Meet 5 People Who Complicate The Narrative About What It Means To Be Appalachian

Oct 11, 2019

Think back to the last time you saw an Appalachian portrayed on TV, in the national media, in a book or a cartoon. Often, when people talk about Appalachians, they portray us as white, or poor, or ignorant -- or all three. But when you dig beneath the surface, and challenge the stereotypes that are often used to misrepresent people who live in our region, the story becomes much more honest, and interesting.

On this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear from two African American women who are challenging stereotypes about Appalachia through their writing.


We talk with poet Nikki Giovanni about how she feels about the state of race relations in America today, and why she fiercely defends Appalachians, especially, our love of freedom. “The White Americans in Appalachia here in West Virginia and these mountains, have been a friend of freedom. And I think it’s time we celebrate it.”  

And writer Crystal Wilkinson, one of the founding members of a group known as the Affrilachian poets, shares her experience of being black in Appalachia and how it’s influenced her passion to write. “It’s meant to be a story that makes people’s spine straight, and makes them proud of who they are.”

And we talk with West Virginian Clara Haizlett who set out to make a podcast that connects the people of Appalachia and those of the Arabic World. “I just would like to encourage greater curiosity and empathy towards people that we might not normally empathize with.”

This episode explores how a novelist, a poet, a podcaster, a musician and boxer are all challenging stereotypes about Appalachia, and the way we interpret our own identity. 

In This Episode:

If you’re interested in learning more about some of the similarities between Appalachia and the Arabic world, check out this story about why geologists believe the Appalachian mountains are related to a sister mountain range in Morocco, and how the cultures of our mountain people have some surprising similarities.

Poet Nikki Giovanni

Poet Nikki Giovanni has been challenging Appalachian stereotypes for decades. 

In the 1960s and 70s, she helped lead the “black arts movement,”  who were a group of writers focused on encouraging a social and racial justice revolution through language and poetry. At the time, she was living in New York City. She later began writing children’s books and poems about her memories back in Knoxville, where she was born.

After living in New York, Giovanni returned to Appalachia in 1987 to live in Blacksburg and work at Virginia Tech.

Writer Crystal Wilkinson

Author Crystal Wilkinson
Credit Courtesy Crystal Wilkinson

Author Crystal Wilkinson was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1962, but she grew up in Kentucky with her grandparents. Her grandfather was a farmer who grew tobacco, corn and sorghum, and her grandmother worked in the homes of local schoolteachers in Casey County.

Wilkinson studied journalism at Eastern Kentucky University, and then she received her MFA degree in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville. In 2000, Wilkinson wrote her first book, “Blackberries, Blackberries.” In 2002, she published Water Street and in 2016 she published “The Birds of Opulence.”

Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky in the MFA in Creative Writing program. Wilkinson is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. 

Boxer Christy Salters

Trailblazing international boxer and gay rights advocate Christy Salters grew up in Wyoming County, in the heart of West Virginia’s coalfields. In addition to her career as a renowned boxer, she’s also become an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, which is something Salters experienced personally. Salters sat down with reporter Emily Allen to share her story.

Christy Salters, who hails from Itmann, W.Va. in Wyoming County, speaks at the 10th anniversary gala for Fairness WV on Sept. 28 in Charleston.
Credit Courtesy of David Whittaker

Tribute To Musician Daniel Johnston

Also in this episode, we hear about a musician who in some ways tried his whole life to be understood. West Virginia-raised musician and artist Daniel Johnston played a style of music that was entirely his own. He died last month, at the age of 58. Known best for his ernest and harrowing lo-fi pop songs, Johnston remained an underground hero for most of his life. His influence, though, continues to stretch across musical and artistic genres -- and around the world. Dave Mistich brings us a tribute.  

Liz McCormick guest hosts this episode. Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

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Music in this show was provided by Matt Jackfert, Spencer Elliot, and Dinosaur Burps.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.