ill. That was either a bit of fortuitousness or wisdom. At any rate, the whole group that stormed the arsenal was brought to submission quickly. They succeeded in killing the mayor of Harper’s Ferry, but not many more than that. Brown’s vision of a mass insurrection of Black people streaming in to join the fight didn’t materialize until the Civil War.

Although Green was reported to have had a son in South Carolina, his dead body was not claimed by, nor granted to, family. Instead, he was dissected at Winchester Medical College. The lack of consent from an heir—the fact that he, a freedom fighter, would be put back into physical service for White men after death—was a cruel twist. Unspeakable acts were performed on a personage whose story was left, in the main, unspoken.

What remained intact after the deaths of Brown, Green, and the others were pikes. Brown had had the weapons made for Black people, who, due to prohibitions on their possessing firearms, hadn’t learned to shoot. He’d warehoused the pikes in Maryland in preparation for the revolt. They were steel-headed blades fitted onto six-foot ash handles, and soon became collector’s items. Several years later, in 1863, actual firearms would be placed in Black people’s hands as they saved the Union, served the Union Army, and freed themselves.

There are a few words, however, from John Copeland, the other Black man executed on the same day as Green, a companion in the raid. He was literate and from Oberlin, Ohio. He wrote a prayer to his family “that you may prepare your souls to meet your God that so, in the end, though we meet no more on earth, we shall meet in heaven, where we shall not be parted by the demands of the cruel and unjust monster Slavery.”

I decided to go to West Virginia. And I threatened to go a bunch of times before I went. I guess I was scared, and people’s reactions to me stating my intentions didn’t help any. Eyebrows raised. Eyes got wide. I could see night-riding Klansmen dancing in their minds’ eyes. I had been to West Virginia before, but folks warning “Don’t go there alone” made me especially nervous in the Trump era.

At any rate, Harpers Ferry seemed like the safest place to begin in mountain country. While West Virginia, which used to be Virginia, and which became West Virginia because it was anti-slavery territory, has succumbed to the worst of Whiteness, according to everyday scuttlebutt and assumption, I imagined Harpers Ferry, scene of Brown’s raid, wouldn’t be worrisome.

I drove in on a spring day as I was having an argument in my head with the historian Tony Horwitz. I’d read many books about the South, and my direct inspiration for this one from the beginning was Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place, a 1971 travel narrative that captured the changes, consistencies, and sensibilities of the region of our shared birth. I’d also been influenced by non-natives, like V. S. Naipaul, who published A Turn in the South in 1989, and descendants of the region like James Baldwin, who described the South as his homeland. But Tony Horwitz left me unsettled. I’d met him once in person when I was inducted to the Society of American Historians and had experienced him as a completely delightful person. But when we met, I hadn’t yet read Confederates in the Attic. I finally read it when I was starting to work on this book, and found myself unsettled. My chief complaint was that I thought he was too sympathetic with the Confederate reenactors who were his subject. He seemed mostly unfazed by their casual “lost cause” bigotry, and although I understood that was what allowed him to get close to his subjects, I still didn’t much like it. And, I noted, the one person who he seemed to actively take issue with was my friend Kindaka’s mother, Rose Sanders, a longtime civil rights attorney and organizer in Selma, Alabama, because he found her Black nationalism disconcerting. Horwitz told the story of their argument in detail, and I felt irate for her. How could he, I thought, care so much about understanding what made Confederate reenactors tick and disregard how for the Black Southerner the noose of Whiteness can elicit passionate rage and refusal? It is a wonder that hate isn’t what drips from our tongues daily. Our equanimity by most objective accounts would read as foolhardy. Why couldn’t he see that, even from his vantage point, embedded with the Confederates? He had died before I had a chance to ask any of it.

I also thought, along my West Virginia drive, that unlike Horwitz, because I’m Black, I would never be able to access the minds of those who hold on to the Confederacy. Like my forebearers, who couldn’t enter libraries and had to build bodies of knowledge by hook or by crook, I couldn’t get inside the Confederate’s head. That was a part of the Southern story I would be prohibited from telling. Even if I tried, I just knew that they’d be steely and resentful of my prodding. But I understood another side of Southern history with ease: resistance to the slave-based society. I would offer another kind of Southern story.

Harpers Ferry is a historical chiasmus. In school, we learn how slavery was heroically defeated. Harpers Ferry was a precipitant. In Harpers Ferry, we learn of a hero’s defeat by the forces of a slave society. It is the main event. The flip is all the more pointed because of the political history and public memory of the South. Many in the region haven’t ever really accepted the loss of the Civil War, or perhaps more accurately, The South is on a recurring loop of cold Civil War battles that repeatedly bend towards the logic of the slavocracy. Even now, with some Confederate monuments toppled, many—literal and symbolic—remain. They are evident in the crowing about states’ rights and gun rights, efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, and desperate attempts to keep the world’s puppet strings in the hands of elite White Americans. Ironically, then, like places throughout the South, Harpers Ferry is a monument to the defeated. Only here the defeated are wild-eyed radical abolitionist John Brown and his companions, and not the Confederate dead.

West Virginia seceded from Virginia over the question of slavery. It was foundationally anti-slavery. As the poet Nikki Giovanni once described it in an interview: “I think that when you look at the great history of Appalachia, we know that the Civil War . . . would have been lost if West Virginia had not broken up, then Virginia would have gone over to the Ohio River. It would have changed the war. So in many, many respects, West Virginia saved the nation.” So maybe, I speculated, standing on John Brown’s side of the dance between Southern defeat and victory was the perfect way to ease into West Virginia and Appalachia, as subject and territory.

Fact and fiction collide at the site because the reenactment and rebuilding are so precise. After parking, I walked up to the pristine train depot entrance and knocked, expecting the man I saw inside to open the window and describe the exhibition to me. He pointed to my right. I then went to the next door and pulled. Inside was just a regular train station with some historic details preserved. Oh. I wandered into town. It was active but not bustling. The place is earth-toned. All over, shades of tan and pine, deepening into mahogany with snatches of pale gray and charcoal. When you face it, shielded by teeming green flora to your back, it looks like what you think of the Old West based upon movie stills. Harpers Ferry is like a campus. On its map, you can trace the course of the raid with a finger. The men overran the arsenal under the cover of night and by morning they were surrounded. Brown went to the gallows first.

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood”—his last words before execution were recorded, and, as has often been noted, they were prophetic. But they were also only partly true. Certain crimes were ceased by the Civil War, but they have not been purged. Not yet.

Harpers Ferry is shaped like a seal head, with the Potomac River above, the Shenandoah below. The tip of the nose is where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. At this crossroads, in 1866, fresh from the disaster of the war, Black people came together in homage to Brown and built a one-room schoolhouse for freedpeople, called Storer. It grew into a degree-granting four-year historically Black college. There is a small exhibition about the establishment of Storer College and subsequent events.

In 1906, after the promises of Reconstruction had been denied, and Jim Crow had settled across the South, members of the Niagara movement gathered at Storer College. This was the second meeting of the racial justice organization. Its leaders, W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, were influential Black intellectuals. But everyone there was in some way distinguished. At the gathering, Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom, a socialist pastor, spoke to the group about the spirit of John Brown, saying:

He felt the breath of God upon his soul and was strangely moved. He was imbued with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and clearly saw that slavery was incompatible with a free republic. He could not reconcile the creed of the slaveholder with the word of God.

Ransom went on to indict the nation for failing to meet John Brown’s call, even after the devastation of the Civil War: “The Negro regards the Democratic party as his traditional and hereditary foe. Tradition, gratitude and sentiment bind him to the Republican party with an idolatrous allegiance which is as blind as it is unpatriotic and unreasoning. TODAY THERE IS VERY LITTLE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO PARTIES AS FAR AS THEIR ATTITUDE TOWARD THE NEGRO IS CONCERNED.” His words about Democrats and Republicans are inverted today, but still commonplace: the Republican is foe to Black people; the Democrats possess Black loyalty notwithstanding their neglect of those most loyal constituents. That we live with that same binary is more than ironic.

John Brown, according to the men gathered at Harpers Ferry in honor of him, was a hero, and he had the kind of imagination that made it possible to envision freedom. Perhaps that had something to do with the landscape. Ransom said, “From a child he loved to dwell beneath the open sky. The many voices of the woods, and fields, and mountains, spoke to him a familiar language. He understood the habits of plants and animals, of birds and trees and flowers . . .” A gentleness of spirit is hard for me to imagine in John Brown given his image as a wildman for freedom. But then again, the beauty might have softened him.

The photographs of the Niagara movement members, in their three-piece suits and mutton-sleeve blouses, looking so genteel, are deceptive. A gathering of this sort was always dangerous. People were lynched for much less. The Niagara movement, though not taking up arms, was radical in its time. As measured and intellectual as their pursuits were, such work was driven by a passion that was more often than not punished.

As with many HBCUs, Storer was once a high school in addition to a college. The first president of postcolonial Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, completed his high school education at Storer before going on to Howard University. I tried to imagine—with some difficulty—the brilliant and fiery African revolutionary leader up here in the West Virginia mountains. Mostly, I wondered how he experienced this brand of Whiteness that in its speech patterns and sartorial details was not like that of British colonists, yet just as insistent upon superiority. Did he contemplate the trees, just as green as in Nigeria, but full of leaves that spiked out rather than arched? Did he ache with loneliness? Though Azikiwe is mentioned in the Storer College exhibit, there isn’t much discussion of his time or reflections about what it meant for a man who became so great out there to have been a Black boy here.

Maybe I am projecting too much onto the place, keeping myself from seeing it fully. Maybe there is nothing unusual about a leader of African independence studying math, running a pawnshop, and being a coal miner in Appalachia. After all, Martin Delany, one of the fathers of Black nationalism, was himself from West Virginia. He said, “It is only in the mountains that I can fully appreciate my existence as a man in America, and my own native land.” “Native land” had by then, even for those who eventually returned to Liberia like Delany, a remote and aspirational quality. But he knew the mountains.

Storer—which, according to the exhibition signage, was one of three historically Black colleges in West Virginia—was closed after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Its Blackness violated the prohibition of segregation. The other two are still open today, but have tiny numbers of Black students in attendance. I stood in the room alone. The silence was eerie.

The terseness of history is hard to endure for long. So I took a walk. I stepped along the Shenandoah, under the heavy iron of a bridge. There were outdoor exhibition signs along the way that began to blur for me. Flood, rebuilding, flood again. I grew tired thinking about how that cycle of re-creation and destruction had variations all over the South. Even the gently rushing water wore at me. Wandering more, I made my way to a general store. Inside, the register didn’t seem to be in operation. It looked authentic and very old. Dried fish hung from a wire above me, sweet-smelling barrels surrounded us, and glass jars lined the walls. I figured it was an artifactual place. But then I wondered, was this all newly made stuff to make you feel like it was back then, or were these actual artifacts?

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Ask now, ’cause I’m fixing to go to lunch.”

That’s how my conversation with a real live Confederate reenactor began. And I realized that in the argument I’d waged in my head, with Horwitz and with history, I was wrong. I could, in fact, talk to a Confederate soldier.

I’ll call the Confederate Bob. It was his birthday. Harpers Ferry was where he wanted to spend it. So he took the day off from his job in Washington, DC, as an archivist, work that he described as a “prison sentence,” and came to volunteer at Harpers Ferry, something he’d been doing his whole adult life. Hailing from what I have heard Marylanders call “out in the county,” Bob was a part of a Maryland regiment. Armed with what Tony Horwitz had written, I asked informed questions about “Farbs,” the people who are not authentic reenactors. Bob spoke with proud criticism but also addressed the hardships of authenticity. Take his eyeglasses, for example: “I was once called out ’cause my glasses weren’t authentic. It cost me $400 to get ’em right, and that was way back in the ’80s, to get real Civil War–era glasses. They were so thick, you couldn’t hardly see out of ’em anyway.” His frock coat had cost a pretty penny, too, and though he didn’t have it with him, he described it in such detail that I could visualize it. The ground, as I learned from Tony’s book, was uncomfortable to sleep on, but the camaraderie and archives of knowledge that it took to get things as close to real as possible were thrilling.

He told me he’d been visiting Harpers Ferry all his life. The accent fell on “all.” And as an adult he volunteered all year round, even when the snow was piled up so high you could hardly get in or out. As skeptical as I was of why anyone would want to playact at preserving slavery, I was endeared to him. He was friendly. Also, I was intrigued by him: this was a man who had advanced degrees and a job that satisfied his passion for history. But something made him yearn for more. He wanted to live inside history, to know its nooks and crannies, to imagine the everyday. A lot of art comes from rural places, even if that’s not where it gets distributed, because it is fertile ground for the imagination. I think maybe reenactment should be described as a performance art, even if I am still uneasy about the pleasure it provides.

We talked for a good hour, as people came in and out, eyeing us curiously. I suppose we made an odd pair. Eventually he really did have to get to lunch. He was getting a free meal for his birthday. Next year, he said, he would turn sixty and expected a ticker tape parade.

I laughed and felt a twinge of sadness. I wondered if his dislike of DC was not really about his work but about it being a chocolate city or the seat of government, or both—basically two faces of disdain that could both be about Blackness, one over demographics and the other over the right-wing commonplace “The government does too much for the Blacks.” He’d started out curt with me. But I hadn’t really challenged him. I spoke to him earnestly. And I watched him relax. I’d decided to maintain the easy tenor of our conversation out of curiosity but also in an effort to create and keep the peace. I was vaguely ashamed of that. I didn’t ask him why he wanted to be a Confederate, even though he was here at Harpers Ferry all the time, the place known for one of the greatest White allies to the cause of Black freedom.

I wondered, did Bob face down Black soldiers on the battlefield? If so, did he see nothing but a blur of Black, no faces, no features? Confederates didn’t take Black soldiers prisoner. They killed every one of them they could.

I didn’t ask him about being a Confederate because I didn’t want to hear what I thought would probably come: talk about Northern aggression and heritage, apologetics for the violence of a slave society, tales of loyal Black people. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t allow me to dig; it was that my spirit, generations tired, didn’t want to. I met a reenactor, and we had a detailed conversation despite my expectation. That was good. And yet I realized I felt something deeper without an agenda, just being alongside mountain folks at stops on the road to and from Harpers Ferry in Gatlinburg, or down in Charleston. It was something less detailed and more impressionistic but ultimately more profound.

Like this: Stop at a Walmart late at night. Sometimes a person jonesing or tweaking looks you dead in your eyes and smiles a little bit with ashamed courteousness if you aren’t a reporter asking them to spill their guts. Sometimes you walk behind a man with his hair plastered to the back of his head, dirty blond, and he’s fussing with his girlfriend and the cursing sounds more like frustration than anger. Sometimes, a mama saying that the children “ain’t getting nothing” is meant to sound disciplinary, but it comes out sad by mistake. Somebody has bad teeth. It’s more a sign of social neglect than failed hygiene. You might think about the blood streaming from his mouth, and how the ever-present bad taste and the feeling of bloating around each tooth can make a person especially miserable when there’s nothing to do about it. When the dead tooth finally falls out, it might be a relief.

Walking, close to midnight, in the Walmart, with that insistent sickly blue brightness against the dark outside that turns everyone sallow and shows every crevice and caked sore, is a lesson in the loneliness of poverty that was born in the shadow of prosperity. And I, a Black woman witness, am unremarkable in every aisle. No one does a double take. In proximity, though my body is always raced, my presence is not alarming. We are all regular folks in a regular place, presumed to be “scuffling,” as my grandmother would say, through life.

I wasn’t able to reconcile the distance I felt in conversation and this silent intimacy in proximity. So I went deeper into an archive of historical memory, hoping to sort it out. Admittedly, it proved to be at best an imperfect autopsy.

In 1839, Washington Irving declared his dislike for the name of the nation. “America” was inadequate. Irving, known for classic American stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” wondered why we should have a country named after an Italian explorer. He wrote:

I want an appellation that shall tell at once, and in a way not to be mistaken, that I belong to this very portion of America, geographical and political, to which it is my pride and happiness to belong; that I am of the Anglo-Saxon race which founded this Anglo-Saxon empire in the wilderness . . .

The impressive mountain terrain mattered to him as well.

We have it in our power to furnish ourselves with such a national appellation, from one of the grand and eternal features of our country; from that noble chain of mountains which formed its back-bone, and ran through the “old confederacy,” when it first declared our national independence. I allude to the Appalachian or Alleghany mountains. We might do this without any very inconvenient change in our present titles. We might still use the phrase, “The United States,” substituting Appalachia or Alleghania, (I should prefer the latter), in place of America . . .

Edgar Allan Poe agreed, in part:

There should be no hesitation about “Appalachia.” In the first place, it is distinctive. “America” is not [a distinctive name] . . . South America is “America,” and will insist upon remaining so.

Poe thought claiming the Indigenous name “Appalachia” might be some recompense for Indigenous people who had been “unmercifully despoiled, assassinated and dishonored.” But Poe disagreed that “Alleghania” was preferable:

The last, and by far the most truly important consideration of all, however, is the music of “Appalachia” itself; nothing could be more sonorous, more liquid, or of fuller volume, while its length is just sufficient for dignity. How the guttural “Alleghania” could ever have been preferred for a moment is difficult to conceive. I yet hope to find “Appalachia” assumed.

It is, but not in the way Poe imagined it, not in terms of being taken on. Assumed in the false security of knowing what happens down there.

Poe, Massachusetts-born, was adopted and reared by Virginians. More than anywhere, he is associated with Baltimore, that interstitial space, Southern and yet not. With his attraction to the gothic and sublime horror, however, he reads as a Southern writer. It is unsurprising that he found the mountain range that reaches from up North deep into the US South to be an apt expression of this country. Appalachia is a vast territory. Its natural resources fueled the nation’s growth in the industrial age. Its beauty awed early settlers. My own ancestors and family in northern Alabama and northwestern South Carolina were Appalachian geographically. But “Appalachia,” as we use the word, tends to be understood mostly as a cultural region, centered lower than New York but farther north than Alabama. This symbolism is both the dream and the evasion. At once the fantasy and shame of the republic. A South, at least imagined, without Blackness.

There is a dissonance between the romance Poe and Irving had for the region, and how it is commonly described. Shame, horror, and humor are cast upon Appalachia. It is the Whitest region of the South and among the poorest, plagued by failed American dreams. Whether or not people use the distasteful pejorative “trash,” they often imply and apply it to the people here. But maybe the inconsistency between the romance of the region, heroically rendered by Davy Crockett, and the shaming of lean and stick-straight-haired mountain people can be reconciled with the reality that Americans love underdogs. We like stories about frontierspeople and tough living against the odds. Even under the mocking taunts about inbred cousins, feuds, and rednecks, there lies a fantastical admiration for Appalachia’s folk heroes, including miners and subsistence farmers. We have a love affair with the sound of the bluegrass singer yodeling into the night. His voice is labor, faith, and fight. In marvelous contradiction, the mountains represent the heart of American romanticism, that tradition of writing, art, and music in which vast emotions are yoked to awe-inspiring nature, and disaster is the condition of a natural nobility. Heroism becomes a kind of prison.

James Robert Reese, a linguist, argues that Appalachians are thought of not as “actual people who reside in the same world,” but as “mythic personages who represent a way of life incompatible with the essential, rational, everyday mode of behavior” that we expect from the American mainstream. Take, for example, the bad multigenerational joke that “inbreeding” is the cause of their spectacular moral failure and grotesqueness, and a reason why Appalachians are “not quite right.” There is plenty of genetic research to debunk that pernicious rumor. Still it sticks. The contradiction has everything to do with Whiteness and class. Appalachians, White ones, can be used to tell the story of conquering nature. Armed with only Whiteness, they can be the Americans facing the wild. However, they, Southern and isolated, can also be convenient repositories for shameful Whiteness—virulently racist, backwards, and unsophisticated.

There’s a historical event that haunts and shames the region. And shows the machine of power. The story is about a boy named George. George was owned by Lilburn Lewis, the nephew of Thomas Jefferson, in the Kentucky mountains. In 1812, a cherished water pitcher slipped from the fifteen-year-old George’s hands, and it shattered. In a drunken rage, Lilburn and his brother tied George to the floor of the kitchen and told the other slaves to build a fire. They did and cowered. The master struck George across the neck with an ax, then commanded one of his fellow slaves to cut him up dead. Bit by bit, George’s body was burned in the fireplace. As his body burned and blackened, an earthquake hit in the middle of the night. The chimney collapsed, snuffing the fire.

All through the following day, aftershocks kept coming. Walls cracked; buildings tumbled. They could not keep a fire going long enough to disappear George. Parts of his body remained intact, and so they hastened to bury them. But with the succession of more earthquakes over the coming weeks, the body kept being unearthed. A dog even brought George’s skull to the main street.

This drew the attention of townspeople, who soon found out what happened. Disgrace fell on the family. The Lewis brothers, who were supposed to be gentlemen, were revealed to be excessively violent. One died by suicide; the other disappeared. The horror of killing is something the Lewis brothers could live with; the shame of that skull coming back up and up, they could not. They were of the planter class, not commoners. Shame was not supposed to be theirs.

The trill of history: On the surface, Lewises were genteel and grace-filled figures, maybe flawed but noble. Underneath them, the ones who labored were uncouth, rough, maybe only part human or maybe horrifically debased. The myth of surface gentlemanliness was a sly fiction then; it is certainly understood as a loud fiction now. But still, we don’t hold it up to the light nearly enough. Gentlemen were not gentlemen at all.

Elites owning enslaved people who performed domestic service was one part of Appalachian history. But industry was the greater part. It was ungentlemanly, too. Or, depending on how you see it, it was a classic structure of how gentlemen ruled. In Appalachian industrial life, the bosses would reap the benefits of coal through the labors of the soot-covered White folks and the unburied Black folks. It sometimes erupted into disaster. That terrible shared heritage, I think, was the source of silences between me and Bob. Start talking too nakedly and all kinds of things have to come up. That’s why I chose to be witness more than interlocutor.

Being a Black American requires double consciousness, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, the habit of seeing from inside the logic of race and the lives of the racialized, and from the external superego of what it means to be American, with all its archetypes and interests. Inside Harpers Ferry, I experienced a carefully maintained history. It was authentic and yet controlled. But there is a wild haunting just beyond its borders.

History, out of order, is a dizzying assortment of things: chain stores, cheap goods, luxury resorts, hungry suffering people, hardworking people, venomous people and generous ones.

So many people live in the ruins of the American drive for prosperity. The residual mining towns are evidence. If you tell a story about the American worker in the twentieth century, you have to talk about the miner, Appalachia’s heroic archetype. Coal was the something indispensable for the industrial revolution. It is one of the most impactful fossil fuels in the history of the world. In the sediment, dark brown or black, rich in carbon, it is unearthed and used up, nonrenewable, and yet this nation won’t stop feasting on it.

Coal-mining innovations kept coming over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Picks and shovels gave way to wheelbarrows, mules, and oxen. Electricity in the last decade of the nineteenth century displaced animals, and in the twentieth century the work was mechanized: trains, belts, shuttles. But still, with all that, laborers were necessary. And they made their way deep into the earth to feed the nation’s desires for comfort.

Coal companies built towns for workers and their families. Theirs was an isolated and organized life. Miners were poor folks who usually stayed poor no matter how hard they worked. The company store kept the books, placing them in crippling debt even though they were the ones whose labor made others rich and gave light and heat to the country.

Mining is disabling. It injures, permanently. Eyes grow rheumy from the lack of light. Bodies are beaten by cramping and lifting and the unrelenting exertion. Today coal mining is a dying industry when it comes to workers. Conservative politicians make promises of revival that simply aren’t possible. The tops are blasted off the mountains now without hand-to-rock-wall labor. The jobs have dwindled. And yet miners, historically speaking, continue to be the subject of lore and, presently speaking, are completely neglected by the rest of the nation.

One piece of earned heroism is the miners’ place at the center of our history of organized labor. Miners understood their importance to industrialization and would become central figures in the history of unions. One of the most impactful strikes happened at Matewan, West Virginia. In West Virginia the word “Matewan” is written along the highway in white italics over green roadside markers. It is one way West Virginia announces itself. Matewan is a story that has also been recounted repeatedly in history and film, a hero’s tale.

In the spring of 1920, the miners in Matewan went on strike to have their union recognized. They’d been inspired by famous organizer Mother Jones, and fueled by being overworked and underpaid. Guards from a private detective agency called Baldwin-Felts, which was working on behalf of Stone Mountain coal company, came to evict the miners from their homes. They did so, with a break for dinner in between the displacements. Done for the day, they went to catch an evening train out of town. But the guards were stopped by the Matewan chief of police, who said he had warrants for the guards’ arrest. Chief Hatfield sided with the miners against the bosses. The Baldwin-Felts agents claimed to have a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest from the mayor.

As the conflict developed, miners, all of them armed, watched the standoff, surrounding the police and the agents. A gunfight, the details of which are disputed, ensued. It left ten dead, most of them agents of the Baldwin-Felts company.

The governor tried to take control of the town, but the miners were not willing to back down. They went on another strike in July. And all hell broke loose. Explosives were attached to railroad cars; miners were beaten near to death. The company agents came back to kill the chief of police and his deputy. This is but one of many such events in mining history, a face-off between the haves and the laboring have nots. The miners created tent cities and their movement grew. In 1921, these union men battled the bosses from Blair Mountain. Finally, in an event famous in labor history, the miners were quelled by a threat from the federal government, which was planning to bomb them out.

Blackness added another layer to the story. Historically, Black miners were assigned to the edges of town and less lucrative work. Mining work has always been dangerous as well as excessively demanding. Some of the worst industry-related incidents around the globe have been mining disasters. In West Virginia, this includes the one at Hawks Nest. When the conflict didn’t get you, the labor would. And Black people were got most.

The year was 1930. Workers were charged with building a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain. The tunnel was planned to divert water to a hydroelectric plant that would produce electricity for metal production. Hundreds of men were recruited for the work. A majority of them were Black.

They drilled and blasted through the mountain, and white dust billowed through the air and into every orifice of the workers’ bodies. Their eye sockets went dry, their airways were irritated, and their skin and clothes were covered in chalky white from head to toe. They did not have masks. There was very little air as they worked through the mountain.

Soon the sickness came. The officials called it “tunnelitis.” It was, in fact, silicosis. That dust settled in the lungs and strangled. The men simply couldn’t work anymore. Many returned to the homes from which they’d migrated, farther south. Upwards of seven hundred men of the nearly three thousand who worked in the tunnel died. That’s an estimate. None of the departed were counted, though many, it is speculated, were left to die or died along the way home.

There was no Black cemetery in that mountain town. So the Black dead were buried alongside one another in an open field. There they rested until another building project years into the future meant they would be dug up and interred again elsewhere. Kill them, throw them away, dig them up, repeat. Remember that choreography.

People who live in coal country didn’t and don’t have to suffer through a disaster like Hawks Nest to experience the ravages of the industry. The whole endeavor is dangerous to the air, the drinking water, everything with a face, and the flora. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store . . .”

The miners who went on strike again and again would insist that the world knew all the innovation and skyscraping wealth of the country rested at least in part on their digging deeper into the earth. These stories of mining, of the arduous work and the struggle for rights, are fascinating in part because law is an unsettled matter in them. Who was in charge, and who should be in charge, was often unclear. Where national solidarity would exist, and with whom, was also a challenge.

The challenges faced by miners are local. But the resistance of miners can be mapped all over the globe. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a miner in West Virginia, and as an activist in Nigeria, he stood with miners against colonial authorities. One of the most important global throughlines of the twentieth century is that of exploited workers demanding their due. Another is, as Du Bois put it, the problem of the color line. In mountain country, these two legacies clashed. Poor and working-class White Americans were taught that if they expressed solidarity with Black people, also exploited, also laboring hard, they’d lose what Du Bois termed “the wages of whiteness,” those benefits that went along with not being at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It is well established that poor and working-class White people have hoped to gain something from Whiteness—and yet also have a complaint with the way it excludes them from all the status it promised.

The consequence has been that the moments of class solidarity across the lines of race were fleeting in US history. And now, when politicians use “working class” to mean White people rather than the whole working class, they extend a terrible distortion. But still, what should be matters as much as what is. History orients us and magnifies our present circumstance.

The postindustrial United States, in which we have shifted to a service economy in which workers don’t produce goods but provide services to others, has been a hard transition for the American working class. I think the commonly reported resentment about American companies outsourcing work to Asia is a result of both frustration and envy. Somewhere else, someone has been given the work of usefulness, of creating things that make the engine of the country possible. Disregarding the horrific terms of that labor—sweatshops and debt—is easy in a place where slaves were once similarly hated competition.

Today, in the absence of mining work, and with limited options besides service jobs, some fugitive labor has come into the picture for mountain folks. Having a hustle outside the law isn’t new. Up here is where a lot of the good liquor was first made. Moonshine runners were popular during Prohibition. Long after alcohol was restored to legality, some folks still preferred the taste of illegally produced home brew. Mountain Dew soda, the most excessively sweet drink you can think of, is called that after moonshine, mastered in mountain country. Their first bottles had a picture of a hillbilly on them. You can even watch reality shows these days that show you how people called hillbillies still make moonshine. It has a fresh, brighter, and antiseptic taste compared to manufactured liquors. The scent leaps up sharp and slightly yeasty out of the bottle rather than with a smooth rise. At least that’s true of the kind I’ve had. Even if people didn’t prefer the taste, after Prohibition ended, the fact that ’shine is tax-free sells it, too. Also, drinking hooch is a flirtation with danger, and not just because it’s illegal but because if the kitchen distiller who makes it doesn’t know what they’re doing, you could end up dead from partaking. I wonder, can we see that these are Davy Crockett’s grandchildren, heirs to the king of the wild frontier who could shoot a gun and split a bullet in half on an ax? They are manifestations of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mandate of self-creation and recognition of the power of experience. Appalachia can also give us an eye towards how the national personality refracts like a diamond into a thousand rays. Playacting and self-made people are country cousins to Horatio Alger. With Southern charm sprinkled on top.

Among the newer hillbilly hustles is ginseng. Ginseng thieves go onto private or state land and forage for it, under threat of surveillance and chase. The kind of ginseng grown in Appalachia is of a particularly good quality for Asian markets. In traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng cools, but North American ginseng warms the body. A fresh pound can go for $200, and dried it can go up to $800 and higher.

This has given rise to legislatures creating newly defined crimes. Keep in mind “crimes” are created. Governments declare actions criminal all the time that don’t have to be, like making moonshine or “ginseng larceny.” Lest you think this is quaint, please note that ginseng is a billion-dollar industry. The wild growth in the mountains is so fine, not like the mass-produced pesticide-sprayed variety that comes by the regular means.

Now, not all ginseng harvesting is illegal. There are official government seasons for it on public land. But the competition is tight and the profit margin lower when you do it the legal way. And West Virginia and the surrounding mountain country is poor and struggling. Theft makes money sense. The risks now are not collapsed lungs but prison sentences.

Taking up this errand in the wilderness, individual foragers can sell to ginseng companies and stay afloat. Some reality shows have picked up on this practice and depict the drama of gathering ginseng and evading the law. Like a lot of reality television, it comes across as just another example of “those quirky Southerners.” But there’s something that is of a piece between that fugitive entrepreneurship outside the law and the opioid crisis, which is an awful lot about chasing some sense of peace inside the body.

The methamphetamine and heroin epidemics have increased ginseng poaching’s allure. West Virginia and Kentucky have some of the highest rates of opioid overdosing in the country. Ginseng theft is a good way to feed the opioid habit because the turnover is quick. You can have cash in hand the same day.

Foragers steal to provide what will heal others, and that same bounty circulates to palliate their own pains with chemicals that eat away at them. Meth labs and ginseng roots sometimes even share residence in dealers’ homes. It’s a hardscrabble cycle. A few people make a heap of money from it, while regular mountain folks stay scratching a life from digging into the dirt.

In Harpers Ferry, I saw a cheerful sign and stepped down into the True Treats Historic Candy shop. It bills itself as “the nation’s only research-based historic candy store.” This little shop is a dream to someone with a sweet tooth and an historian’s imagination. The candy is bagged and grouped by historical period and region from the eighteenth century forward. I selected the traditional African American bag for obvious reasons. There was crystallized cane sugar, molasses pulls, and licorice root. The candied rose and violet petals were delicately chalky, and the peanut brittle had a sharp taste. Of course there was crystallized sorghum syrup processed out of the sweetgrass that grows throughout the South.

According to epidemiologists and physicians, Southerners weigh too much, have too much tooth decay, eat too much fat, and drink too much coke. We cushion against the hurt with the abundance of love found in food. And we revel in taking up space with sayings: “Only a dog wants a bone,” we say. The constraints are rarely mentioned: overwork, poverty, the convenience of fast food. That’s all a part of the story. It really isn’t a regional story so much as a national one and a historic one. But the sweetest of the sweet tooths grew down here in part because of how the land was organized by deprivation even when what it yielded was abundant. Slave labor, barely free labor, and the land itself were all worked to their limits. Something sweet gives you a little piece. Or peace.

My grandmother, who we called “Mudear” or “Mudeah,” a Southern contraction of “Mother dear,” used to repeat the words she learned from her auntie: “You weren’t born to live on flowerbeds of ease.” From the eighteenth-century pen of the “godfather of English hymnody” Isaac Watts, the phrase made its way to a Southern meditation of, as Gwendolyn Brooks described it, “living in the along” by facing adversity and making do. This sentence that echoed through our lives as a mantra might be a testament to toughness or a simple reckoning that your circumstances simply weren’t going to be easy. Sometimes a body is desperate for some relief from the weight of worry and the sadness of feeling trapped. And the nasty trick with opioids is that they ease both physical pain and a hurting heart. Both are in abundance in mountain living. At the same time as we track the beauty, we must witness the trouble. The story of when work disappears isn’t just a story for American cities filled with Black people slipping down from working classes to poor. It is also up here, down there.

The tenderness I feel for the descendants of White miners is limited by my own sense of the story of Black folks in Appalachia and how many of their untended dead lie across the landscape. Despite the struggle and the labor movement, Jim Crow existed here, too. I use the word “tenderness” deliberately. I do not simply mean solidarity with their experiences of being exploited, though I do mean that. I also mean a certain heartache.

Moreover, in a rural place, you have intimacies across the color line as well as borders. There are too few people and too much needing of one another to maintain an always strict color line. It falters. Appalachian people deal with dueling afterlives. The afterlife of slavery is a vertical hierarchy, a brutal exploitation even as Black and White people are often closely intertwined. The afterlife of Jim Crow is jobs that go to one group or another, different sides of town, prison and, where the borders aren’t respected, violence.

My advisor in graduate school, Henry Louis Gates Jr., known as Skip, wrote about coming of age in a West Virginia mountain town in his memoir, Colored People. Like Albert Murray, he is a man whose brilliance stuns and with whom I argue, at least in my mind, on a few political questions. No matter. My heart remains soft for the meticulousness of an erudite Southern gentleman who understands the gutbucket and hustle just as well as the canonical Western literary forms, and all the Black American cultural forms, too. And their confident Black genius set against a White supremacist history has always inspired me. Just like my mother’s friend Marva, who grew up in Lynch, Kentucky, and was part of the circle of elders in my midst as I grew up, Skip has a crisp elocution and a penchant for impeccable style, as though accustomed to being defined by oneself instead of one’s circumstance of origin.

In Colored People, there are two simultaneous and tension-filled motifs: the tight-knit cultural mélange of Black, White, and everything in between, and the forces of segregation in the itty-bitty place. Affrilachians have a broad Southern experience but also a rare one, with a color line, a fragile Jim Crow, a problem with cruel racism and poverty, and the kind of intimacy that comes when you live in small places even if they are unequal. To that point, in Appalachia, there’s a long history of what anthropologists call tri-racial isolates: groups of multiracial people who retreated from the American racial matrix to be their own thing. They have varying names: Melungeons, Red Stockings, Brass Ankles, and the like. They kept to themselves historically and had to stay that way to remain ambiguous. Genetic testing, though admittedly unreliable, has disturbed some of the mythologies that held them together. Yet while a few of the myths are exposed (like the ones that say they don’t descend from Africans), it is good to remember that all identity is in part myth, the kind that we can use to sort out living, for better or worse, depending upon its uses. Swarthy mountain folks, according to the one-drop rule of the United States, are significantly Black, but in the rules of the local, rural South, they are a people with a persistent but also submerged history of being not quite Black. The Black-White binary of race has never been as permanent or fixed as people like to claim, not when you live up real close. Of course shared ways grew. Take, for example, a few women who sat in different places along the color line, from deep in the Mountain South. Doris Payne, a native of Slab Fork, West Virginia, is a striking and elegant elderly Black woman known as an international jewel thief. As her lore goes, she was a child in a jewelry store, giddy because her father had told her she could purchase a watch as a gift. But then the store owner, seeing White patrons enter, ushered her out rapidly. She left, but not before she had slipped a watch in her pocket. After she was dismissed by the proprietor, the comeuppance was sweet. It would be the driving force in her life. Her skill grew. She remade herself into a lady who lunched, poised and elegant, with the veneer of wealth that she had in theatricality, if not in the bank. Diamond Doris has perfected polish, and she had a heap of social security numbers and names to go with her genteel resistance. With the gestures of a wealthy doyenne, she can slip diamond rings, from one carat to ten, on her long, elegant nutmeg fingers. She is a glorious outlaw; her memoir and a documentary about her life are celebratory rather than ambivalent. We want her to get away with it, to escape the yoke of crime and punishment. Maybe we live vicariously through her, feeding both our fantasy of being Cinderella-ed into a life without cares or debilitating bills, and our desire to stick it to the aristocrats?

Or Dolly Parton, an honest-to-God multimillionaire who grew up a poor mountain woman. She says, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” and stays so garishly adorned that she has no trouble going unrecognized when she isn’t “dolled” up. She makes me know that the shape-shifting of humble mountain folks is not just a matter of costuming or gesture to get over on the ones with power and wealth, to sneak into their ranks. It’s living play. Maybe up and away from the action in the mountains is just the perfect place for dreaming up a self and a story. Dolly’s organization Imagination Library, at the request of families, sends every child in Tennessee (and several other locations as well) a collection of books from birth until age five. Maybe play can keep you from getting dried up by the difficulty of making do.

And then there was the infamous “welfare queen” of President Ronald Reagan’s agenda against the welfare state. Linda Taylor was from Golddust, Tennessee. Her birth certificate identified her as White. She was raised as Black. In her navigation of the world beyond Appalachia, she was a changeling: White, Black, Latina, Asian, and Jewish. She had a host of aliases and identifications. Taylor ultimately served six years of a two-to-six-year sentence for welfare fraud.

Though cast in a stereotypical image of a Black woman on public assistance, Taylor was like Payne and Parton, unprecedented in her self-creation.

To remake ourselves from our imaginations is a classically American endeavor, and we are charmed by its many forms, whether the work of thieves, entertainers, or presidents.

The civil rights struggle in Appalachia, as elsewhere in the South, was an effort at remaking what it meant to be Americans. The Highlander Folk School is one of the most important institutions in that generations-long endeavor. In 1932, in the Tennessee hills, Highlander was established. Its founder, Myles Horton, was a native of Savannah, Tennessee. Horton grew up poor and critical of the exploitation that was the everyday experience of rural Tennesseans. He traveled far from home, initially for education, ultimately studying under theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While in Denmark, Horton had been inspired by the model of the folk school, a place where rural workers learned skills but also developed social and political perspectives out of their collective experiences. Highlander was built on that example, an educational site for ordinary people. Horton also was an organizer, supporting miners in Fentress County in the early 1930s. It was a violent clash. Horton’s colleague, the union president Barney Graham, was killed by company bosses. Horton said that event radicalized him.

Highlander was integrated, pro-union, committed to nonviolent resistance, and often accused of being “communist.” As time unfolded, the center of gravity of social movement shifted, and Highlander maintained itself as a space that allowed integrated meetings to take place—a rarity in the South—and became a site for developing strategies for the freedom movement.

As with many of the civil rights movement organizers you know of, Rosa Parks attended a workshop at Highlander before the bus boycott. She was already an organizer as an active member of the NAACP. Same as Martin Luther King Jr., who first visited in 1957. Highlander did not create organizers, but rather facilitated organizing. At Highlander, the citizenship schools, led by Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark, and the debates of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee over whether to engage in direct action or voter registration took place, along with other important strategizing sessions. They plotted collective actions that became real through myriad instances of courage and personal commitments. In an article from the Highlander newsletter, the school was described as “. . . like a mirror, to reflect the community and group it comes into. It helps us see things about ourselves and our condition that are hard to see by ourselves. Like a mirror, by spreading awareness and information about the way things are—and ways they can be changed . . .”

In 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s license and seized its property. This wasn’t surprising. Berea College, also in the mountains of Kentucky, had been founded as a coeducational integrated college in 1855 and was forced to become White only from 1904 until 1950, by which time its progressive Christian politics were less incendiary, though much of the South remained segregated. Highlander pushed even further against the grain than Berea, and they were punished for it. However, they regrouped and reopened in Knoxville.

Through the movement’s heyday, and as the mainstream period of the civil rights era waned, Highlander continued. From the 1970s onward, they organized against strip mining, toxic dumping, and pollution, advocating for workers, including the undocumented. Threats came from the state over the years, but Highlander lived on, even after Horton’s death in 1990. A multiracial institution that is networked nationally and internationally and invested in the lives of working people who are the backbone of the world, Highlander belies the mythology of Appalachia. But it also fits directly in the history of organized labor and a history of imagining, in particular imagining a different way of being in the world, together.

In 2019, the Highlander Center’s main office building caught fire. This was just a year after another, more publicized fire had raged in Tennessee’s mountain range. That was discovered to be an adolescent accident, tragic but largely innocent. This time, in the detritus and ash left after the flames were extinguished, a souvenir remained. It was a White power symbol. The perpetrators have yet to be discovered, and perhaps it doesn’t matter if they are. Were legal justice brought to them, their ideas wouldn’t be extinguished. John Brown’s weren’t after he lay moldering in the grave. But nor have Highlander’s. As director Ash-Lee Henderson describes it, Highlander is sacred and also resilient. She quoted Myles Horton after the fire: “You can padlock a building, but you can’t padlock an idea.”

Arson is merely an overt symbol, surface activity on a sea of action. In a profoundly unequal place, Whiteness is supposed to mean something. Whenever that is threatened, a hot resentment bubbles. I cannot help but read the fire-setting that way. It was a way of suffocating the imagination with the bindings of Southern tradition.

Which brings us to my regional designation: an errand in the wilderness. In 1670, Samuel Danforth, a Puritan pastor, preached a sermon called “An Errand into the Wilderness” up in Boston. It detailed Puritans’ belief in a covenant with God whereby they had been elected to conquer the New World. It was followed by the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, and then finally the closing of the American frontier. Appalachia, however, began as a different kind of errand in the wilderness, one that I would argue is much more central to who we are as Americans, despite how remote Appalachia is from most of our lives. The gospel was extracting abundance from the wild landscape. Human sacrifice was expected. Suffering death and repetition served the new-world aristocracy of wealth. In Appalachia the errand isn’t an end but a repetition. Alliances and affections shift, but the whole cast repeats itself. And the frontier hasn’t closed up even now, even where the earth has been sucked dry. People wrestle against the landscape, living on land that only yields a little bit, or on abundant land from which they only have legal right to a little bit, if anything. The song of the Mountain South is that which rings out into open air. It, too, is a way of asserting oneself, as not a cog in the system but a presence. The vibrato, the Southern yodel, cracked grief in wet bluegrass, is a sermon that repeats itself.

And in our lives, an intimate détente remains. A polite tension on top, a flame below. This might sound unfamiliar to you, but if you think for a moment about how conversations about race are approached in your life, the tentativeness and the terror that the conflagration might hit, you’ll see it’s much the same. Shame and rage collide. You might not understand why that is. The matter isn’t simply about anger, resentment, misunderstanding, or saying the wrong or right words. It is earthquake, fire, unmarked graves, and ash. Over and over again. You might think you know, but you probably don’t. There’s an old joke about an out-of-towner stopping at a filling station. He asked the old man working, “Hey, Grandpa, which way to Hazard?” And the old man responded, “How did you know I was a grandpa?”

“I guessed.”

“Well, guess which road takes you to Hazard then.”

Acting like you know everything and acting like you don’t know how to be respectful will keep you ignorant. Be humble. 

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