Black people in Appalachia are finally getting the recognition they deserve. The second episode of the W. Kamau Bell series “United Shades of America” travels to Central Appalachia to share the stories of Black people living and thriving in the region.
Affrilachian (African American Appalachian) poet, writer and founder of the West Virginia-based outlet Black By God – The West Virginian Crystal Good shared a few thoughts with NewsOne ahead of the episode’s debut. Black By God is a news and storytelling organization focusing on the experiences of Black people in the Mountain state and the Appalachian region. The name is a play on the saying West “By God” Virginia about West Virginia.
Good said she was nervous about the episode premiering but was also preparing herself for the “pejorative ‘Black Hillbilly’ jokes.”
“I’m a proud Black hillbilly, but I know what that means, and I can call myself that, but ‘you’ can’t,” Good said. “I hope people FEEL the show — because they will be immersed in the imagery of the beauty of the land and the energy of so many good mountain people.”
From my own time in West Virginia, first as a junior in High School and later as a law student and practicing attorney, I saw the rich history and self-determination of Black Appalachians. One of my favorite people was papa David, a Black former coal miner who grew up in the town of Osage outside of Morgantown. He was one of the first people who helped me understand the importance of West Virginia and Appalachia to the broader story of Black people and our struggle for liberation.
What I thought I knew about West Virginia, Appalachia and Black people was turned on its head yet again when I met Good in 2014, after an environmental disaster threw our community into chaos. Her determination to tell the story of a region and a people through the eyes of a Black woman put a new spin on the fabled American Dream. Over the years, I have seen her passion for authentic storytelling help empower people to understand the power of their own stories and voice.
Sharing space for self-determined narratives and collective Black Experience
Centering the Black experience in West Virginia in cultural and political spaces has been a part of Good’s core directive. And part of her work exists in providing platforms for others to share their stories and experiences, not positioning herself as the regional spokesperson.
Good shared the story of Jaston Tartt, Sr., a McDowell County farmer whose land was recently flooded, wiping away crops, fertile soil, bee hives and equipment. Good and others have been trying to raise awareness to help him, and others get resources and support.
According to Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Tartt co-founded the organization Economic Development Greater East, which works to support entrepreneurship and workforce training that allows the local community to “remain local and thrive.”
Good also reflected on working with Crystal Isaac, a young Black producer working on the show who helped frame the story. She said that Isaac said something important, “the question of Black people existing in Appalachia should no longer be asked after this episode!”
Another member of Bell’s team, Morgan Fallon, received a notable mention during our conversation. Good previously met Fallon during the West Virginia episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” The intro to the episode featured Good’s poem “Boom, Boom.”
“Morgan worked for Parts Unknown for years,” she said. “He and I have always kept in touch — as he has a heart for WV, a childhood history here and has always pushed for WV to be in a national consciousness via television.”
Good credits Isaac and Morgan with curating an episode that speaks to the heart of a people while showcasing a community that doesn’t feel voyeuristic.
“Morgan and Crystal trusted my guidance as a consulting producer,” Good shared. “It was so rare to be HEARD — I’m thankful.”
But Bell’s team has done more than simply tell the stories of people that would otherwise never reach such a broad audience. According to Good, Bell and his production team made space for her to be a part of the process as a consulting producer.
“United Shades Of America” provides space for honest conversations about real-world issues
“United Shades of America,” hosted by W. Kamau Bell, returned for its seventh season last Sunday. In a statement announcing the series’ return, Bell shared that he felt compelled to continue having good conversations about the issues impacting the country.
“Neither COVID, nor misinformation, nor political gridlock, nor the gloom of the feeling that American democracy is crumbling will keep me from my appointed duty of traveling the country for another season of United Shades of America,” said W. Kamau Bell, Host and Executive Producer, in a statement.
The first episode, “Woke Wars,” featured Kimberlé Crenshaw, scholar and founder of the African American Policy Forum, in conversation with professor Randall Kennedy about critical race theory and the right-wing effort to make it into a boogeyman causing widespread panic in school districts across the country. Over the past year, Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum have investigated the dark money behind regressive legislation, school board races and more.
Through the African American Policy Forum, Crenshaw will be leading the second “CRT Summer School” July 18-22 alongside noted scholars, activists and organizers, discussing the ins and outs of critical race theory, systemic racism and several other essential topics for sustaining an inclusive society committed to equity and justice for all.
Appalachia is more than a JD Vance caricature
Good hopes those watching the show will understand that Black people live and thrive everywhere. Our history and contributions to communities run deep, even in Appalachia. She also says the framing of the episode allows for Black Appalachians to be seen in their full personhood and not simply as a caricature or a footnote in a broader conversation.
“We exist and not in the shadows or as an add-on to JD Vance push back or Blair Mountain interracial solidarity that doesn’t grapple with racism,” she explained. “But as a one-hour stand-alone entry in a national show hosted by a Black man, produced by a Black woman with a Black crew exploring Black Appalachia — a first for this country and a big kick in the door for more storytelling in places like Appalachia where Black people have been erased by a white narrative.”
The series airs on CNN on Sundays at 10 PM ET/PT.
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