Merlene Davis: Berea College, author show diversity of Appalachia

Herald-Leader columnistJune 30, 2014 

Lexington author Crystal Wilkinson was recently named the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.

I know it doesn't seem like that big a deal. Authors serving as writers-in-residence are a common occurrence.

But Wilkinson, who is black, will serve as the Appalachian writer-in-residence. That designation is a hat-tip to all the black people who have made a home in Appalachia, but who have never been acknowledged.

And it is heads-up to people who assume all Appalachia residents are white.

"It validates me as an Appalachian," said Wilkinson, who grew up in Casey County.

"It's the first time I wasn't called Affrilachian. I am full Appalachian."

Affrilachian was a word coined by Frank X Walker, Kentucky's Poet Laureate, in the early 1990s when he, Wilkinson and others founded the Affrilachian Poets group to challenge the stereotype that Appalachians were white. They wanted to highlight the diverse population and culture of the mountain range spanning a 13-state region from Mississippi to New York.

In a press release, Chris Green, director of Berea's Loyal Jones Appalachian center, said Wilkinson "will connect with Berea students across the board — rural or urban, Appalachian or not, black or white, beginning or advanced, younger or older. Whenever I read her words I learn not only how to be where I am but how to belong there and in the world. I think she's going to do the same thing for Berea."

Chad Berry, academic vice president and dean of the faculty at Berea, said Appalachia was settled by American Indians, whites and blacks, but over the years the rural areas of the region came to be seen as white. "We are trying to challenge those preconceptions," Berry said. "We want to show students, black and white, that they can be proud of their Appalachian heritage. We're working hard in that regard."

Having Wilkinson, authors Silas House and Jason Howard, and scholar bell hooks all working at the Appalachian Center lends credence to that for students, he said.

Wilkinson said her hiring for the grant-funded, three-year position also helps black people outside the area better understand the diversity of the region. "I think it will surprise some people," she said, "and not because I am writer-in-residence."

Wilkinson grew up on her grandparents' farm in Indian Creek near Middleburg, about 45 miles south of Berea in Casey County.

Her grandmother read to her until she could read on her own.And, when she had finished all the available books, Wilkinson began writing her own.

She has won awards for fiction and poetry and has taught writing courses at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, at the Governor's School for the Arts, and at several colleges and universities, including Eastern Kentucky University, Indiana University Bloomington, Morehead State University, Spalding University, the University of Kentucky, Cumberland College, Lindsey Wilson College and Berea.

Wilkinson said she learned of the position in April and was urged to apply.

Officials were seeking an author who self-identified as an Appalachian writer and had received critical acclaim. The author of Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries fit the bill.

Wilkinson said she is working on three new projects: a novel, a collection of poems about her grandfather being a "water witch," or dowser, and a memoir about her mother.

She will teach three courses per year for students and offer workshops for the general community. Wilkinson said she is looking forward to that part of the job.

"There are talented musicians and artists and writers who never got to go to school for it because of life circumstances," she said. With the workshops, "they will be able to come out the other side with something published or with a chapter completed."

And they will be able to see for themselves that Appalachia has produced talented people of color as well.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service