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‘Violence will not stop me. I will wear my necklace with its Jewish star, proudly and unafraid.’

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Valerie Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

I am a Jewish woman living in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

I am a wife, a mother, a writer.

I am a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

I am a member of Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic and a volunteer at two halfway houses for women.

And now, I sit at my desk trying to make sense of the senseless and find words to describe what is indescribable.

How do you talk when there is no language for this grief?

I go to Squirrel Hill almost every day, have coffee, browse bookstores, write in the library,
meet friends for lunch.

I drive past Tree of Life almost every day, on my way to Oakland or Shadyside, Bloomfield or the Strip.

I didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh. I’m a transplant from the flat land of Columbus, Ohio. But my husband grew up in Point Breeze and attended Sterrett and Allderdice. Our son lives in Lawrenceville; we have nieces and nephews living in a 2-mile radius.

I love Pittsburgh, its rivers and bridges, its crazy streets that arc and bend, never a straight line. I love this city’s vibrancy, its neighborhoods, its open arms and big heart.

“…Pittsburgh has strong arms, wide enough to embrace us all, and we will provide solace and love for each other,” writes Valerie Bacharach. “We will not be afraid.” Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

But what happened this weekend is an abomination. A sacred space, a sanctuary, desecrated.

Eleven people dead in the midst of saying prayers, of honoring Shabbat, of hearing Torah.

Eleven people whose deaths should have come with gentleness, who should have had a peaceful crossing from this world to the World to Come.

My 37-year-old son called to check on me Saturday evening and see how I am doing. This son who had a bar mitzvah, comes with me to synagogue only on High Holy days or to say Mourners’ Kaddish for his grandparents and younger brother. He identifies as Jewish, but doesn’t really believe. And yet he tells me that what he wants to do now is go to services, be with the congregation and show his support. I often struggle with my own faith, what I believe about God, but I understand my son’s feelings. We both want to be present, to be a part of our Jewish community and to stand together as we pray.

I cannot fathom how someone can be so filled with hate, how a stranger wanted people dead simply for being Jewish.

I am heartsick, angry, grieving. Unable to concentrate, to sit for very long. I pace the rooms of my house, move from window to window, watch the clouds.

I attended the interfaith vigil Sunday evening at Soldiers and Sailors, sat among the crowd of people of every race and religious belief—

And I am not afraid.

I will go to services, wear my necklace with its Jewish star, mourn with others, cry with others, and yes, hopefully, laugh with others.

Because Pittsburgh has strong arms, wide enough to embrace us all, and we will provide solace and love for each other.

We will not be afraid.

 

Valerie Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at v_bacharach@hotmail.com.

This commentary was originally published by PublicSource.

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The Star Student With a Drug Problem

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Photo illustration via Canva.com

The stigma of drug addiction means people in small towns may keep secrets to themselves – until it’s obvious something is wrong. Fighting addiction means talking honestly about the problems confronting our rural communities.

The first time my drug use came to light, it was because of a random drug test that I had to take during my junior year of high school.  

 I was the principal’s assistant, an honor roll student, and a theater star. At home, I hid in my parents’ basement getting high and stealing alcohol from their liquor cabinet.  

Cassidy Webb, the author

 Upon finding out that I would be subjected to the random urine test, I was terrified. My arms shook and my heart raced. I knew I was going to fail. (Editor’s note: In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of randomly drug-testing high school students engaged in many extracurricular activities.) 

 I tried everything possible to get out of the test. I asked to go to the nurse’s office because I felt sick, but they refused to send me home. I even asked the principal if I could take the test next week since I was on my period, but he simply told me that my period wouldn’t affect it. I had to take the test.  

 The person administering the test didn’t watch me, so I tried diluting the sample with toilet water. The temperature was too cold. I had to take the test again, this time, honestly.  

When the results of my drug test came back positive, the principal pulled me into his office. I was sure that I would face consequences. I was dreading having to tell my parents the truth. I didn’t want them to know that I was using drugs. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure.  

Normal protocol was to send students who failed the drug test to a substance-abuse class at the juvenile detention center and ban them from participating in after–school activities. However, in my case, the positive drug test was kept a secret. I was allowed to continue doing theater and didn’t have to go to the substance abuse class. Nobody wanted to admit that a star student had a drug problem. My addiction was nurtured and kept safe. I continued to get worse. 

Perhaps this could happen anywhere. But my experience growing up in a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks tells me that it’s especially likely in a rural area. In my town, everything was hush-hush on the surface. But people loved to gossip. Eventually, friends and family started to talk about me. They were more than willing to share information about my drug use, but nobody was willing to destigmatize my problems and offer me a solution.  

When the truth finally came out, I wasn’t viewed as a sick person trying to break an addiction. I was seen as an untrustworthy and unreliable waste of human flesh. I wanted to get sober, but I was terrified to ask for help. 

The Problem with the Word “Reputation” 

In small towns, a family’s reputation can be everything. Some families become obsessed with maintaining a facade that everything is perfect. God forbid somebody makes light of a dark situation in order to reach out for help and support. When your reputation is one of a successful, happy family, your biggest fear becomes the gossip about what you are doing wrong. Families don’t want to talk about their daughter who has been failing classes because she’s too busy taking care of her little brother while her parents work two jobs. They don’t want to talk about their son who’s been arrested for the third time for fighting in school because he doesn’t know any other way of coping with his anger. They certainly don’t want to talk about the girl with mental health issues who has found her solution in a bag of dope and a needle. 

Well, I do. I want to talk about it. 

Social and Cultural Norms 

A variety of factors can limit a person’s willingness to seek help for substance abuse. In rural areas, two of the biggest are social and cultural norms, according to a University of Tennessee study.  

It can be hard to keep your privacy in a small town. If an individual does go to treatment where they live, they risk being recognized by staff or another participant. If an individual goes somewhere else for treatment, their sudden absence might raise questions. Either way, fear of damaging one’s reputation interferes with recovery.  

Sadly, these fears are not necessarily misplaced. When I went to treatment 1,500 miles away from home, I met a woman there who was from my hometown. It was an unlikely coincidence, but it happened. She did her best to keep her treatment secret because she feared losing her job and facing judgment from others upon her return home. Unfortunately, she became the subject of gossip. As a result, she lost her job, even though she was on an approved paid leave. It seems wrong that an employer can call a person who is doing everything they can to get healthy an “unreliable employee,” but it happens.  

Breaking the Stigma 

The first step in shattering the stigma around addiction is to talk about it. This isn’t easy. We are more likely to have a negative attitude toward people who suffer from addiction than those who suffer with mental illness. Much of this has to do with a lack of understanding.  

By sharing personal stories of suffering through addiction and finding recovery, the public can become more understanding and supportive. Learning about these experiences allows people to view individuals with substance–use disorder as sick rather than immoral. The more that people view addiction as they do mental illness, as a disease rather than a choice, the more we can help. If communities continue to view addiction as a moral failure, people won’t seek help because they fear ruining their family’s reputation. 

There are websites such as Heroes in Recovery that allow people to share their stories and advocate breaking the stigma around addiction. There are also organizations such as Care Center Ministries that educate people about addiction issues and advocate for people in ways that make them more comfortable reaching out for help. When I sought help, Care Center Ministries is the only organization I felt safe reaching out to. They treated me like a real human being and encouraged me to get help. Today, the man who helped me get into treatment serves as a school drug and alcohol-abuse prevention counselor. He meets with every student each month in a one-on-one session, does educational workshops about drug abuse, and speaks freely about addiction so students may feel comfortable going to him if they need help. 

To me, courage means walking through fear. People who speak out about drug addiction in small towns and rural areas are courageous. Breaking the stigma is the first step toward saving more lives. 

Cassidy Webb is a writer who advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope. 

The Daily Yonder’s “Speak Your Piece” is a guest column that explores diverse topics. The views and opinions expressed in “Speak Your Piece” are those of the author, unless otherwise stated.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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I Pledge Allegiance to Affrilachia

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Affrilachia cannot be located on a map. Yet it is manifest, in writers’ words, the sounds of musicians, visual art, and the creative network we continue to build. Photo: Sarah Spivey

I am a Black Southerner and my experience, though it defies the white hillbilly stereotype, is assuredly Appalachian.

Being a Black person from Appalachia can be summed up in that old Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

During my childhood, I enjoyed The Waltons, a popular 1970s TV show about a hardscrabble white family in the Virginia mountains, as much as I enjoyed Good Times, the story of an irrepressible Black family in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing community.

My Black friends from Atlanta and other cities look askance when I mention I had simultaneous crushes on the sensitive aspiring writer John-Boy (the eldest Walton son) and Michael Evans, the smart, politically conscious youngest child on Good Times.

I’m used to this reaction. I’ve always been teased because I was born and raised in the foothills of Georgia’s Appalachian mountains—a place not known for having Black communities or Deep South “chocolate cities.”

But Appalachia is a crossroads—where African, European, and indigenous people collided and co-existed. As a friend recently remarked, “We were ‘intersectional’ before the word existed. In the best of times, the regional camaraderie flows in an easy familiar manner ’cause everybody knows ‘your momma and them.’” In the worst of times, I’ve despaired of finding better ways to co-exist on this land. As I’m crafting these emotions into sentences—and this native daughter returned to Georgia after many years away—I am still sorting out how I feel about this place called home.

I was born in Toccoa, in Stephens County, Georgia.Even these place names express the dissonance I feel about my geographic roots.

“Toccoa” is a word of Cherokee origin; almost every local Chamber of Commerce brochure claims that translated into English it means “the beautiful,” though it was probably derived from “tagwahi,” meaning “Catawba place.” My high school mascot is still the Indians, boldly and inaccurately adorned in Plains Indian headgear. There was hardly any mention in our history classes of the “Trail of Tears” that removed indigenous people from this area of northeast Georgia, nothing about the reasons why, and no thoughtful contemporary attempt to connect with the culture we claim to honor on the athletic field.

The county is named after Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. He is commemorated with a bronze plaque on the grounds of the county courthouse.  This official marker does not refer to his infamous Cornerstone Address, delivered in Savannah in March 1861. There, he stated the logic behind the Confederacy’s creation: “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Clearly, there was no place in Stephens’ vision for me, but the Confederacy did not prevail. I am a Black female who was a first-generation college student. My parents (pictured, visiting Cherokee, North Carolina) spent their teens being “the help” and then labored in the textile mill as adults. I am the grandchild of sharecroppers and the great-grand of enslaved people. As an heir of the civil rights movement, I claimed the freedom to become an artist, curator, and educator. I also embraced the role of cultural pollinator and mentor to many. I’ve earned two degrees, and much of my work connects colleges to grassroots communities. I am a Black Southerner, and my experience, though it defies the white hillbilly stereotype, is assuredly Appalachian.

The inhabitants of Appalachia are as diverse as its terrain—which ranges from soaring peaks to gentle hillsides, and from rural agricultural communities to bustling metropolitan municipalities. Yet when we talk about the region, Appalachia is narrowly defined and caricatured. Very little attention has been paid to the Black individuals and communities for whom this place has been home for generations.

Responding to the persistent erasure of our presence, I often say: “Small numbers, tremendous impact.” The historic impact of grassroots Black folks upon these ancient mountains can be found in a range of examples: from inmates who constructed the railroads of Western North Carolina to the Highlander Center in East Tennessee, where multiracial civil rights allies strategized nonviolent tactics to dismantle legalized segregation and discrimination. Yet, for me, the most poignant and ironic example of the intersection of cultures in the region is the banjo itself, which is both quintessentially Appalachian and has African rootsCarter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, lived in West Virginia. Henry Louis Gates, the renowned scholar of Black literature and culture, grew up in the mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, and boosted the popularity of genealogy in this country. Appalachia gave us recording artists Nina SimoneBill Withers, and Roberta Flack, as well as writers August Wilson and Nikki Giovanni, to name a few.

Musical giants even made their mark in my tiny hometown. James Brown came to Toccoa. Fleeing a tumultuous childhood and a perilous future, he healed his spirit and birthed his musical prowess in the shadow of Currahee Mountain. The blues vocalist and vaudeville performer Ida Cox was born here, and her enslaved parents probably worked on the Riverside Plantation before she fled as a teenager to sing about daily struggles and sexual liberation in the 1930s. Going on to fame as a prolific composer and bandleader, her song “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” is largely recognized as an early feminist anthem.

When viewed as individuals, these creative folk appear to be Black “unicorns”—rare artifacts without context. Their Appalachian associations are rarely discussed, and ignoring their mountain connections allowed them to comfortably fit into a national commercial context. But I know their contributions to be great gifts from the region and to the nation. And I proudly claim them as Affrilachians.

Black in Appalachia = Affrilachian. This clever term is short enough for a tweet and long enough for a bumper sticker, and it was coined in the 1990s by Kentucky-based writer Frank X Walker. In 2011, I created the Affrilachian Artist Project, inspired by the Affrilachian poets who had been working together since college and the modern resurgence of old-time music by string bands like the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Following in the footsteps of these creative trailblazers, I presented a regional digital showcase featuring the work of living artists for a two-day interdisciplinary Affrilachia symposium at the University of Kentucky in 2011. My motivation was simply to create a directory of Black visual artists in the region.

But the dream grew. I co-curated the inaugural museum exhibition of the Affrilachian Artist Project at the August Wilson Cultural Center in Pittsburgh, the region’s unofficial urban capital. My goal was to create a sustainable collaborative network among the region’s artists and community organizers. Today, the Affrilachian Artist Project Facebook page includes 2,000 individuals and organizations that celebrate and explore the intersection of cultures in Appalachia.

Affrilachia cannot be located on a map. Yet it is manifest, in writers’ words, the sounds of musicians, visual art, and the creative network we continue to build. I seek out the makers and the truth tellers. I vow to honor the messy, bittersweet contrast of my home region’s historic challenges and the courageous accomplishments of artists, activists, and residents who want a better future.

In an 1848 letter to Frederick Douglass, journalist and abolitionist Martin Delany said it best.

“It is only in the mountains that I can fully appreciate my existence as a [person] in America, and in my own native land. It is then and there my soul is lifted up, my bosom cause to swell with emotion, and I am lost in wonder at the dignity of my own nature.”

This is why I pledge allegiance to Affrilachia.

This article was originally published by Rewire.News.

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Notes From an Angry Black Hunter: Guns, Genocide and the Stolen Ground You ‘Own’

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White people have to do right by the people murdered and terrorized by their ancestors. Doing right means learning this history and the realities of the land on which we live. Photo: Jonathan Hall

When I hunt, usually on white people’s land, I wonder if they know who lived there before. Or what would happen if I was just some random Black man on their property?

If you identify as white or a hunter (or a white hunter), what you are about to read should make you uncomfortable.

Here goes: In the United States, the story of the land is written in the blood of native people and centuries of forced labor by kidnapped Africans. So it’s no wonder that more than 90 percent of land is “owned” by white Americans. And that includes the lands where I hunt.

Maybe this is the first time you’ve thought about race, land, and hunting. Maybe you’re surprised to be hearing this from a Black hunter. Hunting talk rarely involves race and Blackness. But that rarity is no more an accident than the absence of indigenous people from the land.

It’s been more than a year since I appeared on the West Virginia episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show and wrote an article titled “Hunting While Black.” I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. But I’m most proud of comments where people expressed thanks for being challenged to think more closely about race and hunting.

To be fair, I hadn’t thought all that thoroughly about the connections between white supremacy and the land until recently. My interest in the connection came, slowly, from my experience as a Black person and Black ecology student, and from other Black scholars and citizens who knew and lived this history. After hearing scholar and activist Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, speak last year, I was inspired to keep learning and speaking about the importance of understanding the connections.

In her talk, Finney explained the difference between anger—which she defined as legitimate disquiet rooted in witnessing or experiencing injustice—and bitterness, the paralyzing toxicity that often follows anger. She tries to avoid bitterness, but she’s angry about things, including how land in the United States is distributed.

Throughout her talk, I was jolted out of my general fanboy malaise (I’m a huge admirer of Finney’s work) by a single sentence she kept repeating: “All this land was stolen!”

Like Finney, I’m angry about whiteness. In my Parts Unknown article, I took special care to craft my words so that white folks wouldn’t be turned off. That’s what one has to do to appeal to a mainstream audience, but “nice” is not how I feel about whiteness.

I’m angry that the original people of these lands have been and continue to be stripped of their sovereignty. I’m angry that the “civilization” that’s tried to replace theirs is really good at ignoring justice. I’m angry that horrific white violence has shaped the way so many people of color live in this country. I’m angry that so many well-meaning “good white folks” daily choose not to see the giant festering wounds of trauma their ancestors inflicted and they, through their willful ignorance of whiteness, perpetuate.

And it’s not as if this history is new. White supremacy goes a long way to explaining rural land ownership—and how little of that land is owned by Black people. I’m talking specifically about the terrorism that Black people suffered after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s assassination, and President Andrew Johnson’s taking office. That includes almost 4,000 reported lynchings from 1877 to 1950. We know about the Great Migration, but don’t formally educate our children about why so many Black people “decided” to leave the South in “search of better opportunities up north.” They were running from terrorists who threatened their lives and lynched those who resisted. That trauma and violence still operates today. This structural and interpersonal violence was just the next step in the evolution of the white supremacist colonial state.

Every time I interact with white landowners, negotiating access to their land for hunting, I wonder: Do they know this history? Is it part of their day-to-day reality the same way that farm maintenance is an ever-present reality? Do they even know the name of the people who lived on their land before they got there?

I wonder how they treat Black people they don’t know. Are they suspicious of them? Does their familiarity with me insulate me from their racial hostility?

I don’t hunt public land because white men with firearms and a reason to discharge said firearms make me incredibly nervous. Just ask the family of Garrick and Carl Hopkins of Cabell County, West Virginia—two Black men killed by their white neighbor for “trespassing” on their own land. Philando Castile’s 2016 death makes any encounter with police to and from a hunt much more dangerous for me. Do I tell the officer I have a firearm in the car? If I don’t, and he decides to search my car, what happens if he finds the firearm I didn’t disclose?

Can we have a conversation about what justice looks like in the aftermath of genocide and anti-Black violence? The answer from the hunting community has been a deafeningly loud but silent “no.”

I do appreciate the praise and comments sparked by my Parts Unknown appearance and article. If I have one response to the feedback I’m still hearing, it would be that white people have to do right by the people murdered and terrorized by their ancestors. Doing right means learning this history and the realities of the land on which we live. All this land was stolen.

Yes, you have a responsibility to live up to the ideals you say this country was founded on, especially as the stewards of the spoils of a racist enterprise. No, you didn’t start this enterprise, and no one is blaming you for the injustices levied before you had agency.

But I’m realistic. Ninety-nine percent of white people are terrible at talking about racism. That’s not hyperbole, either. Most white people absolutely suck at talking about race.

Take these responses I’ve gotten on my Hunting While Black article from well-meaning white folk.

“I agree with you that outdoor spaces are highly racialized, and I think your concerns about ‘hunting while black’ are legitimate.”

My imagined response: Thank you for that affirmation. I’m both glad you’re telling me that you think my experience is legitimate and that you are concerned that I know that you think my experience is legitimate.

Or “one of my first thoughts was: ‘This guy is way outside the box.’ And I love it!  Not only because you are a Black man living in West Virginia who hunts, but add to that—has a PhD in ecology and teaches in the department of geography, too!

My imagined response: Who knew Negroes could live in West Virginia, have a PhD, and teach in a real-life college department?! That’s so far outside the box that it boggles the mind. I must tell this magical Negro that he is special because he certainly hasn’t heard that before AND I’m sure being reminded that he’s almost completely alone in his identity is outweighed by a random white person telling him he’s special. 

And then, “Hey, I read your article about hunting in West Virginia. Good stuff!” 

My imagined response: Say it with me: “white supremacy.” My article was really about white supremacy. But I pitched it gently because white people take it personally when you point out that many of their ancestors were terrible people and that many more did little to nothing to stop the really bad ones.

Told you I was angry.

But at this point, I want to cut white folks the tiniest bit of slack. When you consider the legacy of segregation, it makes sense that most people—particularly white people—live in physical and social spheres of extreme racial homogeneity. I know the homogeneity thing well; After all, I am the first African-American faculty member in my department, I was the first African American to earn a PhD in ecology from my department (in 2011), and am currently one of two African-American tenure-track faculty in a college with almost 300 faculty. I feel the overwhelming whiteness of my environment but can count on one hand the number of white people I’ve met along the way who were keenly aware of how distressing it is being the only Black person in so many spaces.

I get white folks‘ resistance to learning about the wages of whiteness. It must be hard for a white person, in the same way learning Disney has a long history of being incredibly racist (sorry, not sorry) is hard. Being racially introspective is work people of color know how to do. We do it as a matter of survival.

White folks avoid the work of understanding racism as a matter of happiness. Remaining ignorant to racism versus moving to change it is like choosing between riding in first class on a 15-hour flight or having to write an entire astrobiology dissertation on the same flight while seated in an economy-class middle seat between a screaming child with irritable bowels and a heavy-sleeping cuddler who open-mouth snores after eating two orders of garlic bread—with extra garlic. Why would anyone reject that first-class seat?

The catch, of course, is that you forfeit any legitimate claims of living justly by choosing the first-class seat. If you never acknowledge the fundamentally unfair system that created your comfort and the structural discomfort of others, then what do phrases like “all men are created equal” or “unalienable rights” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” actually mean?

U.S. society will not fundamentally change unless white people embrace the discomfort that comes with being white. Full stop. What white people have collectively done to make this country more just is not enough. You have to do more. Every single white person. And you know this is true because articles like this one are still necessary, still controversial, and will still result in white people’s blind anger at the mere mention of their responsibility for racism.

Don’t be angry at people of color for pointing this out. The forefathers and foremothers whom many of you venerate, who designed this genocidal and racist society, are to blame. They sold you out for a shot at first class on a stolen credit card and stuck you with the bill. Your anger should be aimed at them, not people of color.

The good news is there are millions of people of color ready to work with you on building a truly just society—when we know you can be trusted to not do us harm.

But until the day comes when the majority of white people take justice seriously, I’m going to avoid public land hunts, wear double the blaze orange that’s needed, and drive below the speed limit when my firearm is in the car.

I wish everyone happy, safe, and successful hunting this year—especially the Black hunters.

This article was originally published by Rewire.News.

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