Being a Black person from Appalachia can be summed up in that old Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.
During my childhood, I enjoyed The Waltons, a popular 1970s TV show about a hardscrabble white family in the Virginia mountains, as much as I enjoyed Good Times, the story of an irrepressible Black family in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing community.
My Black friends from Atlanta and other cities look askance when I mention I had simultaneous crushes on the sensitive aspiring writer John-Boy (the eldest Walton son) and Michael Evans, the smart, politically conscious youngest child on Good Times.
I’m used to this reaction. I’ve always been teased because I was born and raised in the foothills of Georgia’s Appalachian mountains—a place not known for having Black communities or Deep South “chocolate cities.”
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But Appalachia is a crossroads—where African, European, and indigenous people collided and co-existed. As a friend recently remarked, “We were ‘intersectional’ before the word existed. In the best of times, the regional camaraderie flows in an easy familiar manner ’cause everybody knows ‘your momma and them.’” In the worst of times, I’ve despaired of finding better ways to co-exist on this land. As I’m crafting these emotions into sentences—and this native daughter returned to Georgia after many years away—I am still sorting out how I feel about this place called home.
I was born in Toccoa, in Stephens County, Georgia. Even these place names express the dissonance I feel about my geographic roots.
“Toccoa” is a word of Cherokee origin; almost every local Chamber of Commerce brochure claims that translated into English it means “the beautiful,” though it was probably derived from “tagwahi,” meaning “Catawba place.” My high school mascot is still the Indians, boldly and inaccurately adorned in Plains Indian headgear. There was hardly any mention in our history classes of the “Trail of Tears” that removed indigenous people from this area of northeast Georgia, nothing about the reasons why, and no thoughtful contemporary attempt to connect with the culture we claim to honor on the athletic field.
The county is named after Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. He is commemorated with a bronze plaque on the grounds of the county courthouse. This official marker does not refer to his infamous Cornerstone Address, delivered in Savannah in March 1861. There, he stated the logic behind the Confederacy’s creation: “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Clearly, there was no place in Stephens’ vision for me, but the Confederacy did not prevail. I am a Black female who was a first-generation college student. My parents (pictured, visiting Cherokee, North Carolina) spent their teens being “the help” and then labored in the textile mill as adults. I am the grandchild of sharecroppers and the great-grand of enslaved people. As an heir of the civil rights movement, I claimed the freedom to become an artist, curator, and educator. I also embraced the role of cultural pollinator and mentor to many. I’ve earned two degrees, and much of my work connects colleges to grassroots communities. I am a Black Southerner, and my experience, though it defies the white hillbilly stereotype, is assuredly Appalachian.
The inhabitants of Appalachia are as diverse as its terrain—which ranges from soaring peaks to gentle hillsides, and from rural agricultural communities to bustling metropolitan municipalities. Yet when we talk about the region, Appalachia is narrowly defined and caricatured. Very little attention has been paid to the Black individuals and communities for whom this place has been home for generations.
Responding to the persistent erasure of our presence, I often say: “Small numbers, tremendous impact.” The historic impact of grassroots Black folks upon these ancient mountains can be found in a range of examples: from inmates who constructed the railroads of Western North Carolina to the Highlander Center in East Tennessee, where multiracial civil rights allies strategized nonviolent tactics to dismantle legalized segregation and discrimination. Yet, for me, the most poignant and ironic example of the intersection of cultures in the region is the banjo itself, which is both quintessentially Appalachian and has African roots. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, lived in West Virginia. Henry Louis Gates, the renowned scholar of Black literature and culture, grew up in the mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, and boosted the popularity of genealogy in this country. Appalachia gave us recording artists Nina Simone, Bill Withers, and Roberta Flack, as well as writers August Wilson and Nikki Giovanni, to name a few.
Musical giants even made their mark in my tiny hometown. James Brown came to Toccoa. Fleeing a tumultuous childhood and a perilous future, he healed his spirit and birthed his musical prowess in the shadow of Currahee Mountain. The blues vocalist and vaudeville performer Ida Cox was born here, and her enslaved parents probably worked on the Riverside Plantation before she fled as a teenager to sing about daily struggles and sexual liberation in the 1930s. Going on to fame as a prolific composer and bandleader, her song “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” is largely recognized as an early feminist anthem.
When viewed as individuals, these creative folk appear to be Black “unicorns”—rare artifacts without context. Their Appalachian associations are rarely discussed, and ignoring their mountain connections allowed them to comfortably fit into a national commercial context. But I know their contributions to be great gifts from the region and to the nation. And I proudly claim them as Affrilachians.
Black in Appalachia = Affrilachian. This clever term is short enough for a tweet and long enough for a bumper sticker, and it was coined in the 1990s by Kentucky-based writer Frank X Walker. In 2011, I created the Affrilachian Artist Project, inspired by the Affrilachian poets who had been working together since college and the modern resurgence of old-time music by string bands like the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Following in the footsteps of these creative trailblazers, I presented a regional digital showcase featuring the work of living artists for a two-day interdisciplinary Affrilachia symposium at the University of Kentucky in 2011. My motivation was simply to create a directory of Black visual artists in the region.
But the dream grew. I co-curated the inaugural museum exhibition of the Affrilachian Artist Project at the August Wilson Cultural Center in Pittsburgh, the region’s unofficial urban capital. My goal was to create a sustainable collaborative network among the region’s artists and community organizers. Today, the Affrilachian Artist Project Facebook page includes 2,000 individuals and organizations that celebrate and explore the intersection of cultures in Appalachia.
Affrilachia cannot be located on a map. Yet it is manifest, in writers’ words, the sounds of musicians, visual art, and the creative network we continue to build. I seek out the makers and the truth tellers. I vow to honor the messy, bittersweet contrast of my home region’s historic challenges and the courageous accomplishments of artists, activists, and residents who want a better future.
In an 1848 letter to Frederick Douglass, journalist and abolitionist Martin Delany said it best.
It is only in the mountains that I can fully appreciate my existence as a [person] in America, and in my own native land. It is then and there my soul is lifted up, my bosom cause to swell with emotion, and I am lost in wonder at the dignity of my own nature.
This is why I pledge allegiance to Affrilachia.