Earth Day 2014: How One Poet Uses Her Art To Save a Community

She uses her poetry in the spirit of activism to bring dignity and awareness to a population often dismissed and ignored

crystal-goodCrystal Good is a West Virginian poet and social entrepreneur who uses her art to spark interest and change. Here we offer a profile of how she is promoting the environment and seeks to save her community from a chemical spill that has had disastrous effects. We share her mission in our special Earth Day coverage:

Name: Crystal Good

Job: Poet & Social Entrepreneur

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in Communication and African American Studies, West Virginia State University

AGE: 39

Crystal Good’s lineage in West Virginia is six generations deep. As a committed creative voice in the African American Appalachian community, she uses her poetry in the spirit of activism to bring dignity and awareness to a population often dismissed and ignored.

Life as an Affrilachian:

Frank X. Walker, poet laureate of Kentucky, coined the term Affrilachian around the year 2000 to describe African Americans from the Appalachian region. “He claimed that word to be inclusive of the diversity of Appalachia,” explains Good, “because when you think of the stereotypes of Appalachia, what America thinks of Appalachia, it doesn’t think of the traditions and the stories of black Appalachia. And there are plenty of those stories and traditions here.”

A forgotten community:

In January, roughly 10,000 gallons of coal-processing chemical MCHM spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminating the public water supply. The company responsible for the spillage neglected to report it promptly and 300,000 residents—many of them African American—have been affected. “In West Virginia, the African American community is 3% of the state now,” says Good. “The majority of the state’s African American population was affected by this crisis. If this was any other place—like the majority of Georgia not having water—there would be outrage. That 3% makes us a forgotten inside a forgotten.

But it also gives a sense of excellence, a sense of ‘I have to try harder to achieve.’” It’s why she says that so many talents have come from her home state: singer Bill Withers; historian Henry Louis Gates; and evangelist and entrepreneur Bishop T.D. Jakes. “I look at T.D. Jakes. How did he go from South Charleston, West Virginia, to the cover of Time magazine [and this month’s Black Enterprise]? There are also plenty of unsung heroes. There’s something special here that encourages that level of excellence. I think it comes from the physical community where you still know your neighbors, and you’re a part of a tradition as difficult as it is for people to understand why you stay.”

Finding a creative home:

Good describes herself as always having creative interests. “I come from creative people,” she says, noting, “my grandmother and father were both in theater.” Her interest in poetry, however, was piqued at West Virginia State University—one of two historically black colleges in the state. Inspired by For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange, she began to explore her own personal experiences with being an African American Appalachian.

“I found myself writing poems, being drawn to the genre and trying to merge my interests in Appalachia and where I came from and the mythology of [African American folk hero] John Henry. I thought ‘I can’t be the only African American Appalachian poet.’ So I Googled it and found this canon of work that I didn’t know existed, from writers who embraced the African American Appalachian identity and who were first-class writers. After the ‘hallelujah,’ I had to figure out how to stay close to these people and keep learning.”

In 2006, Good was officially brought into the poet society The Affrilachian Poets.

Using her voice:

Amiri Baraka’s death coincided with the onset of the water crisis in West Virginia, and it reminded Good of a conversation the two had years ago. “A poet needs to be able to whip their book out like a gun—and that has stuck with me. It was a pivotal lesson, realizing how much power there can be in poetry.” Recently, Good has spoken at many venues including The Governor’s 11th Annual Civil Rights Day Celebration, which was significant to Good not only because of Black History Month but also because this year, February was declared Environmental Justice Month to commemorate the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing an Executive Order to address environmental injustice in minority and low-income communities.

“What I truly believe is that civil rights is human rights. There’s no point in fighting to order water at the counter if there is no water or if the water is not clean. To be able to use my poetry and my voice in that particular venue at that particular time in West Virginia, I was very thankful.” She also believes that this water crisis is an opportunity to start national conversations about above-ground storage tanks, the water supply, and renewable energy. “West Virginia is ground zero for the environmental conversation.” For information on Crystal Good and her work, visit www.crystalgood.net.

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