Black in Appalachia’s Redefining of a Region
What does it mean to be Appalachian? Storytelling is the backbone of history, and the Black in Appalachia Podcast uses stories from the past and present to form a new narrative of a region that for so long left Black residents out. Lily Ekimian hears from co-hosts Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin and Angela Dennis about their podcast and their upcoming live show in Pittsburgh.
History and perspective are inextricably linked, and misrecorded histories are often a result of narrow-minded perspectives. During the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration recently formed by the New Deal, created an initiative that attempted to record the narratives of former enslaved people around the country: The Slave Narrative Collection. This undertaking would allow the life stories of living former slaves to be told—and to allow them to tell it. The project was not without its faults, however; while the project sought to record the narratives verbatim, there was not a concerted effort to have these interviews conducted by Black writers. The resulting collection catered more to the white interviewers than the Black subjects and were presumably filtered by the kinds of stories the subjects thought the interviewers would want to hear. Furthermore, the ways in which the white writers chose to record and edit stories often injured the (assumed) ultimate goal of recording unbiased accounts of the enslaved experience in America by, for instance, editing out dialects and regional speech patterns to make for a more uniformed read. Considering the dramatic importance of oral histories in our ability to reconstruct and understand our past, the shortcomings of the FWP’s flawed, albeit valuable, Slave Narrative Collection are in many ways heartbreaking. Improvements in documentation methods and technologies, as well as a more holistic and understanding approach to who documents what have led us to a place where we can avoid those shortcomings as we continue to revisit our pasts, both collective and regional.
One such endeavor is the Black in Appalachia Podcast, which is coming to Pittsburgh this week for a live event at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The podcast, currently in its second season, explores the lives and histories of Black Appalachians. It has covered topics from sundown towns to gun culture, and contains conversations with notable Appalachians such as the renowned poet Nikki Giovanni and singer Walter DeBarr. I got in touch with co-hosts Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin and Angela Dennis about their podcast, their upcoming live show, and how they decide on subjects. “Our research has provided us with a lot of historical background,” they wrote back, “so we try to bridge the historical with the contemporary by making connections with current events. We’ve built many relationships with folks in the region, so we often reach out to these contacts for recommendations. We encourage our listeners to send us suggestions and ideas because we strive to have information that is not only timely but relevant to our audience.”
Emphasis on oral history—on told stories about lived experiences—is a powerful way to understand a region and the people that for so long have been left out of its narrative. “For many years, Black Appalachian narratives have been excluded from the mainstream and were not prioritized in traditional sources of documentation,” they wrote. “As a result, information on Black life in the region is less likely found in historical archives. So we rely on our oral histories to better understand the lived experiences of Black people in Appalachia.” Black in Appalachia, with its podcast and through its numerous other outlets, collects and utilizes oral histories to reestablish the region’s history and what it means to be Appalachian. Too often is Appalachia thought of as a poor, rural, homogeneously white region. “Black people have been here since its inception. As long as white folks have been here, black folks have been here.”
In the show’s most recent episode, Dr. El-Amin speaks with Crystal Wilkinson, author and Poet Laureate of Kentucky, about her life in Appalachia and her new book, Perfect Black, a memoir in poetry. Wilkinson discusses growing up in Indian Creek, Kentucky, on her grandparents’ farm, as well as her relationship to the land and appreciation for nature’s capacity to heal, especially for Black women. In discussing Wilkinson’s novels, Dr. El-Amin emphasizes the importance of fiction, how it can fill in the gaps of history and use the power of imagination to recreate the legacies that have been lost. Wilkinson reads a striking poem from her collection, “Dig If You Will The Picture,” which was written following Prince’s death and, as she goes on to explain, was originally intended to be light and funny, but the more she wrote, the more she was able to unpack why the singer meant so much to her and, in doing so, learned about herself. Her poem is a profound and deeply personal work of art that shares an exploration of herself through the impact that Prince’s music had on her at critical moments in her life. This conversation is a perfect example of the importance of individual experiences and how those narratives, gathered through the podcast’s episodes, make up a collective history of a place.
The podcast, however, is just one component of what Black in Appalachia, as an organization, does. There is also the Black Community History Project, which is a vast online searchable archive, open to the public, that provides access to photos, enrollment cards, newspaper clippings, flyers, wedding programs—all kinds of materials relating to African American history in Eastern Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. This sort of historical preservation also takes the form of community outreach, wherein Black in Appalachia visits communities to digitize historical materials, conduct oral histories, and share their documentary work. Their engaging and well-researched films utilize those same methods of storytelling and found historical documents to share African American histories from the Appalachian region. William Isom II, the organization’s director, is also a documentarian and his short film, “The Corbin Expulsion of 1919” (2020), will be playing at Pittsburgh’s Independent Film Festival later this week. The documentary combines an interview with illustrations to tell the story of how a white mob in Corbin, Kentucky, forced its Black population out of the town over 100 years ago, creating a hostile sundown town.
The Black in Appalachia Road Show, the live podcast event which travels from Eastern Tennessee to West Virginia, ends here in Pittsburgh. Co-hosts Dennis and Dr. El-Amin will speak to local guests about the past, present, and future of the Black experience in the city. “Pittsburgh is a part of Appalachia, and it offers an urban Appalachian experience that is seldom highlighted,” they wrote. “Black people have contributed significantly to the development of Pittsburgh and its history, as well as for the rest of the region. We seek to promote this as a way of reconciling the whitewashing of the history of Appalachia.” Collecting narratives—listening to the stories of people’s experiences—is perhaps the most authentic way to truly understand a location. For Appalachia, the location has long been misrepresented and the stories of its Black residents ignored. Whether you can make it to the live show, or will just tune into the podcast, Black in Appalachia forms a clear-eyed picture of a region that is very much needed. ▲
Black in Appalachia Road Show Live Podcast at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center: August 5th, 2021
Screening of “The Corbin Expulsion of 1919” at the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival (at Parkway Theater & Film Lounge): August 7th, 2021
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms or at their website www.dogdoorfilms.com!