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Beth & Gerald: Faces of Appalachia

by Julie Wilson

April 2, 2024

 


In the first part of the series, we introduced you to Amanda and Joe. Although on different paths, these two are setting out to prove that the term “Appalachian” hits different when you recognize that the descriptor fits nicely before LGBTQ and Black, respectively, despite an antiquated narrative that purports otherwise.

 

With this piece, we’re going to meet two more folks with Appalachian ties: one writing to highlight and celebrate Black culture, the other encouraging her white counterparts that they are pivotal in the fight for racial and economic justice.

 

Gerald L. Coleman, who grew up in Kentucky and currently resides in Georgia, is co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of Black writers and poets who delve into their stories about being Black and from Appalachia. And Beth Howard, whom we teased in the series opener, is the Appalachia People’s Union Director for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and hails from Blaze, Ky., just south of Morehead.

 

[Author tangent: You know how in some articles they build with tasty breadcrumbs, keeping you on the hook until – FINALLY – the climax comes, and you lean back, satisfied, but also slightly irritated that they buried the lede? Well, like I’ve said before, we’re doing things a little different around here. So, we’re jumping straight into the business with no appetizer.]

 

 

JUSTICE FOR ALL Y’ALL


Beth Howard through glass door
Appalachia People’s Union Director Beth Howard Photo by Mark Cornelison

From 4 to 4:30 p.m., on what seemed like any other day on campus at her alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, the trajectory of Beth’s life would change.

 

While teaching as an adjunct professor for a semester after graduate school, she would head to the library to check her email on one of the public computers. That was around 4 p.m. An email from her women’s studies listserv popped up with news of a community organizing orientation. It was starting in 30 minutes.

 

Despite having no idea what “community organizing” was at the time, Beth felt the call. Unknowingly, she would race across campus straight into the prologue of her future.


“The people in the interview were like ‘This woman is pissed off!’” said Beth, laughing at the frank (yet accurate) nature of that statement. “And that was a good reason to hire me because they knew I had some fight in me.”


That fight landed Beth her first job with DART – The Direct Action and Research Training Center – a national network of congregation-based groups trained by DART’s team to organize and address issues specific to their local needs. This was the group on the other end of that life-changing email, looking for people eager to join in the fight for systemic change.

 

And so Beth moved to DART’s affiliate offices in Daytona Beach, Fla., to learn the ropes. After almost five years there, Beth returned to her hometown in Kentucky to be with her family and care for her ailing father.

 

As if by fate, it was Beth’s father, Scotty Howard, who was such an influential figure in her fight for justice. “I grew up with my dad’s sharp political analysis about war, that it never serves working class people,” she said. “He would say ‘It’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.’”

 

This upbringing, along with her education during college about the systemic abuse of the working class, led to a significant realization for her. “None of this had to be this way. Like, we could all have everything that we need, housing and food and healthcare,” she explained. “There’s no reason … except that there are some people who hoard all the wealth in this country and the rest of us suffer so they can hold onto it.”

 

And a lot of that suffering includes growing up in families centered in violence and addiction. “I didn’t want people to have to grow up in a way that I did,” said Beth. “My dad struggled with addiction.”

 

Until 2011, when he passed away. But not before Beth could find forgiveness, realizing that he was the victim of a system designed to ensure his demise.

“The people in the interview were like ‘This woman is pissed off!’ And that was a good reason to hire me because they knew I had some fight in me.”

And he wasn’t the only example. Through her own ancestral research, two things became quite clear to Beth: 1. There weren’t a lot of detailed records of her family (“Mostly because they weren’t that important,” said Beth. “Like, we didn’t have a family crest or anything.”) and 2. The information she did find from the past mirrored the present: lives were lost at a young age due to the cruelty of their circumstances. Cancer from coal industry jobs. Unclean water and polluted air. The toil of hard jobs that break down bodies. This led to the discovery of two suicides in her family tree.

 

“I was just so filled with grief and rage,” she explained. “I was robbed of time with my family and my loved ones.”

 

So, when people look at her with a raised eyebrow when they find out about her work with SURJ – see the photo but, for the sake of clarity, Beth is white – she knows what that look means: what could she possibly bring to the table in support of racial justice? “I’m committed to racial justice not in spite of being from Appalachia, but because I’m from Appalachia,” she said. “I understand so clearly that the only way any of us will get the things we all deserve is through coming together across race.”

 

Yet those in power continue to use divisive efforts to instill fear, resulting in the breakdown of a united front among the working class. It’s always been a reliable tactic (see immigration propaganda), though there have been memorable moments where the multiracial movement earned a win (see Battle of Blair Mountain).

 

And this is Beth’s motivation with SURJ, honoring everyone’s diverse ethnicities while fighting for a common goal.


 

 

BLACK IN APPALACHIA

 

In the first part of the series, we alluded to the concept of gatekeeping – meaning, who has the right to claim Appalachia as a part of their heritage. Is there a secret handshake? A membership card? And who exactly gets to decide?

 

Gerald will be the first to tell you that Appalachia wasn’t really on his radar when he was

growing up in Lexington. He thought the traditions in his household – how certain foods were grown and prepared, like hot water cornbread or greens – were just, well, their traditions.

 

“There are examples ad infinitum of things you think are a given but when you get older, you see those connections and how they trace back not just over the hills and hollers of Appalachia, but across the ocean and back to the continent [of Africa],” said Gerald.


Gerald L. Coleman outdoors
Author and Poet Gerald L. Coleman

The impetus of these realizations came when Gerald attended the University of Kentucky as a freshman. An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy growing up, Gerald got his hands on a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and a new door was opened. “I don’t know how I came across the book but that kind of turned on a light bulb in my head,” he said. “That was a revelation.”

 

Enlightened by the prose of this revolutionary, Gerald continued down the path of Black authors. “Malcolm X was my gateway to this rich tapestry of literary voices. W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells… I had to discover these all on my own,” he explained, lamenting the lack of Black history being taught in public schools.

 

In a symbiotic moment, along with reviving his interest in writing poetry, Gerald discovered a new passion. In a perfunctory search for an elective to fulfill a requirement, he signed up for Philosophy 100. And like Beth’s experience at EKU, Gerald’s life changed that day at UK.

 

His professor walks in and asks the class, “What are you sitting on?”

 

This has got to be a trick question, right?

 

“I’m like, what is this dude talking about?” said Gerald. “And for the next 50 minutes, he is deconstructing all of our presuppositions.”

 

Truths that are not actually true. Reality that we invented. Facts that are not absolute.

 

“When time was up, like half the class went to Funkhouser [Building] and dropped the course. I sat there for another 30 minutes,” he said. “Then I also went to Funkhouser and changed my major from architecture to philosophy.”

 

As the road toward his future began to reveal itself, Gerald crossed paths with Frank X Walker, now a UK professor but a student at the time. “At that point I thought I was the only Black man writing poetry,” he said.

 

And in that moment, these two Black poets created an outlet that still thrives to this day: the Affrilachian Poets. This opened up a creative vein for Gerald that had him exploring his heritage in greater detail. As they investigated who they were as people, that inevitably led to discovering where they came from.

 

“At the time, we were a small ragtag group of Black folks trying to claim the ground under our feet and the title of poet,” said Gerald, who is now a published author and lecturer. “Then I started to make those connections about a heritage that was alive and well in my home in Lexington but had its roots in places all over Kentucky.”

 

From Flatwoods to Ashland to Lexington. The culture of Appalachia was imparted by his family the entire way. “If folks want to investigate people’s Appalachian cards, mine is stamped,” assured Gerald.

 

And there it is, the gatekeeping. Exactly where in Appalachia are you from? And who is your family and what did they do there? And do you even know how to pronounce Appalachia? “This didn’t happen until they kind of garnered some cultural relevance, some cultural currency,” explained Gerald. “Let’s draw up these lines and set up these toll booths: can you really say it correctly? If not, are you really one of us? I find it a ludicrous exercise.”

 

But where he did find value was discovering the origins of the storied Appalachian traditions in his family, which turned out to be much more than just “how things were.”

 

“It became much clearer after asking my grandparents where we come from,” said Gerald. “They come as a result of cultural heritage that has been passed down for generations.”

 

This showed up in something as simple as the way his mother fixed his hair in the summers of his childhood. “I was raised by a single mom, and she didn’t have time to deal with my hair every day, especially in the summer, so she’d sit down and plait braid my hair,” he explained. “I didn’t think about that until I realized those plaits came from East Africa, across the ocean here to end up on my head thousands of years later.”

 

Or the “call and response” practice that’s common in many Black Appalachian churches. Gerald explains how its lineage can be traced back to the only permissible form of communication used by Black people who were enslaved and forced to work in cotton fields.

“If folks want to investigate people’s Appalachian cards, mine is stamped.”

This evolved into its usage in church as a means to share the hymn of the service. “This rose out of the fact that folks in the earliest congregations couldn’t read and weren’t allowed to learn,” he said. “You have someone sing those lyrics out, and everyone else copies that. I grew up thinking that’s just kind of what we did but there’s a history to this.”

 

Gerald is a learned man. He attended UK for more than four years, then earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. Yet it took researching of his own accord to discover history that would have the greatest impact on his life and career.

 

“I had gotten a decent, basic education in Kentucky, but it wasn’t until college that I began to understand how much Kentucky public education had failed me, how it fails Black people in a lot of ways,” he said. “It fails in terms of telling us our history. Black history is American history, but America doesn’t tell us that.”

 

Even in the fiction he read at a younger age – The Wheel of Time, Elric of Melniboné, and The Faded Sun series – had no signs of anyone like him.

“I didn’t think about that until I realized those plaits came from East Africa, across the ocean here to end up on my head thousands of years later.”

Today, Gerald uses his books as vehicles to elevate the Black voice in literature. “I knew once I sat down to start writing I would be writing things that weren’t available to me as a reader,” he said. “The heroes of my stories are Black folks. I knew I would be working to fill the void.”

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