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Rewriting the Story of Race in Appalachia
Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin, a researcher, lecturer, and cultural worker at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and William Isom, director of the Black in Appalachia project at East Tennessee PBS, were searching for the project to collaborate on that would help share their passion and research on the Black Appalachian experience.
So, in 2019, when PRX—the Public Radio Exchange—began accepting applications for podcast pitches, Isom and podcast producer Chris Smith approached El-Amin about pitching a Black in Appalachia podcast.
“Hell, yeah, I’ll be interested in doing it,” El-Amin told 100 Days in Appalachia during an Instagram Live discussion about the project. The pitch was the first in the PRX challenge, which typically serves public radio creators, to come from a PBS station
The pitch was selected, giving the team access to training and funding that led to the July 2020 launch.
The Black in Appalachia podcast, which El-Amin co-hosts with journalist and literary activist Angela Dennis, narrates the Black experience in Appalachia and the long history of Black communities in the region—narratives that they say are often overlooked or ignored in mainstream (read White-run) media.
“Through historical and contemporary stories of people, places and experiences, hosts Enkeshi El-Amin and Angela Dennis interrogate what it means to be Black in Appalachia, creating space where under-told stories can be heard and Black identity can be reclaimed,” the podcast’s website proclaims.
El-Amin spoke with 100 Days Digital Managing Editor Ashton Marra about the podcast’s recent success, the importance of repositioning history and the impact words can have on our understanding of our history.
Responses have been edited for clarity. View the full conversation on 100 Days in Appalachia’s Instagram page.
Ashton Marra: The podcast is pretty new, you all just started in July, so how did you get started?
Enkeshi El-Amin: So, I do research on Black Knoxville within the context of Appalachia, and early on when I started doing my research, folks kept telling me that I had to meet William Isom, and we had a lot of mutual friends and I guess they were telling him the same thing. So, it was just sort of like, you all need to know each other. Eventually, we did meet and we talked about our research.
It was kind of cool because William and I get to be Black in Appalachia nerds together in a way that other people don’t usually understand and it’s fun. We had this really nice relationship where we get to just dig in and be excited about [our research] with each other. We talked for a while about working on a project together, and we made a couple of attempts and they didn’t work out, but about a year and a half ago, William and our producer Chris Smith reached out to me and they were like, “Hey we saw this call for podcasts and we’re thinking about pitching a Black in Appalachia podcast. …We wanted to know if you’d be interested in doing it?” and I was like “Hell, yeah, I’ll be interested in doing it. Who else would do it? This is my job. Let’s do it.” So, William and I applied for that grant, and we heard back from them shortly after that we were selected.
We were really honored and excited to be the first and only TV station that they’ve worked with through this program. We were selected along with five other stations from around the country to do this really intensive, exciting, take you out of your comfort zone sort of training with Public Radio Exchange in Boston. So, starting last October, we started flying out to Boston for the training. It was really amazing.
We started working on a pilot episode last October. We worked it out over the course of three months, which is really nice. Of course, we don’t get that luxury anymore. But early on, once we started the training after the very first visit to Boston, we knew that we did not want a regular NPR-sounding podcast. We wanted something a little bit more upbeat and lively and really kind of showcasing, but also representing who we are as Black folks.
We reached out to Angela very early on in the process, so she came on board and we started playing around with a format, and it’s been good.
Marra: Were you and Angela friends before this process started? As a listener, when I turn on an episode, it feels like, “Oh, these two ladies who have known each other for 30 years are talking about things that they think are cool.” So, have you all known each other for a long time?
El-Amin: We were not friends. We knew of each other probably more so than we knew each other. I really kind of met Angela on Facebook. She had been doing some freelance writing here in Knoxville for a little bit, and we were both in similar organizing spaces at different times. So, we knew of each other and then I think really what attracted me to Angela was her writing. I knew she was writing about race, and issues affecting Black Knoxvillians. …When I saw her writing, I was like, “OK, this is somebody that would be good to bring in onto the team.” That’s kind of where it started.
We get along well, which is really nice. I think the whole podcast team—sometimes I feel like if people could only see the craziness and fun that goes on in the making of this podcast. But, we have a really good team, and that’s really nice as far as people who really like each other.
Marra: So, I want to talk specifically about a couple of episodes that I felt like were really representative, at least from my perspective, of what you all are trying to do overall. I re-listened to the episode last night about The Great Migration. I really liked that one, and in it, you all are talking about the shift in population as Black people move from the South into kind of Central Appalachia as a stopping point along the way into Northern cities to work in factories.
There’s this moment where I think Angela specifically says this is the story of the Great Migration, but that’s not the only story. And you respond to her in this way that I feel like just describes the podcast so well. You say, yeah this is the other story. Can you talk about how this podcast is representative of the other story of Appalachia that you’re trying to tell?
El-Amin: That episode is definitely one that we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on, and people really like it, so I’m pleased about that.
When I started doing research on Black Knoxville, Black Appalachia, in general, my interest in this kind of came out of … I moved here for graduate school. I was living here. I was seeing things around me as they relate to the Black experience, as it relates to issues of race that were sort of almost invisible. They’re happening in front of you, but nobody is saying anything about it. Nobody is talking about race in this way or at least not a lot—not in a public way.
But at the same time, I was in a department where I was hearing a lot about Appalachia. I was also studying environmental sociology. I heard a lot about mountaintop removal and all of the environmental issues that were going on in Appalachia. All these conversations about poor Whites and loss of jobs and all of these things, which are important things, but I was just kind of thinking… where’s the Black people in all of this? I know there are Black people here because I’m living in Knoxville, and I’m seeing it, but there’s no conversation whatsoever about life for Black folks.
So, honestly, that’s kind of where this interest for me got started. I’m seeing one thing that I’m trying to grapple with this experience as a Black person in this space. I’m hearing a lot about Appalachia because this is my first time actually being in Appalachia and even really spending the time to think about what and where Appalachia is. But I see no Blackness in it. I sort of started pivoting my research from environmental sociology, and really delving into race a little bit more.
I tell that story to tell you that we know that there’s a general perception of this region. For people who are from here, or who are not from here, even for Black folks in Appalachia, they don’t always see themselves as part of this region. They don’t claim this identity. There’s a kind of contestation there with their Appalachian identity. People will refer to Appalachians as people up there in the mountains.
So we know that there’s a general narrative of Appalachia that doesn’t look like what our narratives look like. It’s very White, it’s very rural, it’s very poor, backwards. The same things that even White folks in this region are not always comfortable with because it paints folks in Appalachia in a very narrow way.
So, the Black in Appalachia podcast was definitely looking to push that narrative to help us to reimagine Appalachia, and to think about the intersections of place and race and culture, and looking to see where we can bring to the forefront the stories of Black folks in this region. We’re telling different stories. We’re telling a different story from what you’ve heard in the past about Appalachia.
And also a different story about what you’ve heard about Black folks at times. Because that particular Great Migration story was not the one that we’ve heard in the past. So in studying Black experiences in Appalachia and really talking about Black experiences in Appalachia, we even get a more nuanced understanding of the Black experience in general.
Marra: There’s a common language that I feel like we—and when I say we, I mean White people and White Appalachians—use to discuss our history. It is the language that is in our history books. It’s in the textbooks in our elementary schools and our high schools. You all don’t just reposition history in your podcast, you also do it explicitly through language and through the words that you are choosing to use.
I want to just talk about one example in the Cupid’s Mansion episode, which is your Halloween episode. But we get to near the end, this story about the Ramsey house—which was really the Ramsey plantation—there’s a discussion about how the White tour guide chooses to cast that word.
But that’s actually not the part of the story that I found so fascinating. It was when we get to the discussion about Ramsey and how he came to his land. That he was a surveyor for the state of North Carolina, which at that point, stretched into Tennessee. They didn’t have any money to pay him. They said, “take 500 acres wherever you want.” He wanted this piece of land that was actually being held by the Cherokee. So, this Cherokee community was using the land as hunting ground. The tour guide tells you all on the tape, “well, after the land was negotiated from the Cherokee.” One of the two of you come back in immediately with the track and say, “after the thievery was solidified.” Those are very different words.
In that moment, to me as a White person hearing negotiated with, that’s what I learned in school and often didn’t question it. And then all of a sudden to hear that it was stolen from them, which is a concept that I understand, but in that moment, felt so deeply. Like it made me feel something. How conscious are you all when you’re choosing that language? Or is it just natural to you because this is the space that you’re in; this is the research space that you’re in, the academic space that you’re in?
El-Amin: That’s a great question. I think that there’s so many different pieces. There have been people who have studied these things enough for us to understand that there was not negotiating here, and even whatever you might perceive as negotiation was not negotiation here because those are real power dynamics. So on one level, we’re really honestly just trying to keep it real as we understand it. But also, just calling things out because there’s a reason why we don’t question, there’s a reason why we kind of go with the flow of things. That’s because the ideology is sort of built into the language.
If we just hear negotiation, there’s no conflict there. We don’t think of this conflict. We know that there was a conflict because people are not just gonna pack up their stuff and ship on out. We know that because that’s not natural, but also because we know that there were wars; that the Native Americans didn’t just say, “all right, y’all can have this.”
A lot of times we kind of think about Native Americans and this thievery that happened and we put them outside, just kind of like hanging on the margins somewhere. But, this was no margin. This was right there in their land. You just showed up one day and was like, “All right, I want this, this is mine now. North Carolina just gave it to me. They gave me land that they didn’t own. They gave me land that somebody else owned.” It is by definition, thievery.
And what I like about podcasting, and about our podcast in particular is that we can just say it. The same rules that govern other forms of media don’t necessarily govern podcasting. We can just be real. We don’t have to code-switch. We don’t have to use language that hides the truth. We can just be real. Part of it is intentional and part of it is how we understand this to be. It comes naturally for us. For one, we know the history and for two, logically, this is what makes sense.
If we don’t use the right language then we continue to perpetuate these things and we keep this quiet story going… and nothing gets changed when you do that.
Marra: That’s just one that’s fresh in my mind but there are so many moments when I hear you all—and it’s not like you’re making a big deal about it—but you are choosing words in the podcast that—as a White person in an overwhelmingly White state that definitely has a Black history that for sure gets overlooked—just hearing the way you all choose words has been such an eye-opening experience, a learning experience. There are things I intellectually understood but things that I did not maybe personally connect with until I heard you all talking about them. So, thank you for that.
You all have done episodes about the first town in Appalachia to pass emancipation, you have done a deep dive into “40 acres and a mule,” you did a fantastic pre-election episode on the Black women in Knoxville who are changing the political scene, which I think that was one of my favorites. I keep hearing you all say “this isn’t even the slavery episode.” So, I have to ask, what are the topics you’re hoping to tackle next?
El-Amin: We’ve got so much. One of the cool things about the Black in Appalachia podcast is that the Black in Appalachia initiative has been going on for eight years and so we’ve been collecting that data and collecting stories.
Every time we go into the field, there’s so much that we learn that we want to share. Also, people are sending us emails… and we definitely welcome them, but there’s so much. We’re definitely going to talk about slavery, we have to. We didn’t necessarily want to start there, but we will definitely come back.
Justin Davis and Kristen Uppercue contributed to this interview. This article originally was published by 100 Days in Appalachia. It has been edited for YES! Media.