Meeting with a group of students before her performance of Bone Hill: The Concert in Spaulding on Friday, Martha Redbone began the conversation with something close to my heart: coal mining.
“When you think of coal mining in Virginia and the North East, you probably think of white people, in particular the Irish,” she said. Yes, I thought. She’s right. Except, when I think of coal mining, I think of my hometown in the valleys of South Wales, a place that thrived on and was ruined by coal mining. Still, white people. “You might forget about the people of color–the Native and African Americans whose generations of history have been erased there.”
Martha Redbone describes her music and storytelling as a redefining of the phenotypes that make people look at her and describe her as one thing, only Black or Native American, not what she is: a mixture of African American, Native American and white. In Bone Hill: The Concert, she looks back to her great-grandmother, through the generations from different races and places that came together to give her the identity she holds today. One student asks her if she sees this as a form of reconciliation of identities, but no, she says, it’s just a way of honoring her family. Honoring the untold, the hidden and the denied. The greatest American story never told.
This message hits hard with a lot of students at Dartmouth, as one student points out when she asks Martha the crucial question: does she sometimes feel like she is sacrificing one part of her culture? If you come from somewhere different from Dartmouth, you can feel like the spokesperson for your culture, race or nationality. If you’re a mix, you can feel like you need to choose, or need to bend yourself to fit one identity. Martha Redbone talks of the censuses sent around Harlan County, Kentucky, every decade, telling her family what race they were, judging by hair or skin color without trusting their own knowledge of themselves. She uses humor to portray something that she describes as so absurd, such a ridiculousness of pain that only comedy can describe it.
People will always want to tell you who you are. If you’re a person of color, mixed-race, queer or mixed-nationality, a homogenous culture can be tiring; just existing in a space can be tiring. Being different is more than just being far from home, especially when the details of your existence, details that you feel in every drop of blood and crease of your skin, are constantly forgotten and misunderstood. That’s why we sing. That’s why we sit and listen to Martha Redbone’s story. That’s why we laugh, and cry, and nod and sigh at the erased history she shares with us. That’s why sometimes we go home, or wish to go home, and why we tell our stories, however we can, hoping someone will listen.
“Our home never leaves us – our story lives on, when we travel to different places, in our souls and in our songs.”