I’ll start by saying that I am a millennial, and I’ve always heard stories passed down that shed light on my own family’s Appalachian roots and contributions to Appalachian society, even Appalachian catchphrases from some of my older relatives, like ‘over and down yonder.’ But interestingly enough, you know, I always grew up thinking, you know, I live here, but I don’t consider myself an Appalachian because of those images—growing up—of Appalachia. I felt while growing up that I was here and that my family was rooted in the state, but that at the same time, we were on the periphery. Interestingly enough, I think that the only reference to Black Appalachians that I could remember, growing up in popular culture was through the lyrics of ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ which talks about a slave story and use the term ‘darkies’ to refer to black people up until 1986.
So even when I was alive, we were still singing ‘darkies,’ you know, ‘the darkies are gay,’ in our official state song. But I’m so glad that BLAC is here to invite these stories and to recognize the culture and contributions— it’s made me think of stories, such as that of my great great grandmother, who went by the name of Mammy Kelly. And you know, I remember hearing stories about her. She was a midwife who traveled by horseback. She was located in rural Tennessee and part of the Appalachian region. She delivered both white and Black babies who didn’t have the luxury of doctor-assisted birth. So, you know that that also touches on the fact that we live in close proximity and share the same struggles. And it just happened for her, she was one of the most well-regarded midwives in the region, and white families needed her services out of necessity. But she was vital to Black families, who could only have access to the services of a Black midwife. Yeah, if you were to do a Google search of midwives on horseback, you would not see one single image of a Black midwife during that time.
When we go back to infrastructure, there are lessons to be carried from her experiences. So many Black midwives’ experiences address the inequities that exist today and Black maternal health and health access in general. And that’s just one aspect of the contributions of Black Kentuckians and Black Appalachians to Appalachian culture.
The contributions touch every facet of the culture down from, you know, providing these critical services to, you know, the musical contributions. When you see Appalachian musicians, you would never guess that Black Appalachians influenced the downstroke of banjo picking. I’m very, very glad to, you know, start having these conversations and dig deeper, as they like to say.