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#ThisIsAppalachia: Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies

Jet and Ebony Magazines:
Channel for Black Appalachians’ Values

By William H. Turner 
Excerpt from an essay in Appalachian Reckoning:
A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

I was born around the time – 1946 – that blacks in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky moved toward a half century of labor, at the bottom of the working class.6 With the mechanization of the industry, they began to migrate, en masse, to spaces later called the Rust Belt, cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where people of color populate America’s hyperghettos. My grandparents’ and parents’ generations, by and large, had migrated from Central Alabama to the coal counties of eastern Kentucky between 1900 and 1940. My mother was born in Harlan County (Benham) in 1924.

They were no different than J. D. Vance’s people, except, of course, for the lingering effects of what C. Vann Woodward called “The Peculiar Institution,” and· the intergenerationally transferred status associated with second-class citizenship. While Vance never addressed why his family and the culture that influenced their values failed –what precipitated the crisis– black people from Appalachian coal camps and elsewhere knew the answer. They had lived, since slavery, in a failed system. I never, if ever, heard anybody early on in my life use the word “capitalism,” but it was clear to me that the system under which we lived did not permit the even and equal flow of economic resources and opportunities. I experienced –as did my peers– a system in our coal camp that allowed a privileged few, the “boss” class, to have resources that we were denied. That same racialized system waited for us when we migrated; and we knew how it worked. We were taught to accept the fact that the system would not change the rules that privileged the majority of white people and discriminated against the majority of people who looked like us. We were taught to change the system by dreaming that we could do better if we acted and behaved as though we could improve our situation by staying together as families and working twice as hard as whites to get half as much from that system.7

I read Hillbilly Elegy with more than three decades of study and intervention work in black communities in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia and with Karida’s work in mind. [Refer to full article] In the summer of 2016, as Karida was completing her dissertation, I visited a number of childhood friends in the network of what we called the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. In that group there is a strong emphasis on the “can­do” spirit that is best exemplified in the life mission of John Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publications, the issuer of Jet and Ebony magazines. Born into poverty and privation in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson, like my grandparents’ generation, migrated to Chicago, where he created for himself a place in the pantheon of the American rags-to-riches experience. Over the years, Johnson received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to society and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1996. At the time, Clinton credited Johnson with giving “African Americans a voice and a face, in his words, ‘A new sense of somebody-ness, of who they were and what they could do.’” 8 Blacks leaving the colored schools of eastern Kentucky with the migratory stream that carried Vance’s grandparents to Ohio went with this same “make something of yourself” attitude and an attachment to the belief that one could and must “succeed, against all odds.” 9 Black people throughout Appalachia’s warren of coal camps were imbued with the message of resilience contained in the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which resonated regularly in (segregated) school and church settings, going back to when it was published in 1905. Some appropriate lyrics:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

6. William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell, Blacks in Appalachia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985).

7. John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

8. Myrna Oliver, “Obituaries: John H. Johnson, 87; Innovative Publisher Built an Empire from Ebony, Jet Magazines;’
Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2005, http: / /articles.latimes.com/ 2005 aug/09 /local/ me-johnson9.

9. John H. Johnson, with Lerone Bennett. Jr., Succeeding against the Odds: The Autobiography of John H. Johnson (New York: Amistad Book s, 1993).

10. James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing;’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya7 Bn7kPkLo.

To read the full essay, purchase the book from one of Appalachia’s Independent Booksellers and please visit Dr. Turner’s website  www.whturnerphd.com.