Ohio Writers From Opposite Political Perspectives Share Similar Stories of Struggle

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by David C. Barnett

For the past year and a half, there’s been a lot of talk about a divided America, about Red versus Blue, about our differences.  But, a couple of Ohio writers have stories to share about people on both sides of the divide who may have more in common that either side might think.  

Northeast Ohio native Ali McClain was raised as a Democrat, but doesn’t have much use for politics.  She describes herself as “documentary poet”, who focuses on struggling African Americans.  One of her latest pieces was born during her daily commute along Kinsman Road, on the east side of Cleveland.

"One night, when I was traveling home from work, there were cops and police tape," she recalls.  "When I got home, I turned on the news and I saw where a baby was pierced by a bullet.  I just couldn’t stop thinking about the bullet and the baby.  And I couldn’t keep my eyes off of people walking up and down Kinsman and thinking about how prone they are to violence."  

She wrote a poem about it, called Kinsman.

the day after the baby is killed
by a gunshot wound to the chest

you still have to ride behind
death’s blood red breath.

you still have to picture
the baby in the car trying

to grab the bullet as if it were 
a glossy sweet thing.

you do not want to imagine
the pitch of the baby’s wail.

you do not want to see the women
walking with bright white Save-A-Lot 

bags wrapped around their wrists. 
you do not want to see the man 

at the RTA bus stop swatting at a bee.
you do not want to see 

anyone trying to hurt anything.
you do not want to face 

the red lights, the teddy bear memorials,
the trash, the raggedy strollers, the slow

slow walk of the low-down folks.
you do not want to ride by 

the hand painted Casino Trip! sign
stapled high on a pole like a goal.

you do not want to hear the radio
scroll through tragedy and woe.
you hear the beginning of the word 
Oregon and you know the next 

stories will be about more shootings.
you think about the baby killed by the bullet.
– from Kinsman by Ali McClain

McClain’s Kinsman poem is part of a new book that explores racial issues in Northeast Ohio, called A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City.

She adds: "Have we talked about the Kinsman shooting, since the tragedy occurred?  No."

In his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, conservative writer J.D Vance documents the daily lives of another little-heard population --- the white poor and working-class people in Southwest Ohio, who migrated from the coalmines of the South to find factory work up North.  

"There’s a really excellent Dwight Yoakum song, called Readin', Writin’ and Rte 23," Vance says.  "Route 23 was a road that still runs from Eastern Kentucky all the way to Columbus, Ohio."

They learned readin', writin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They learned readin', writin', roads to the north
To the luxury and comfort a coal miner can't afford
They thought readin', writin', Route 23
Would take them to the good life that they had never seen
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery
---Excerpt from Readin', Writin', Rte. 23 by Dwight Yoakum

"It almost could have been written by my Grandma," he says,  "just the stories of how you had this incredible optimism that moving to these Northern factories would produce all of these great outcomes.  But, at the end of the day, it wasn’t necessarily that easy."

Many of those factory jobs were lost to overseas competition or automated production lines.  Couple that with a rise in prescription pain pill abuse and heroin addiction, devastating many families.  Vance says it’s given rise to what he calls a “cultural anxiety”.

"A sense that the elites don’t care about you," he explains.  "A sense that things in your community --- whether it’s the heroin epidemic or whether it’s family breakdown --- aren’t necessarily working."  

Back in Cleveland, poet Ali McClain mentors young women who have their own family issues.  They’re part of an after-school arts program called “Sisterhood” at the West Side Community House, a social service agency.

"I’m working here with young girls who live in single parent households, who almost have nothing," she says. "It’s not that I don’t feel hopeful.  But, I just feel so concerned about what am I going to do?  How can I impact these girls that I’m working with every day?  How can I empower them?"  

Last week, the Presidential election revealed what seemed to be a deeply divided country.  But, J.D. Vance and Ali McClain have stories to tell about people in two opposite corners of Ohio --- both geographically and politically --- who have similar concerns about surviving day-to-day.  And the mutual frustration that grows when you feel no one is listening. 

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