It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I'm always one to participate in a good holler. That's a feature of me: ready to yell. I imagine that could be seen as an Appalachian stereotype.
I recently used my WOOOOO, HELL YEAH to celebrate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's win. I hollered, hanging out of a car window in what is considered a liberal and inclusive place—a historic gay district in West Hollywood. I also happened to be wearing my Black in Appalachia T-shirt and a West Virginia blue hat.
I wondered, is this what Hollywood people imagine when they think of Hillbillies?
This past summer I was also in California. I was in Hollywood working on Hollywood things, and one of my projects required me to have my makeup professionally done by a super talented makeup artist named Kai. With one look at his 50,000 followers and his Instagram page full of melanin beauties, I was excited!
Kai was a consummate professional. I felt lucky that he took my project. I am not a celebrity, and it was a pandemic.
As soon as he showed up to the Airbnb, he reminded me of home. His conversation was warm, and I opened up to him with ease through the universal language of, "Where you from?"
Kai was from New York City, that I knew from his IG profile. I shared that I was from Appalachia, and eventually asked if he knew much about it. He said no, but then he smiled, and quickly corrected—"Yes! My client Glenn Close is playing the mom in a family, a hillbilly family."
If I could have simultaneously squealed and groaned, I would have.
The "hillbilly family" movie he was referring to was that portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy, the film based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance. Actress Glen Close plays the lead as Mawmaw Vance.
This book and its film are the only reference many people—Kai included—have for the region I call home.
Billed as a "modern exploration of the American dream," the film details Vance's mythical escape from the dysfunction of poverty. With only his magical white man powers and the love of his supportive Mawmaw, Vance eschews his troubled relationship with his mother, her heroin addiction, and other hardships like domestic abuse and poverty to finally make it to Yale Law School—the promised land—and into upper-caste American life.
I started to explain to Kai how the people where I'm from in Appalachia are against the "hillbilly family" movie. But by people, I mean white people. Although Appalachian think-pieces have echoed across America claiming Vance's story is full of racist and sexist ideology, my family and friends who travel outside academic Appalachian circles care little about Hillbilly Elegy, and they don't understand why I do.
See also: A Black kingdom in postbellum Appalachia
My anti-hillbilly family movie talk wasn't making sense in my own head, either. Why am I going to tell Kai, a Black makeup artist with a client like Glenn Close—whose greater success will only benefit him—that the hillbilly movie she's staring in portrays stereotypes of white Appalachia, excludes Black people, and should never have been made?
Immediately, the tension made me reach for a line I'd performed in another movie about hillbillies: "I'm glad I can be Black and forget that I'm Hillbilly."
It felt safer for me, at this moment, to integrate into the dominant Black culture and exclude my Appalachian regional identity, culture, and dialect.
But being Black and forgetting I'm also a hillbilly would mean I'd have to do as so many white Appalachians from the coalfields had done. They denied the parts of themselves that "othered" them in the status quo construction of whiteness and assimilated into the broader white culture for safety and opportunity.
A part of me wanted to tell Kai about the movie that I was in, thinking that might explain everything. But the Appalachian in me was struggling.
The real truth was, I just didn't want to say the movie I'm in on Hulu is called Hillbilly, and then have to give the whole back story: That it's an award-winning documentary that explores "Hillbilly" stereotypes, and that I was part of the film along with my fellow Affrilachian Poets, Frank X. Walker and Bianca Springs.
Instead I just sat back in his chair as he told me all about doing red carpet makeup for celebrities.
"The beautiful Janet Mock?"
"Just as delightful as she appears," he gushed.
Kai started explaining the best products for my skin color, how our skin needed certain products to create a flattering natural foundation. There seemed to be a whole new world of products Kai was exposing me to, just for our skin.
I thought about how in the '90s, white-bodied models never had to bring their own hair and makeup bags. Everything they needed would be on set.
Black makeup and hair professionals at the time were mostly booked to work on Black models and actors, for Black productions only. The idea that a Black makeup artist would be booked to do flawless red carpet makeup for a white woman like Glen Close was inconceivable to many white gatekeepers.
Kai's story reminds me that there are still gatekeepers guarding Appalachia like some Proud Boy paradise, who try to exile the many Affrilachians (African American Appalachians) living in the heart of Appalachia. As the small talk picked up again I shared that I am a writer, from the only state entirely in Appalachia, West Virginia.
Kai said he never knew there were Black people in Appalachia. He pronounced it Appa-lay-sha. I let it slide.
I gave Kai a quick rundown of some Black West Virginians he may know: Katherine Johnson, Bill Withers, T.D. Jakes, Steve Harvey.
And then, I tried out a joke:
Guess what all successful Black West Virginians have in common? They left!
He didn't laugh; nobody ever does. It's always an awkward moment. I don't know why I keep telling it. I think I'm looking for a way to tell our story.
In the book Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia, Dr. Karida Brown looks at the first generation of Black folks who escaped Alabama to Kentucky's coalfields in the 1900s. The book reconstructs the stories of the Black coal communities through 150 oral histories, and shows the rich Black culture that existed—still exists—in the diaspora of Black Appalachian families displaced by the decline of coal.
Brown explains that the Black migration from the Deep South into the Appalachian Mountains was no coincidence. Black people came to work the coal mines, but they also came to escape the South's cruel conditions.
In Appalachia, they found a place with fewer lynchings, better schools for their children, better wages, and a way of living in Black communities that felt freer.
Everything seemed better for Black people in Appalachia, until it wasn't.
Just as Black people flowed into the region in 1900, they left in a similar cycle by the 1970s. The Black Appalachian exodus out of Appalachia took place over 30 years.
Brown writes that "in a single generation, Black coal miners children engaged in a community level ritual in which within a few days of graduating from high school they received a bus ticket out of town and resettled in an urban location outside of Appalachia."
My dad was never a coal miner. He's more rare: a Black man in the news industry. I get my curiosity and storytelling from him. I confided to Kai that I'm on a mission, a mission to create a portal in and out of West Virginia for the 56,000 Black folks living there—Shit, am I making sense? A Portal? Black coal miners? Oh well! I continued.
"The portal I am building is a newspaper, or multimedia platform, called Black by God The West Virginian."
Instead of pointing out the absence of Black people (which is one of the reasons why so many people complained about Hillbilly Elegy), I'm interested in creating a Black record that stands on its own as a narrative of West Virginia centered on Blackness.
See also: From Appalachia to Outer Space—The beauty and the limits of perspective in Portraits & Dreams
If I'm successful, I'll be able to get stories past and present from inside Black West Virginia to national platforms, while building a conduit for opportunities of homegrown talents like Leeshia Lee, who wrote and produced "Based On A Woo Story," and could be considered West Virginia's only Hip-hop Journalist.
I want to create a media platform for folks like her, and my hometown's preachers—Pastor David Fryson, Pastor Mathew J Watts, and Reverend English—who each have written over a hundred op-eds for the Charleston Gazette on issues facing the Black community here. Black By God could be that archive, that place.
I want there to be these golden opportunities for Black people everywhere, not just in the California hills, but in the hollers.
"Mostly, it's important for Black people in West Virginia to see themselves in the best light," I sighed, as the California sun came through the apartment windows.
I worried that I had been talking about myself too much. But Kai emerged from his work to say he encouraged my idea. We all just want to see ourselves.
Then showed me my face in the mirror.
That mirror was something I'd been waiting decades for, to feel comfortable calling home any place where Black American people survive.