I live in the thick of Appalachia. What’s beneath this sun here? A local auto parts store, ferocious trees, nearby trails, plenty of lakes, and a vast sky. We are a small town just above the cut of the coal mining district. It’s a majority white town, about 97 percent with, surprisingly, a black mayor. I see him during Sunday’s service at the town’s only black church. I hug him and ask if he’s building us a movie theater or underground monorail this year. He asks if I would want to run for the infamous school board.
I’m fearful to live in Appalachia sometimes. Simple rural imagery can be beautifully treacherous—like a child propped in the flatbed of a truck, eating ice cream, inhaling the saltire of the Confederate battle flag from his T-shirt. A Blue Lives Matter flag flaps behind me across the local fire department. Not too far from my home, dipping into the state of West Virginia is a sign that shouts “White Lives Matter.” The list of Ten Commandments are displayed across businesses and landmarks. Across the street from my home is a barbershop door masked in Bible verses, gun idioms, and a meaty sign that always stings me: “The Silent Majority Support Trump.” Oppression and silence are wickedly evil bedfellows, and although I carry faith, I curdle at its manmade kinship to governance, marginalization, and guns. But I live in this beautiful thicket, and I walk outside black, beautiful, and queer. It was the Black Lives Matter movement that helped get me to this place.
Several years ago, I read a story about a man being lynched in Georgia from Debra Walker King’s work, African-Americans and the Culture of Pain. “For a time, the winds carried the flames and smoke directly in his face so that he could not speak. Later the winds shifted and members of the mob, unaffected, recognized the hymn he sang as ‘Nearer My God To Thee.’ ” At the time, that story lodged itself into my throat. When I went hiking, every tree, bulbous with strong branches, became a depraved site of lynching. I couldn’t see innocuous beauty or my black joy in terraform.
King’s 2008 book came out nearly a decade after Matthew Shepard was mistaken for a scarecrow. Shepard’s death came two years before two lesbian hikers were horrifically killed on a Shenandoah hiking trail. Gradually, the wilderness that I always envisioned as queer turned against me. Eventually, I did get over the nightmare as I hiked more often with friends and by that time, in 2010, I identified as queer. Then Trayvon Martin was murdered. Instead of being afraid, I was angry and wanted white folks to feel my wrath. I protested, shoved my loneliness and bitterness down to my feet. Racial justice or even revenge was more important than anything—even eating right, caring for myself. But at these organizing meetings, women and queer folks were chorus again, shooed like houseflies. I became more bitter and helpless.
Honestly, I didn’t do much research into BLM strategies at the beginning of the movement. I followed the crowd and group-think until I finally sat, slowed down to study its leaders and their principles. It brought me to this interview with co-founder Patrice Cullors with On Being. She talks about re-imagination:
Black Lives Matter is a rehumanizing project. We’ve lived in a place that has literally allowed for us to believe and center only black death. We’ve forgotten how to imagine black life. Literally, whole human beings have been rendered to die prematurely, rendered to be sick, and we’ve allowed for that. Our imagination has only allowed for us to understand black people as a dying people. We have to change that. That’s our collective imagination. … Let’s imagine something different.
When BLM created their website, I read and was surprised to find that queer affirming and loving engagement were guiding principles. My sexuality and desire to hold hands with another man or woman was beautifully embraced—not when I get liberation, or when police training changes, or when George Zimmerman gets punishment—but now. I deserve to be visible in my joyful, queer, black self—now. Through BLM teachings and BLM mentors, I started to realize that I needed to reimagine blackness to include queer love and self-preservation. I was separating, suffocating my sexuality preemptively and casting it aside if I felt it got in the way of black liberation. I also bound my identity to overwhelming trauma and death instead of expanding new life and love.
Slowly, I was starting to recognize how I was ignoring my body, suppressing emotional fixtures of loneliness, desperation, and restlessness. I defined blackness as a roar against whiteness. There was no time for love, kinship, and vulnerability. But then I could barely get up in the morning. I didn’t want to acknowledge my ire against an America that had betrayed me. After ignoring my body for so long, I’ve come back to heal the consequences: plantar fasciitis, stomach issues, and emotional anxiety. What I forgot was how much I love being in love. This is the part I want to slowly embrace again. I love women, and I want my feet to leave the ground again—visibly queer and unapologetically black in Appalachia.
Right now I’m feeling a vertigo because the KKK is hosting rallies in college towns and white nationalist groups are having membership BBQs while advertising with grass-roots language. Because time traveling is happening, I’m researching Appalachian history and found a group of folks that migrated to Chicago and formed an organization in the 1970s called the Hillbilly Nationalists. They worked collaboratively with the Black Panthers, and there were also other, similar white working-class groups forming coalitions with black groups. Frustratingly, gender and queer issues were hardly integrated during the 1970s racial justice movements; but at the very least I stumbled on a forgotten history: Appalachian folks fought against the silent majority.
If all this time traveling continues, perhaps there is a chance these same alliances can form again but, following the example of BLM, with the integration of gender and queerness this time. This keeps me going as I talk shop and broach light politics with my neighbors. We have different experiences and values, but we have a shared history. It’s my beautiful Appalachia, too, and I want to re-imagine it safe, black, and queer.