English Festival

Author embraces Appalachian roots

Self-described “Affrilachian” writer Crystal Wilkinson shared her experiences of growing up black in rural Kentucky and learning to embrace her heritage with a Bluffton University audience on April 1.

Wilkinson came to Bluffton as guest author for the university’s 30th annual English Festival, an event that gives high school students the opportunity to read and write with working authors. Among Wilkinson’s work is “Blackberries, Blackberries,” which won the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature.

Appalachia isn’t just Kentucky, she noted. The region is home to approximately 25 million people and consists of all or part of several states, including southeastern Ohio.

Much of the region’s black population can be traced to slavery, she said. Those who settled in the area after the Civil War and began to cultivate their own farms are the ones she considers her people. “Every black person I knew was a relative,” she said.

Wilkinson grew up on a 70-acre farm in Indian Creek, Ky. Her grandfather, whom she recalled fondly, was a tobacco farmer, water witch and the go-to guy for home remedies. For example, she cited his use of beans to remove warts. “He was an Appalachian shaman of sorts,” she said.

Wilkinson was primarily raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother was the first writer she knew, and she encouraged her granddaughter to keep writing. “She would call me to supper and expect me not to come because she knew I was in the middle of something. She understood,” the author said.

Wilkinson became the first in her family to attend college and, for a while after leaving home, wanted to forget her heritage. “There was a long period of time where I wanted to deny where I was from,” she said.

But the more she wrote, the more she learned to appreciate her roots and her Appalachian twang, as well as the nature surrounding her region. “I realized that I not only loved my people and my ancestors, but also the land,” she said. For instance, one of her recent poems, “An Ode to Tobacco,” recalls fond imagery of her grandfather working the tobacco fields.

She drew much of her inspiration from nature, so much so that she found herself becoming attached to it. “I grieved as much for the land as for the death of my grandparents,” she told the audience.

Wilkinson’s roots have enabled her to write about what she sees, not just what she feels—a common mistake for a beginning writer, she said. “Being a writer for me has meant to never avert my eyes,” she said. “My heart has always been Appalachian.”

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Chay Reigle, public relations office