10 Books About Black Appalachia

Contrary to popular conception, the region's not all white—and "Affrilachia" has a long literary tradition

Black Appalachians have always been invisible to mainstream culture that wrongly conflates “white” with “Appalachia.” Stereotypes are even more prevalent  in today’s political climate but the presence of African people in the Appalachian mountains was documented as early as the 1500s. Many Black people are still settled in hollers, former coal camps and thriving urban Appalachian towns and cities throughout the region. Our ancestors were among the  earliest settlers. My own family has lived in the hills of Kentucky, where I grew up, for four generations.

The Birds of Opulence, my debut novel, begins with Yolanda Brown being born in a garden and follows two Black mountain families as they struggle with mental illness, vexing relationships and the land itself. At the center of the multigenerational novel is always what each character brings forward from the past and what they choose to leave behind. And always the gift of the land itself and its capacity to heal. 

I could easily fill this list up with writers from the poetry collective The Affrilachian Poets, comprised of nearly 40 writers including  Frank X Walker, Nikky Finney, Mitchell L. H. Douglas, Randall Horton, Kelly Norman Ellis,  Kamilah Aisha Moon, Keith Wilson, Amanda Johnston, Shayla Lawson, Joy Priest, Parneshia Jones and others.  We have been a collective since 1991 when Walker coined the term Affrilachia (which now appears in the Oxford dictionary) to negate the belief that all of the region is white. Affrilachian Poet books of note that will be released soon include: 

But outside the Affrilachian Poets, there are other Black writers who are also writing about the region. Some you will recognize immediately; others you may be hearing about for the first time. This list includes both scholarly work and literature.

Beetlecreek by William Demby

Demby, who spent his teen years in Clarksburg, West Virginia, won the Ainsfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He was born in Pittsburgh and spent much of his life in Italy and Sag Harbor, New York. His other books include The Catacombs, Love Story Black, and Blueboy, and his final novel King Comus was published posthumously in 2017 by Ishmel Reed. Demby died in 2013. Beetlecreek, his debut novel, explores the relationship between a Black teenager and a white recluse in West Virginia. His work was sometimes criticized for not being “Black” enough and he was quoted in the Bloomsbury Review saying “I believed, as I still do, that a black writer has the same kind of mind that writers have had all through time…He can imagine any world he wants to imagine.” 

Affrilachia by Frank X Walker

After coining the phrase Affrilachia and increasing the visibility of Black people in the region, Walker wrote this first book of poetry, which is now a classic. These poems, both historical and personal, address race, family, a sense of place, identity and social justice. Walker is a native of Danville, Kentucky and has won a Lannan Literary Fellowship and an NAACP Image Award (among other awards) for his poetry. He is currently writing a novel and is a professor of creative writing and English at the University of Kentucky. 

Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith by Effie Waller Smith

Smith, a poet of the early twentieth century, was born to former enslaved people in Pike County, Kentucky. She received her teaching certificate at what is now known as Kentucky State University. This expansive volume captures the includes her poetry as well as several short stories and is edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who also hails from Appalachia.

Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

Set in the 1950s in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, Townsend’s well-received debut centers around compelling characters Caroline and Audrey who are coming of age in Appalachia amidst segregation, the Jazz Era, and struggles with family and identity. Townsend won the Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. The book was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Cote d’Ivoire. She is currently Berea College’s Appalachian Writer in Residence. Townsend earned degrees from Harvard and Duke Law School.

Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets edited by Bianca Spriggs and Jeremy Paden

This anthology celebrates the 25th anniversary of the poetry collective and is a testimony to the talent and accomplishments of the group. This collection includes poems from nearly every member of the collective and pays homage to Frank X Walker’s original idea of “Affrilachia” as both a geographical place and a cultural one. Spriggs, a multidisciplinary artist, is the author of four collections of poems including most recently Call Her by Her Name and The Galaxy is a Dance Floor. She has also edited several anthologies and is currently an assistant professor of English at Ohio University. Paden is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Transylvania University and also on faculty in Spalding’s low-residency MFA, where he teaches literary translation. He is the author of two previous chapbooks, Broken Tulips and Delicate Matters, the latter comprised of translations. His poems and translations have appeared widely in literary journals.

Blacks in Appalachia by Willam H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell

This was the first book to look at the presence of African-Americans in the region. It is one of the most valuable and comprehensive tools for anyone who wants to study the contributions of Appalachia and Black history. The contributors in this volume range from Carter G. Woodson, who was not only the Father of Black History but also one of the first scholars of Appalachian Studies, and W.E.B. DuBois to more recent scholars such as Theda Perdue and David A. Corbin. Both Turner and Cabbell are sons of the region.  Cabbell grew up in Mercer County, West Virginia and was founder and director of the John Henry Memorial Foundation. Turner, a native of Lynch, Kentucky, has served as a vice president of the University of Kentucky, was interim president of Kentucky State and retired in 2017 from Prairie View A&M University.

The Logan Topographies by Alena Hairston

These beautiful poems take us to the town of Logan, West Virginia and make connections between history, genealogy, and geography. This collection won the inaugural Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize. Hairston, also known as elen gebreab, lived in Logan County, West Virginia during her formative years and is a writer, artist, teacher and performer in Oakland. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University and is a Cave Canem Fellow.

Bone Black: Memories of Childhood by bell hooks

Bone Black chronicles bell hook’s childhood and provides an intimate portrait of  her journey to womanism, writing and the unleashing of the power of a creative and intellectual life. Born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, preiminent intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer bell hooks has written more than 30 books. hooks’ books Belonging: A Culture of Place (a collection of essays) and Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place also address her connections to the region as an Black Appalachian woman. She currently serves as the Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College, the home of the bell hooks Institute, and makes her home in Berea, Kentucky.

Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia by Karida Brown

Brown gives us a broad look at race, identity and politics through over 150 extensive interviews with current and former residents of Harlan County, Kentucky, who were black coal miners. This book too, solidifies that Appalachia may not be what you think. Brown, a sociologist, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at UCLA.

Madness Like Morning Glories by doris davenport

In this poem sequence, davenport welcomes readers to Soque Street and its Black inhabitants. Set in northeast Georgia, the book lets residents’ voices come alive in davenport’s hands. Davenport is a self-defined lesbian-feminist, working class Affrilachian from Northeast Georgia with a BA in English from Paine College and a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Southern California. 

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