The Ohio Valley of Central Appalachia—Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky—includes some of the poorest communities in the nation.
Although the region has long provided raw materials to fuel American prosperity elsewhere, it has suffered economically and, in many places, working people have experienced downward mobility since the early 1980s. Absentee corporations and extractive industries have left the land scarred and the people in the region sick.
Among those hit hardest by the losses are Black Appalachians. Not only have Black residents of the region suffered tremendous economic and cultural losses in the past decades, but they are also simply ignored. The whitewashed narrative of Appalachia–that rural means white–makes invisible the rich cultural history of Black Appalachians and their many contributions to the region. Worse yet, invisibility means these Black communities in the region will continue to bear the greatest burdens of economic distress and environmental damage. Until their voices are heard–until they are seated at the decision-making tables–it will not be possible to overcome the long history of deliberate exclusion and disinvestment.
Yet in 2021, the region is poised for tremendous opportunity. The Biden Administration has pledged rapid action on climate change, plus once-in-a-generation investments in infrastructure and economic recovery. And because Appalachia plays a pivotal role in both presidential elections and congressional votes, there is every reason to believe that the region can take charge of its own destiny. The next wave of investment in the region could begin to rectify the past decades of racial discrimination or it could, by design or by accident, exclude the Appalachia communities that have suffered the most harm.
Black Voices Can Be the Solution
Fixing what’s broken will require amplifying the voices of Black Appalachians. The Black Appalachian Coalition (BLAC) aims to bring forward Black people in the region as leaders, credible messengers, and experts. Their very presence in public conversations can begin to shift fundamental narratives about Appalachia. And, they can do much more: they can identify and begin to remedy some of the racist policies that have long disadvantaged Black people in the region.
It starts with changing the narrative–the stories we tell ourselves–about Appalachia that deliberately exclude Black people. Contrary to some popular mythology, Appalachia is not monolithically rural or white. Just so, fixing the problems in Appalachia is not simply a matter of fixing problems for white communities. Changing the stories we tell is the first step toward building power.
Yet the work of BLAC will go far beyond narrative to confront directly the racism and discriminatory practices that have left Black Appalachians with fewer opportunities. Black people in Appalachia find themselves at the intersections of historic disinvestment that has burdened communities with air and water pollution, inadequate health care (including reproductive and mental health issues), food insecurity, and more.