Raise Hell and Eat Cornbread, Comrades!

Looking for radical politics in the hollers and backroads of the South.

Appalachian Mountains
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valerius Tygart/Wikipedia.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

If a radical, queer-led revolution in the United States is possible, it will most likely emerge from the backroads and hollers, map dots and one stoplight towns stretching from the northern Georgia mountains to western Pennsylvania. It will include soup beans and drag queens, hay rides and hedonism, and it will probably be documented on Instagram by Queer Appalachia, a media and service collective with an anarchist bent out of West Virginia, alongside images of a sex-positive cross-stitch and quilts honoring laborers like Mother Jones.

Don’t let all the “Trump Country” think pieces fool you. Radicalism is just as indigenous to the South and Appalachia’s ideological makeup as cornbread is to its culinary profile. One of the most significant labor uprisings in U.S. history took place at the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Ollie Combs made national headlines in the ’60s for standing down bulldozers intent on strip mining her family’s land. The prison abolition movement of today is fueled in part by young anti-capitalist queers in eastern Kentucky.

Political activism here is ever-brimming with life-and-death urgency. The land, rich with timber, coal, and natural gas is continuously contested space. From coal barons to fracking firms, laborers have paid in blood for capitalism’s deadly excesses. “Ours is a region that makes graveyards for mountains, because companies have made our mountains into graveyards,” wrote queer historian Elizabeth Catte in her book, What You Get Wrong About Appalachia.

More than 40 percent of the land and 70 percent of mineral rights in West Virginia are owned by out of state companies, most of whom receive massive tax subsidies and pay little to no state and local taxes, in turn devastating local economies. These same corporate interests have long contributed to and benefitted from a narrative that the people living here are uniquely dysfunctional in need of outside guidance.

In late September, Queer Appalachia’s Mamone, Justin Sacco, Joey Aloi, and local artists released the “Cornbread Communist Manifesto,” a 24-page zine cleverly trolling toxic tropes about hillbillies, advocating for laborers to unite within class across identities, and envisioning a radical redistribution of wealth centered on the rural poor. The document comes out of a long lineage of leftist propaganda in the region—most notably under Bruce Crawford, the leftist editor of the West Virginia Writer’s Project in the late ’30s—designed to subvert big business influence. To get the word out today, “propaganda of the meme” is employed wherein hashtags like #marxinthemountains and #ruralresistance are humorously paired with Dolly Parton memes.

The “cornbread” moniker is purposefully chosen as cornbread itself is a food symbolic of the region and of solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised. It is a staple found in the diets of Native Americans, white Appalachians, people of color, and migrant workers, all exploited in the farm-to-food economy, all contributors to life in the region past and present.

Alana Berry, a race and sexuality scholar at the University of North Georgia, participates in Queer Appalachia’s online network. Occasionally, she shows off her baking prowess with mouthwatering images of her cast-iron Vidalia Upside Down cornbread. As an expert on Appalachian identities, she positions cornbread communism within a broader feminist framework saying, “Women always find ways of existing and making community in patriarchal culture and food is a big part of this.”

The web of women in her own life has passed down not only recipes and tips on how to care for her cast iron, but ways for her to take care of herself and others. Activism is part and parcel of this. The maternal connection is central. Appalachian women, she observes, are proud water and mountain protectors who willingly sit in trees to stop pipelines and the raping of the earth, with the explicit intent to protect their families and kids.

In less economically affluent communities, traditional political tactics often fall short, leaving people to innovate using what they have. In August, Becky Crabtree, a 64-year-old retired school teacher, temporarily halted the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline blockading herself in a 1971 Ford Pinto. The car sat atop the worksite of a pipeline that threatened the land her family lives on. In her story, shared via QA, she first tried meeting with elected officials, submitting reports, going to court, and signing petitions all to no avail.

“What delineates us, when we talk about this manifesto, is that metro areas have more resources, networks and economic security, says Justin Sacco. “We are saying to those folks, ‘Hey, don’t dismiss us.’ If you look at the history of American leftist organizing, a lot of it came from rural areas, especially in the Rust Belt. We want to show nuance within rural communities. You can learn from us.”

Queer people with blue-collar rural roots are noticeably absent from conversations and leadership in mainstream Democratic, progressive, and LGBTQ organizations around the country. West Virginia is home to more teens between 13 and 17 identifying as transgender per capita (1.04 percent) than any other state, and the South is home to more LGBTQ people than any other region of the country. This sizable population should be equitably represented.

In a moment of intense income inequality, a fierce critique of capitalism is needed, but a critique capable of knitting people together. The queer farmers, banjo players fighting fascism, and black lesbian rodeo stars—all living in the region and visually represented through Queer Appalachia’s network—possess valuable translation skills. These folks, whose lives toggle between supposedly incongruent identities, effectively navigate within radical organizing spaces and conservative political and religious spaces.

“In my experience,” says Rachel Garringer, a folklorist and public affairs director at WMMT 88.7 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, “country queers have this beautiful way of moving through the world with a foot in multiple realities and having grace in all of those spaces. There is a particular grace at knowing how to talk about complicated political issues with someone that you don’t agree with. You simply can’t throw away people and shut someone out. You’ll see them for the rest of your life, at work, at the grocery store, or around town.”

Under the current administration, when people with marginalized identities are being newly attacked on all fronts, the cornbread model of politics holds promise. It is decidedly intersectional, prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable with direct action. Queer Appalachia is an exemplar of this philosophy: Funds raised collectively in the network are redistributed to meet whatever needs are presented, which recently included a black farmers collective, protests against big pharma, a rural queer coat drive, and mutual aid disaster relief after Hurricane Florence.

Update, Aug. 13, 2020: A recent Washington Post article reported that Queer Appalachia may not have distributed funds and resources in the manner that the organization initially claimed.

Politics can seem hopeless these days, but the home-spun radicalism and anti-capitalist organizing represented by QA and found across the region offers a fresh and soulful lesson we’d be wise to heed.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.