“Everybody’s Street and Being Black in Appalachia”: The Prose and Poetry of Crystal Wilkinson
Crystal Wilkinson writes in Back Talk from Appalachia, Confronting Stereotypes about “being country.” She says, “I realized that being country was as much a part of me as being black or being a woman. Creeks, one-room churches, outhouses, gravel roads, old men whittling at Hill’s Grocery down in Needmore, daisies, Big Boy tomatoes, and buttercups. It was all mine. It is the makeup of my spirit. Country is as much a part of me as my full lips, my wide hips, my dreadlocks, my high cheekbones” (186). As a young African American woman fresh from the university, Wilkinson talks about returning to Indian Creek, Kentucky, where she grew up on her grandfather’s 64-acre farm in Casey County. The university, the ragging of friends, and her own shyness had encouraged her to efface the country parts of herself—her dialect, her country manners and actions. Back home in Indian Creek, where she could allow her “jaw to loosen, [her] tongue to rest in its normal state,” she would see her family and the land that she had loved with the unimpinged freedom and clarity she had as a child (185). She writes that “this land has been in our family since the time of slavery,” and she had reached the point in her life where she wanted to hear her grandparents “telling our history in their beautiful country voices . . . . A county twang—a melodic use of language that is distinctively woodburning stove, come in and sit a spell, a patchwork quilt, summer swimming hole, [and] sweet iced tea.” This was a place and a language that told her “you are always welcome here,” and it was a place to call home (186).
Wilkinson was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1962, but as an infant she was sent to live with her grandparents Silas and Christine Wilkinson, one of the few African American families living in the community where Crystal grew up. Her grandfather farmed tobacco, corn, and sorghum, and her grandmother worked in the homes of local school teachers of Casey County. Crystal recalls having an “enchanted childhood,” where she was given freedom by loving grandparents to explore nature and the world around her and to write down her thoughts and feelings about that world. Silas and Christine Wilkinson valued education, which Crystal pursued first at Eastern Kentucky University majoring in journalism and graduating in 1985, and then going on to complete her MFA degree in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville. For almost a decade after graduation, Wilkinson worked as a public information officer for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, employing many of the writing skills she would use as a creative writer. She also did volunteer work for organizations like the Roots and Heritage Festival. In 1997, she became Assistant Director for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, and this position was contiguous with her teaching in the Governor’s School for the Arts.
When she became involved with the Affrilachian Poets, their founder Frank X Walker, and South Carolina poet Nikky Finney, who was at the University of Kentucky at the time, Wilkinson began to blossom as a writer. She found that the Affrilachians—writers like Kelly Norman, Ricardo Nazarro, Nikky, and Frank X—provided for her a supportive and collaborative environment that inspired her as a poet and sowed the seeds of inspiration and creativity. In 2000, Wilkinson published her first volume of short stories, Blackberries, Blackberries (Toby Press), which would receive a Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature. This collection was followed by a plethora of magazine and journal publications and her second book Water Street (Toby Press 2002), nominated for the prestigious UK Orange Award and placed on the short list for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. In 2016, she published her novel The Birds of Opulence (U of KY Press), which received the Weatherford Fiction Award and the prestigious Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Wilkinson has had a range of writer-in-residence and teaching positions including Eastern Kentucky University (2002-03), Indiana University-Bloomington (2004-07), Morehead State University (2006-2014), and most recently Berea College (2014-2018). Her current position is Associate Professor at the University Kentucky. She and partner artist Ronald Davis have owned and ran an independent bookstore, Wild Fig Books and Coffee, in Lexington and for a time published the journal Mythium, A Journal of Contemporary Literature, devoted to the publication of writers of color and diverse voices in the region. Wilkinson will serve as Shepherd University’s Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence and receive the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award on September 26, 2019. She is the 2019 West Virginia State Common Read author and will be the centerpiece for the twelfth volume of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers (WV Center for the Book).