Land of Tomorrow, Dark and Bloody Ground
In every memory I have of flying into Kentucky, it is raining. Thick clouds scrape against the plane until city lights are visible, and as we grow closer, I see dark stains stretch across weathered cement buildings.
I've rarely heard Kentucky sung outside of an elegy. The narratives that have escaped the bluegrass and entered the mainstream are ones that depict Kentucky as a sorrowful state. Largely white and wholly poor. Some of the most crudely-funded education systems in the country. Third-highest overdose rate in the country. Corrupt, bigoted, and irredemably Republican. Healthcare gone and replaced with nothing. Pensions taken and replaced with nothing. Breonna Taylor dead and no one charged for it. Corporate titans stripped the land and left in their wake sweeping floods and crippled economies.
It is hard to imagine a happier Kentucky on these flights. The land is flat and the buildings are short and sprawling, as if the whole state is weighed down with loss.
I’ve observed a specific rhetoric to the sorrow experienced by some in Kentucky. It is not uncommon to hear its residents lament their situations by referencing their families. My great-great-grandfather lived and died on this land. My ancestors worked this ground centuries ago. My family has been here for generations, and I still can't pay rent. And I still can't afford healthcare. And I still watch my surroundings wither like flower petals in an oven. It feels as if there is a long, intergenerational debt that must be paid through existence before one is given the right to grieve their own suffering.
My parents and I moved to Kentucky when I was six months old. Whenever I try to discuss Kentucky, my concerns feel unintelligible and unrooted. None of my family was born in Kentucky, and likely my parents will move back to their home in India rather than die there. I existed there for the short span of my upbringing, and much of that time was spent fantasizing about moving somewhere less flat and less dull.
My parents, having moved to America from India only months before I was born, couldn’t teach me many of the things they were trying to learn at the same time — how to talk, what to wear, and how to generally avoid attention. When I think of the adults who taught me how to grow up in Kentucky, I think of the well-coiffed women my mother worked with who gave me candy every time they corrected my pronunciation. They taught me what a Louisville Slugger is. A few of my friends’ parents taught me enough about Jesus to be able to lead grace at any white families’ home. One of them took me to my first horse race. My first grade teacher taught me to swing a swing, and my seventh grade teacher taught me how to tell if a boy likes you by the way he slams your locker shut.
In this way, my Kentucky lineage is not one that is singular, but broad and uneven like the terrain. As if I were raised by the land itself.
My parents were afraid for most of my childhood. I imagine their vision as two translucent photos stacked on top of each other, with dangers from their childhoods in rural India overlapping with dangers from the Western world until Kentucky, to them, looked like an amalgam of anxieties: music, the internet, white children, empty parks, full parks, germs, food colorings, pesticides, proms, movies, boys, flavorings, warehouses, red meat. Their fears were often illogical and always innumerable.
Their fear gerrymandered the boundaries of my life so there were crisp borders between myself and the dangerous unknown. When I crossed — if I took a walk without permission, if I didn't dry my hair after showering — they would hit me. Each time a surprise, like colliding into a wall that just appeared.
I think my parents were trying to instill enough fear in me to make me careful. A little vaccine of horror. Once, my mom didn’t want me to eat at a restaurant she thought would make me sick, so she threw a hot pan near my head. The wall is still stained with the drip of wet rice. I mostly grew fearful of them.
It took me some time to realize my parents' memories were more than just memories. Each time they tried to protect me from something I couldn't understand, the adrenaline of old traumas reentered their veins and impeded their vision. Their past life materialized into the reality around us, until their former world was not just remembered but relived.
But Kentucky has one of the lowest immigrant populations in the country, and my parents weren't close to the other immigrants in our town, so we mainly kept to ourselves. Solitude made the intensity of our panic swell until we were marooned on an island of terror.
The high school I attended is called duPont Manual High School. It was founded by the owner of the DuPont chemical company as a manual labor pipeline into his factories. Our rival high school, Louisville Male, was where elite families sent their children. The rivalry was borne from class differences: the first game was a fight started in 1893 by students from my high school resentful of the wealth and pomp of the other boys.
I always felt uneasy listening to the origins of our rivalry in high school while celebrating class strife with streamers and colored paint.
Kentucky, a deeply traditional state, has a way of preserving its suffering in its traditions. By creating a tradition, the bearers of grief trap their anger in a vessel. They protect their legacies from the erosion of years to come, while minimizing it: enclosing it within the confines of a scalable, marketable tradition. In this way, our traditions both warp and preserve their memory.
My parents lost most of their traditions when they moved to Kentucky, so I understand why anger spilled out of them.
While it is generally understood that the word Kentucky comes from an Indigenous language, the exact origin and meaning is unknown. There are many possibilities, the two most popular are the Iroquois word "ken-tah-ten," meaning “land of tomorrow,” and the Cherokee word "Ka-ten-ta-teh," meaning “dark and bloody ground.” That second possibility comes from a quote spoken by Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe, who described Kentucky as a Bloody Ground with a dark cloud hanging over the land.
Much of Kentucky believes Native Americans never lived in Kentucky before settler arrival. This, of course, is not true, but the myth swells in books and classrooms and the stories we tell ourselves. It’s easier to believe we stumbled onto an empty patch of land than to reckon with the measures we used to steal it.
Somewhere in the process of expunging the collective Kentucky memory, we ravaged the Native lives in the world around us. There are no recognized Indigenous tribes living in Kentucky today. The dark shadow of misinformation in our memories came to life. It created a void of a state once abundant with Indigenous peoples.
Most of my childhood, I felt everyone else covertly passed around some precious secret about being a child they refused to show me. Generally shy, raised by parents unaware of American culture, and one of the very few non-white students in my elementary school, I was mocked for the way I moved, the way I talked, and, principally, the way I looked.
I remember one girl in particular tormented me, frequently verbally, and occasionally physically. Once, she pushed me onto the floor of the elementary school playground and held my face down with her foot. She said something about how the ground and I shared a darkness. Afterwards, my cheek bore the imprint of the playground mulch.
I don't know if she remembers that day, but I think of it nearly every time I pass a ground filled with wood chips, which are put in playgrounds for shock absorption. I assume I am largely forgotten by the people with whom I grew up, who remained close to each other and to the places of our childhood long after I left Kentucky. Each time I return to an increasingly foreign state, I can feel pieces of my childhood that were once stored in other people's memories dissolve.
So I like the idea of absorbent playgrounds. It feels good to think that there might be part of that day permanently preserved in the body of a few pieces of Kentucky wood.
The Internet and most of coastal America have a generally unfavorable view of Kentucky because of our politics. They see swamps of the ill and uneducated adrift in pools of bigotry without seeing, shoreside, the masses of activists working to extricate centuries of political manipulation and voter suppression. Former US Attorney Preet Bharara once tweeted "I too am sick and tired of subsidizing Kentucky," as if callousness towards suffering isn't precisely the agenda of the right-wing politicians for whose elections he aims to punish us.
In response, most of my friends try to capture the allure and diversity found in Kentucky by posting silky pictures of all the beauty in our state. Sunsets behind rolling hills of lush grass. Streets filled with culture so vibrant one has to wonder if the world in the picture is a set filled with props.
I drove past the same hills, lived on the same streets, felt the same energy exuding from the same forests and rivers and caves, but it's hard for me to see Kentucky with the same enthusiasm.
My most vivid memories of Kentucky are the ones that have harmed me. Each of these jagged memories feel relived instead of than remembered. It terrifies me to think that Kentucky might one day exist in my mind solely through the moments that felt treacherous and unescapable: the time my middle school teacher called me a slur in front of the class, or each time my father’s bottom teeth stuck out before he struck me. A dark cloud hangs over my memory of Kentucky.
But there were so many comforts. Droves of adults held my cheeks and called me precious. I learned how to play the flute in the garage of an eccentric man who taught me about Greek mythology and classical music with an unmatched vibrancy. I lost myself in the miles and miles of wide stretches of Kentucky fauna during golf practices. I am not denying there is something marvelous and remarkably resilient emanating from the bluegrass. I have a hard time deciding whether I return to those painful moments because I am ungrateful towards my upbringing, or if the ability to remember a place fondly is a privilege more easily accessible to white Kentuckians.
The girl who hurt me in elementary school does important work at the last Planned Parenthood in our state. I hope, one day, that this will be the first thing I think of when I remember her.
In school, after the pledge, we often sang the Kentucky state song, My Old Kentucky Home. Like most songs we were forced to learn, I memorized the sounds of the words before I understood their meanings. But even after learning what it meant for old folks to be happy in the summertime, or meadows to be in bloom, or for birds to make music all the day, my juvenile mouth stumbled through, without questioning, the song's dark chorus:
"Weep no more, my lady
Oh, weep no more today
We'll sing one song
For my old Kentucky home
For my old Kentucky home, far away"
Foster, a white man, meant to write that song from the perspective of an enslaved Black man who had been taken away from his family in Kentucky. For him, it was a way of claiming empathy for enslaved individuals without having to publicly take a stance on the question of abolition. He achieved recognition under the safety of political agreeability, all while capitalizing on the trauma of Black Kentuckians.
It can be liberating to preserve one's own suffering, in hopes that it might be worth something in perpetuity. But because it was never Foster's suffering to preserve, it becomes entrapment. There are bodies trapped in Foster's music. Bodies that never forget. Bodies that are forced to relive trauma each time we sing his song, even after we've ignored its meaning.
I've noticed synchronicities in the way my parents describe living in Kentucky and the way Kentuckians describe living in America. Both embody an otherness. In the documentary Hillbilly, which examines the lives and history of Appalachian Kentucky, one man states that each time he leaves his home, people hear his accent and speak slower, assuming less of his intelligence. He says he feels as if he were from another country.
In another country, lives the daughter my mother lost in her move to Kentucky. I grew up with an older sister. When I was sixteen, my mother told me my older sister is actually a twin. My father's family pressured my mother into offering one of the girls to my father's older brother and his wife, who hadn't been able to conceive at the time. Reluctantly, my mother agreed, knowing that a culture of interfamilial dependency common in rural India would preclude my mother from experiencing any sort of real separation from her daughter. However, when my father got a job in America, our immediate family had to move. When my mother begged my father's family for the return of her daughter, they refused.
The day my mother told me was one of the rare instances I've seen my mother cry. How could I leave my own daughter? she repeated. I could imagine using the words of the Kentucky state song to comfort my mother: Weep no more, my lady.
In my mind, the daughter my mother cried over diverged into two beings. There is the real daughter, Thendral, the one with whom I joked and slept and played in India. The other one was more of a girl-shaped black hole that lived in my home. I never saw her, but her presence shifted our gravity. She was the third name, after mine and my sister’s, under my mother's breath as she prayed, a third skirt my mother would pick up at the store and consider buying, before returning to the rack: Oh, weep no more today.
Earlier this year, this daughter got married. She came to live with us for a few months after her wedding, and for a few weeks, while we were both living in Kentucky, I saw the state with a dazzling newness.
Everything was exciting for her. She took two hundred pictures during the first snowfall. She made friends with women from every store she walked into. We hung Christmas lights outside for the first time in our lives. We went kayaking in December, and walked through forests I hadn't seen in years. Briefly, I saw Kentucky the same way many of my friends did — honeyed and glistening: We will sing one song.
I know that our bodies carry the legacy of trauma long after our minds have forgotten. It finds its way into our hips and throats and muscles for generations after the initial trauma has occurred. Each time I look at my friends whose families have existed in Kentucky for centuries, and whose relationship to the state feels easy, I remind myself that Kentucky's history has literally woven itself into their cells.
I want to believe land acts in the same way. I want to believe that our history is absorbed into the soil of the land long after our collective consciousness has forgotten. I hope that each time my skin made contact with the Earth, barefoot in the garden or back pressed into the dirt, parts of this history was absorbed into my skin. Mostly, I want to believe that there is a part of Kentucky that lives inside of me, even as my memory of it becomes fickle: For my old kentucky home.
Thendral was fascinated by acorns, which aren’t common in her region of India. Each time we went outside, we kept our heads down, trying to find acorns that had not yet been broken apart. I’ll admit I’ve never looked at Kentucky dirt with such care and precision. After so much time mulling over Kentucky in the past, it was joyful to see each square inch of land as a promise. When we returned home, we lined our favorites along my windowsill. It was a collection of oddities — disproportionate tops and crooked stems. The acorns remained after she left, and I told her I would add more each time I returned to Kentucky. The collection mutates, and will continue to do so, for ages to come: For my old Kentucky home, far away.