Deeper Than Double: Nikki Giovanni and her Appalachian Elders
Reflections by Affrilachian Poet Asha French on a talk given by Nikki Giovanni at the 2019 Furious Flower Summer Legacy Seminars honoring the life and work of Giovanni.
“Right now, if you were driving… Well, nobody has flat tires anymore. But if you had a flat tire in the old days when people had flat tires, the best place to be was in Appalachia.” The world-renowned Nikki Giovanni is “caping” for Appalachia, and her “you” is me—a Black woman who, before talking with Giovanni, might have been afraid to stop alone in any Appalachian “old day” with four good tires.
My “really?” betrayed the conditioning Giovanni works to undo.
“Oh, sure! I’m laughin’ because it’s always going to be a woman [saying], ‘Pa! Somebody’s car broke down!’ And he would say, ‘Be right there!’ and they would come down and help you. They’d help fix the tire. And you’d be sitting on the porch with the woman while Pa did that. And of course you didn’t have any money and they didn’t either. So, you’d be saying thank you. But it was a safe place.”
The “safe place” Giovanni described wasn’t one of the Black enclaves of Appalachia that scholars like William Turner have written about. I’d asked specifically about White people because she ended an earlier poetry reading on a celebratory note, praising the White Appalachians who’d been scapegoated as the cause of our current political crisis.
According to Giovanni, “evil people,” namely the 45th political crisis, are using White Appalachian stereotypes of Hillbilly racism to destabilize the relationship between the Black and White poor across the country. Giovanni’s version of Appalachian history is an antidote to such divisiveness, a push toward critical media literacy, and a Bre’er Rabbit wiggle out of the old double consciousness bind.
I don’t mean any disrespect to W.E.B. DuBois when I say Nikki Giovanni ain’t studyin’ “two-ness” or “self-conscious manhood.” Rather, Giovanni’s historical vision goes deeper than double; hers is the Womanist consciousness Layli Maparyan writes about in The Womanist Idea. She moves in and out of multiple histories with trickster wit, always aware of the storyteller’s agenda. In this case, the storytellers she is calling out aim to scapegoat Appalachians for the most recent election as if ignorance rather than greed put a would-be media mogul in the White House.
“And when you see the cars [of Trump supporters], you see a Mercedes Benz, a BMW… You don’t see any broken-down cars having Trump/ Pence. And it really makes you mad because they’re trying to use these people. Trump wants to use them to say, ‘Well, at least you white, because they’re as poor as Joe’s turkey. And they still are.’
Giovanni’s deep sight sidesteps easy stereotypes to get to the heart of the matter: economic justice for all Americans. “You didn’t have any money and they didn’t either,” she’d said about my hypothetical emergency, describing a past that has stretched into the present. According to Giovanni, “no money” is the tie that binds the Black sharecropper and the White coal miner. “I was the only Black person in the room recently. And I had the whole group singing [Sixteen Tons]. ‘You Load 16 tons…” And they all knew it, and I knew it. ‘And what do you get? Another day older and you deeper in debt.’ And I’m trying to say to [the White audience], you have to remember the history that you are living with. We sure do and I’m not ashamed to say these are good people.”
“Sixteen Tons” is a folk song written by Merle Travis, a country singer from Rosewood, Kentucky. It includes the lines, “Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company sto’.” By the time Johnny Cash got to it, “sto” was changed to “store,” messing up the rhyme and erasing the vernacular clues to working class, cross-racial kinship. While the song illustrates the plight of the Appalachian coal miner (some of whom were Black), its biting irony is reminiscent of the sharecroppers’ blues. Giovanni pointed out this similarity in her effort to establish points of kinship between Black folks and White Appalachians. “You have to remember, though everybody tries to hide it, [coal miners] were not being paid money. They were paid scrip… and you could only spend it in the company store. So, you could never get out of debt.” Giovanni suggests that White (working class) Appalachians knew they had debt bondage in common with their Black co-laborers and Black sharecroppers further south. The Chicago alliance between The Black Panthers and The Young Patriots bears this out. The latter was a group of Confederate flag-sporting Appalachians who had moved to Chicago seeking the same economic opportunities as other Great Migration hopefuls, only to find a government as negligent to the urban poor as it had been to the rural poor.
According to Giovanni, the alliance between White Appalachians and Black folks goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Underground Railroad made stops along the Appalachian Trail. “If you got on the Appalachian Trail, the Appalachians were gonna help protect you. You could come in, they were gonna hide you. They were gonna feed you,” Giovanni said, peppering her history with admonitions to remember.
Giovanni’s backward glance is a forgiving one, as much a vision of possibility as a statement of fact. In telling stories of Appalachian, abolitionist quilters in solidarity with Black fugitives or White Appalachian coal miners in solidarity with Black sharecroppers, she omits other White Appalachian stories, like the ones she edited in a collection called Appalachian Elders- A Warm Hearth Sampler (1991). The writings were collected from a workshop she taught at the Warm Hearth Retirement Community in Blacksburg, VA. The retirement home must have been too expensive for the class allies Giovanni conjures today, because there were no statements of solidarity in this collection of writings by White folks who identified as Appalachian elders. In fact, I found a whole lot of shade.
In the foreword, Frances Brown, a Warm Hearth resident who taught creative writing well before you had to publish a book to get a job, was adamant: “We don’t call Nikki ‘teacher’ though that is what she does at Virginia Tech” (ix). Giovanni tells a different story, managing to right the record and respect the elders at once, “They called me teacher, but I never thought I was. I was pupil to the wisdom of age” (109).
Given the distance between those accounts, it’s hard not to read Brown as putting Giovanni in her place (even if it is Virginia Tech), especially when the shade is followed by more shade. Brown quotes a then-current issue of Virginia Tech Magazine that compares a “sedate” Warm Hearth Giovanni to her “pacing, gesturing, challenging” Virginia Tech persona (x). According to Brown, “the article brought forth a realization” that Giovanni was famous, but apparently not moreso than the late Mancye Adams, who Brown writes is “locally more famous than Nikki herself” (xi). In the foreword and her essays, Brown is not the Appalachian ally of Giovanni’s memory. Rather, she is a college-educated member of the striving middle class who may have had a crush on another housewife she wrote a few hundred words about.
The other writers in the collection (some of whom would have been alive during the abolitionist quilt years) are equally unfamiliar, outliers in Giovanni’s history of Appalachia. Mildred Andrews tells a story of a friend of her family, a rejected Englishman who moved to Virginia and bought a plantation. All these years later, she is still frustrated that he almost lost it when the “Federal Government taxed the people of the South so heavily after the Civil War” (9). Another resident spoke fondly of generations of college-educated family members and a servant she didn’t remember being “sick enough not to be able to take care of her chores” (23). Still another was a stickler for the Queen’s English, wondering if a former student “said ‘Me do’ when he was married three times, at the last account [she] had of him” (47).
In picking at the subtle prejudices of Nikki Giovanni’s former students, I wonder if I am disobeying Giovanni’s own rules for the creative writing workshop. “It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of noticing how something is said and miss the wonder and beauty of what is said,” she wrote in the afterword (111). If I am not paying enough attention to wonder or beauty, it is only to put her depth of sight in sharp contrast. In her afterword, she tells fond stories of residents, complimenting their writing styles and explaining the absences that Brown seemed to take personally in the foreword. She writes, “I have wanted the Warm Hearth story told because all too often the work-day world thinks that world is both the only one and the real one. Too many people think older people have nothing to give” (111).
If a person stopped at double consciousness, at war with the version of herself she saw through the eyes of authors who would put her in her place, she might quip, “Of course they have something to give. Racism.” But if a person is gifted with Giovanni vision, she might adopt a selective memory. She might look beneath the façade of English manners and mourned plantations to notice her elders’ longing for days when they were more visible to the world they helped create. She might even look beyond the class-divided mess of their creation to the wonder of those who resisted it, the servant who was too sick to do her chores but did them anyway. The quilter who hung a symbol of hope in the window of a quaint house just a few miles away from the Englishman’s plantation. The folks who might not spend money on a nursing home but would spend time helping a stranger with a flat tire.
Nikki Giovanni was wrong about one thing. People do still get flat tires. My most recent one happened in the West End of Louisville, a non-Appalachian city that is the 9th most segregated in the country. Quiet as its kept, I was also safe there, among residents who would immediately catch the irony (and speed up the groove) of “Sixteen Tons.” My grandparents lived around the corner, and I could have asked any of the people sitting on their porches to help me get there. Porch hospitality is just one thing we have in common with the White Appalachians of Nikki Giovanni’s revisionist history. Scapegoating and debt peonage are others. The resistant music of our untamed tongues is one mo’.
–Asha French is a writer and visiting professor at Kentucky State University. She is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, and she has published in Ebony, PoemMemoirStory, Warpland, and Muva Magazine.