On a recent weekend we had our first ever drag show at Summit City Lounge in Whitesburg. I looked around my bar and felt incredibly happy and proud. A packed house, glamorous performers and everyone having a big time.
This is maybe not the Eastern Kentucky of so many people's imaginings: The downtrodden, desperate, lost cause of a place that's somebody's problem to solve. Because what I see is sparkling, thriving, very much alive.
We are a bar, restaurant, gallery and music venue in a town of 2,300, in the heart of one of the country's most economically and socially depressed places. We are probably not supposed to exist, but here we are. It's been bold nights of music, wall-to-wall with dancing bodies; lunch counter conversations between strip miners and foreign filmmakers; the steady, remarkable community metronome of weekly Open Mic performances; bohemian art openings that meld into Bud Light Friday nights.
The politicians who make a show of not letting the region slip into further despair have proclaimed that the time is nigh to see what can be done. Meanwhile, thousands of us in the mountains have been working and praying and scrapping for a future that we see ourselves in.
We've been working on that future by refusing to operate in the framework of "this is surprisingly good for Eastern Kentucky," but instead "this is amazingly good because it's Eastern Kentucky."
An article in National Geographic described Summit City as "a haunt for poets and coal miners." And while that's a lovely description, what we know here is that there is no divide between those two. We are all fighters and builders and innovators and big dreamers and people who figure out how to make it work even when we owe our soul to the company store.
I love being from Appalachia, and it makes me mad a lot of the time: When I see our local leaders shy away from the very things I find most amazing and wonderful about this place. When I run into the wall of propaganda that says if it's not coal, it's not worth a damn. When our distant representatives cynically use both depictions of our poverty and images of our dignity to win the votes of people who will never visit, much less live here.
The scars of having had massive, distant companies control the land, wealth and labor of this place will be with us for generations. But so will the cheer, ferocity, humor and wildness that have sustained us through the last century of mining.
The ways that the people of the coalfields have kept ourselves ourselves is the key to how we'll move into our future. It's not just banjos and soup beans, though those are ours and blessedly so.
It's the Treehouse Poets and WMMT community radio and the cheering crowd as a drag queen sings Coal Miner's Daughter. It's artists and miners and bankers and bartenders knowing this place is home and worth fighting for.
It's a band fresh from the pages of Rolling Stone looking out at an audience on a Saturday night in a community too many people have written off and declaring, "We've been hearing about this place for years. It's great to finally play Whitesburg."
Amelia Kirby, co-owner of Summit City in Whitesburg, works at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center and is a sixth-generation Appalachian.