The Harlan Renaissance: An Interview with William H. Turner

West Virginia University Press is thrilled to be publishing William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, which has just been released and ships now when ordered from our site. Turner, who was also a contributor to our 2019 collection Appalachian Reckoning, considers this book the summation of his life’s work studying African American communities in Appalachia. Here he talks to Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Alex Haley, the author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gave you advice and encouragement to write this book back in 1990. How did it all come together over the 30 years until now?

WHT: When I met Alex, he was already familiar with me from a book I’d coedited with Ed Cabbell back in 1985 called Blacks in Appalachia. Alex told me that book would only appeal to sociologists or folklorists and that he didn’t think that it spoke to real Blacks in Appalachia, or what he called, “your grandmama on the porch.” He went on to say, “Bill, I hope you never write any more bullshit like this. Write something that your mother and her people in your hometown can read and appreciate.”

In the ensuing years between Blacks in Appalachia and The Harlan Renaissance, I grew a lot, I met a lot more people, I listened a lot more, and I tried to write this book with a different voice. The result is a book that’s somewhat memory, somewhat history, somewhat sociology, but I hope that as a package it’s a voice that tells a down-to-earth review of my journey but also reflects a group’s biography—the journey of lots of folks who grew up like I did in eastern Kentucky.

You mentioned the book Blacks in Appalachia, which you co-edited with Edward Joseph Cabbell in 1985. What are some of the similarities and differences between that book and this one?

WHT: Blacks in Appalachia was a reader or an anthology. We pulled together previously published works by esteemed writers from W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington to Ed Cabbell himself, and put them side-by-side with newer voices like mine and (folk singer) Sparky Rucker. In The Harlan Renaissance, I tried to combine all of those voices together instead of juxtaposing them, if that makes sense.

For example, there’s a chapter in The Harlan Renaissance that looks at identity—what makes these Black Appalachians distinct from the Blacks who are called Gullah or Geechee in South Carolina’s lowlands or the people in the “Black Belt” of Mississippi or Alabama?

I’ve tried to pull many voices together to get the reader to understand that, in many ways, Blacks in the coal camps of Appalachia are basically no different than Black people in other parts of the United States. All people of African descent, wherever they were in America in the years since 1619, are to a lesser or greater extent the victims and the products of white supremacy. The peculiarity of the Appalachian coal camps was that those are special spaces that you don’t find anywhere else in the U.S., but the struggle was—and is—still the same. It’s the same fight in Harlan, Hazard, Huntington, Haley’s homeplace of Henning, or Harlem.

What was your process for interviewing people from in and around your community, as well as your family members? What was it like to combine your personal experience with the different narratives?

WHT: Sometimes I can’t separate my personal life from my professional life because I’m a real “one-trick pony” when it comes to what I’ve focused my research on—Blacks in Appalachia. We had far fewer distractions in my youth than my grandkids do today and interactions between people were quite common. There was no television and no telephone, so we had to talk to each other, and there were such colorful characters that I never realized that I was missing something coming out of Hollywood.

I did many formal interviews, going back to 1978 with a newsletter I’d started called Sojourner. That grew out of my relationship with my teacher and mentor, Dr. John Bell Stephenson. I was 20 when I met him—he was my undergraduate advisor from 1966-1968 at the University of Kentucky—and later served as President of Berea College from 1984 until his death a decade later. When I was 20 he said to me, “You’re from Harlan County. That’s a very special place and I hope you’ll dedicate some time as a sociologist to studying those people and that place.” At the time I was more dedicated to the civil rights movement, so it was a while later that I really began to accept his perspective and to study the people I came from.

I’m humbled that I stuck with it for this long because the study of Blacks in Appalachia was never a growth industry. I got great interviews with so many people over the years because they knew I was one of them. Between 1980 and 2015, I visited virtually every Black church within 100 miles of Harlan County. There’s the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, for which I spent over 30 years as the unofficial historian. Whether I knew it or not, just living as I have has been the best course of study for my work, and that life is captured in this book, The Harlan Renaissance.

You mention that your grandmother and father were both folklorists, and your father being the brainwave behind this book. How did the influences within your family transfer to the book?

WHT: In Roots, Alex Haley explained how he learned about his ancestor Kunte Kinte by sitting on the porch as a boy and listening intently to his grandmother and her sisters talk about their memories of the slave days. Similarly, I spent a lot of time as a young boy sitting in a corner of my family’s kitchen while my mother styled the hair of her friends—she called it “fixin’ hair.” I’d sit there for hours on Fridays and Saturdays and just listen to the gossip, the stories, the humor, and the sadness and unwittingly soak it all in.

Then there was my maternal grandmother Minnie Lee Mabry Randolph—we called her Granny Ran—who lived until she was 102 in the same house in Harlan County, Kentucky, where she’d given birth to my mother in 1924. Granny Ran was a great storyteller in her own right but was also a conduit for other folks’ stories because she was a bootlegger. You could go to her house any time night or day, and there would be somebody there getting a drink of bourbon or beer or homemade wine or moonshine, and of course, telling stories of their own.

Finally, the major influence in the stories that have been channeled through me was my dad, William Earl Turner. From the time I could walk, I went everywhere with my father that he would allow. I started going fishing with him and his buddies when I was about 5 and he was my closest friend until he died when I was 41. He was an unofficial folklorist, and I can recall him tracing his family line back to his grandmother, who was enslaved on a farm in Virginia owned by America’s first President, George Washington.

It was through my dad and his buddies that I developed an intense affinity for older Black men, because that’s who took me fishing! I’m so happy that I managed to sponge up a lot of the diction, the dialect, the flavor, the spirit, and the stories of rural Black people in southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

School played a central role in the flourishing of the Black community in Lynch, Kentucky—until the schools were desegregated, which happened while you were in attendance in 1964. How did that experience shape your journey?

WHT: At the Lynch Colored School, where I went from kindergarten through 11th grade, every day was Black History Day. My teachers—and they were master educators—had come from historically Black colleges such as Wilberforce and Fisk and Knoxville College and especially what was then called Kentucky State College for Negroes (now Kentucky State University). The halls were lined with pictures of Booker T. Washington and Mary Macleod Bethune and Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche and all of the icons of Black life in America. This was the nest in which little Black eggs like me were incubated, and we learned a sense of peoplehood and pride, and that there was a big world beyond this coal camp. My father, and most of my classmates’ fathers, always told us, “you can do better than this. I don’t ever want to see you crawling around for coal to make a living.”

Not only did the teachers nurture us, but they were our neighbors. They lived across the street from us. My “colored” school and others in the area produced a staggering number of Black professionals—doctors, engineers, professional athletes—all grown from the lessons they taught and drilled into us: the most dominant lesson being that the coal mines were temporary. When the schools were integrated, or disintegrated from my point of view, everything changed.

My senior year, 1963, was the first time I ever heard attendance called before class started. Our teachers at the Lynch Colored School knew us and didn’t have to ask if we were present or not. They called themselves cleaning up our educations, but instead, they threw out all that made us special. I probably would have been valedictorian, but they refused to count my grades because they said my prior education wasn’t of the same quality as theirs. They canceled the Senior Prom rather than have a racially mixed dance. They demoted or put most of the Black teachers out of work locally and gave most of the teaching jobs to the white teachers, even though many of the Black teachers had Masters degrees and were more qualified professionally. In less than a generation, the high school graduation rates and college-going rates of Black mountain kids fell like a mine implosion. I don’t know that it was done as some form of conspiracy, but when the colored schools ended, something happened. Things fell apart.

You set out to transform the depictions and ideas that people have about Appalachian coal camps. What are some of those common misconceptions and how did you go about changing them?

WHT: The two most common misconceptions that I’ve fought to disabuse people of are that there were no Black people in the mountains and that everyone—Black or white—grew up in unbearable poverty. I named my book The Harlan Renaissance as a nod towards Harlem, New York, and its time as the highest concentration of Black people in America in the early 1900s. My birthplace, Lynch, Kentucky, was for a time the Blackest place in Appalachia. Much like Harlem was for the East Coast, Lynch was for the mountains of the South. It was the Blackest town for miles around—the quintessential ground zero for Black life and culture in those mountains for forty years.

Count Basie and Duke Ellington played concerts in Lynch. Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson played baseball in Lynch. It was a rich little town, and we lacked for nothing. My father’s salary as a coal miner was quite comparable to what a Black man could make in Detroit in the automobile factories.

Luckily, we were never allowed to fall victim to those negative “hillbilly” stereotypes. I’ve always believed that what people don’t know about my experience is not my fault, but I have no problem pointing out what they don’t know when the opportunity to do so arises.

Please elaborate on your thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir.

WHT: Vance’s book essentially generalized that the plight of poor whites in America, and certainly the poor whites in Appalachia where he came from, was their own fault. He said that their poverty, drug addiction, and dysfunction were on them . . . nobody white should live like that in America. His line of thinking was that if he could make it out, anyone could make it out. He didn’t believe there was anything systemic in American capitalism that keeps poor people poor.

I wrote a response to Hillbilly Elegy for a book called Appalachian Reckoning. My article was called Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies, and I was saying that Black people don’t have the privilege to sit around and get high and blame our dysfunction on liberals or wait for Trump to save us. We have to keep on pushing because we have to fight through much more pernicious barriers based on race factors as well as economic or class factors.

If poor whites were not so quick to emphasize their whiteness over their class status, this country’s economic divide could have been improved decades ago. Dr. King’s March on Washington was actually called the March Against Economic Injustice, and he tried to organize working people of all colors to effect change, but no one has been able to form a strong coalition to fight the system that stagnates us all.

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