Upon childhood crossings over the Ohio River after visiting family in southeastern Kentucky, I often noticed the sign that said my home state was "the heart of it all.” The heartland of the USA. The second free state admitted to the union created by the original thirteen colonies. Today, Ohio is, for me, a place people escape to or from—but not a place to truly belong, even if you come here to settle down, or were born there, as I was. Ohio is, after all, home to the first people to fly an airplane and walk on the moon.
A large part of my Dad's family came to the Dayton area in the 50s and 60s as part of the “Hillbilly Highway” migration of Appalachians to Ohio, looking for industrial work instead of mining jobs. My Papaw worked in Montgomery County's waste management facilities and eventually my Dad did too, for thirty years of his life. And yet my Dad has never felt he's belonged in Ohio. Or at least that's my impression. Now in his seventies, he often speaks of his childhood in a holler in Kentucky, drinking milk fresh from a cow, riding a donkey up the mountain with ice cream melting just right for Independence Day, and hunting squirrels to eat as often as possible. And despite not being in good health, he gets his hunting license each year. I imagine him stepping through woods in southern Ohio while his footfalls land yet in the hills of Kentucky.
When I've traveled through chunks of the Midwest, including on a few long, meandering bus trips, I very often had this feeling I'd escaped from somewhere, no matter the city I went to or through, whether it was Chicago or Vermilion, South Dakota. I wasn't a traveler—I was more like a refugee. I hadn't belonged. But maybe native Midwesterners are born refugees. Arguably, our unifying culture is that we are all inextricably connected by history to largely white families fleeing, rejecting, or being unsuited to life in the coastal states—the places that reminded them they never belonged in the land to begin with. But we end up refugees even today because Midwest settlers on the whole still ended up displacing and bringing on the genocide of indigenous peoples, leaving us in places established and functioning only because natives were made to not belong in their homes.
Midwesterners, it seems then, are almost always fleeing the awareness that we can't wholly escape our lack of rightful belonging in the lands we occupy, no matter how much we go through the rituals of hard work and self-sufficiency. No matter if some of our ancestors from Europe were truly refugees, fleeing religious oppression, famine, or worse. Maybe this all sounds like a common American experience, but then, various media have often presented Midwesterners as the default Americans in the past. The Midwest became less a place than a mindset—a mindset where you easily forget important historical realities, starting with the fact that America needs you to forget those realities to keep its empire selling out stocks of often very enthralling masks.
Several times as a kid my Dad took my family to Cherokee, North Carolina, a tourist town near an area of land called the Qualla Boundary. This is where you can find living descendants of The Eastern Band of Cherokee, who bought some of their stolen land back from the government after giving up tribal rights and becoming US citizens. These people were allowed to stay in their native land after the Indian Removal Act forced most Cherokee on a death march to Oklahoma. To learn about native peoples, my Dad had us go to several outdoor dramas, one of which, Unto These Hills, was shown in the town of Cherokee and depicted events that led to that death march, later known as the Trail of Tears.
Though he commented on the actors, live weapons, and costumes more than the story after seeing the play, I like to think my Dad recognized, in his deepest mind, how the Eastern Band of Cherokee were made refugees in their own homeland. How the conditions of settler-colonialism did this to native peoples. As someone with Scots-Irish ancestors who came to Appalachia for a better, less tyrannized life, to a place with low lying mountains and hills that surely reminded them of home, I want to believe he did see this. I want my Dad to have understood how furthering civilization itself has a way of seizing everyone's sense of belonging.
My ancestry.com results say I am at least 1% Native American. My Mom and Dad both say they have great (or was one great-great?) grandmothers with Cherokee heritage. I suspect this is somewhat common for older generations of white people from southern Appalachia. But I don't seek any sort of recognition through this at most very distant relationship. I don’t belong to any current Cherokee people except through the invasive powers of modern science and technology, which often serve to atomize us, to make us feel a heightened sense of unbelonging, despite claims otherwise. Though as a younger man my Dad once crafted his own headdress for reasons he never explained, I will adorn nothing that lets me hide my unbelonging history, even if it is just for a few moments, for just the time it takes for a polaroid that later might, in my most childish hopes, prove to myself and family I—we—could be part of a homeland our bodies have never touched, heard, inhaled, witnessed.
I have been avoiding the question of what the Midwest essay is. And that seems just as it should be. I am a refugee of any domain that defines things too quickly, too tidily, and too casually. I distrust the arguments that resolve into less responsibility for my own actions. I reckon I'm a Midwesterner.
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