Africans and Appalachia

Yea, to most it may seem to be a contradiction. However, look in the history and you find that there is more in common than may be obvious. It is music that seems to link us the most; along with the slave trade. The stories are not typical though. It was music that brought me to this discovery, if you will.

A new “reality” show about Appalachian Americans premiered and the theme song sounded familiar but different. I went to searching. It is an Appalachian/Bluegrass classic… “Darlin Cory” that was later renamed “Dig A Hole” and performed by Flatt and Scruggs. The theme song on the show, however, was “I’m Gonna Put You Down” by Ganstagrass… that’s right, gangsta and bluegrass. It is what they call Rappalachia. It is actually a very nice blend that heralds back to history.

The black slaves brought the banjo from their homeland in Africa. The first documented playing of the banjo was in 1787 when a guest saw the slaves of Andrew Grier, of North Carolina, playing their banjos and dancing in the yard. The original banjo was made out of hollow gourds and goat skin and hailed from West Africa, especially Mali and Senegal. When the whites took on playing the banjo, they played what is called minstrel music; a mix of African, European and Irish music.

Another new enclave of the African history in Appalachia is Affrilachian (first coined by poet Frank X Walker). Affrilachian is usually used to describe artisans and poets of African heritage and from the Appalachia. To best help you understand, I will share a bit from Word Spy:

Frank X. Walker gets credit for coining the word “Affrilachian” a decade ago. He was attending a Southern Writers conference in Lexington where the only African-American (and non-Kentuckian) among the invited authors was Nikky Finney. 

Danville, Ky., native Mr. Walker, an artist, arts administrator and activist, looked up the definition of “Appalachian” in his dictionary. He read that Appalachians are “white residents of the mountainous regions of Appalachia” and, says Mr. Walker, “I knew I could never be a part of that great body of work.” Then he asked himself what the face of Appalachia was. He saw many commonalities. Appalachians of Kentucky share a heritage of tobacco, horses and bourbon, of love for land and family. They share the concerns that come with everything that is living and dying. But there are differences, too: in political views, urban Appalachian experiences, in a strong awareness of spirituality.

So Mr. Walker created a word that is more relevant to the Appalachian experience today. What began as a word has become a literary movement filled with powerful voices, whether their writing is personal or political. 
—Jackie Demaline, “‘Affrilachian‘ writers to congregate here,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, September 26, 2002

Slavery brought many Africans to the Appalachian region, but not necessarily as slaves. Some came because parts of the Appalachian region were against slavery and majority voted for Abraham Lincoln. In other areas, the Cherokee elite owned slaves and when they were sent westward, their slaves followed. Many stopped in the Appalachian region to eek out a living in farming and timber. With the advent of the industrial revolution, many African Americans came to the Appalachia to work in the coal mines where they were treated fairly equal. In a great essay in the Oxford African American Studies Center by Dr. Althea Webb, we find that “history reveals that Appalachia has always had a racially and ethnically diverse population that has been significant and influential.” She shows “Appalachia as a cultural melting pot, a part of the United States in which diverse groups of people have intermingled for centuries in order to produce a distinctly American culture.”

Melungeon. Now if you are from the Appalachian area, you know what this means. For those of you who do not. It is a group of people of triracial heritage: European, Sub Saharan African and Native American. There is some speculation too that Melungeon may also include some Portuguese, Sephardi Jews and Turks. Melungeons were free people in the time of slavery even if their own father was a slave because the rule of slavery was on the mother. If your mom was a slave then you were too, however if your mom was a free woman, then you were free too. I suppose this kept the supply of slaves up and lessened the embarrassment of the slave owners to their wives infidelity.

The Huffington Post did an article on DNA research done on Melungeons that you can read here. In the article, it does mention that Melungeon is a slur, however, the people I know that claim to be Melungeon never saw it that way… it was a distinction for a multiracial background, not to limit themselves to one race.

There is a family story about an African American family, the Arches. They were former slaves and came to the Red River Gorge area. The family that owned the Bowen farm previously were the Gayes. One of the daughters married a Bowen and the farm was bought into the Bowen family. The Arch family came to the Gayes and told them their plight and the Gaye family gave the Arches a piece of land; which forevermore was known as Arch’s Hollow. The last member of the Arches died in 1962 and his funeral was attended by the Bowens.

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