Friday, December 2, 2011

The Gulnare Letter

I first heard rumblings of the brewing storm from the east a few evenings back.  I checked my facebook, and a friend of mine posted a story from cnn's ireport that was headlined simply "Gulnare."  I grew up a short distance from Gulnare and wondered what on Earth could have potentially happened there that would have drawn any sort of media attention.  The old mine there is (to my knowledge) long closed, and the community is so small and out of the way that most people living in Pike County don't even know how to get there.  I clicked on the report and read that the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church had voted to not allow an interracial couple to be members of the church due only to their choice to mix races.  I felt sick.  Not because of what they did; because I knew what was coming next.

I left Pike County at 19 to try to make my own way in the world.  I had outgrown its confines, and despite my comfort there I knew that if I was to leave the mark I wanted to that departure was necessary.  I had fallen victim to some of her more well-known vices suffered by a very visible minority; excessive drinking, laziness, and a general malaise towards thinking about tomorrow.  My family knew it was best that I leave.  So I left.  With no plan.  With no real ambitions.  I just knew I had to leave.  Nine years later I have grown immeasurably, intellectually, emotionally and socially.  But Eastern Kentucky is not a place one leaves lightly, and my thoughts often wander there. 

I am writing what follows for two reasons, and for three different audiences.  The first reason is to cast the situation in Gulnare in relief of a person who was raised just a few miles away, and to discuss how most of us probably feel about it.  The second is to address the way that Pike County, and her sons and daughters, relate to and fit in the rest of this world.  The two audiences I will address directly are people from Pike County and Eastern Kentucky who have left and those who remain behind.  The third is the audience that will probably read this more than those two:  Everyone else.  I hope this very frank discussion can possibly give you more insight into our minds.

Those who have left

There is an Eastern Kentuckian diaspora, and if you are a member of it I sympathize.  The region has always been impoverished and underfunded.   At one time, subject to Northeastern robber barons who mined away our resources and paid our ancestors in script.  Frankly, a lot of what happens today has a lot to do with that.  So there isn't much future at home for many of us.

But at some point you decided to leave, and for most of it it was for the same reason:  You could not reach the heights you aspired to by staying at home.  Some of you decided this very young.  Others, such as myself, didn't make this decision until we had punched and kicked our way into a corner that there was no escaping.  But most of you have probably had a lot of the experiences that I have had, or ones similar to the ones I will relate.

Leaving is hard.  Not only are you leaving a very insular, family oriented community, you arrive in a strange place that finds you to be an oddity.  A walking novelty item.  For some people this is harded than others and they end up quitting to go home where they can live in peace.  My second girlfriend would call me every night from UK in tears because she felt so alone and people made fun of her.  Another person I was close to lied, told people she was from Lexington, and hid her accent by never speaking up in class. 

The incident in Gulnare has raised that old, irritating chorus that we have become so accustomed to.  We are all racist, ignorant hill-billies who can't even read the bible we preach from.  That's why I was intially upset with Gulnare.  I knew what was coming next.  And come it has.  Just scroll through facebook or look around on the comments section of ABC news or CNN (if you dare) and you can find some incredibly horrible and uncivil things being thrown around about us and our home.  But I warn you to not be too defensive; do not try to tell people they are wrong and I will tell you why.

You simply have to get used to this.  It's part and parcel of the deal.  You may have been told that the rest of the world (excluding Eastern Kentucky and other cultural counterparts) are a very open-minded place.  You will find that generally, they are not.  People are going to make fun of your accent.  They are going to mock your high school education.  They are going to make jokes about whether or not you wore shoes, if you have all your teeth, and ask if your parents were related.  And more hurtful than anything else, they will often discount your opinions based purely upon the proposition that "you just don't know what you're talking about." 

You have to accept it, because if you do not, you will EXHAUST yourself trying to correct everyone.  Let your actions speak for you and let your achievements further your credibility.  Those who do not come around if you excel certainly are not going to be convinced that you are their equal from you talking to them logically.  Don't fall into the "well, I'm not a racist because ____" trap.  You are validating them.  In their eyes you are beneath them.  This is the modern equivalent of "low birth" I have discovered.  For those few, nothing will change that perception so you may as well learn to suck it up.  Now that doesn't mean you can't say that what Gulnare Freewill did is wrong; by all means, say so.  But stop right there.  Don't qualify it, don't tell them about how you don't know anyone like that, or about how open-minded your church is.  Just say it's screwed up and move on.  Don't apologize for things you haven't done.

But once they do, there is a second step.  Reaffirm who you are.  Don't do the disservice of letting this person think "well, this guy/girl is just different from everyone where they grew up."  Don't run from who you are.  Everyone who knows me in this community knows I am from Pikeville, Kentucky.  I'm damn proud of that.   I would like to believe that those people I have interacted with have come away at least sometimes having a positive opinion about where I'm from.

To everyone at home

I seriously doubt that as the 15 members of the Free Will Baptist Church at Gulnare sat down to vote on whether or not Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni would be allowed to be part of their community that they anticipated the looming firestorm.  But they are reckless for not doing so.  The entire country already finds us to be a sideshow act waiting to happen, and when people do stupid things like that the spotlight just shines right in all the wrong places.

But you can do something about it.  You can universally, vocally, condemn what is happening at Gulnare in your own churches, and release those statements to the media.  I've already seen a lot of glimmers of this, and it has made me very happy.

What people outside do not understand about this is that such an action runs contrary to some of our most cherished and deeply held beliefs; that people should be free to live their lives without interference from others.  Also, it may seem like overkill considering that Gulnare itself only has about 30 people living there, and the church only has 15 members. 

But again, it does not matter.  To the outside world you ARE those 15 people.  And it's completely arbitrary, judgmental, prejudiced, and unfair.  But that's just the way it is.  You cannot expect the rest of this country to change at all, and we can point out their hypocrisy until judgement day but it won't make a difference. 

At the end of the day, this will fizzle out.  In a few weeks, some new flash-in-the-pan story will hit and America's collective disapproval will be aimed elsewhere.  But the scars are going to remain.  Probably no matter what we do. 

Who knows.  Maybe one of these days it will cease to be alright to judge us.  But until then it is what it is.  And I have a final on Monday.