Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Magical Virtual Blog Tour, Or Something

A couple of weeks ago, I was recruited to participate in the Virtual Blog Tour that's been making the rounds on the interwebs in which i was to answer four questions.  Here's my contribution:

1. What are you currently working on?

I am doing a full revision on my sixth novel, Little Fire, which I thought I would have done a year ago.  I never could get it exactly the way I was hearing it in my own head and so I kept rewriting it until finally I think it does what I want it to do.  This is the most rewrites I've ever done on a novel, I believe, but probably because it's hugely thematic and covers a pretty big canvas although it takes place over a relatively short period of time (about two years).  It has three very distinct settings:  Middle Tennessee during the devastating 2010 flood, a road trip across the modern American South--a place of truck stops and dying towns, busy interstate exits and long stretches of nothing but hardcore gospel on the radio, of roadside memorials and old motels, of peaches stands and pinewoods--and finally, Key West, Florida.  It's a novel about parenthood, brotherhood, belief, doubt, equality, the way our nation can simultaneously evolve very quickly and very slowly on the same issue.  I am hoping it will be published in the next year or so.  I also have another novel all mapped out in my head.  It is actually set in New York City during WWI.  That may sound like a real departure for me but it's about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart and the characters are very similar in spirit and ways of being to the strong females in my early novels.  I'm also finishing up an Appalachian retelling of James Joyce's "The Dead" and working on a couple essays.  I always keep lots of different projects going at once.  I like to imagine my writing like a stove with four or five different things cooking and/or baking at once so that I'm moving from a skillet to a kettle, then checking the oven, then back to another pot that is boiling over.  This is probably why I never really experience writer's block.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  As for Little Fire, I think the main thing is that it is experimental in its language in a way that is new for me.  I'm playing with language and structure and memory a lot during the course of the novel.  My goal is to not only immerse you in the worlds of this novel through sense of place and characters but also by creating a feeling that you have when you hold the book in your hands.  And I'm mostly accomplishing that through language.  I think.  I hope.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I write to preserve ways of life and ways of being and to comment on all the wild, sweet, holy world around us in all of its ugliness and beauty.

4. How does your writing process work?

I think about projects for years before I ever put any real amount of words on the page.  During that thinking period I spend a lot of time getting to know all of my characters and looking at the world through their eyes.  I especially spend a lot of time with my main characters and experience things from their perspective.  For instance, if I'm writing a book in which a man kidnaps his own child then for a couple years I am on the lookout for a police officer to come into a restaurant where I'm eating, or I'm always thinking like someone who is on the run, I'm looking at the world through that lens.  When I begin to put words on the page I usually start out pretty sporadically and then at a certain point I set a firm deadline for myself and write at least three or four hours a day.  The book dictates when.  Some books like to be written late at night and some early in the morning.  I know that sounds crazy but for me the book dictates the best writing time for itself.  When I'm in the heat of writing I go on a lot of walks.  I spend a lot more time alone.  I never, ever read anything similar to what I'm writing but I do watch films that might be on a similar subject, and I actively seek out music and artwork and photographs that help me to create the world of the novel at hand. I think we must do everything in our power to make the novel happen. For me, other forms of art are integral to that.  So is nature.  I need woods when I'm writing.  I need creeks and birds and sky.  

The key to this blog tour is to keep it going, so here are the three writers I'm tagging:

Amy Greene is the author of the bestselling novels Bloodroot and Long Man.  She's also one of the best readers and writers I know.  

Cyn Kitchen was not only one of my students but is also one of my favorite short story writers.  She's the author of the lovely collection Ten Tongues.  

Graham Shelby writes beautiful personal essays and articles that I always love to read.  He's also a gifted storyteller and journalist.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why I'll Take "Happy Valley" over "True Detective" Any Day

Several trusted friends were adamant that I watch HBO’s series “True Detective” and I did, finding myself immediately pulled in by its atmospheric sense of place, lyrical writing, and powerful performances.  Much of “True Detective” was absolutely heart-pounding to watch, driven by haunting performances and nail-biting suspense.  I greatly appreciated the way it showcases rural people as being intelligent and possessing a strong work ethic (almost anytime a rural character is shown they are working, whether it be sweeping a porch or pulling in fishing nets—this in stark contrast to the way country people are usually shown on television, as shiftless and lazy). 

I loved watching it but I found myself increasingly troubled by some aspects of it throughout. I felt the show sometimes bordered on misogyny.  All of the women were either whores or saints (in fairness, the only real leading female character—whose role can be boiled down to “the wife”—eventually becomes a sort of combination of those two things, but that’s still only two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional) and sex scenes were often filmed in a way that gazed upon fresh-from-the-gym female bodies while largely scanning past male nudity and negating the fact that normal (read:  real) female bodies exist. 
By the end of the series I also found myself frustrated by how many of the plot twists never paid off.  One of the most mysterious and interesting strands of the show was that one of the detectives’ daughters seemed to have been exposed to sinister behavior (she poses her Barbies in situations similar to violent scenes we’ve witnessed in the show, etc.)  and the entire show we’re waiting to see how this plays a part.  But that is conveniently dropped.  In fact, the show is one false start after another that series creators wave away as maguffins, which are par for the course in mysteries.  However, when a mystery is just a series of plot devices leading nowhere then those maguffins quickly just become easy ways to purposely mislead the viewer with no pay-off.  There are many examples of this throughout the show.  And while the two male leads are endlessly fascinating and multi-layered, there’s that nagging problem with the female characters.  
            Ultimately, I left “True Detective” being incredibly impressed by the moodiness, the sense of place, the unforgettable imagery, the undeniably great performances, the truth about rural life, and the vivid, risk-taking writing.  “True Detective” achieves two things that very few shows can:  it is unforgettable and mesmerizing, leaving the viewer breathless.  The images and mythology stick with you and move you.  The problem is that I felt a little bit dirty and a whole lot cheated. 
            But there’s a new show on Netflix that possesses all the great qualities without the major problems of “True Detective”.  Happy Valley” is never titillating, gratuitous, or misogyinistic.  And all of the plot strands in “Happy Valley” come together to serve the whole. 
            Much has been made of the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in "True Detective" but they can't come anywhere close to the amazing Sarah Lancashire as the troubled cop Catherine in the lead of “Happy Valley”.  She is a marvel.  If you’re lucky you already know Lancashire from her roles in the wonderful British dramedy “Last Tango in Halifax” (also now available on Netflix after a run on PBS) and “The Paradise” (also available on PBS) or as the narrator of my all-time favorite show, “Lark Rise to Candleford”.  Hopefully “Happy Valley” will nab her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and get her the much deserved attention for which she is long overdue.
In a scene where Lancashire’s character is addled and coming out of anesthesia is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, equal parts funny and heartbreaking and—best of all—absolutely, completely real.  In fact, all of the performances are top-notch.  Siobhan Finneran (formerly the devious maid Mrs. O’Brien on “Downton Abbey”) is perfect as Catherine’s loving, recovering-heroin-addict sister.  James Norton’s psychopathic villain manages to give true complexity to a character that could have easily been played as simply mean and crazy.  There’s George Costigan as a father tortured by his daughter’s kidnapping, Charlie Murphy as the kidnapped daughter, and many, many others.  All of the characters are complex and memorable and richly-drawn. 
The fifth episode of the series showcases one of the most suspensefuly tense scenes I’ve ever seen on television—easily as remarkable as the much-celebrated long-shot drug-raid sequence on “True Detective”—with loads more compassionate emotion at play. As an American, it's especially compelling to watch a television show in which no one--not even the police officers--have guns.  Juxtapose that against scenes in "True Detective" where people are riddled with bullets and it's jarring.  In fact, in England, "Happy Valley" has been criticized for how violent it is.  The show certainly is gritty but when you compare it to American detective shows you see just how gratuitous American shows can be.  The violence in our shows is often almost erotic.  And that's gross.    
“Happy Valley”, like “True Detective” is also shot on location and uses its locale brilliantly.  The drug-ravaged beauty of the Yorkshire in Northern England’s “Happy Valley” is every bit as complicated and rich as the serial-killer-haunted swamps and small towns of southern Louisiana showcased in “True Detective,” but with “Happy Valley” we get inside the culture in a way that few shows are able to do.  We know its trailer parks and police department and restaurants and homes both rich and poor.  We get to know its minor characters and are told their stories through subtle, perfectly chosen details, such as when a rapist’s mother flinches when he makes a loud noise, letting us know that she has been one of his victims.  She is only on screen about five minutes total in the entire first season but we come to know her, care for her, and be angry at her and for her.   
            So why bother to compare these two? In many ways they're very different shows.  But in many others ways they are similar:  detectives who want to bring a mad man to justice, a vivid sense of place, perfect theme songs (Jake Bugg's "Trouble Town" on "Happy Valley" and the Handsome Family contributing "Far From Any Road" for "True Detective"), and rich characters. 

Throughout “Happy Valley” I’ve been reminded of “True Detective” because I think the former delivers on everything the latter promised but failed to do.  And because throughout I’ve been reminded of how much hype “True Detective” got for the very things that “Happy Valley” is actually doing correctly, but even better.  With “Happy Valley” we have a lead character that is ten times more interesting and complex than the two male leads of “True Detective” combined.  I’m not giving anything away to tell you that in the first three minutes of the show we learn that she has a dead daughter, a son who barely speaks to her, a grandchild she’s raising, an addict-sister who lives with her, and a high-stress job that she handles with grace and toughness.  That’s more characterization than we get in entire series with a lot of other shows and actually much more than we know about either of the main characters on “True Detective”.  We care about her in a way that we can never really come to feel for those two men on “True Detective”.  She’s tough as a pine knot without ever having to take on any kind of machismo.  She imperfect without ever being distasteful or hateable.  Although she has plenty of faults and makes huge mistakes, she doesn’t have to resort to being an anti-hero to avoid sentimentality because the writing is good enough to rise above all of that without a second thought.  In short, “Happy Valley” is smarter than “True Detective” but I don’t think it will ever receive the same recognition because it is not sensational enough for American taste.  It’s not titillating or gratuitous enough.  “True Detective” is brilliant; it’s just smart enough to make us feel smart, too.  But in the end it’s not as clever as it convinces us that it is.  “Happy Valley”, however, is.   The entire show’s plot strands come together beautifully.  It all adds up.  We’re not left with the dozens of questions that “True Detective” left us holding.
            In the end, I’m writing all of this not to put down “True Detective”—despite its faults I found it hugely entertaining but in retrospect I feel a little manipulated by it—but simply to encourage you to watch “Happy Valley” and to help the show and its amazing cast, certainly Sarah Lancashire, get the attention they so richly deserve for what has become one of my all-time favorite shows.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

There are two places in Southeastern Kentucky I think of as my true homes:  the small community of Lily, in the foothills of Laurel County, and, fifty miles east, Rockhouse Creek, in the lush mountains of Leslie County.  I will focus on Rockhouse here, mainly because it is the dark, lovely topography of my collective memory, but also because it is the epitome of Central Appalachia, the kind of place that journalists-who-don’t-know-what-they’re-talking-about always zoom in on with their statistics and opinions. In fact, Rockhouse is located just a few miles from the communities that were recently the focus of a piece called “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?” by Annie Lowrey in The New York Times that referred to Appalachia and the Deep South as “the smudge of the country.”
            Well, I am that smudge.  My people are that smudge.  My homeland is that smudge. And we are much, much more than that.  In fact, we would fight for that smudge.  Many of us have.  Many of us have lain down to be arrested for it (Beverly May, for one), have even risked violence (The Widow Combs, for one) and death (Hazel King, for one) for it. 
            I will be the first to admit that that article possessed statistics that cannot be denied.  But what good are statistics if the reporter using them does not acknowledge or use or even know the history surrounding them?  Statistics are only as good as their context.  I cannot imagine going into a country I do not know and having the audacity to write about it without knowing my facts, without having worked hard to understand the history of the place and its people, without having the ability to give the joys and sorrows of an entire culture historical context.  That is the matter with “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky.”

I went down home last night for a funeral.  I live less than an hour north of my home county in a wonderful town, but it’s not down home.  Down Home is where I’m from.  Down Home is my people.  Down Home is where my accent doesn’t announce me as an outsider, where gas stations offer soup beans and corn bread for sale, where folks sit in a circle in plastic lawn chairs to watch the cool of the day roll in after a long day of work.  It’s the place where coal trucks control the roads, where coal companies hand out coloring books to elementary students, where doctors push pills on people in pain, where high schools refuse to allow students to have gay-straight alliances or Young Democrats Clubs, where a small town passes a fairness ordinance to protect all people from discrimination, where most folks have the dry county blues, where hundreds of people work quietly for change. 
Down Home is a contradiction and a secret and a history waiting to be read.    
Down Home is a wound and a joy and a poem, a knot of complication that scholars and reporters have the audacity to assume they know with a little bit of research. 
But you cannot know a place without loving it and hating it and feeling everything in between. You cannot understand a complex people by only looking at data—something inside you has to crack to let in the light so your eyes and brain and heart can adjust properly.  
So I went back home, alone, on a summer’s evening cooled by a hurricane sliding up the Eastern seaboard.  I drove the parkway with my windows down and the mouth-watering smell of kudzu grapes trembling on the air.  There was also the scent of coal (it’s inescapable:  scattered along the side of the road from the constant coal trucks, dripping from the cliffs lining the highway, seeping its aroma out onto this world from so many hidden caves and graves and the air itself) and of grills in front yards, loaded down with pork chops or burgers, of the sandy creek-banks touched by cold water washing out of the mountains.
I get terribly sad when I go to Rockhouse, mostly because it’s a place of the past for me since nearly all of my family has had to leave there to find work in the next county over, or even farther away.  But a great deal of my grief is about the things the statistics reflect:  poverty, educational opportunity, health.  It would be irresponsible of me to deny that there are true problems in the region.
I’ll be honest with you:  sometimes I get frustrated and wonder why my people keep putting terrible representatives back in office.  But then I remind myself that voting is complicated in a region where extractive industry has such a stranglehold on everything from local churches and schools to county and state government. Appalachia is a country that has been in the clutches of big corporation propaganda since before propaganda became a marketing strategy on Madison Avenue.  And it’s a place where politics and religion are as tangled as a ball of fishing line that has been tossed into the depths of your tackle box and needed quickly:  very, very tangled.  As much as many of us think for ourselves, there is no denying that as a region many of us have fallen prey to that propaganda.  Keep telling people that coal is their only resource, toss in a free t-shirt, shut down the unions, get into the churches and schools...well, you see how this works.  
I’ll use myself as an example here.  Because of my outspokenness on the problems created by Big Coal I’ve been called a traitor to my own people.  I am proud to be from a coal mining family, but that pride comes from the hard work done by the miners, not an allegiance to the companies that became rich on their backs.  Nothing makes me sadder than when I see my own people being fiercely loyal to the corporations that have hurt us over and over.  In short, we’ve been convinced to vote against our own interests, but the reasons are not as simple as being brainwashed.  Once again, history matters here. 
The rise of the Tea Party has made the religious hold on the way people vote even more complex.  On my drive down home I heard radio ads talking about Obama’s War on Coal (read:  don’t vote for any progressives) and how “the liberal Kentucky agenda” wants to promote gay marriage and abortion (read:  don’t vote for any progressives).  Still, we cannot blame everything on coal and politicians and history.  We must claim some of the responsibilities for the problems in Eastern Kentucky while also acknowledging that we were put in this position by a long history of chronic poverty, control, and underinvestment.
            Mostly I get sad because once there I see how the media portrayals of my people have led to life being worse for us. If you tell people they are worthless long enough, some part of them begins to believe it.  Calling a place “a smudge” certainly doesn’t help.  And that sadness is always countered by an overwhelming pride when I witness the dignity and defiance of the Appalachian people.  We’ve had 200 years of history against us, but we keep going, we keep fighting back, we keep trying our best.  Not all of us, of course.  That would be a generalization as bad as saying we are all lazy.  But I can honestly say that most of the Appalachians I know try their best.  They work, they love, they fight, they have joys and sorrows and everything in between.  Because they’re people, just like everyone else.  They are not dots or checkboxes or digits in a statistics report. Yes, some of us don’t try or care hard enough.  Some of us are backward and ignorant and violent.  Because we’re human beings and some human beings turn out that way. 
            At that wake, I thought a whole lot about us being called “a smudge”.  The woman being mourned came from a family who had had it rough their whole lives, but she and her siblings had done their best to rise up out of that hard country and make good lives for themselves.  All of them worked.  Worked hard.  As waitresses and factory employees, as cashiers and lunch-room ladies and mechanics and coal miners.  It is tempting to gather some statistics about this reporter’s socio-economic background and then use that to judge her point of view, but that wouldn’t be classy—and it wouldn’t be accurate, since we’d also need to factor in historical and cultural context.  Yet that is what members of the media sometimes do to the people of Appalachia, base their theories on statistics while not taking history and culture into account. As an economics reporter for The New York Times, Lowrey needs to understand that great economic reporting should be about more than statistics.  Much more, like history and culture.  Especially when reporting on a region like Appalachia that has historically been a sacrificial ground for the rest of the nation.  Especially when reporting on a place that has given up its land, timber, natural gas, coal, young people, and many other natural resources throughout the history of this country. 
A reporter like Lowrey should know that Appalachia has been pushed down again and again throughout our nation’s history.  During the period after the Civil War, many mountain counties in Southern Appalachian states were punished because of their lack of loyalty to the Confederacy.  This resulted in politicians not providing those mountain counties with funding for bridges, roads, and schools until extractive industry demanded those things. 
Once that happened, the roads were still not maintained properly and Appalachian taxpayers had to pay for the constant damage done by the heavy trucks of huge companies.  The lack of educational opportunity caused many great minds in the region to be held back. 
Appalachia became a place controlled by big out-of-state (or even out-of-the-country) companies and the local elite (who were controlled by the big companies).  Once a place is identified as a source for great natural resources it is in the interest of the corporations and the government to keep the people under their thumbs.  People are the overburden in the way of extracting those resources, as Beverly May once pointed out.  And one way to control the people is to have a deliberate lack of investment in the region, consciously keeping out other forms of economic opportunity.  Neglecting the infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools, and health facilities is another convenient way to keep the people in check. 
This probably sounds like conspiracy theories to those unfamiliar with Appalachian history. But for those of us who have lived here all our lives and have devoted our lives to studying the region, we know that there is historical context to chronic poverty and other factors that make this place easy to identify as the hardest place to live in the nation. 
            The thing is, it is hard to live in Appalachia, especially in Southeastern Kentucky.  The statistics exhibit some proof of that.  The economy is not good.  The environment is being devastated.  Many places throughout the region are food deserts.  There’s a reason I had to move an hour away, after all.  The problem with “What's the Matter With Eastern Kentucky” is that the reporter thinks of the people and the place she is writing about as “a smudge.”  Not as a place where the history and culture matter.  And that’s what’s the matter with the article.
            This isn’t the first time Lowrey has written about the region although earlier pieces did not receive the same amount of attention.  On the whole her writing is respectful of the region.  There is no malice or even prejudice present (except for calling the region “a smudge”—come on now, that’s just rude and sniffs of classism).  There is not evidence of her relying on stereotypes.  Always in her reporting she relies on the hard facts.  If anything, reading many of her pieces reveals that she has a formula for reporting, delivered in well-constructed and unexciting sentences.  None of my words are meant as an attack on this young reporter.  Yes, I was insulted by a couple of her phrases, but overall I am responding simply because so often people need to be educated about this region.  I do not mean to imply that Lowrey is bad or mean, but simply uninformed.  So often that is the problem with most things. 
I’ve heard many people citing the problem with the article being that once again The New York Times and the media elite has shown its bias against rural America.  Well, that’s just simplifying the matter.  The Times consistently publishes writers from the region who talk about the problems here in a complex way. Just recently they’ve featured great editorials from important Appalachian voices like Amy Clark, Amy Greene, Jason Howard, Maurice Manning and many others. In fact, sometimes The New York Times reports on the issues in the region when our own newspapers will not; they have certainly covered environmental issues of the region more thoroughly. Many of the editors at the Times are Appalachian or Southern themselves and work hard to make sure that the paper looks at the region in a complex way.  In the case of this article, someone should have used a keener eye.  
  My point here is, once again, that to properly examine quality of life in the region, one needs to do more than look at data.  I do not mean that only Appalachians can write about Appalachia.  But I do mean that anyone who is attempting to write about it must become immersed in a special kind of way.  Appalachia is the kind of place everyone thinks they understand but very few actually do, and that’s mostly because they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly. 
One must go to a place like Rockhouse, to drive these winding roads.  One must sit and jaw for awhile with folks on their front porches, to attend weddings and high school graduations. One must study the history of the place and come to understand it, must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people, the calluses on their hands, understand the gestational and generational complexities of poverty and pride and culture.  One must stand for awhile outside the funeral home and smell the air, study the gravestones out back that await the inscriptions of names belonging to people, not statistics. 
            Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re talking about.  

Silas House is the author of six novels, one book of creative nonfiction, and three plays.  He is the NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College.


For a better understanding of the history of Appalachia please consult Ron Eller's book Uneven Ground.  

The author of "What's the Matter With Eastern Kentucky," Annie Lowrey, left The New York Times just before her article was published and is now at New York Magazine

This essay and photographs are ©2014, Silas House.  

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Summer Playlist

Here are some songs I have been loving lately, especially while cruising on the lake or riding down the highway with my windows down.  Mostly new stuff, but with a couple of recent-but-older ones thrown into the mix.  Download all of these!  Pay for your music!  Otherwise it's stealing.

His "Take Me to Church" is a huge hit--and I love it--but this one by Hozier really speaks to me.

A great summer sound from The Black Keys.  "Fever". The video makes me have flashbacks to my childhood.

I'd listen to these two sing the phone book. It's even better when they're singing a song written by Brandi Carlie and the Twins.  The Secret Sisters doing "Rattle My Bones". 

Speaking of Brandi Carlile, the tree in the video for "Dreams" looks so much like the one on the cover of ELI THE GOOD, which I was able to give to Brandi in person, although I about passed out.

Best pop song of the summer goes to Sam Smith and "Stay With Me".

First Aid Kit's "Cedar Lane".  Another pair I could listen to all day.  I love how elegiac this song is.  Summer makes me feel that way often.  

Good ole Ray LaMontagne always delievers. I'm especially loving "Supernova".

And we have to have some Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings to brighten our summer.  Here they are with "Stranger to My Happiness".

Ireland's The Strypes are pretty great.  If only American teenagers were screaming for this kind of music.  Here's "Blue Collar Jane".  

I never tire of Tori.  "Trouble's Lament".

Passenger. "Heart's On Fire".  Great singalong.

This one is a few years old but every playlist needs a little Teddy Thompson.  "In My Arms" is him at his summery best. 

Lee Ann Womack is one of the best country singers ever.  She has a new album coming out soon and here's the first single from it.  "The Way I'm Livin'".  Real Country Music.  

Nikki Lane shakes everything up.  Is she country?  Is she rock?  I don't know.  But she's a lot of fun.  Here she is with "I Don't Care".

My daughters introduce me to a lot of great music.  Here's one of the groups they turned me onto, Lucius, doing "Don't Just Sit There".

This is Houndmouth.  I like them a lot.

The new Mavis Staples album is great.  This is my favorite song from it.  

I first met the Avett Brothers in 2001 when they were just starting out and they opened for me at a bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina.  I've loved them more and more ever since.  I think "Morning Song" is one of their all-time best.  

Diane Birch is sooooo good.  "Speak a Little Louder".

I think Nicki Bluhm is one of the most underrated artists out there.  Buy her album. Every song is great.  Here's one of the best ones, "Hey Stranger".

If you haven't gotten on the Valerie June bandwagon yet then climb on up.  "One My Way" is one of her most laid back, chilled out ones, perfect for summertime listening.

"Blue Ridge Mountain" is a really sweet song from Hurray for the Riffraff that is perfect for driving...especially in the mountains.

Oh, one more from Hozier.  He's my favorite right now, so why not?

No summer playlist is complete without at least one great version of "Summertime".  There are so many, but I especially love the way Doc Watson sings (and plays) this one.

There is so much good music out there just waiting to be heard.  I hope you found some here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Most Revolutionary

A commencement speech given by Silas House
at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, 3 May 2014

I’ve spoken at many commencements but I don't believe I've ever been so honored to be speaking because you are my people, and I am so proud of you. I know how happy you are that four years—or more—of struggle are finished. I have been humbled and moved and inspired by the journey of so many of you.  The best part of teaching at Berea is that I learn something from each of you every day. 
            I know this is a day of celebration for you, and rightly so.  Because you have worked hard, you have fought the good fight. You are revolutionary because you are committed to knowledge in a time and world that increasingly values dumbness and apathy, a world that celebrates the talentless and makes celebrities out of the undignified.  You are revolutionary because you are a generation that is demanding equality in a way no generation ever before has.  Because I have seen you demand this equality every day by accepting each other for your differences during your time here.  I’ve witnessed you loving one another not in spite of your differences but because of them.  That is what true family does.  I’ve watched so many of you evolve and grow; I’ve seen you trying to be the best people you can be. 
And that is the most revolutionary thing of all is the act of trying our best to be good.  We are not creatures composed completely of goodness.  We are made up of innate meanness and a natural kindness.  We are people who are forever trying to make the good the bigger part of us.  I have seen the good prevail, in the way you support and encourage one another, in the ways you love your families both blood and created.  And I’ve witnessed it in the way you stick up for one another and refuse to sit by while hatred and judgment happens.
 Now, with all of that said, please don’t misunderstand me to be a downer when I tell you that the even bigger struggle begins today. Over the past few years you’ve lived and learned within the Berea Bubble, and to some extent, you’ve been shielded from many aspects of the wider world.  But now that world looms before you, standing tall and wide and outfitted with sharp, jagged teeth.  Not only the struggle to find a job and find your place in the world.  But the truest struggle of all that you must work toward each and every day is being the best person you can be. Each day of your life you will have to make moral decisions.  You will have to strive to be the bigger person.
And you will have to strive to remain revolutionary.  To retain your power.  One of my favorite writers is Alice Walker.  She once said:  “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”  I believe we have added to your power during your time here at Berea.  We have pumped up your power to recognize injustice, to participate in civil discourse, to actively seek out ways to serve others. 
            But even within this beloved community—where we work every single day to examine issues of equality and service and compassion—we have seen power distorted.  There have been awful instances of racism, homophobia, and classism.  We have seen patriarchy rear its terrible head.  The difference between this beloved community and the wider world is that I believe we truly do try our best here at Berea.  Witnessing injustice is harder here because we are more conscious here at Berea.  We talk about these things in a complex and mostly honest way.  The same is not true in that sharp-toothed world awaiting you.  Because when you encounter injustice there, no one will appear to ask for you to reflect on it like we do at Berea.  No meetings will be called.  No counselors will be brought in.  You are on your own, and you must stand alone in a world rife with rudeness and hatefulness, with snideness and arrogance, a world teeming with ignorance.  And because of what we have taught you here at Berea—to fight for justice, to stand against intolerance, to be of service—you will have to plant your feet firmly and refuse to condone these acts of injustice by being silent. 
            The greatest challenge for all of us is to walk through the world each and every day with conscious hearts. 
            That is the great challenge of this life:  to be as good as we can be.  To fight back, but always with respect and love.  To stand against injustice.  To serve others.
            Yes, I hope that you are able to get a job as soon as you leave here.  I hope you make a good living and are able to have whatever your heart desires.  And I hope that we gave you the best education we could here at Berea, an education that has outfitted you to be ready for the workforce.  You have been here for an academic experience, and there is no doubt about that.  But I hope that just as much as we have given you academic armor we have also given you the shields of service and compassion, two of the essential instruments needed to go through life with that conscious heart, which will open you to heartache. 
            Be conscious in ways that remind you of the suffering of others.  Remember what Appalachian writer James Still once said:  “What happens in Afghanistan, happens to me.”  Because when hurt is done to one of us, it is done to the world entire.  Be conscious not only of how your heart operates, but also of how your eyes see, what your mouth says, and to what your hands lend their power. 
            I’ve been honored that some of you out there have shared your stories with me, and I know that too many of you have felt negated because of where you’re from, or the color of your skin, or whom you love, or the way you talk, or how you believe or don’t believe.  And I know how that feels.  I know how it is to be called “trailer trash”, how it feels to be belittled and ridiculed because of who I am.  Like many of you, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, to come from people who couldn’t go to college because they were doing everything in their power to rise up out of poverty and give their children the things they never had themselves.  Like you, I’ve had people in power assume that I am inferior.  I’ve been refused service because of who I am.  Shunned.  Spoken to with hatred.  And every day I see my people put down.  I hear folks railing against those who are on or have ever been on welfare.  I see the criminalization of the hoodie, the laughter at an accent that isn’t newscasterish enough, the disgusting arrogance of a rape culture out of control, the everyday homophobia.  I see a country divided on issues of immigration, gender, orientation, religion, race, and much more. 
            And so I hope that you will not see the challenges before you as frightening or daunting.  Instead, I trust that you will be able to stand for yourself and others when injustice rises up.  Be revolutionary in your ways of kindness.    
            This does not necessarily mean that you have to be out marching in the streets.  This does not mean that you have to spend all of your time arguing with people when they think differently than you.  This doesn’t even mean that you have to be overtly political.  What it does mean is that you must always be aware of how you are treating others and you must never stand by when another person or group is being negated.  What this means, more than anything, is that you must get up everyday and think about ways you can do good.  This means you must be on the lookout for ways to be of service, to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.  You can’t simply say that you’re opposed to injustice—you must be an active part of fighting it.
            I am reminded here of one of my favorite things that Walt Whitman ever said.  “Resist much.  Obey little.”  I believe this, but I believe that we must look at this saying in a complex way. This is not simply an anti-authority sentiment.  Resist the urge to let the meanness that lives in all of us manifest itself.  Resist the compulsion to approach situations with negativity.  Resist joining in groupthink.  Always, always think for yourself.  Resist the urge to be silent or invisible.  Because, as Harvey Milk said, “Hope will never be silent.”  Do not follow the crowd.  Do not allow the media to tell you how to think.  Seek out knowledge.  Use it, study over it, tuck it into your mind as you would a stone that you might polish into complete smoothness with your thumb.  Do not obey the common thought that everything lies on the surface.  Dig deeper.  Think more complexly.  Argue with compassion and respect.  Obey no one who tries to rule you.   
            After years of academia I am hopeful that you know the equations and sentence structures and proper ways to cite sources.  I trust that you are well-schooled in the history of your own country and our world. In your own place in the world, whether that be Appalachia or South Africa or Afghanistan or anywhere in between. I know that you have explored complex and even abstract issues like religion, philosophy, psychology.  You’ve learned how to be more physically fit and to expand your brain.  But in the end, truly, it all lands on the simplest thing:  be kind.  Be strong.  Never, ever set aside your pride or dignity.  Do not allow anyone to belittle you or your people or anyone else.  Resist injustice.  Obey that innate urge to do good.  Every single day we can do something revolutionary because the most revolutionary thing of all is being the best people we can be.