My Old Kentucky Home: Black History in the Bluegrass State
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My Old Kentucky Home:
Black History in the Bluegrass State

As an African American and a Kentuckian, writing Way Up North in Louisville was a labor of love. In the book, I argued that many African Americans in Louisville joined a long tradition of claiming the South as Home; through sweat, blood, labor, and history their identification with the South fueled their hopes, dreams, and collective action oriented toward making their lives and the South better. The idea of “Home” resulted as much from placing black people at the center of their history, as it did from my family, which has lived in Kentucky for generations. Although today they are concentrated in Lexington, the Adamses, Markses, Govers, and Overstreets are scattered across the Bluegrass from Louisville to Versailles, from Danville and Cynthiana to Stamping Ground. For well over 150 years, they raised families; they attended church, mainly the House of God or Bethel Baptist Church; they valued education no matter how much or little they had themselves; and they worked in tobacco factories, as janitors, postal employees, cafeteria workers, groomsmen, or joined the military to provide for their families. Some “ran the streets,” drinking and gambling their paychecks and pain away—struggling with the violence of their lives. Yet they, and many more, worked and prayed for a better life for themselves and their children. Or at least to make ends meet. Making ends meet could, and often did, mean [End Page 385] “doing without,” taking on odd jobs, relying on family or food stamps, picking berries, fishing, or growing corn, tomatoes, and green beans in the backyard to eat, maintain a roof over our heads, and have clothes.

Family, consisting of blood relations and a dense network of kin, community, and church, was central to our social, cultural, and spiritual lives and economic well being. Illness was all too common; like many of their ancestors my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins struggled (and still do) with blindness, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, hypertension, depression, dementia, and cancer. Like illness, violence—racial, sexual, and domestic—cast its shadow over our daily lives. Still, our family was close, mutuality was taught and expected—your money, time, and talents were not your own but were resources shared by all, more often than not willingly.

My parents, Arnetta and Luther, married young and later separated—but never divorced. Through my father’s military benefits we maintained vital access to medical care, and the low prices available shopping on base at Fort Knox. My father dispensed hard-won wisdom and was a violent alcoholic—abusive and loving. My mother was uncompromisingly honest, hot tempered, strong willed, and generous; supported by family, church, intermittent government assistance, and her job working behind the salad buffet at Doss High School, she created a home. My father was shot by the police in 1995, and my mother died after a nineteen-year struggle with cancer a year and a half later.1 Family was powerful and fragile—joy and pain, sunshine and rain. Although family members often “fell out,” we adhered to the belief that “a family that prays together, stays together.”

When I think of growing up as an African American child in Kentucky, I recall laughter and jokes, the joy of sucking that tiny sweet drop of honeysuckle, and catching lightning bugs and crawdads. No elder accepted any response that did not include “yes, ma’am” or “no sir.” My family followed basketball passionately, rooting for the Wildcats but keeping a warm spot for Dr. Dunkenstein (Darrell [End Page 386] Griffith) and the Louisville Cardinals. I remember Dan’s Pawn Shop stood at the intersection of Dixie Highway and Broadway in downtown Louisville. As a fifteen-year-old, my brother worked all summer as a janitor, helping pay bills, buying groceries and my new school clothes, and yet he still saved enough to buy the first pair of Air Jordans at Dan’s Pawn Shop. Outside the air was full of the heady smell of tobacco and distilleries. Like many black Kentuckians, those in my family continued to believe in the value of hard work in the face of limited educational and economic opportunities...