He was a marshmallow puff of a boy from Pulaski County, Kentucky, from a little town called Somerset. And he was sweet on me. Those were conflicting feelings for a boy whose community was more than 95% white. Bronze skin in the sun had him smitten. We were at Northern Kentucky University for a program that brings the top high school students from around the state together for five weeks over the summer, essentially guaranteeing a full-ride to any in-state school of your choosing the following year. And the program's mandate included students from every county in Kentucky. At this program, a director would ask, "If my hand is Kentucky, show me where you're from." You can follow your pinkie finger across to the middle of your palm, and there'd be Somerset.
And I'm from where your tucked thumb meets the base of your pointer finger. Louisville is the biggest city in the commonwealth, and that summer was my first time meeting those high school delegates from rural areas my family never ventured. They lived off highway exits we didn't take and down roads we didn't drive after dark. Even as an adult while living in Colorado, when I had to go out to some small town on business, I'd do a Google search first to confirm it wasn't a sundown town.
This is what being brought up Black in Kentucky taught me. What they'd claimed as theirs would never have space for me and mine.
That boy trailed after me across that concrete campus for days and days and days, finding ways to speak to me, to sit near me, until he found himself bold enough to wrap his arms around me, place his hands on. I shoved him away and asked, "What would your mama think about you grabbing at girls against their will?"
"She wouldn't think you're a girl 'cause you're Black." He grinned as he said it.
A few days later, I was standing in front of him in a small elevator with two other boys and I slung my fist backwards into his crotch. He crumpled forward. When we stepped off the elevator, the two boys wanted to know why I'd done what I did. They told me, "Two wrongs don't make a right."
But I knew there was nothing wrong about teaching a boy to keep his hands to himself.
More than a decade later when my baby sister gave me a sticker that said, "I AM A KENTUCKIAN." I stuck it in the armrest of my car. I didn't think about that boy in that moment, but I felt what I felt when I was protecting my body from him, when he labeled me less than human: This is theirs and not meant for me and mine. They lay claim to stolen land with one hand and use the other to push away anyone who doesn't look like them.
I didn't feel like a Kentuckian. When I lived in California, I was always clear about being from Louisville and not Kentucky. We are a blue spot in a red stain on this country. When you leave the city limits, there's no limit to what you might experience out in the rest of the state. But Louisville isn't sanctuary either.
There's a story that goes around about Muhammad Ali returning home to Louisville after the Olympics. He's denied service at a lunch counter. So, he goes to the bridge and drops his gold medal into the Ohio River. Now, they say the story isn't true. But I know those feelings are.
Louisville is where Breonna Taylor went to bed next to her boyfriend but didn't live to see the next morning. And the city that pays the salaries of those responsible and those who have not been held accountable for her death. It's where David McAtee fed his community. And the city that left his body lying dead in the street for over 12 hours.
Louisville is where the mayor and I will be the only two people to arrive at a party on time. He will have just returned from a conference in some small country in Europe where they discussed the leading catalyst for crime in a community, "Do you know?" he will ask me and I will say disenfranchisement and wonder why he had to travel across an ocean for these conversations when he could have driven 20 minutes to Louisville's West End, where Black people in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country have been saying for generations that this city does not make them feel like they belong.
Until Charles Booker.
A year ago, when Amy McGrath announced her campaign for the United States Senate, the mood in the city was . . . underwhelmed. Many described her as a Republican in Democrat's clothing. But the DNC had anointed her The One. They poured millions into her campaign. Several times a day, I was hit with Facebook ads to donate. Mitch McConnell's name could not be tweeted without some stranger popping into your mentions insisting a donation to McGrath was the only way to get that man out of office. I wasn't ready to part with my coins. And throughout the city, my friends in the know said, "Don't donate. Wait. Someone better is coming."
In January, Charles Booker arrived. Booker, State Representative for the 43rd district, ran against McGrath in the Democratic Senate primary on a platform supporting the Green New Deal, Medicare for all and universal basic income. As cities around the nation rose up against injustice against the Black community with names like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery on their tongues, in Louisville, we said her name: Breonna Taylor. And Booker stood and marched among the people, including when the Louisville Metro Police Department shot rubber bullets into the crowd and released canisters of tear gas. Video circulated of Booker on the House floor shouting, "My life matters too!" even after they cut his mic. And he told us his campaign was about all of us, that we are all Kentuckians and we all matter — from the hood to the holler.
And he meant that.
He meant it enough to find himself in towns off those highway exits and down those roads my family didn't take. He went to Harlan County to be with former BlackJewel miners sitting on the coal tracks demanding the pay they were owed from their morally and financially bankrupt employer. He spoke at Black Lives Matter rallies in rural towns like Whitesburg, places where he said he didn't see many faces like his own in the crowd, but where people were chanting in solidarity with the movement. Change had come to Kentucky.
But not soon enough.
When heartbroken Black protestors confronted Booker in the middle of an on-camera interview and wanted to know why these politicians and the media keep lying to us and on us, he lowered his mask and said he grew up on 35th and Market. He's been protesting for years. He's one of us, even when he's in the running to be one of them. The woman explained that the man with her was feeling emotional. Booker said, he had the right to be, "The same thing that's pissing you off is why I'm trying to get in there. But I can't be by myself. So, you got a right to be mad." When he said he's here for all of us, she wanted him to specify, and he does. He's here for Black people. Because you can't be for all of us, if you're not for Black people.
And that's the Truth. And anything else is The Lie. And Kentuckians are tired of The Lie. Poor white people are seeing they are not getting fed off The Lie. They are not getting paid off The Lie. The Lie is willing to let their children die in the night and lay dead in the streets too.
The story the media ran with in 2016 – Poor Rural Whites Put Trump in Office – is a facet of The Lie. We know it was Middle Class White America and Wealthy White America and College-Educated White America and Just White America in General who put Trump in office. And once the votes were tallied, we weren't asked, "What about the coal miners?" anymore. Stories about the opioid epidemic peaked and passed. The trees are gone, toxins run in the river but the cameras and the reporters have retreated back to their coasts.
We're often told racism is a byproduct of ignorance, but who's fault is it we're all so ignorant? Appalachia didn't write those textbooks. The West End didn't write those textbooks. Why did I have to wait until I was sitting in a college classroom to be taught history beyond the narrow scope of what's approved for public school curriculums? History about white men and a few ancillary characters. And why did I have to find my way to scholars and intellectuals who were truth-tellers on my own after college? With my own money spent on books and Internet access with the luxury of time most of us don't have? Black history — the history of all of us — wasn't just kept from Black people. You're not teaching American history if you're not teaching Black history.
This spring, I ended the African American literature course I teach with Toni Morrison's "Beloved." One of the characters escapes a chain gang. I gave a mini-lecture on the history of chain gangs and shared a documentary clip. We talked about how chain gangs came out of the convict leasing system created as a blatant way for white Southerners to continue to use Black people as free labor. How this free labor was pitted against poor white people working in coal mines who asked for more money for their labor, for their lost limbs, for their poisoned lungs, for the long dark hours they spent underground. The seeds of hatred of one group for the other were planted by farmers who hid their hands beneath generations of overgrowth and reaped the financial rewards. The path that Booker walked from the hood to the holler is not a new one. It might be swallowed by brush and rocky, and sometimes it disappears between the trees, but it's been there for generations. The neglect of this path, the withholding of our history, is intentional. They don't want us to meet on the path because they know where we will head next: to the manicured lawns of the wealthy with questions about resources and capitalism. And we will no longer see our neighbor as the reason for our plight.
I didn't grow up in the hood or the holler. I was born in the Philippines on an Air Force base. My mother is an immigrant, my father is a veteran. They raised me in the Louisville suburb of Fern Creek. We were the only Black family on the block. The racism was so bad in the '90s that the white parents of an elementary school classmate called mine to retrieve me from a slumber party because they hadn't expected me to be Black. Sometimes, when you're a little bit of everything, it can feel like nothing is meant for you. Not the bluegrass. Not the wide, rushing river. Not the horses that gallop round the track.
But when a historic number of Kentuckians voted in the 2020 primary and the Black candidate lost by only 2%, maybe less, in a state where his name had only been trending for a few weeks, I felt like there was space enough here for me and mine. That if my hand is Kentucky, we belonged in whatever part you could point to. Booker is a man who says we all deserve more. A man who chanted #BlackLivesMatter in Whitesburg, KY. Charles Booker makes me feel like a Kentuckian.
I don't know Booker personally, but we're nearly the same age and we were both students at the University of Louisville around the same time. We have dozens of mutuals on Facebook, including a friend he shared his notes with in an 8 a.m. class. But I don't think our paths have ever crossed. Daniel Cameron, the state's first Black attorney general, was a U of L student at the same time, too. Cameron, who saw fit to celebrate his engagement and release photos of his party during a pandemic while the world watches and waits for his office to complete his investigation into the police killing of Breonna Taylor. If TV shows were set in places like Louisville, I'd watch a fictionalized series about Booker and Cameron as college adversaries — the Black progressive who believes in universal health care because his family had to ration his insulin when he was younger at odds with the Black Republican who calls Mitch McConnell his mentor. I wonder if that's what makes Cameron feel like a Kentuckian. I wonder if it's worth it.
Amy McGrath won the primary, but the race was close enough that we all held our breaths to the very last moment. Close enough that I'm too heavy-hearted to pull up my "Charles Booker for Senate" yard sign just yet. His loss snatched me back into the November 2016 feeling of how undemocratic our electoral process can feel. But Booker is gracious. He's still going to do the work. He's not going anywhere. In his concession letter, he tells us all, "You deserve a government that accounts for your humanity."
Those of us who felt like Kentucky wasn't ours to claim, that's all we want: to be accounted for. And now we're laying claim to the spaces that are ours whether the state wants to account for us or not. Whether it means blocking the coal on the tracks to collect the pay we're owed, shutting down an Ohio River bridge on a Monday morning for Breonna, or standing in the place where the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier once stood reciting a poem about spaces that deny Blackness. Breonna Taylor was a Kentuckian. David McAtee was a Kentuckian. Charles Booker is a Kentuckian. And I, too, am a Kentuckian.