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  • Writer's pictureAppalachian Retelling

Showcasing Black Appalachian History

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

From the East Tennessee PBS studio in Knoxville, TN, William Isom II (Director of Black in Appalachia) and Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin (researcher and Black in Appalachia podcast host) discuss the Black in Appalachia initiative and how they are helping uncover the lost histories of Black Appalachians.


Full video transcript:

Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin: For Black folks, the relationship to space has been very difficult in Appalachia. When I study Black Knoxville, one of the things that comes up very frequently is just that Black people are either out of place or have lost place, right. They've lost schools and churches. They've lost clubs. They've lost KFCs on Magnolia, you know what I mean? Like, people constantly talk. They've lost neighborhoods to urban renewal. They've lost housing projects to Hope VI. There's this constant narrative of loss of place. And so it's important for Black folks to claim space in this region and claim this region.

William Isom II: Generally, Black history and narratives in the United States have not been valued and held to the same value as white history in the country. And so I think because of that, there has been a great amount of loss. This work is really important because it doesn't exist. Like we're creating stuff from scratch in lots of ways. The narratives and the stories and the materials are there. But they've never been, they've not been considered. It became really apparent, like there was all this stuff that people had in their basements and they would have everybody's business in tubs in their basement, or in their garage. And after seeing that, you begin to, like, recognize the need.

There's kind of this analogy that I like to use. There's like these two mountains, and one mountain is the official narrative. It's the courthouse records. It's even in academia. It's the official record. And this other mountain you have is the vernacular history, it's the oral history. And in the middle, like here in Appalachia, that's where the holler is at, where the two mountains meet. And that's also where you find, in topography, that's where you find the most biodiversity, is in the holler. So by holding up the vernacular history as just as valuable as the official narrative, that's where we're going to find the most biodiversity in narrative, and the most richness of stories that we can make available and carve out that space.

Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin: And I think that for people who are native to the region, for Black people who are native to the region, they know that they belong here, but they still have a complicated relationship with the region, and with calling themselves Appalachian even, right? Black Appalachians have a difficult time claiming that identity. And for many of them, it's something that they are sort of coming into right now, or coming into in their adulthood, or coming into after some struggle, right. And some of them are open to dealing with that struggle, right, and figuring out what does it mean to be Black and Appalachian. And I think that, like, we are seeing the term Affrilachian and some people feel like, OK, that's me, that's for me. I can claim Appalachianness. And so to me, that's really important.

William Isom II: I think the idea of being Appalachian really came slowly to me. But I always knew that I was like, I was country. Really, it feels like I have been kind of cutting my teeth on this work for most of my adult life. Like, I worked to try to research and track back my own family's history, which is hard, through slavery in the region. And I got really, I've got really good at it. And I think that my, like, that boot camp of my family's research, of learning how to research my own family's history, prepared me for it, I think. And so we started this work in 2012. Chris Smith had the idea to do a documentary on Swift Memorial Institute, which used to be a historically Black college in Rogersville, Tennessee, in Hawkins County. We did that documentary, and then afterwards, Chris was like, we should keep doing this.

Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin: And so they are media guys and I'm a researcher. The work that they're doing is really important for researchers, because when I came to Knoxville, I immediately noticed that something was different about this space that I hadn't experienced anywhere else in the country. And I couldn't pinpoint what it was. And I tried to learn about Black Knoxville and I couldn't find anything. The work that William and Chris and everyone else is doing, documenting these histories, like, I needed that when I started. And even now that I'm sort of finished with my dissertation and kind of figuring out where I want to go in the future, I cannot leave academia until I've published on this region, until I've published on Black Knoxville.

But one thing that I have experienced since we've been working on the podcast and all of the fieldwork that we've done is just that, the overwhelming welcomeness, welcoming-ness of people in the region. Like I feel like when they see us, when we talk with them, we become family, right? Like they treat us very well, not that I expected something else. But there's just, it just feels good. Like it just feels like, hey, we're all kind of in this thing together. I don't know, like even the lady that we met the other day, that we were out looking at a church in Strawberry Plains area and she like saw us across the street and we went up to talk with her. And she was so, she was so happy to see us. And she's like, yeah, come back to the cookout. There's a lot of cookouts. But, you know, I just felt, I just like that. I just like that feeling of connectedness and just the overwhelming warmth that we're greeted with.

And so it's just important, again, like the work that we're doing with the Black in Appalachia initiative is just so, so important because I think it's important to reimagine Appalachia, right. We've had one narrative for a long time and honestly, it's sort of, like, cheats the region of all of its complexities. Right, all of the nuances, like we don't have to be just one thing. And I think part of the mission of Black in Appalachia is to really pull from some of the stuff that we've been collecting, some of the stories that we've been collecting along the way, some of the data that we've been looking at and really, like, make connections to present day life in Appalachia and really create a space, a virtual and sometimes a physical space, for Black people in this region that affirms for them that, like, you belong here, but also to let everybody else know that they belong here as well.

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