Merlene Davis: Despite its lack of racial diversity, Kentucky has appreciation for all

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 28, 2013 

If you look at the numbers, the people of Kentucky are not very diverse.

Nearly 89 percent of the population is white, with only 8.1 percent black and 3.2 percent Hispanic.

Plus, 81.7 percent of us have at least graduated high school, but only 20.6 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. Both of those numbers are lower than the national average.

Despite those numbers, there are people living in this commonwealth, especially in Fayette County, who don't fit the expected pattern.

And all of these are people with whom we should make a concerted effort to spend a bit of time so we won't buy into the frequently accepted but negative stereotypes of who we are.

I'll start first with Ernie Brown Jr., a.k.a. Turtleman. He is real and he does live in Kentucky and he talks and acts as he does on his Animal Planet reality show, Call of the Wildman.

Other stereotypes also have more than a grain of truth, such as those depicted by the Daily Show lampooning Kentucky elected officials who don't want to abide by federal laws, simply because a majority of voters didn't cast a ballot for President Barack Obama.

But those examples can be countered by people like Frank X Walker, the state's youngest and first black poet laureate.

Walker, who hails from Danville, coined the word Affrilachia to better describe the writers in this region, and he co-founded Affrilachian Poets, a multistate writing group.

He said he was led to form the group because he often had been asked whether black people lived in this state.

"We were left out of the equation," he has said. "My mission is to make sure to challenge those myths."

An associate professor at the University of Kentucky and actively involved in encouraging new writers wherever he can, Walker said he sees himself as a teacher first.

An editorial in The Advocate Messenger, his hometown newspaper, said an unofficial Frank X Fan Club based in Cynthiana, comprised of 20 to 50 members, all of them white, made its way to Frankfort when he was inducted in April.

That's who Kentuckians are. Kentucky honors black and talented.

Or maybe we look more like Ginny Ramsey, an unfaltering advocate for the homeless in Lexington.

Ramsey, co-founder of The Catholic Action Center with Judy McLaughlin in 2000, has been instrumental in directing our eyes to the plight of those who have nowhere to call home even when we didn't want to look. The center offers the homeless mailboxes, bathrooms, showers, the means to wash their clothes.

She is following in the footsteps of people like Dorothy Day, who in the 1930s helped start the Catholic Worker movement which mandated direct aid to the poor and homeless while advocating nonviolently on their behalf. Day began calling on churches and synagogues to help, but eventually realized she couldn't call on institutions to do what we wouldn't.

"All of us as people of faith are required to act," Ramsey said. "Otherwise it is a screen door on a submarine."

Ramsey has helped thousands regain their footing by providing a place to lay their heads at night, or by helping them to become self-sufficient.

And all the while, allowing the homeless to maintain their dignity. She has helped them form their own lobbying group and encouraged them to fight for their rights.

"Everyone needs dignity," she has said, "and everyone needs to be needed. We can all solve poverty when we do it together."

That's the spirit of Kentucky. We fight for what is right despite the odds.

But if it is the typical definition of diversity you want, try to get a few minutes with Yvonne Giles, director of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum in Lexington.

Giles, who is also known as the "cemetery lady" for her thorough research into black gravesites, which has heightened interest in preserving African Cemetery No. 2, and Cove Haven Cemetery, both in Lexington.

But what I've found fascinating is that Giles is a walking encyclopedia of local black history.

All you have to do is say something like, "When did the first black pharmacist come to Lexington?" or maybe, "Where did Isaac Murphy live?"

For the next 10 to 15 minutes, Giles will regal you with information she has gleaned from hours of searching old newspapers or other materials in the public library. She knows more about how intricately the history of blacks is woven in the history of Lexington. And she did it on her own, backing it up with documentation so no one can question the information.

So while racial diversity is scant in this state, appreciating the works and dignity of others is not.

From experience, we've learned to care about the person and not the label given to them.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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