Someone sent me a message on Twitter yesterday and asked if this was who I was. If I had always been, since I was a little girl, trying to amplify the voices of Black people in West Virginia. And I had to think about it. And I thought, my goodness, I really have been curious and trying to understand, because, you know, when you’re a child, and you look around, you question things differently. You wonder what’s missing, right? And so I think from a very early age, I understood the sort of, you know, the flying WV’s, the West Virginia ‘rah rah’ that so many people have. Where was that for Black people? And that’s when I started to discover history. The more I discovered history, the more I understood that Black people in West Virginia had had a powerful presence. But that history is not always front and center in our textbooks. It’s not front and center in the way that the media frames West Virginia. And, you know, when I say West Virginia, I mean the greater Appalachia, too, right? And so, as far as my work, you know, my work is to be me. And to keep exploring who I am in the context of how to help other people and help myself.
And I don’t want to carry this sort of narrative of, ‘I speak for the voiceless people,’ which so many people say when they talk about Appalachia. I think that’s sort of like ridiculous, in a sense. Just pass the mic. Let the people who don’t have a voice you think don’t speak if you have the microphone. But, you know, I think that where we are today is in a narrative that centers on white Appalachia. We can see it most commonly in the opioid crisis, right? And so one of the things that I’m doing with Black By God is that you know when people think of the opioid crisis in Appalachia, and in West Virginia, it impacts white people, it impacts poor white people. And that’s always the story. And very rarely, anywhere, is the story being told of how the opioid crisis has impacted Black West Virginians and Black families. That’s all the way from the prison system to addiction to the children. And so, you know, not to tell the sad story, but it’s just the truth: anything that’s happening to poor white people in Appalachia is two times worse for Black folks. And that’s from infant mortality rate to drug addiction; you name it.
Yesterday, I was in the water in front of Joe Manchin’s houseboat, reminding him to build back better. And one of the things is that with this infrastructure bill, and with anything—if you help the least, you help the most, right? When I think of West Virginia and how people think of poor, poor white poverty, I recognize that, inside that, not everybody is white, and that that ‘poverty’ impacts those people greater. So what we have to do is be visible because we’re invisible in this narrative. I mean, how many years have we had of people telling the opioid story, and not once have you heard the stories that I live with: of grandmothers and mothers who got addicted to pain pills, and that are gone now. Because, you know, nobody’s asking the question. Because really, as a poet and storyteller, and in creating Black By God, I just want to elevate the stories for visibility. And then let the people speak for themselves.