By Jessica Salfia
This summer and fall my 11th grade Advanced Placement: Language and Composition students read Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson. An anthology of short stories about the residents of a mostly black community in Kentucky, the characters of Water Street weave and wend in and out of each other’s lives, revealing the oft unseen layers of a community and the deep wells of emotional depth that exist within us all.
While reading Water Street myself, I was reminded of something I heard YA author Jason Reynolds say years ago in a talk at an NCTE convention. He was asked why his books only featured black characters, and he responded that “sometimes black folks just need to be able to be, and people need to see that.” Water Street is a beautiful example of characters who are allowed to “just be.” It is an exploration of the way daily life is and can be extraordinary, painful, beautiful, and hard.
It’s also a story that doesn’t often get told about our region—the story of Black Appalachians.
Just today, I did a google search for “people of Appalachia,” and this is what I found:
What do you notice?
You probably noted the black and white photos of mostly white, poor, women and children. Captions that read “mountain people.” People sitting outside on porches.
If you asked an outsider to describe this region you probably would hear things like “white” “hillbilly” or “inbred.” (For a point of reference do a google search of comedian Whitney Cummings comments on her West Virginia heritage on a recent episode of the Late, Late Show with James Corden. But be prepared to be enraged.)
This single story of Appalachia is one that authors, artists, activists, and educators have been working to dispel for decades. For writers of color, the single story of this places erases the existence and experiences of thousands of folks from this region.
Listen to Kentucky poet and founder of the Affrilachian Poets explain how this single story affected his own identity:
Each year I introduce my Advanced Placement Language and Composition Students to the rhetorical concepts by disrupting single stories and stereotypes of Appalachia and West Virginia. We discuss context and the rhetorical situation of being a young person from such a complex and complicated place by reading works about our region by both writers within and writers from outside the region. We talk about whose stories are told and whose are not.
Wilkinson’s work and her experiences disrupt and complicate dangerous single stories of Appalachia. She elevates voices that are often overlooked or dismissed, and is an important part of understanding our regional identity.
Listen to her talk about being Black in Appalachia on WV Public here:
And while her work illustrates the unique stories and experiences of Black Appalachians, the themes and plots are universal. Water Street is rich with characters whose experiences are familiar, yet wholly and uniquely their own.
Spring Mills High School 11th grader, Nina Saluja said of Water Street:
“Crystal Wilkinson’s Water Street felt real to me. The interwoven lives of the residents reminded me our own town but looking from the outside you could see why we live in harmony—people of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of morals depending on each other for support despite their divisions. It was a really beautiful concept.”
My students read and socratically discussed Water Street before visiting with Wilkinson at Martinsburg High School where she talked about her work, Appalachia, and identity, and answered students’ questions about writing and the single story of our region.
Wilkinson was this year’s Shepherd University Appalachian Heritage Writer, and she participated in a week’s worth of activities in our area, the student visit being just one of them. You can find teaching resources for Crystal’s work and learn more about this program at Shepherd University here.
Spring Mills High 11th grader, Sapphire Zittle said after the visit:
“Wilkinson is such a beautiful writer. Her book [Water Street] left me wanting more. She displayed the feelings of each character, and it helped explain that those that live in Appalachia feel the same and act the same as everyone else. Rather than what outsiders assume us to be.”
Spring Mills High 11th grader, Andrew Schwier agreed, citing universality as one reason he loved Water Street. He said,
“Water Street was a very insightful book that reinforced the idea that though we may have different situations and cultures, we are all human and go through the same things.”
So as you expand your Appalachian catalogue, be sure to add Wilkinson’s work to your classroom library shelves and continue disrupting your notion of what it means to be Appalachian for your students and yourselves.
According to Spring Mills High 11th grader, Kaitlyn Shank:
This was probably one of the best books I’ve read in an English class. I loved the book.”
Wilkinson’s work created wonder for my students and also expanded for them the notion of who can be from and of a place.
You can learn more about Wilkinson’s work here. And if you planning to attend #NCTE19, join Karla Hilliard and I in conversation with Crystal Wilkinson, Wiley Cash, Natalie Sypolt, and Robert Gipe as we explore the depths of Appalachian literature.
WVCTE is wondering…have you read Crystal Wilkinson’s work? Will you use it in your classroom? Let us know if you have a great lesson or activity featuring this writer!