How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’


‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Imaging/Imagining.’
Photo by Raymond Thompson, Jr.

Amy M. Alvarez, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, University of Alabama

Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.

Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”

Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.

But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.

Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”

Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia

In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.

Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”

Five Black children stand in the foreground while a white boy stands in the background.
A 1935 Farm Security Administration photograph of kids in Omar, West Virginia.
Library of Congress

Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.

In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.

By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”

Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.

It caught on.

In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.

A unique style emerges

Roughly 9% of Appalachian residents are Black, and this renders many of the region’s Black people “hypervisible,” meaning they stick out in primarily white spaces.

Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.

Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.

Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:

        He told me
  of my great uncle who, Depression era,
  loaned white townspeople venison
  and preserves. Later stood off
  the same ones with a gun
  when they wanted his property.

An Affrilachian future

We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.

Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.

In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”

Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.

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Amy M. Alvarez, Assistant Teaching Professor, English, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, Instructor of Gender & Race Studies, University of Alabama

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise and fall of Black British writing


Malachi McIntosh, Queen Mary University of London

In many ways, the current state of the world seems unprecedented. The last few years – but especially 2020 – have brought shocks that no one could have foreseen.

Although much headline news has been cause for anxiety, there have been a few notable moments of hope. For me, like so many, the worldwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd have been among them. In the centre of the uprising’s hopeful surprises has been the way they’ve torn open space for conversations about race and racism in the UK.

Why don’t we teach all British schoolchildren about colonialism? Why does it take so much more convincing to have the statues of slaveowners removed than those of others responsible for past atrocities? Why were so many young people of colour so quickly mobilised to say “the UK is not innocent”, in solidarity with their peers on the streets in the United States?

With the boom in interest in the histories of colonialism, empire and the British civil rights movement in response to Black Lives Matter protests, has come an aligned boom in interest in Black British writing.

Candice Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo won significant firsts for Black authors at the British Book awards – book of the year and author of the year, respectively. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, became the first Black Briton to top the paperback non-fiction chart, while Evaristo topped the fiction list.

Across social media and newspapers, reading lists proliferated, apparently responding to a hunger from readers of all backgrounds to gain knowledge of issues and the history of race and racism they’d never received in schools or universities.

For many in and on the fringes of the publishing industry, it’s felt hopeful that a moment of real recognition for Black British writing, in an echo of the attention being paid to Black British lives, has arrived.

But has it really? Although the accelerated pace of interest feels unique, the pattern – social unrest triggering readerly interest in the works of writers of colour – is, unfortunately, not.

Post-war Booms (and Busts)

Immediately after the second world war there was a similar boom. Britain was about to enter a long phase of decolonisation, and its demographic make-up, through waves of colonial then ex-colonial migration, was on course to permanently change. This opened up space and piqued curiosity for works from the most visible group at the centre of social transformation – at that time Caribbean emigrants.

As detailed in Kenneth Ramchand’s book The West Indian Novel and Its Background, from 1950 to 1964, over 80 novels by Caribbean authors, including classics like In the Castle of My Skin by by George Lamming and A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul were published in London – far more than those published in the Caribbean itself.

Book cover showing children at school sitting at desks.
To Sir With Love (1959) by the Guyanese writer ER Braithwaite is a semi-autobiographical novel set in East London.
Wikimedia

What’s most significant about that spike is that it didn’t last. As Caribbean migration waned after the passage of a series of restrictive immigration acts from 1962 to 1971, so did the opportunities for writers from Caribbean backgrounds.

This was evident in the fortunes of most of the those published in Britain post-war. The likes of Edgar Mittelholzer and John Hearne – then known and widely published – and even Samuel Selvon – now widely known and respected – found their works falling out of print.

Attention then shifted to Black writers from the African continent – primarily those from west Africa, like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka – where the progress of decolonisation was taking dramatic turns. But this interest also waned.

There have been more recent booms, for example in the 1980s after the New Cross fire in 1981, which sparked protests in south London after 13 young black people were killed, and the Brixton uprising of the same year in response to excessive and, at times, violent policing in the area.

Then, around the turn of the millennium, rechristened “multicultural” writing rose, alongside visible demographic change, through the successes of Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Monica Ali and others. These were breakthroughs significant enough for Wasafiri, the magazine where I work and which has been championing Black British and British Asian writing since 1984, to declare in 2008 that Black Britons had “taken the cake” of British letters.

Yet in 2016, eight years later, only one debut novel from a Black British male author, Robyn Travis, was published in the UK.

The Future

In her memoirs, the British writer and editor Diana Athill calls the post-war boom in writing from then-colonies a result of short-lived “liberal guilt” combined with curiosity about the peoples and nations disconnecting from Britain. There are concerning signs along these lines in our present.

In their recent report – a result of over a hundred interviews with those in the field – Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente reveal that British publishers feel both that they ought to publish more writers of colour and that those same writers belong to a particular niche with limited quality and limited appeal to their target readers.

Novelist Bernardine Evaristo wearing a denim jacket and glasses
Bernardine Evaristo has questioned the growing body of Black writing.
Jennie Scott/Wikimedia, CC BY

Anticipating this conversation in her 2019 essay What a Time to Be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer, first published in the book Brave New Words on the eve of her Booker Prize win, Bernardine Evaristo both celebrated and questioned the growing body of Black British writing.

Something, she notes in the essay, is definitely shifting, but she wonders how far it will really shift – if Black Britons are being published in greater numbers but on singularly narrow terms. Like their forebears in the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and early 2000s, are there only certain stories Black writers are allowed to tell? Only certain messages they’re expected to convey?

While it is far too early to make a judgement on how long the current boom will last, the way this moment repeats a pattern of social change followed by publishing frenzy is at least worthy of attention – and perhaps scepticism. So often the present seems unprecedented, but in order for it to be truly revolutionary, novel, status-quo shifting – liberating – the changes we see within it have to be sustained.The Conversation

Malachi McIntosh, Emeritus lecturer in British Black and Asian Literature, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What black writers think about the UK’s publishing industry – a survey



Monkeybusinessimagery/Shutterstock

Catherine Harris, Sheffield Hallam University and Bernadette Stiell, Sheffield Hallam University

As people seek to educate themselves in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sales of books by black British authors, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Bernadine Evaristo, have topped the UK bestseller lists. Several recent prestigious awards have also been won by black writers, including Candice Carty-Williams who won book of the year for Queenie at the British Book Awards. Although proud of her achievement, she was also “sad and confused” on discovering she was the first black author to win this award in its 25-year history.

While these firsts must be celebrated, they also shine a light on publishing’s systemic practices, which have maintained inequalities and under-representation for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and diverse books. Despite awareness of its shortcomings and years of debates and initiatives (diversity schemes, blind recruiting practices and manuscript submission processes) the industry has generally failed to achieve lasting change. This is because they fail to address the broader systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, which contribute to ongoing under-representation in the industry.

A substantial market

Our research on diversity in children’s publishing included an online survey of 330 responses and 28 in-depth follow-up interviews with people working across the sector. We found that a key barrier has been the engrained perception among industry decision-makers that there is a limited market for diverse books. This is a belief that books written by black and diverse authors or featuring non-white characters just don’t sell.

This perception is seen across the industry, including in children’s literature. This is despite evidence of substantial markets. For instance, a third of English primary pupils are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. However, a report by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education revealed that although the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists in children’s books had increased from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018, there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.

A third of English primary pupils come from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, which represents a substantial market for diverse books.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Similarly, BookTrust reported that only 6% of children’s authors published in the UK in 2017 were from ethnic minority backgrounds, only a minor improvement from 4% in 2007.

What we found was that the lack of role models in the books read by children and young people of colour meant that they were less likely to aspire to careers in the sector. From those we spoke to, this was compounded by the lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles, in publishing. For those who had pursued a publishing career, experiences of everyday racism and microaggressions were widespread. This added to feelings of frustration and a sense that they were not welcome or did not belong in the industry.

Commissioning problems

This all has a knock-on effect on what gets published. Authors of colour that we spoke to expressed frustration about the commissioning process. This included quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.

Reliance on “traditional routes” to publishing also disadvantages black and working-class authors. Publishers reported receiving high volumes of submissions and heavy workloads led to them relying on established writers rather than seeking out new, diverse talent. This has the impact of narrowing the pool of authors from which books are published.

Our participants – including authors, illustrators, editorial assistants and agents – widely reported that a lack of cultural understanding can also lead to the view that diverse books are a riskier investment. They explained how limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand. From their experience, miscommunication at subsequent points along the supply chain about the demand for and availability of diverse books means that those that are published may not even reach bookshop shelves.

Those interviewed expressed frustration about miscommunication about demands for diverse books leading to many not ending bookshops.
Gary L Hider/Shutterstock

These interconnected factors (among others) create a negative cycle which perpetuates the lack of representation of minorities across all parts of the sector, including the lack of authors of colour being nominated for prizes and awards. Recommendations from our research include ensuring diversity on selection panels for events and awards and some good work is already taking place. However, more systematic collaboration and commitment from the sector will be required to produce lasting and meaningful changes and achieve equality and representation.

Our research participants pointed out that social media was allowing individuals to more effectively come together and raise their voices in support of diversity and representation. They expressed hope that this may help to drive forward meaningful and lasting change in the sector. There are signs that this may be the case with recent campaigns emerging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The #publishingpaidme campaign highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances. The publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to multicultural voices, ran the campaign #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower to draw attention to black authors and book professionals and demonstrate the market for these books. The newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, including many of Britain’s best-known authors and poets, wrote an open letter airing concerns and demanding immediate action from publishers. The hope is that these campaigns can focus the industry on bringing about meaningful change.The Conversation

Catherine Harris, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University and Bernadette Stiell, Senior research fellow in the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Andrea Levy: her important body of work set out what it is to be black and British


Sarah Lawson Welsh, York St John University

Prize-winning British novelist Andrea Levy, who died on February 14, will be remembered affectionately for raising awareness of black British writing and the closely intertwined histories of Britain and the Caribbean more than any other British writer of recent times (save perhaps Zadie Smith). In a career spanning 25 years, during which she published five novels (two of which were successfully adapted for television) and a luminous collection of short stories and essays – a significant legacy in itself – Levy garnered an unusually wide readership which crossed literary, popular and academic lines.

Like Angela, the protagonist of her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), Levy was of Jamaican parentage, her father being one of the original Windrush passengers arriving in Britain in 1948, her mother following shortly after. Levy herself grew up in a working-class household with few books, recalling in characteristically frank terms that “being a working-class girl I mainly watched telly”.

Like Faith, the protagonist of her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Levy knew little about her heritage and took little interest in Caribbean history and culture until a startling experience in a Racism Awareness training session at work launched her on a journey of rediscovery. As Faith’s mother says: “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”

Levy’s meticulously researched fictions interrogate the human experience of migration to and from the Caribbean in different periods. In Small Island (2004), Levy explores the ways in which Caribbean people were racially “othered” and made to feel unwelcome outsiders in Britain, despite being invited to migrate as British subjects in the post-1945 period.

In her final novel, The Long Song (2010), Levy harnesses fiction to, in her words, “go farther” – imaginatively excavating the human experiences of slavery from a variety of perspectives. Later on, in a twist stranger than fiction, Levy discovered that she herself, like her fictional character Miss July, was descended from a mixed-race liaison between a slave and a white overseer.

Although happy to be termed a black British writer, Levy importantly always saw the long historical connection between Britain and the Caribbean as a profoundly British concern, rather than a niche interest only relevant to those of Caribbean heritage. Indeed, reading her nuanced and inclusive explorations of what it is to be British and of Caribbean heritage might be seen as more urgent than ever in these heated times of Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

A British story

Levy started to write only in her 30s – but her writing achieved that rare thing: critical acclaim and commercial success (notably after Small Island which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize). Her texts now have a place on academic curricula across the globe but also – crucially – a huge popular readership as her books fill a permanent place on ordinary peoples’ bookshelves.

As the many tributes from her readers, those who worked with her and from prominent black British figures such as Sir Lenny Henry testify, it is clear that Levy’s writing played a hugely important role in helping many readers learn about, connect to and make sense of the complex, brutal and often hidden nature of Britain’s slave history and its lasting legacies. As Levy always made clear: the history of her heritage was also a British story.

Small Island is Levy’s hugely significant contribution to the fictional retelling and exploration of West Indians’ migration to Britain in the Windrush era. Levy’s compelling neo-slave novel, The Long Song, is a historiographic metafiction, a playfully self-conscious probing of the nature of narrative and the telling of history, this time from a slave perspective in an attempt to imaginatively reenter the harsh world of plantation society and give voice, agency and humanity to the enslaved.

Levy’s earliest novels, Every Light in the House Burning (1994), set in 1960s London; Never far from Nowhere (1996), set on a North London council estate in the 1970s; and Fruit of the Lemon (1999), set in the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s (as well as Jamaica), document domestic experiences of black British life and the particular manifestations of racism – National Front attacks, skinhead violence – prominent in British society during these periods. Later short texts, such as the short story Uriah’s War (2014), return to an earlier period and remind us that Britain and the Caribbean have long been closely connected and that West Indians – as British colonial subjects – also fought valiantly for “King and Country” in both world wars.

Growing up black

Levy seems to have been driven by a strong ethical imperative to tell these stories of West Indian arrival in Britain, of later generations “growing up black under the Union Jack”, to address the widespread British amnesia about its colonial history and the relative silence about Caribbean slavery in so many British institutions, including the school system.

The Small Island of Levy’s title is, of course, both Jamaica and Britain, two islands intimately and often violently yoked together by more than 300 years of shared history and culture. While Levy’s novels are set during different periods, they are all part of a longstanding, shared British-Caribbean history.

Thus, Small Island shows how the experience of the Windrush generation was marked by many of the same attitudes, inequalities and tensions found in the earlier period of plantation slavery in Jamaica, as explored in The Long Song. Levy’s 2014 essay Back to My Own Country, meanwhile, is a moving and powerful account of family, racism and her turn to writing. All are part of the largely forgotten history of Britain’s deep relationship with the Caribbean – a history which Levy’s texts show us is not just “out there” but “here (in Britain) too”.

Ultimately, what links all Levy’s texts is their deep humanity. Fittingly, Levy herself said that: “None of my books is just about race … They’re about people and history.” She described Miss July, the protagonist and chief narrator of The Long Song as “human, very smart, feisty”. There could be no better way of describing Levy as a writer.The Conversation

Sarah Lawson Welsh, Reader & Associate Professor in English & Postcolonial Literatures, York St John University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.