The whine of the projector subsides. Someone clicks on the lights. As the professor asks for commentary, the rapid raising of hands signifies an eagerness to respond. I remain still. Listening to my peer’s criticism of the Appalachian people featured in the made-for-TV special, I am humiliated.
Since this experience I have often wrestled with the monocultural depiction of Appalachia, where I grew up. The region’s boundaries stretch across 13 states, beginning in Mississippi and tiptoeing up through New York. Appalachia runs into through cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., dances across the Blue Ridge Mountains and floats along the Ohio River. Its inhabitants represent multiple ethnicities including, African American, Native American, Amish, Greek, Polish, Italian, Irish and Russian.
Despite this diversity, depictions of the region are constantly oversimplified and poorly researched, representing the area as being an all-white, impoverished population tucked away in the hills. Recently, however, native Kentuckian Frank X Walker challenged this view by speaking and writing about being African American and Appalachian.
Walker coined the term Affrilachian, which refers to someone who is African American and from Appalachia. Walker “accepted the responsibility of challenging the notion of a homogeneous all-white literary landscape in this region.”
Walker’s quest to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Appalachia includes authoring several works of poetry. His writing includes titles such as Affriliachia and Black Box: Poems, and gives a voice to African Americans who live in the Appalachian region. Walker also considers the voices of Affrilachians who contributed to the history of the region in his book Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York. York was the personal slave of William Clark and an important member of the well-known Lewis and Clark expedition.
I often use Walker’s writing in the classroom as a starting point to discuss why Appalachian is not a synonym for Caucasian. While Walker has helped pioneer a place for the voices of African Americans who are native Appalachians, he has also helped to debunk the mythical view of the region being a homogenous area.
I often hear the words of Walker’s poems when I look in the mirror and see reflections of my own Greek heritage, or catch myself using my native Appalachian dialect. His words continue to remind my fellow Appalachians not to let our heritage be defined by the voiceovers of TV specials. And he challenges others to rewrite their definition of Appalachia.
Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.