You Can't Return Home (On Appalachia and Brooklyn)

Diaspora is an intense word. In my life experiences I never once encountered ‘Diaspora’ in its original context (the expulsion of Jews from Israel/Judea) until recently, even when living with and loving the son of a Rabbi. The first time I met this word, it was labeling a visiting artist’s creation of dances depicting the emotions, tensions, and prismatic culture of the African Diaspora, perhaps the largest example imaginable. The first time I became involved in politics surrounding the concept of Diaspora, it was through Oberlin Shansi when bringing in guest speakers and attending talks on Tibetan Diaspora and modern day politics.

I am not Jewish, nor have I been expelled forceably from a homeland. However, I come from two families- one of various immigrants that moved at the turn of the 19th century to the Midwest, and another of early settlers in Maryland in the mid 18th century who moved into the border of the Antebellum South nearly a century later and inhabited the Appalachian mountains between Kentucky and West Virginia until my mother’s generation left home. I grew up with my father’s family, living with my mother’s family about one month a year when we would make the three hour drive into the mountains and begin again to pick food grown by my eighty-year-old grandmother and stare at the smoke rising from chimneys sprinkled around the base of mountains. I did not realize what an impact this had on my life until I left Kentucky, and two years in Brooklyn have already taught me how monumental this was.

It’s now, having lived two years in Brooklyn, that I feel the tinge of living far away from these roots. I never grew up in poverty- neither as defined by the state based off capital nor defined anthropologically by reliance on alternatives to capitalism. My mother’s family did- when she was a young child, her father died suddenly of heart disease, leaving her mother with the responsibility of raising eight children. My grandmother stepped up to this, despite having no formal education (and formalis the key word here in respecting Appalachian history), and saw to it that each of her children completed a high school level education, enabling my mother and some siblings to attend college, eventually leading to uncle Arnold receiving his MD, followed some years later by my mother (a little Appalachian tomboy hellbent on being an OB-GYN since she had learned the birds and bees).

Her generation was the first to receive any formal education. They grew up at a key point in Appalachian history, after the entrance of coal mining culture that had defined my grandmother and great-grandmother’s generation, but at the cusp of the entrance of television and far-reaching media into the homes of the “impoverished.” My mother remembered papering the walls of her houses (the practice of adhering newspapers to the walls to insulate and to decorate, the very practice of which brought commercial images of mainstream American lives into the bedrooms of the Appalachian households) as much as she remembers seeing JFK’s assassination or saving up to afford a rare hamburger on special occasions. She and her siblings lived the transition between self-sufficiency and the spread of modern capitalist society in the region.

I am just now learning the questions to ask her now to learn about her youth. The Foxfire series of books have become my starting points, and are a proud addition to my “in-progress” reading shelf at home. Looking back, well over a year of my life was spent growing up on my grandmother’s porch, picking rhubarb and string beans and walking to a gas station/general store nearby for other staples. I never once realized, or believed, that my grandmother was poor. I didn’t realize how poor she was until I returned there on Google Street View this month, and saw that the store had been demolished, the roads overrun with weeds and dirt, garbage and sewage backed up. Her home remained, off on an incline away from the county road, and the structures looked the same, but the area no longer spoke my grandmother’s mantra under its breath of “soap is cheap, there is no excuse for not having pride.”

What I did learn, though, was never to expect monetary security, nor to take your life for granted. I learned that no matter how good the harvest, it only takes one bad winter to tear you down; I started saving when I was five, pennies found on the ground into jars. I was a bit jealous when my suburban neighbors received massive presents for their birthdays, or wore designer clothes, or talked about their parents’ condos in the Florida Keys. But ultimately, without having to discuss it with me, my parents taught me about privilege, and what privilege I had as an upper middle class citizen. Oberlin taught me much more, but no college class really teaches you as much about economic privilege as experience does.

When I moved to Brooklyn, unpacking my two moving boxes and unrolling a sleeping bag in my apartment, I had two hundred dollars left to my name. I’d dropped to an unhealthy 130lbs (I was six foot tall, and you could count each of my ribs). I had three thousand dollars of medical debt hovering over me, and I was eating occasional Chipotle to stave me over until the next chance I could get. And while the panic of underemployment and moving set in, I never felt anything less of upper middle class, even knowing I was making more in my first job than my father will make in years, and that I had no guarantors or family for six hundred miles in any direction. I knew that this was temporary, but my parents had come from that as a lifestyle, and made their life from it.

Now I am solidly lower middle class. Brooklyn is still difficult sometimes, and I look forward to moving closer to Manhattan, to work, to rehearsals, to my bank, my doctors, my friends, and so much more. But I eat daily when I want, I can afford my phone and electricity, and do not panic about paying rent (though I do swallow heavily when writing the check). When I am sick, I am insured, and it is a half hour or hour subway ride away until I can be seen at an urgent care facility that has treated me in the past. I’m privileged, and perhaps much more so than much of my family has been.

What perhaps boggles my mind most about New York, though, is how my solidly average working American life is subject to scorn from others that I meet every week. Little questions like “how can you ever stand your commute” betray people’s classist roots instantly (my response is simply, “for most of working New York, we don’t have a choice in this matter, so disliking it is irrelevant if we want to eat”). People being afraid to visit my neighborhood (Flatbush) betrays their classism and often subtle racism. When I meet people who are uneasy about taking a bus, I want to show them the ride from my subway stop to Brownsville, and to sit them down on the B41 the next time I need to go to Target.

More pointed are the comments broadly directed at my neighbors (“they should just get better jobs”, “if they didn’t want to work two minimum wage jobs they should probably just move out of NYC”, “it’s not that hard to get by if you’re homeless”, “they wouldn’t have this problem if they didn’t do drugs”). All of these comments stab me deeply, because I can do nothing to prevent them from being directed at my family, as well.

Along with implying social superiority, these comments and myopic questions completely disregard the pride that many of my neighbors and all of my relatives have. These attitudes are as gentrifying in nature as the flood of white people pushing out family after family from their neighborhoods. By framing “poverty” as something entrenched intrinsically in shame, it becomes easier to ignore existing cultural ties, the rich and often long histories of individuals, and to replace these with the dominant culture under the guise of “moderization”. Walter Precourt wrote of this processed with regard to coal and Appalachia:

The process of denigrating local populations for purposes of exploitation contributed to the poverty stereotype. The process relates directly to the ideological factors associated with…contrasting economic systems…The Appalachian way of life did not fit the market model; it was therefore lacking; it was therefore in need of salvation by outside industrial interests.

How similar this rings when considering the attitudes of Manhattanites and upper middle class individuals for those at or below poverty line in our same city, though I am hesitant to consider social attitudes tantamount to the blatant manipulation the coal industry utilized to essentially steal the land of Appalachian families. Yet, this displacement sounds eerily similar. The long subway rides that are deemed unbearable quickly become standard practice for the gentrifier, forcing families near the end of subway lines further away onto bus lines, from Bed Stuy and Crown Heights to Flatbush to Brownsville and the Flatlands, further and further from the view of the masses, without attending to their needs (and further exacerbating the public living conditions largely ignored by mainstream society).

Denigration of local populations is clear; NYC is more racially divided than most any city in the United States, and attitudes are prevalent. I am tired of working in an environment where a working class woman I meet on the street is surprised that I have heard of 111th Street / Liberty Avenue, and yet the average person I run into is afraid to take the A past Jay Street, Metro Tech. To look at the populations most denigrated, look simply to the neighborhoods with the most instances of stop and frisk. Framing this as a practice of “public safety” undermines the stability and safety of many low income neighborhoods, and perpetuates the rhetoric that such neighborhoods are incapable of existing on their own without largely White interference.

Seeing all of this around me is constantly a reminder that this is not my home, though I love New York and wish to stay here. It reminds me much more of my family and what we’ve all seen. Do we want to be part of a “fast-food diaspora”? A displacement of the “impoverished” to the most remote locations, in order to exploit the little land they do own, the little capital they manage to possess? What can the lower-middle class and lower class educated populations do, without being armed with capital? These are questions for which I have no answers yet.

Sean Hanson