I think that I was probably an adult before I realized that the place I lived in was Appalachia and that also I could embrace that aspect for myself. Much of my family came into Kentucky via Tennessee. And at the time, the area that they came into was heavily entrenched in coal mining. And again, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that a great-great-grandfather was a coal miner. And I point those things out because we have this idea based on popular culture and media that the Appalachians are all white. They’re all rednecks. They’re unsavory characters; they are biased, they’re prejudiced, they’re uneducated, they’re misinformed. And I feel like to a certain degree, coming up as a child in an Appalachian community whose family had deep roots in Appalachia, these are things that we did not associate with. And therefore, we did not embrace that aspect of our identity in that you can go to Pulaski County, Kentucky today, and you could ask my grandmother if she’s an Appalachian, and she would tell you no. She would tell you no based on all of those reasons that we have discussed and/or we see every day and that she does not want to be identified or remembered as an uneducated or misinformed person.
I think that is what has driven me to do a lot of the things that I have done in that we can be Black; you can be a person of color, you can be anything outside of the norm or the mainstream, and also be Appalachian.
I worked for a nonprofit organization that served a significant portion of the Appalachian region. And it’s a joke, but it’s also true in that many days when I would go to those communities to do the work that I was tasked with doing, I was the only person that looked like me there. And one time, I had an individual ask me if I lived in that particular community. And sometimes, as I do, I let my mouth respond before my brain catches up with what my mouth really should say. And I looked at this person with the utmost sincerity and respect and said, ‘Don’t you think it would be on the front page news if a Black family lived in this community?’ Now, it didn’t land necessarily the way that I thought it was going to land, in that maybe they were just trying to publicly save face about me pointing out a very obvious thing, in that this particular community, the last known Black family that lived there, the local story is that he was literally run out of town. So again, they were well aware that people that looked like me did not live in that community. And I was a little younger and maybe a little blunter than I am now. And I felt that that was important to point out that there are people who look like us that exist in the spaces. If we don’t exist in these spaces, there’s a reason why we don’t exist in these spaces.
So we go back to when we look at Appalachian communities; we do not see ourselves represented in that. There are countless stories of contributions from Black Kentuckians and Black Appalachians in Kentucky. And the notion is that the victor always gets to tell the story, right. And we know many times in many communities where Black individuals have not been the victor. And they have not had control of the narrative or the telling of their story. I learned many things in the instruction of an introductory course I taught in Appalachian Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, in which I learned things about my history. And then I learned things about my own family due to that. And I think that it’s a sad aspect of human nature, in that many individuals that look like Bishop Dinkins and Akisha and myself have been told you have to minimize these aspects of yourself to be able to fit in. I didn’t realize how much of a rural Kentuckian I was until I went to a space in my first two years of college, and I was around other Black people that I was not related to. And many times I heard, ‘Oh, you’re just talking white,’ or ‘You’re acting white,’ because I liked country music. Some of those local sayings, ‘down yonder,’ and things of that nature, were always associated with whiteness; therefore, if I am doing those things, or I am saying those things, I am trying to embrace aspects that are not mine.
Now, at 17, I completely shied away from all of that and was like, ‘No, I’m not trying to act white, I’m not trying to sound white. I’m just from the country. This is what we do. This is how we do things.’ And I didn’t understand that those things can exist in the same space, in that I could be who I was, and I could talk how I did. And I wasn’t shunning any aspect of myself. And that Black people helped build and shape the society and culture of Appalachia. And those are not the stories that we tell because there are a lot of stigmas associated with that.
In my adulthood, I cannot be a part of all of the conversations that exist around Blackness and Appalachia. But I tried my level best to be in all of them. And I tried to initiate those conversations as well. When I was offered the opportunity to teach Appalachian Studies, I thought for a moment; I can’t do that. In that, I understood that most of my students would be white. And then some of them would not necessarily appreciate a Black woman telling them about things they have always been associated with or things that people assume are theirs and not mine. So that took some personal reflection on my part in that this is my home, this is my history. This is my region. This is the impetus for why I do what I do. And yes, on the outside, we are very different. However, if you had to make a list of things that all Appalachians appreciate and value, you would see that being Black does not exclude you from having some of those same values and/or ethical or moral standings. Not to minimize that, we need to pay attention to the differences. But we also need to understand and embrace what we have in common. And that grace is a significant element to our life, no matter where you’re at geographically.
However, you can take those things and build upon them. And they can be strengths, and they do not have to be weaknesses. And everything that I do and strive to do is to illustrate to people that I can be Black, and I can be an Appalachian and like this, and that these two things can exist in the same space. And I’m 100% comfortable with it because that is who I am. And if people choose to be not comfortable with it, they don’t have to be around me, in that we no longer have to be in a position where we have to minimize ourselves to make someone else comfortable.
I think that’s just a consistent theme that we’ve all seen across the course of our lives. You know, like Akisha said, You’re not going to find a picture of her relative who was a midwife; you’re most likely not going to find her name noted anywhere. So that’s why it’s critically important for us to have these types of conversations, to collect and document these stories. We cannot allow ourselves to be erased, so many other entities and groups will try their best to make it seem like we are not here and have not had an impact. And we are tasked with the challenge of making sure that that does not happen.