Bernard Clay is a Louisville, Kentucky, native who grew up in the shadow of the now demolished Southwick housing projects on the West End of town. Clay received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Kentucky Creative Writing Program and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective. He currently resides on a farm in eastern Kentucky with his wife, Lauren. English Lit: Poems, out now, is his first book.
Anthony Wiles is an Affrilachian artist and activist from Pittsburgh and is currently a senior at Sewickley Academy high school. After being appointed in 2020, he represented the Northeastern United States in the National Student Poets Program, which is the nation’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work. Anthony is a ninth-generation Appalachian, with roots in the rural Mountain South, which he reflects upon in much of his storytelling. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, writing, cooking, doing genealogical research, listening to music, and spending time with friends and family. Anthony intends to work in education, and wants to study history, English, and French in college, and to publish some of his writing in the future.
Anthony Wiles and Bernard Clay, both Affrilachian writers, talk about writing, storytelling, and growing up Black in Appalachia.
How did you get your start with writing?
I’ve really been writing, well, since I first learned to write! I remember making a picture book about dinosaurs when I was kindergarten, and that ended up winning a school-wide writing contest. I really only stuck to school assignments when it came to writing, up through middle school. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Simpson, was the first person in my life who encouraged my writing; she told me that I had a gift, and that’s something that has stuck with me throughout my journey as a writer.
Now, I didn’t get into poetry until I was in the eighth grade, after I had changed schools. Before then, I went to the predominantly white public school in my town and dealt with a large amount of racist and homophobic bullying, violence, and prejudice from students and teachers alike. Because of this, I transferred schools in a completely different part of the county, and it was at my new school that I discovered my passion for poetry.
Most of my early poems dealt with themes of race and racism, as well as my heritage and family history. With the support and mentorship of several of my teachers, my writing career really took off. My eighth-grade Spanish teacher—and my first ever Black teacher—Mrs. Brown, was the person who helped me get out of my shell and begin to share my writing. In tenth grade, my English teacher Mrs. Russell helped me submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which is eventually how I became a National Student Poet in 2020.
I always liked telling stories but when I was little they called them lies. Then my third-grade teacher, Ms. Bundrant, told me if I wrote down one of those “stories” that she would let me read it to the class. I wrote a story called “Spitball Heaven.” As I read it, I perceived that my classmates were enthralled, and that is when the bug first bit.
In high school, I got into Hip-Hop, especially its lyrical aspects. I was mesmerized by how rappers wielded words so effortlessly to shape stories. In my junior year of high school, I had Dr. Hawkin’s for Literature, and we did a deep dive into poetry that involved us bringing in several original poems over several weeks. I procrastinated writing those poems until the lunch period before class. In the crunch for time, I often was left mining my own life as a high school fast-food worker who was more versed in Black history than the average American. Hip-Hop was the vehicle I used to transport my narratives and political views. And when I had to read those poems to my classmates something happened. The poems took off and had a life on their own in the minds of my classmates. I could tell by the conversation they sparked. the empathy and joy people got as the poems resonated. This connection was energizing. When Dr. Hawkins teamed up with my mother and approached me about applying to Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a hard sell but only because I was a bit of a contrarian back then, but even I couldn’t deny the signs.
At Governor’s School for the Arts, I met Frank X. Walker and he introduced me to the Affrilachian Poets and the new Black arts movement that was seeded in the ’90s and my whole life trajectory pretty much changed after that. It was then that I realized that I had never met poets and writers who looked like me and wrote about what I knew and cared about. And I knew I was like them, a griot too. I went from wanting to be the first Black lawyer at one of Louisville’s numerous all-lily white firms to wanting to spend the next decade pursuing a PhD and writing novels and screenplays. Of course, I did neither, but the shift had already occurred.
What themes do you like to touch upon in your work?
In English Lit: Poems the themes all start at either family or place and then expand as I entangle layers of racism, social injustice, misogyny, and a litany of other issues that affect our society.
So, in the poem “Field Trip,” the speaker is talking about their current home in a “run-down” neighborhood. Home is the place. But the home used to be the chaperone’s house too. In a few stanzas, the poem examines bussing, white-flight, urban decay, and the ubiquitous micro-aggressions of the eighties using place as the lens.
The collection itself is in the genre of a Bildungsroman; the self-aware speaker is coming of age in a dystopian society that everyone is convinced is peak humanity. Even the speaker is convinced at points. They eventually conclude that family and nature are their only solace; their only way to heal as they wield words to fight back.
That is what the title poem English Lit is exemplifying, this absurdity of having a rigid understanding of language when language is constantly changing. The speaker knows this and enjoys trolling the language police with Molotov cocktails thrown at their fragile concept of the “Queen’s English.”
Because I identify as an Affrilachian, much of my writing revolves around my experiences living as a Black person in Appalachia. My family has been living in the region as far back as the 1790s—which is the earliest I can trace due to lack of record-keeping during slavery. This means that I am an at least ninth generation Affrilachian. I’ve traced my roots to Prince Towles, an enslaved man born around 1795 in Rockbridge County, VA, who, along with three generations of his descendants, lived and worked on the Buffalo Forge Iron Plantation in the Shenandoah Valley.
I love writing about home and heritage. Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea of home, not as a physical place, but more so as a mental state, a state of being. I believe that—especially for Black Appalachians—the geographical, and even more specifically, the physical places that we call home, are often different from the locales and buildings in which we reside. Exploring this has caused me to write a lot about home and traditions of place being passed down through my own family, for example, and how we’ve carried our home(s) with us wherever we’ve settled.
I write a lot about my experiences growing up as a Black person in a majority white area—-the good and the bad. I love to celebrate Black joy and triumph in my stories, and our rich, beautiful culture. Often, I talk about food, music, hair, and all the wonderful parts of the Black experience that have often been a way for us to persevere in the face of white supremacy whilst also creating and sustaining culture. I also like to talk about social justice themes in my work, especially in regard to racism, colorism, texturism and homophobia, specifically within the church. As a queer Black person, I feel that my identity adds an extra layer to the stories that I write, so when I talk about queerness in my writing, I often use that double lens to hone in on that unique experience.
I use nature and natural themes in my writing a lot. Being surrounded by such beautiful and diverse landscapes like what we have in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Appalachia as a whole, just creates this awesome opportunity for writers like myself, to add depth to our work by bringing in the natural world. Time and time again, I find myself referring back to land and landscape, place, in my work, and oftentimes what landownership (and lack thereof) means for Black people especially.
Growing up around my grandparents and the elders in my family, I was surrounded by stories, particularly those about my family’s history. It was these stories that instilled in me a love of place and family, as well as what help to fuel me now as a writer. I constantly refer back to my genealogy within my writing. I believe that I have a duty to give voice to my ancestors, to at least attempt to tell their stories. Up until my grandparents’ generation, most all of my forebears were illiterate. Because of this, much of what I know about my family history has been passed down orally, or from what I’ve learned searching my genealogy online. I feel that by documenting their stories—oftentimes by taking creative license—it’s the least I can do to honor and acknowledge them for the sacrifice, resilience and survival that has made me into who I am today.
How did de facto segregation play into your lived experience as a Black Appalachian and how does this play out in your writing?
Pittsburgh is an extremely segregated city, not just residentially but literally in lived experiences. On one hand, Black and white people in Pittsburgh can grow up in two neighboring communities, yet have completely different lives, and the same goes for Black people living in the majority-Black neighborhoods and towns, versus those, like myself, who grew up in the predominantly white communities of Pittsburgh. Due to the topography of the region—rivers and creeks, hills, and valleys, etc.—communities that may legally border each other, are often cut off from one another geographically and socially, leading to a huge amount of isolation. People here tend to live in the same area they grew up in, and seldom “cross the river” so to speak, let alone venture to other parts of the county in their spare time.
Growing up as a Black child in this environment, being surrounded by whiteness in its many manifestations, I had a particularly rough upbringing. I was exposed to racial vitriol at a very young age. One of my earliest memories is of a racist trying to run me over as he called my mother a “nigger bitch.” I went to kindergarten with a boy whose father was in the Ku Klux Klan. I never saw myself reflected in my classrooms nor in my community. Had my parents not instilled in me self-pride by teaching me about Black history, and had I not spent so much time amongst my family, particularly those who’d grown up in the South, I can’t imagine the place I’d be in now.
Growing up in Appalachian suburbia—which in and of itself bucks against the stereotypes of the region yet is a breeding ground for white supremacy—I always felt out of place. I never really felt like I belonged, or that I could claim this place that raised me. That’s why, which can be seen in my writing, I often find grounding in the historical places of my lineage. I come back time and time again to Crystal, West Virginia, for example, which is my maternal family hometown. Going to family reunions, visiting West Virginia and the Black communities in Pittsburgh where some of my family resides, and being surrounded by this aura of love and acceptance, of comfort–often in the face of immense economic and social despair–was for me such an important part of my youth. Because of this, my writing often revolves around this, and like I said before, the idea of home as something we take with us wherever we spread our roots.
Now, I am starting to write more about the segregation I witness on a daily basis living in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the immense level of both neglect and abuse that the city, county and state governments have done to Black communities here. Going back to the idea of home, it’s always struck me how none of my grandparents’ childhood homes in Pittsburgh are still standing, for example, their communities are shells of their former selves—very different from the vibrant neighborhoods often recounted in family stories. I think Pittsburgh has a huge problem not only in destroying Black communities (whether by physical destruction or economic and social disinvestment), but also in not respecting the Black home and its permanence.
Because of this, I feel that we’re still somewhat of a migratory people within our so-called “home,” due to the fact that adequate and affordable housing is hard to come by, especially now with gentrification and displacement. And this is not to mention the fact that entire communities are still being abandoned due to lack of economic prospects.
Once again, this plays out in my writing, in the idea of home as a mental state and a memory passed down generationally. For me, I play around with the idea of home for myself and family, as the places we left in the South for the economic stability and political freedoms (minor as they may be) that they sought in the North. Because of this and the fact that we weren’t able to establish physical permanence in southwestern Pennsylvania (a region my family has lived in for three and four generations, including myself), I view the South as our last true home. So, to me, Pittsburgh is as much my home as is Crystal, for example.
I grew up reading the Ebony Pictorial History of Black America and seeing pictures of Black revolutionaries alongside lynching picnics. I grew up walking through bombed-out city blocks left languishing for decades. I grew up watching documentaries like Eyes on the Prize which used clips of the 20th century’s greatest orators and let them explain racism in their own words. So racism has always been the glaring rotted fruit to destroy.
In English Lit, I place the speaker in a world where they begin in a brown chrysalis and then move out into an instantly hostile white society. It is hostile only because of an unseen unspoken threat. I also believe that experiencing segregation now built on the white supremacist foundation of this country is the one bond, the commonality, that all Black people have in a lot of the world.
As a Black Appalachian, it’s even more crucial because we are not even seen in most of the states we inhabit. Frank X. Walker was writing about that in 2000 in Affrilachia. I know in West Virginia and Kentucky our populations only impact a few areas, so enacting change via the ballot box is impossible. And it’s evident in how these states treat their Black populations with their laws. The way to make ourselves seen is being a Griot, a Bard, carrying stories of hope for the collective.
What’re you doing next with writing?
Well, I’m looking to publish something in the future, perhaps a collection of poetry or a mix of prose and verse, probably once I’ve started college. I’ve begun to build a relationship with some great folks at the University Press of Kentucky, who are so awesome and informative about publishing–which is intimidating to me to say the very least! Other than that, I’m just hoping to really get out there into the literary world, by doing conversations like this, for example, and by submitting to journals and magazines.
When thinking about my future, I really want to work in education, and have been pursuing the idea of becoming a teaching artist. Being in the National Student Poets Program, I really found my niche in the workshopping world, and I enjoyed teaching across age and experience groups, all the way from elementary school students to professional librarians. I feel that I can be of most service to the world by teaching and sharing my love of craft with the world.
I’ve been taking short stories I’ve written throughout the year and rewriting them into a collection. Also writing post-COVID poetry that is very nature-centric. Also, I’m contrasting the new stuff with poetry I wrote immediately before COVID. Also writing a history of humanity not sure what genre that is yet. I would love to start doing more collaboration with Kentucky and Appalachian natives. Would love to have more nature adjacent or related writing workshops also. Hopefully, get English Lit into some classrooms.