‘United Shades Of America’ Episode Centering Black Appalachians Uplifts People And Places Erased By White Stories

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Film independent at special LACMA screening and Q&A from "United Shades Of America Of W. Kamau Bell"

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New Episode of “United Shades of America” Highlights Black AppalachiaSource: Amanda Edwards/Getty

Black of people in Appalachia are finally getting the recognition they deserve. The second installment of the W. Kamau Bell series “United Shades of America” travels to Central Appalachia to share the stories of black people who live and thrive 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 focused on the experiences of black people in the mountain state and the Appalachians. The name is a play on the saying West “By God” Virginia about West Virginia.

Good said she was nervous about the episode’s premiere, but also prepared 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 not ‘you,’” Good said. “I hope people FEEL the show – because they will be immersed in the images of the beauty of the country 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 Dad David, a black former miner who grew up in the town of Osage outside Morgantown. He was one of the first people to help me understand the importance of West Virginia and Appalachia to the wider story of black people and our struggle for liberation.

What I thought I knew about West Virginia, Appalachia, and black people was turned upside down again when I met Good in 2014, after a environmental disaster brought 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 legendary American Dream. Over the years I have seen her passion for authentic storytelling help people understand the power of their own stories and voices.

Sharing space for self-determined stories and collective Black Experience

Centering the Black experience in West Virginia in cultural and political spaces was part of Good’s core guideline. And part of her job is to provide platforms for others to share their stories and experiences, not by positioning herself as the regional spokesperson.

Good shared the story of Jaston Tartt, Sr., a McDowell County farmer whose land has recently been flooded, wiping out crops, fertile soil, beehives and equipment. Good and others have tried to raise awareness to help him, and others are getting resources and support.

According to Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Tartt co-founded the organization Economic Development Greater Eastwhich is committed to supporting entrepreneurship and staff training, enabling the local community to ‘stay local and thrive’.

Good also thought about working with Crystal Isaac, a young black producer who worked on the show and helped shape the story. She said Isaac said something important: “The question of black people who exist in Appalachia should not be asked after this episode!”

Another member of Bell’s team, Morgan Fallon, got a notable mention during our conversation. Good previously met Fallon on 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 – because he has a heart for WV, a childhood history here and has always pushed for WV to be brought into a national consciousness through television.”

Good credits Isaac and Morgan for putting together an episode that speaks to the hearts of a nation while showing a community that doesn’t feel voyeuristic.

“Morgan and Crystal relied on my guidance as a consulting producer,” Good said. “It was so rare to be HEARD – I’m grateful.”

But Bell’s team has done more than just tell the stories of people who would otherwise never reach such a wide audience. According to Good, Bell and his production team have made room for her to be part of the process as an advisory producer.

“United Shades Of America” Provides Room 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 return of the series, Bell shared that he felt compelled to continue having good conversations about the issues affecting the country.

“Neither COVID, nor misinformation, nor political stalemate, nor the gloom of a sense that American democracy is crumbling, will deter me from my allotted duty to travel the country for another season. United Shades of AmericaW. Kamau Bell, host and executive producer, said 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 on critical race theory and the right-wing attempt to turn it into a bogeyman causing widespread panic in school districts across the country. Over the past year, Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum have explored the shady money behind regressive legislation, school board races, and more.

Through the African American Policy Forum, Crenshaw leads the second “CRT Summer SchoolJuly 18-22, together with renowned scholars, activists and organizers, will discuss the ins and outs of critical race theory, systemic racism and several other essential topics for supporting an inclusive society committed to equality and justice for all.

Appalachia is more than a caricature of JD Vance

Good hope that those watching the show will understand that black people everywhere live and thrive. Our history and contributions to communities run deep, even in Appalachia. She also says that the framing of the episode ensures that Black Appalachians are seen in their full personality and not just as a caricature or a footnote in a wider conversation.

“We exist and not in the shadows or as an addition to JD Vance push back or Blair Mountain interracial solidarity that doesn’t struggle with racism,” she explained. “But as a one-hour standalone 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 for more stories in places like Appalachia where black people have been obliterated by a white story.

The series airs on CNN on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.


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