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Volume 24, Number 10 — October 2017

Affrilachia: Black Artists in Our Region

Theresa L. Burriss
Theresa L. Burriss

By Angela Wampler | May 27, 2008

Introduction by Theresa L. Burriss, Ph.D.
Radford University

Appalachia boasts a rich cultural heritage worthy of serious study and celebration, despite the negative stereotypes that continue to plague our region. And though outsiders may view our mountainous area as homogeneous, comprised of White Scots-Irish descendants, a simple cursory look at the residents belies this assumption. Many different ethnic and racial groups have lived in these mountains and contributed to our traditions, with the Native Americans providing the foundation upon which all else was built.

In several of her published works, Dr. Wilma Dunaway, sociology professor at Virginia Tech, documents the influence of mountain slaves on the region's economy, culture, and politics. Scholarship and debate on the Melungeon population has flourished within the past decade, with this group truly embodying the merging of diverse ethnicities. Both Eastern and Western European immigrants made their way to the coalmining camps of Central Appalachia, thereby adding to the cultural m?lange with their food, folklore, and religions. Rounding out the picture are Arab Appalachians, Asian Appalachians, and Hispanic Appalachians who have made their mark on the region as well.

Members from each of these groups have donated time and talent to the arts of Appalachia, whether through poetry, prose, painting, music, or architecture. This issue of A! Magazine for the Arts focuses attention on several Black Appalachian artists residing in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and highlights their unique perspective of the world.

While White Appalachians endure marginalization by mainstream American society, Black Appalachians suffer a double marginalization due to America's history and the institution of slavery. Frank X. Walker, poet and visual artist from Kentucky, railed against this oppression when in 1991 he coined the term "Affrilachian." With the primary exception of William Turner and Edward Cabbell's 1985 work, Blacks in Appalachia, African Americans largely had been excluded from the annals of Appalachian history. Walker's very naming of Affrilachia, and the subsequent publication in 2000 of his first poetry collection so titled, has garnered attention for longtime Black residents of the region and provided a unique sense of identity and agency for many of them.

Although Walker has published four collections of poetry to date, most of the artists showcased in this issue of A! Magazine were not familiar with the term Affrilachian, yet acknowledged a certain resonance upon hearing the word. Nancy Johnson remarks, "[S]ince this term suggests a blending of two different cultures, I would have to say that I can identify with it since I am an African American living in Appalachia and have roots in both cultures."

Such cultural hybridity was cited at the start of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s by W.E.B. DuBois, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University. He maintained that Blacks in America had to negotiate two worlds in American society to survive. The first was the dominant White culture, while the second was the oppressed Black one, thus promoting a "double consciousness" among Blacks. Affrilachians possess a triple consciousness due to their African and Appalachian ancestry.

William Fields and Nancy Johnson, featured painters in this issue, demonstrate their triple consciousness through their artwork as they document the day-to-day existence of Black Appalachians. In the tradition of African American artists, William H. Johnson (1901-1970) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), both Fields and Johnson represent the folk aesthetic celebrated in much African American art. And while Fields enjoyed a traditional art education at the Virginia Art Institute in Charlottesville, Johnson is an outsider artist, a term historically associated with Black Southern artists who paint and create mixed media works without prior formal training. "Outsider" and "insider," however, are slippery. The words' connotations fail properly to characterize certain artists and their work. An exhibit hosted just last year at the William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, entitled "Inside the Outsider," highlighted the controversy surrounding these terms. Featured artists Ollie Cox, who was born and raised in Abingdon, and Richard Bay, who originally hails from New York but now resides in Radford, epitomized such insider and outsider notions as they provided viewers with a provocative aesthetic experience.

Lydia Wilson, mixed media textile artist from Johnson City, Tenn., addresses this issue, in addition to the racism that still exists in Appalachia, when she laments, "I find in this area persons often consider it an oddity that a black person can create art. Some persons will apprehensively use the word artist with regard to my name or work but try, at the same time, to pigeonhole you into a group that is a little outside that group. They use terms [like] naive art or outsider art. Outside what? I am a mixed media textile artist, and I don't feel tags are necessary." Wilson also eschews the Affrilachian tag because she does not want her art to be reduced to a mere racial designation, but instead desires it "to be known for its artistic value and [for it to] be able to stand on that alone."

Regardless of these showcased artists' various philosophies and aesthetic inspirations, one thing is certain. Each significantly contributes to the rich diversity of Appalachian culture and gives further cause for celebration of our unique heritage. Singer/songwriter Amythyst Phillips perhaps best captures the essence of these artists' roles as she proclaims, "Artists should be provocative innovators, create work that affects people to the point that their subconscious is jolted, and they are forced to consciously think about their place in the world and everything that they've ever known."

Indeed, this issue of A! Magazine provides readers those very opportunities and all the artists serve as our guides.


Editor's Note: Dr. Theresa L. Burriss is the Director of the Radford University Learning Assistance and Resource Center, as well as Assistant Professor of English and Appalachian Studies. She serves as the Contributing Senior Editor of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, and her articles have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Voice, and The New River Voice. Dr. Burriss has published several pieces of literary criticism on Affrilachian writers, including chapters in An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature (Ohio UP, 2005) and Appalachia in the Classroom (forthcoming, Ohio UP, 2009). Currently, she's working on a project entitled Women of Change, Women of Courage: Appalachian Activists. A native of Bristol, Tenn., she resides in Southwest Virginia with her two sons, Paul and Campbell.

READ ON:
Affrilachia: Meet The Artists
Affrilachia: Q&A with the Artists