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7 Stories Of Growing Up Black In Appalachia

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Brian Blauser / Mountain Stage
Rhiannon Giddens on Mountain Stage.

Protests against police killing unarmed black Americans continue across the country, including here in Appalachia. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks protesting the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others. These protesters seek an end to police brutality and many point to our nation’s long history with systemic racism. 

In this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll listen to stories about the protests and hear the voices of Appalachians who have dealt with discrimination based on the color of their skin. 

Young Voices

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Credit Crystal Good
Aiden Satterfield looks out over the New River Gorge. He has a vision for the future.

Seventeen-year-old Aiden Satterfield, of Charleston, W.Va., said he believes if we introduce each other to the diversity of experiences here, maybe we can start to break down walls. He sent us a recording of his thoughts on racism and what it’s like to grow up as a young black man in Appalachia.

We’d love to hear from more young people across Appalachia, particularly young people of color, who are under 30. What is your vision for a better future? A more fair Appalachia? An Appalachia that would help keep you here, and help you thrive? Record your message using a voice memo app on your phone, and email it to insideappalachia@wvpublic.org.

Inaccurate Portrayals

Portrayals of Appalachia don’t always depict the real picture of life here. Although Appalachia is not as diverse as the nation as a whole, nearly 10 percent of people here are black. There are many people like Frank X. Walker working to change the narrative. 

Walker is a poet who lives in Kentucky. In 1991 he coined the term “Affrilachia.” He and a group of 36 poets, writers and artists across our region call themselves “The Affrilachian Poets.”

In 2016, Walker gave the keynote speech at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference at Shepherd University. Walker says that during the recent protests and the pandemic, he and other Affrilachian writers have been writing about what’s happening in real time. Walker has been posting a poem a day on his Facebook page since April 1. 

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Credit Emily Allen / WVPB
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WVPB
Protestors gathered in Bluefield, Mercer County on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Protests

Race riots here during the 1960s may not have been as extreme as they were elsewhere in the country, but over the years black and white people from our region have joined forces to demand better conditions. 

Recently, a protest in Charleston, W.Va., calling for an end to police brutality against black people was postponed due safety concerns. According to organizers, threats were made against the event, which was expected to attract thousands. On Sunday, June 7, a small crowd still gathered on the West Virginia State Capitol grounds for a peaceful protest.

Another event on Charleston’s West Side went ahead as planned on June 7. About 100 people gathered in front of Dem 2 Brothers barbeque restaurant. That protest was part of an ongoing demonstration that’s taken place several times in the past few weeks. 

The mood at the protest was celebratory. Music played and some families with small children participated. A continuous stream of people in cars honked as they drove by to show their support of racial equality. 

Protestors gathered in Bluefield,, W.Va., on June 6. They said they marched to remember recent black deaths, but also for Robert Ellison, a local black man who was paralyzed after an encounter with police in the late 1990s.

wvpublicnews · 7 Stories Of Growing Up Black In Appalachia

Leaving Appalachia

Back in the early 1900s, the Appalachian coalfields were multicultural hubs filled with immigrants from places like Italy and Greece. Many African Americans also came to work in the mines and later, the steel mills.

The decline in the coal industry led many African Americans to leave Appalachia in search of work. They went to cities like Detroit and Chicago. It wasn’t just African Americans who left, but layoffs often hit their communities the hardest.

Derek Akal is one of the young people we followed as part of The Struggle to Stay series. Born and raised in Harlan County, Ky., he wrestled with the decision to stay in Appalachia or leave in pursuit of work or school. 

Reporter Benny Becker followed Akal and his family for about a year in 2017 and recorded their story. Akal currently lives in Lexington, Ky.,. He was working for Cumberland Mine Service, but was laid off during the pandemic. He is hoping to start work in the manufacturing industry soon. 

His cousin, Karida Brown, published a book based on oral histories from eastern Kentucky called, “Gone Home: Race & Roots Through Appalachia.”

Growing Up Black In Appalachia

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, minorities make up almost 20 percent of the population throughout Appalachia and African Americans make up about half of that. Back in February, our associate producer Eric Douglas attended a talk by storyteller Bill Hairston called, “Growing Up Black in Appalachia.” 

Inspiration To Write

Author Crystal Wilkinson.
Credit Courtesy Crystal Wilkinson
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Courtesy Crystal Wilkinson
Author Crystal Wilkinson.

Crystal Wilkinson is an Affrilachian Poet originally from Casey County, Ky. In 2016 WMMT, a radio station out of Whitesburg, Ky., recorded a conversation with Wilkinson about what inspired her to write.

Wilkinson works at the University of Kentucky as an associate professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program. She has a new book called “Perfect Black” scheduled to be out soon from University of Kentucky Press.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to Inside Appalachia@wvpublic.org. 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Ethel Caffie Austin and Rhiannon Giddens as heard on Mountain Stage.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Glynis Board. She also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org