by Jerimee Richir on October 16, 2012
"REMEMBERING THE SALTVILLE MASSACRE - Can acknowledging atrocities help heal racial divisions?" by Tonia Moxley
Printed in Southern Exposure: Making A Killing (2003)
They gather just before dusk on the old Saunders Hill in Saltville, a small town in southwestern Virginia. More than a dozen teenagers, members of the Scott Street Baptist Church youth group, file out of a bus onto the field where they set to work with paper bags, sand, and candles. They make these homemade luminaries every Oct. 2 just before 7 p.m. to honor the sacrifice, some say the massacre, of more than 40 black Civil War soldiers who died on this preserved battlefield, where no monument to their sacrifice stands.
Just over 2,000 people call Saltville home. Out of that number, the 2000 census counted only nine black people in the town limits. Yet the annual memorial service is usually an integrated affair, bringing people from several states and differing backgrounds and politics together to help heal the wounds of a nation still torn by the legacies of civil war and slavery. There they sing hymns, pray, and read aloud the names of those still listed as missing by military records.
There was virtually no interest in the story of black soldiers and their fight for freedom until the 1989 release of the movie Glory, which chronicled the formation and battle experiences of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company, says Frank Smith of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Reclaiming sites such as Saltville and the stories around them "is important as the United States presents itself to the world as a beacon of freedom and democracy."
David Brown grew up with a photo of his great-great-grandfather, Samuel Truehart, hanging in the front room of his childhood home in New York state. This fact set him apart from his peers because many black Americans have no record of their families beyond grandparents.
According to Thomas Mays, professor of history at Quincy University in Illinois and author of a book on the massacre, the Truehart photo is one of five existing identifiable photos of black Civil War soldiers. At least 200,000 black soldiers served in the Civil War. In the old tintype, Truehart is dressed in the uniform of a Union cavalryman —riding pants, gauntlet-style leather gloves, and a blue wool coat with shiny brass buttons. His eyes are clear and resolute, his posture relaxed. The photograph was likely taken in the early autumn of 1864 at Camp Nelson, Ky., where Truehart enlisted in the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Within a few weeks, Truehart's regiment would ride into battle as part of a Union force attempting to destroy a Confederate installation at Saltville.
In 1998, Bill Archer, then a reporter for the Bluefield (VV.Va.) Daily Telegraph, heard the story of the Saltville Massacre while covering a battle re-enactment there. Archer, the son of a military man, was astonished. "This is America. These were U.S. soldiers," he says. "The United States abandoned them; Burbridge abandoned them. How could you leave your wounded?" In fewer than two months, Archer had organized the memorial service.
Archer found David Brown through the Internet and invited him to participate in the service. While conducting research into his family history, Brown compiled a list of the soldiers of the Fifth still missing in action after the war. Brown and his mother, Phyllis Brown (Truehart's great-granddaughter) were in attendance as those names were read aloud and luminaries were lighted in their honor at the first Saltville memorial service on October 2, 1998, the 134th anniversary of the battle. Every year since 1998, people have gathered in Saltville to honor the sacrifice of these men."These were U.S. soldiers. The United States abandoned them. How could you leave your wounded?"
In 1864, Gen. Stephen Gano Burbridge was trying to salvage a sinking military career. A few hundred miles away lay Saltville, Va., the so-called "Salt Capital of the Confederacy." Mechanical refrigeration did not exist during the Civil War and salt was the only battlefield food preservative. If Burbridge could destroy those salt works and disrupt the South's food supply, his career might be revived.
But he needed troops. Congress had established the Bureau of Colored Troops in May 1863 to recruitand train black soldiers for the war effort. Burbridge's state of Kentucky was bitterly divided over the war and many white Kentuckians were unwilling to enlist. So Burbridge, under the auspices of the new bureau, ordered the formation of the Fifth Regiment of the United States Colored Cavalry. Most of the 600 recruits came straight from bondage, but Samuel Truehart, a freeman, also was among the ranks.
The men of the Fifth USCC were given substandard equipment and at most three weeks' training before they marched off to Saltville with 4,400 white troops. Despite a lack of training and merciless taunting by their white counterparts, the men of the Fifth distinguished themselves in battle at Saltville on Oct. 2, 1864. Ordered to storm a heavily defended hill, the regiment suffered heavy casualties. One Confederate cavalryman quoted by Mays in his book, The Saltville Massacre, wrote afterwards that he "never saw troops fight like they did. The rebels were firing on them with grape and canister and were mowing them down by the scores but others kept straight on." A Confederate officer concurred: "I have seen white troops fight in 27 battles and never saw any fight any better" than the men of the Fifth, he wrote.
But Burbridge was a lackluster tactician and his 5,000-man force was routed by half that many Confederates. The general and his remaining forces slipped back to Kentucky under cover of night, abandoning their wounded, many of them black soldiers, to the enemy. Historians disagree about what happened the next morning. Some argue that another war began—a guerrilla war against black soldiers. Accounts written by Confederate soldiers describe a massacre that lasted for days after the initial battle, as Confederate troops executed black soldiers too wounded to retreat. "They were shooting every wounded Negro they could find," writes one witness. "Hearing firing on other parts of the field, I knew the same awful work was going on all about me." The killing, according to some accounts, extended 12 miles away to a Confederate field hospital at Emory and Henry College, near Abingdon. A field surgeon at the hospital named William Mosgrove later filed a formal complaint with the military alleging the shooting of several black soldiers at the hospital. One Richmond newspaper reported that 155 black soldiers were killed and that Confederates took no prisoners.
A letter written on behalf of Gen. Robert E. Lee by his Aide de Camp Charles Marshall to a Confederate commander hints at an atrocity on Saunder's Hill:"He [Lee] is much pained to hear of the treatment the negro prisoners are reported to have received, and agrees with you in entirely condemning it. That a general officer should have been guilty of the crime you mention meets with his unqualified reprobation."
The letter goes on to encourage the commander to bring charges against the unnamed officer, but no one was ever brought to trial for the killings. Saltville oral history says the executed soldiers were dumped in a sinkhole and a pig pen was erected on the spot to cover the crime.
least one large set of public pig pens did exist in the town as
recently as 40 years ago, Saltville tourism director Charlie Bill Totten says. As a child, he helped clean those pig pens and found a great many buttons, buckles and ribbons in the process. Too many, he says, for that spot to be anything but a mass grave. Radford University archeologist Cliff Boyd has excavated that and a similar sink hole in town and has not found a mass grave. Residents say there are four other possible spots, but NASA's ground-penetrating radar couldn't find evidence of a mass grave anywhere in the town. Even if the bodies were dumped in a sinkhole, Boyd says,
they were likely moved soon after. There is little chance that any
remains will be recovered. But David Brown's great-great-grandfather was
not among the dead. Samuel Truehart survived the first battle of
Saltville, returning in December 1864 with a Union force that did
destroy the salt works (although the Confederates, using 200 slaves, had
the installation up and running again within a couple of months).
Truehart stayed in the Army through the end of the war and was finally mustered out in Arkansas in 1866. He walked back to Kentucky, where he lived for 12 years before leaving for Kansas as part of the "Exoduster" movement.
During those years, hundreds of thousands of African Americans went West, chasing the dream of owning their own land.
Anne Butler has spent much of her professional life preserving and passing on black history. She has worked at Camp Nelson National Historical Park and currently directs the Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African Americans at Kentucky State University. She has consulted on the Saltville memorial service since its inception. "It's very difficult for African Americans to find connections to geographic place," she says. "History has been sanitized and our visible presence has been written out. Memorials help us reclaim a local landscape and the histories surrounding an area."
In fact, the most divisive time in American history now brings people together, Butler says. For the past 15 years across the South, blacks and whites have banded together to preserve and memorialize Civil War history and the part of African Americans in that history. Confederate sympathizers have been known to help black people clean African-American cemeteries. "It shows how complex issues of race really are," she says.
Saltville resident Eleanor Jones says her grandfather, 14 years old in 1864, witnessed the battle and the massacre from behind Confederate lines. She is proud of her Confederate heritage and says she doesn't think about slavery when she thinks about the South. "The Southmeans gentility, good manners, and hospitality to me," she says. But she is a big supporter of the memorial service and dismisses concerns that "dredging up the past" might hurt the town's fledgling tourism industry. "Veterans deserve recognition," she says. "It means putting an issue to rest."
Jim Bordwine, who grew up in Saltville and still lives there, says his great-grandfather may have participated in the massacre. Bordwine always has loved history and now spends most of his free time as a re-enactor. He usually attends the Saltville memorial in Confederate uniform. "Both sides needed to be represented," he says. "We have to show that we can stand together, that we're not still fighting."
Although there is still resistance to reclaiming and telling the history of American blacks across the South, there is also a large contingent that supports opening up that history, says Virginia curator of African-American history Lauranett Lee. Lee has traveled across Virginia touring black history sites and also consults on their preservation and presentation. She believes these sites are drawing African-American families to the South as tourists. "Parents have been concerned about how history is presented," she says. But now "these families can have a part in the education of their children."
In fact, everyone benefits from development of these historical sites, especially the small towns like Saltville, Butler says. "There is often an economic gain for them" in the form of tourist dollars. And it may also work for black communities. The African-American Civil War Memorial was built in the historically black Shaw neighborhood for this reason, says Smith.
According to a report by the Travel Industry Association of America, African-American travel increased 16 percent from 1997 to 1999. That increase was much higher than the one percent growth of U.S. travelers overall. The report went on to say that most of those African-American travelers visit the Southeast United States. Phyllis Brown, for one, had never visited the rural South before the first Saltville memorial in 1998. To Smith, this new trend is a way to "right a great wrong" in American history and help struggling communities.
But it's also about telling the truth. Black Americans built the South, he says. While slave owners were off fighting to preserve slavery, black people grew the food, worked the farms, and maintained the houses of the owners. After the war, black people, including federal veterans, came home to the South to "build a new world," he says. "It's a whole new story about the Southand how it developed."
Phyllis Brown feels much the same way. Memorials "tell the world that African-Americans fought for their freedom. They didn't wait for others to win it for them. They took their future in their own hands."
Tonia Moxley has written for several regional publications, including Appalachian Voices and The Roanoke Times. Her article "Appalachian Colors" appeared in Southern Exposure (Summer 2003).
For more information:
- The Saltville Massacre Web site (David Brown's research): mywebpages.comcast.net/5thuscc
- African American Civil War Memorial Web site: www.afroamcivilwar.org
- National Park Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Project (database of soldiers): http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm
by Jerimee Richir on June 16, 2012
I've added a few more images from Southern Exposure to our Facebook page. You can see them via the link below.
by Jerimee Richir on May 18, 2012
The imposed identity of "hillbilly" once made many young Appalachians ashamed to be from the mountains — caused them to turn away from their own history in migrations both physical and psychological. But appearing in the mountains today is a literature of "hillbilly nationalism."Young writers in Appalachia are exploring and embracing their mountain identity. This embracing of a despised past is more than a declaration of identity; it is a dawning of political consciousness.
The majority in this country has always specialized in making the minority — Appalachian, black, Irish, Chicano — accept the majority's version of what the minority's identity is and must be: you are a hick, hillbilly, nigger, and that's a shameful thing, says the majority, and the minority sometimes accepts the judgment. When this exchange is broken there is a revolution in consciousness, an awakening: yes, I am black, but black is beautiful.
But the dawning of political consciousness is not that simple, for it involves much more than just a declaration of identity. Achieving awareness means, first of all, seeing yourself— how you may have been manipulated; how you have played someone else's game, complete with someone else's rules; how you have been fooled, tricked, sent on this gull's errand or that; how you have been duped. This vision of self is searing. It drives some mad, some blind. It has put out the eyes of many a would-be revolutionary who cannot contain the paradox of his or her own complicity in victimization.
While many young Appalachians find mutual comfort and support in the growing numbers of those who have awakened politically, there is no comfort in the larger number of their neighbors and cousins who have not recently changed. That irony is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in a little book called Generation, the 1978publication of the Eastern Kentucky Youth Media Workshop.There, side by side, you can find the paradox of Appalachia's current politics. On one page, we find an almost standard version of revolutionary rhetoric:
With the exception of the American Indian, no people have been victimized more than Appalachians. Their land is scarred from years of timber and mineral exploitation, and now their cultural heritage is being drained of all virtue and dignity. More and more the mountaineer is being made to feel like an immigrant in his own land.
Immediately after this declaration is a statement of now-standard Sacred History:
The time has come to disregard the old image of dirty, unkempt, barefoot people carrying their trusty rifles and corn jugs. They must now be recognized as what they are and what they can be. They are descendants of independent frontiersmen, feuding clansmen and hillside farmers. They are a proud, loyal and independent people, but they are tended to be bound by the sacredness of home and family.
This romantic vision indicates a powerful awakening coming over the young author and gives him or her something to cling to in the quest for social and cultural identity. On another page in Generation we find a much more startling and profound version of a political state of mind, written collaboratively by a group of fifth graders in Breathitt County, Kentucky:
First One in the Van
I wish I had this and I wish I had that.
I wish I had a set of mag wheels . . some
more of them.
I wish I had a green bicycle.
I wish that old foolish mule over
there was gone, it about killed me.
It drug me through the creek and
through the grass.
I wish I had me a big black race horse.
I wish I had my barn built.
I got my old barn torn down and
built me another.
I wish I had me a lot of money.
I wish I had a '72 Nova!
I wish I had my bridge fixed.
I wish I had a set of side pipes . . .
you know, they make it pop and sound
I wish I had me some coal in.
It's going to be going up to $35.00 a ton!
I wish I had my cement porch fixed.
I wish I hadn't let Jiggers go.
It's a circus dog and would stand
on its hind legs.
I wish I had a c.b. base station —
you could talk right with Jackson.
I wish the bumblebees would stay
out of this van.
The best of the young mountain writers have seen themselves both as victims and as collaborators with the enemy. They have come back home and yet stand off in that "suburb north of themselves" (as Jim Wayne Miller called it). They are wise enough to know that the first one in the van — so to speak — is not necessarily the one who believes Appalachia can be returned easily to some state of purity. The best of the young mountain writers have killed the beast in their own hearts and yet live wrapped in its arms.
Jim Webb, born in Letcher County, Kentucky, and now a resident of Mingo County, West Virginia, is in many ways representative of the best in the current Appalachian identity movement. A serious poet and playwright, Webb possesses an awesome wit. He teeters on the paradoxes. He might be called the Clown of the Appalachian Apocalypse.
Webb went to high school in Hazard, Kentucky, where the local middle class presented — and presumably still does — a textbook example of the colonized mentality: ashamed of being associated in any way with "mountain" or "hillbilly," intent on out-mainstreaming the mainstream, the sons and daughters of the town (who likely had cousins in the hills but who could not wait to be professionalized and credentialed and homogenized into that majority society) learn to talk like Tom Brokaw or Jane Pauley and learn to look like them, too.
Jim was apolitical in school. He resisted the middle class enticements and inducements only because he was lucky enough to be inattentive. By his own admission, he was more interested in the ways of the flesh than in the road out of the mountains to Success. Later, in college at Berea — that strange nursery of both genteel sensibilities and radicalism — he did not respond to the political rumblings he heard around him. During two college summers Webb worked for strip miners, first on a crew that was faking the restoration of the land and then participating — with considerable pride — in the removal of mountaintops.
He woke up with a jolt. As a not-very-involved hanger-on at a Save Our Mountains rally in Summers County, West Virginia, he happened to see Bob Gates' independently produced anti-strip-mining film "In Memory of the Land and the People."
"For the first time I saw what was happening," Webb says. "I had lived every moment of my life where they strip-mined coal." Gates' film was "a veritable turning point" for Webb: "I don't feel I came anywhere close to being a poet until I started writing strip-mine stuff. Before that I was just doing bad Rod McKuen imitations."
Then came the Appalachian flood of 1977 which devastated Williamson, West Virginia, where Webb was living. That flood — caused largely by the inability of the hills, raked clean by strip mining, to hold the water of a heavy downpour — helped radicalize Webb. He helped begin the Tug River Recovery Center, and he started to write a more politically intense poetry. After the flood he helped edit a little book of protest poems, Mucked, and he wrote his first play, Elmo's Haven, a rollicking political satire that played three performances in Williamson in May, 1980. Webb writes some of the most sardonic and arresting lyrics that can be found in the Appalachian renaissance. For example, his "America":
You are my teeth,
Rotting even as I live.
Searches out the pain.
One tooth rotted to near nothing
Hurts even now.
All of them are filled
Some have gone, gone forever.
Coke bottle, Dairy Queen, popsickle,
Chewing gum, Milky Way, Forever Yours
Some I lost head first
On a concrete street.
Your fire department
Hosed away the blood and
tooth pieces of my mouth.
You capped the shards
With plastic and assured me
The gaps would close with time.
But others cropped up, America,
And holes remained.
My plastic teeth
Look real, America,
Except for the black line
Of real tooth stub, dead
Black bone: no blood,
No nerve, no sun bleach
Like bones in your desert
Others have the look of
Most work, though none are
Good. They still crush
Hot dogs & apple pie.
But sugar daddies devour them,
No, I won't stand in your line, America,
But I will chew & chew & chew, gnash & gnarl
Till they all fall out, every last
Lead silver gold bone plastic
I'll watch them fly in my spit
And never never take your
Set of plastic perties,
But I will
Gum you till I die.
There's a submerged stereotype in this poem: the old snaggle-toothed hillbilly, teeth rotted out from poor nutrition or from "bad genes," grinning at us with a new, sly, much more dangerous awareness. There's a melding here of the personal and the national, the confessional and the political. Above all, this is public poetry that runs distinctly counter to the private obscurities that are now so much in fashion both with those academics who toss around such terms as "post-modernism," and with those few Appalachian poets who seem to associate profundity with impenetrability.
The overt politics of Webb's "America" emerge more as a frame of mind than a program or policy for change. In the Appalachian identity movement, the relationship between the self and what the self describes is always profoundly political, though the politics may be implicit rather than explicit. For example, Webb's "Hog Killing" may be an anti-strip-mining poem, but it is first a haunting lyric full of carefully observed detail. The final image — "Men standing / In the cold — freezing and dreaming / Of eggs" — touches one of Webb's favorite themes: the ironies of complicity, the colonized doing the work of the colonizers, dreaming their borrowed dreams.
Nowhere in Webb's poetry is that theme of complicity more fully — and hilariously — developed than in his long tour-de-force, "Pike County: Doo Dee Oomp Wah Wah." It is a jazzy satire of the mountain middle class and that characteristic state of mind — whether one finds it in the high school at Hazard or among the well-to-do of Pike County — that has made broad the way for corporate America to come into the mountains and for Appalachian children to go out. This is the opening section of the poem:
look at you & your hillsides
Rich Christian County
In the Bible Belt
More gospel groups'n
And I scratch my head and
Wonder bout all those times
I read the Bible ( the world's
Largest selling book, they say)
yes, I know
For the Bible
doo dee ooh wah wah bop
she bop doo dee ooh wah wah
Oh yes & verily
THE BIBLE, The Bible
Tells us so
My mountain mind reels
As I look at you, Pike, the
True Cinema Verite.
Jim Webb has been both academic and roustabout: until recently he taught English at Southern West Virginia Community College (endearing himself, you can be sure, to the powers that be), and he has been punched out at a public meeting in Mingo County after he voiced his opposition to Island Creek Coal's plan to open up new stripping operations on 68,000 acres. He knows an Appalachian Stepinfetchit when he sees one; he knows the desperation and frustration of honest people in the grip of corporate power; he purges these ironies when he can in a poetry that is characteristic of an entire literary stirring in the mountains. He is in many ways paradigmatic of the current Appalachian literary reawakening.
Many others of Webb's generation are writing in the mountains. Some have been heard from already, will be heard from again. For example: Bob Snyder, who describes himself as a "marginal white-collar worker." As director of the Appalachian branch of Antioch College, Snyder organized a group of young writers — the "Soupbean Poets" — who talked politics, history, literature, and found a collective voice and energy for poetry. Snyder can write beautifully understated lyrics, like "A Prophet's Honor":
the blast shook the window
I ceased writing down the dream
which prophesied the explosion
laid down my pen
and walked down into the refinery
to see how my father was
I met the foreman climbing the fence
running for his life but
all people in Saint Marys ever remember
is my Dad telling his egghead son
to get the hell out.
Another leading voice among the contemporary mountain poets is Bob Henry Baber, who recently hosted the fifth annual Appalachian poetry reading on Baber Mountain in West Virginia. Baber sometimes writes a more fragile, more confessional kind of lyric than either Webb or Snyder. Others are Pauletta Hansel, Gail Amburgey, Mary Joan Coleman — all members of the original Soupbean Collective at Beckley, West Virginia.* Mary Joan Coleman has written one of the memorable Appalachian emigre torch songs, "D.C. Working Girl Lonesome":
I hungered for the sound of Appalachian r's
pronounced like the grate of a sharp rock
scraping the sandstone cheek of a cliff
used as a makeshift toy
in some hill child's hand
I longed for the corn tassle yellow
of my baby cousin's hair
and the pink surprise of a Cherokee rose
jumping out of green brier patches
until I found a country bar
where a hillbilly band played
and some lean Kentucky boys
thirsted for Southern Comfort.
Jim Webb, the Soupbean Poets and the dozens of other young mountain writers — both known and as yet unknown — are important for their vitality and their shared political identity. They have only just begun to find their voices, and time will sift them. But two writers — Jim Wayne Miller in poetry and Gurney Norman in fiction — have already established themselves nationally as voices of contemporary Appalachia. Both Miller and Norman give us powerful versions of the psychological — and the physical — coming home of the mountaineer, Miller in a remarkable sequence of poems published under the title The Mountains Have Come Closer (1980), and Norman in the novel Divine Right's Trip (1971), first serialized in The Last Whole Earth Catalog, and in Ancient Creek (1976). Both Miller and Norman have lived in some measure through the political diaspora that has made being mountain-born a problematic fact in modern America, and both have dealt with that problem by casting themselves resolutely back onto home ground. The simple existence of Appalachia's stereotype in the popular mind gives their writing political force. But neither is, properly speaking, a revolutionary. Where there is anger in their work, it is balanced and gentled by irony and paradox. Both Miller and Norman are extraordinarily gentle spirits who see loss of identity as American rather than merely or exclusively Appalachian.
For Miller, being severed from one's roots and the sense of self that those roots — only — can bestow, is like being "lost in the American Funhouse":
Suddenly old friends are in the house. Laughter.
Separated years back, we've wandered around
lost in the American Funhouse. Together again,
what a crowd we are! The walls are angled
mirrors multiplying us many times over.
Each one of us sees the friend he knew
standing back of the one this friend has become,
and shyly, like an unacknowledged companion,
confused by all this familiarity, unseen by our friends,
stands the person we know we are. Laughter.
Moving through the crowd, I realize
I've gradually got used to walking around
in my life a huge elongated trunk and rippled face,
a bulging wrap-around brow, moving on stumpy legs,
my belt just above my shoetops, my chin
riding level with my fly. I have forgotten parts
of myself, my ears lie curled like lettuce leaves,
my hands grow right out of my shoulders,
no wrists or arms or elbows in between.
Glancing past familiar strangers, I try
to hold out a hand to someone who holds out a hand.
Laughter! We hold back all but the little horrors.
The Mountains Have Come Closer moves from this absurdist vision of fragmentation back toward home, an identification with people and things that restores the chopped-up self to psychological and political wholeness. In Miller's book, the turning toward home is given an unambiguously religious heading: "You Must Be Born Again." That Miller does not mean anything remotely evangelical by that phrase and yet does mean to imply a rich quickening of the human spirit is best illustrated by "Going South":
Sorry to inconvenience so many people,
and feeling it a breach of decorum
to have so private a thing happen in public,
I think I will probably die
in a long line of traffic
on an evening in November
when mercury vapor lights are coming on.
A red light will jam in my brain
and I'll sit there slumped over the wheel
blocking a main artery
while angry cars begin to honk behind me.
A traffic division helicopter
will dispatch a cruiser
and report on a radio station's
afternoon Traveling Home Show
one stalled car, one lane of traffic backed up.
The cruiser, the ambulance, the Live Action tv unit,
the whirling lights, the curious looking into the camera—
all will flicker on the screen at 10:07.
The face of the eyewitness who discovered the truth
will fade into a commercial at 10:09.
Newsprint will disappear like sooty snow.
Traffic will flow smoothly again.
Journalists with their noses into news
will miss the only story worth the telling.
So here it is, like footage recovered
from a correspondent who went careening
into death, camera clicking to the point
of impact: high over the town,
above tiers of power lines, a black river
of birds turned slowly and flowed south.
This is a death dream: death of an old self stranded on America's asphalt, alienated from that identity back in the mountains that might save it. You must be born again. In "Getting Together" and "Going South" (as in many of the poems in Part I of The Mountains Have Come Closer), Miller makes the need for a rebirth a very compelling psychological fact. Repeatedly, he shows us the disfranchised at the end of their psychic rope. Then, in Parts II and III of The Mountains Have Come Closer, he gives us that necessary rebirth in the guise of a new character — the Brier. The Brier is the hillbilly come home, one of those middle-class Hazard students who found success outside the mountains but who found fragmentation and political alienation too. He has come home now, or is in the process of coming home, half angry at himself for being such a fool, for allowing himself to be severed from the only roots that count; he is angry, too, at the forces that made being a hillbilly such a shameful thing. The designation "Brier," like "hillbilly," is a term of derision, especially in Northern industrial centers where so many of the mountain migrants have congregated over the last 30 or 40 years. But Miller's Brier embraces that derisive name defiantly, and inhabits it. And the consciousness that dawns is, in a rich sense, political:
Always now he carried a pearl-handled grudge,
snub-nosed, heavy, holstered close to his heart.
Where once he held his tongue, he carried a blade,
good steel that held only its cold keen edge.
He drove his mind so hard it sang like whining
wheels rolling high over gaps and gorges
on trestles of determination. Rounding turns,
he came on his black thoughts, hunched over entrails
like buzzards eating carrion on the road.
The thing or two he knew he carried folded
like the certain knowledge of hundred dollar bills
whispering in a side flap of his wallet.
And drove toward mountains, and a self he would become:
old man in faded denim, gray as a weathered barn,
fencepost at a field's edge — until he moved.
This is the new consciousness of a Jim Webb; it cuts clean, it draws blood, it says, "I will be whole in a world that wants me half-whole."
The Mountains Have Come Closer ends with "Brier Sermon," the single most ambitious distillation of Appalachian politics yet to appear in this Appalachian renaissance. As with the best Appalachian political poetry, it is wrapped in paradoxical irony that saves it from being mere
strident polemic. The Brier — by now something of a revolutionary — preaches his sermon on the street in a mountain town, the one place most calculated to find his political and spiritual message uncongenial. He has a good eye for his targets: he sees how the mountain middle class is constantly selling out, compromised by greed and seduced by the mercantile blandishments of the very America that makes them ashamed to be hillbillies. "You've kept the worst," the Brier tells the mountain folks on the street,
and thrown away the best.
You've stayed the same where you ought to have
changed where you ought to have stayed the same.
Wouldn't you like to know what to throw away
What to keep
What to be ashamed of
What to be proud of?
Wouldn't you like to know
how to change and stay the same?
The Brier — not unlike Jim Webb or any of the other
Appalachian nationalist poets — has seen himself, has
understood how the dynamic of colonization has worked
on his own head and heart. He wants the people of the
town to see themselves, too, and by that sight to know who
they are and to free themselves at the same time:
You've heard that prayer that goes:
Help us to see ourselves as others see us.
Buddy, that's not a prayer we want to pray.
I believe we ought to pray:
Lord, help us to see ourselves — and no more.
Or maybe: Help us to see ourselves,
help us to be ourselves,
help us to free ourselves
from seeing ourselves
as others see us.
Accurate as the Brier is about the complicity of these mountain people in selling out, they will not listen to the message. Everything is new inside the Brier, but nothing is changed among the people to whom he preaches. Ironically, we last see the Brier as he disappears behind a mobile home, that ubiquitous symbol of America's loss of roots, made comic now by the Winnebago illusion that home is always with us.
In Divine Right's Trip, Gurney Norman, like Miller, begins with a funhouse America where his displaced hillbilly is adrift in fragmentation and spiritual exhaustion. Norman's funhouse is the Southern California drug scene of the late '60s. From there, Norman's hillbilly makes a long odyssey home to the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky where his full awakening to his lost mountain identity is accompanied by fright (a near-mad, freaked-out wrestling match with a "dragon" in an abandoned coal mine) and pain (he has to relearn physical work in building a hog pen) — all withdrawal symptoms of a person leaving a society that has seduced him. By the end, we see that Divine Right's Trip celebrates a return to a mythic mountain haven. The novel ends with a wedding, with an ode to a revitalized soil, with a family celebration for the prodigal hillbilly who has come home, having shaken off the delirium of the "other" America. The politics of this homecoming are more implicit than explicit, though we know well enough that the dragon the hillbilly has had to face is as much corporate America as it is the dark, three-footed creature of the mind, unleashed by drugs.
Norman's politics are more explicit in his curious modern jack tale, Ancient Creek — curious because it is available to the public only as a recording from June Appal Records. Norman takes the anti-hero Jack from the mountain folk tales of his heritage and rediscovers him as a modern and potent rebel force against the complacency of King Condominum III and the more evil power of the Black Duke, King Condo's local administrator of the mountain domain. Like Jim Wayne Miller in The Mountains Have Come Closer, Norman makes his tale of resistance and redemption a struggle with no resolution, though Ancient Creek ends on a great surge of almost mystical fellow-feeling: the healing force of a group of people who for the first time feel the power of the group against the encroachments of an alien power.
The force of Norman's personality — the tonic of his warmth and generosity — has made him almost a guru for scores of young Appalachians. He has lived and is still living the psychological odyssey of dispossession/coming home that so many young mountain people have tasted, and they are drawn to him both as a writer who has made good with the mountains in fiction and as a living exemplar of being both free and hillbilly. Norman understands the dispossession and the struggle to get back home as a political struggle well enough, but he synthesizes his politics with an almost mystical whole earthiness that deals with the paradoxes by trying to embrace them.
At the end of Norman's novel, Divine Right — the hillbilly come home — is in the process of redeeming a derelict family farm that has been hemmed in by strip mines. He sits down and writes a letter to his friend Flash back in California:
Yesterday I spread rabbit shit on some old dead ground, and today spaded it in and sprinkled two gallons of red worms on it.. . . Our purpose is soil redemption. Salvation! Healing by miracles, signs and wonders. The theme song of our commercialsis "The Old Rugged Barn."
On a hill far away,
Stood an old rugged barn,
The emblem of effort and pride.. . .
Come be my partner, Flash. . . and we'll get into soil salvation. First we'll save our own; we'll breed ten thousand rabbits and twenty million worms, and make this dead old hillside bloom. Then if other people feel like they've got a troubled soil, why let them call upon us, and we'll respond, with miracles, signs and wonders.
Faith, brother! Faith and rabbit shit, that's the theme!
A revolution of political consciousness, and the healing of dispossessed identity, never had a humbler, yet more profound, culture on which to grow.
Jerry Williamson was the founding editor of the Appalachian Journal. He has recently had Appalachian-related articles in The Progressive and In These Times. For valuable comments and suggestions, the following people are gratefully acknowledged: David Whisnant, Bob Lysiak, Jim Wayne Miller, Jim Webb, Steve Fisher, Frank Einstein, Bob Snyder and Gurney Norman.
by Chris Kromm on August 09, 2011
The newest issue of Southern Exposure is out! Our cover story highlights life after the BP oil spill in the gulf coast.
Excerpt: When the BP Deepwater Horizon rig blew up off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, it triggered what would turn out to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history, with almost 200 million gallons pouring into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped three months later.
Oil-covered pelicans and struggling fishing families became common symbols of the BP disaster, and the spill's devastating consequences on the environment and economy are still reverberating across the Gulf Coast.
by Jerimee Richir on August 09, 2011
Richard Nixon and Watergate helped define a decade, and Southern Exposure in turn helped unveil the powers behind that attempt to destroy America's two-party system.
As "The Sunshine Syndicate Beyond the Watergate" explains, behind Richard Nixon stood a group of "cowboys" that rose to power in lock-step with the ascendancy of Lyndon Johnson and Nixon himself, a group cultivated by the South and Southwest. This area -- known as the Southern Rim -- gave birth to this cowboy power base exclusively dominated by "government made men," a dubious collection of individuals whose fortunes were inexplicably tied to oil depletion allowances and huge Washington aerospace and defense contracts.
"Conservative, anti-union, anti-consumer and anti-black-chicano," the Southern Rimsters rose to high political power and personally lined the Watergate burglar's pockets.