Ashton Marra Published

W.Va. Poet: “Appalachian Blackface” Story of 2014 Election Cycle


Editor’s Note: The audio links in this story contain some racially charged words that may not be suitable for all listeners. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you a story. It’s a strange, fascinating and awful tale staged in West Virginia during the 21st century when they developed a unique craft, an art form of performance known as Appalachian blackface.”

The opening lines of Crystal Good’s newest poem “Appalachian Blackface” are meant to pull the audience into a theatrical tale, one where the politicians are the performers and West Virginia voters the ticket holders to a show the centers around coal, economics and race.

“I’m looking at Appalachian black face in the context of old minstrel shows where white southerners, predominantly, would put cork grease on their faces and sort of mimic and lampoon African Americans in very offensive type skits,” Good said.

“I’m using that parallel as sort of the catalyst to the poem suggesting that in Appalachia, we’re putting coal on our face, our politicians and many other entities, to mimic in many ways the miner.”

The poem itself depicts candidates as actors, but in a show that does not pander to one party. Both Democrats and Republicans, both male and female candidates participated in the “song and dance” that is, what Good considers, an exaggerated War on Coal.

“This idea, a war on coal, is so emotional,” she said. “It evokes so much emotion that it’s brilliant in terms of putting it as a backdrop, as theater that gives you characters, it gives you plot points, it gives you an enemy, it gives you a hero, but I think there are many people out there who would agree with me in saying that there is no war on coal.” 

While controversial, Good does not back down from such bold statements. Her poem not only takes on politics, but also racism with lines like:

"Appalachian blackface performers with a muse of coal held true to the intent of the 1800 minstrel shows with their overt racial traditions of mocking the colored, the negro, the black, the African American. They did this with the direct focus on portraying American’s first black president Barack Obama as the ultimate fool, the ultimate enemy. He’s not for us. They created parodies of the president in the hearts and minds of their audiences."

“It’s a delicate, delicate line in terms of how I see it and how many other people see it,” Good said, “but I do think that race and the president’s race makes him a very easy target to steer a lot of emotions in a state that is predominately white that doesn’t have a lot of diversity.”

“I do think that part of the war on coal has positioned the enemy by leveraging undertones of racism.”