Arts, equity, and the whitewashing of Riddle Fest

I learned something this week: There are no artists of color performing at the upcoming Riddle Festival, an annual event celebrating Lesley Riddle. What you need to know here is that Riddle was an African-American musician from Burnsville who greatly influenced the Carter Family. So think about that for a minute: The first family of country music has a black musician to thank.


Lesley “Esley” Riddle, right, with guitarist Brownie McGhee.

This is not the only story where mountain, Appalachian, country, folk and roots music — much of which seems so of the domain of white folks — is actually closely tied to and even originating from the creative efforts of people of color. But because the white narrative has long been the dominant narrative, people of color tend to be diminished or overlooked or left out altogether. Or not invited to participate in a festival commemorating a person who looks like them and represents the history, hopes, talents, and ingenuity of their community.

I don’t think the organizers behind Riddle Fest intended any harm or slight, but I do think these kind of oversights pile up, one on top of the next, until we really can’t see past them anymore. Words like “appropriation” get bandied about — for good reason — but I see a greater harm. Yes, when white musicians record and profit from the songs of unrecognized musicians of color, it’s plagiarism and intellectual theft. If the original artist isn’t being uplifted and his or her family compensated for payment that the original artist never received, the crime is compounded. But there’s also a social implication: Not only are we white folks complicit in perpetuating white supremacy (I know: The term calls to mind Klan robes and skinheads in red boots — it actually means maintaining a narrative and system wherein the needs of white people are valued above, often at the cost of, the needs of all other groups), we are deteriorating the rich tapestry of our collective human story.

By writing some people out of that story, we lose track of their contributions, their talents, they unique points of view, their voices in the choir. We paint with fewer colors, sing with fewer notes, dance with a limited vocabulary. I could go on. But think of all the musicians we don’t know about because they were be written out of our collective history in order to maintain a prominent and dominant place for white artists. Think about this: Old-time music wasn’t only made by white folks. But can you name a black artist (other than members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in that genre? And aren’t you curious to know who those under-recognized artists are, what they sound like, what tunes of theirs could be shared right now?

So it’s important that Lesley Riddle was a black man, and it’s important that the black community is part of any celebration of him, and any carrying forward of his music. It also matters that while Riddle was key to the Carter musicians becoming The Carter Family, the Carters were early inductees to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, but Riddle has yet to receive that distinction. In fact, only one artist of color — Piedmont blues dynamo Etta Baker — has thus far been inducted into that organization in its nine-year tenure.

We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.


Weekly reading 6


A vintage photo of African-American bikers from the story “Soul on Bikes & Black Chrome:  The History of Black America’s Motorcycle Culture” at

An interesting read as we go into Asheville Beer Week (aka, not so much different from All Weeks in Asheville). The question that brought me to this article is: Why is Asheville’s beer scene (aka, outside of medical, probably its largest industry) not welcoming to or inclusive of people of color?

• “There Are Almost No Black People Brewing Craft Beer. Here’s Why.” by Dave Infante in Thrillist: “[The post-Prohibition] consolidation of most beer brewing in the US into very large corporations probably hurt all sorts of minorities who would have potentially owned breweries.”

To put this next piece context, I came to this story after being seriously annoyed by 45’s comment that an investigation into his Russian ties are a witch hunt. Witches, historically, were women healers and leaders who were persecuted for their independence and for the ways they sought to provide for their families and communities (doing what the governing bodies of their times would not). Witch hunts were systematic murders to stop the power of women. A white man of significant privilege and power aligning his predicament with that of “witches” (many of whom didn’t even identify as such), is tone-deaf and insidious. Here’s a story about a legitimate witch hunt in the 21st century. And be warned, it’s hard to take.

• “Witch hunt: Africa’s hidden war on women” by Witch hunt: Africa’s hidden war on women in The Independent: “These women are frightening anomalies here: they have a flicker of financial independence denied to all other females. It has to be stopped.”

• “Chelsea Manning’s Lawyer Knows How to Fight Transgender Discrimination—He’s Lived It” by Samantha Michaels in Mother Jones: “If you can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t go to school or have a job. … You can’t go to the movies or a restaurant. This is really a question of whether or not as a society we’re going to let trans people participate and be part of our social fabric.”

• Transcript of New Orleans Mayor Landrieu’s address on Confederate monuments in The Pulse: “In the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.”

Anton DiSclafani on historical fiction

“The thing about writing historic fiction is it’s easy to see the character’s flaws,” says Anton DiSclafani, author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party. “It give you automatic tension. The reader understands what the characters don’t: that their world is coming to an end.”

Story originally published at

Anton-and-CoverAnton DiSclafani, the New York Times best-selling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, sets all of her books in the past. Her debut novel took place in 1920s Appalachia; her work-in-progress is set in 1940s Alabama, and The After Party, her just-published follow-up to Yonahlossee, gives readers a window into Houston in the 1950s. But “I’m a big believer in not letting the research get in the way of writing,” says DiSclafani. “I’m not somebody who wants to spends days and days in the library.”

The After Party was inspired by the River Oaks community, a wealthy neighborhood in Houston. Both sets of the author’s grandparents are from that city, and when she’d visit as a child, DiSclafani loved to drive past the sprawling homes of River Oaks. While many of those grand domiciles are now being demolished to make way for larger, newer houses (“Houston is all about the future,” the writer says), The After Party’s narrator, Cece Buchanan, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

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The sewing machine house

Flash fiction, inspired by a house that was torn down on my block today.

IMG_20151126_145719_resizedThe sewing machine man and his wife lived here for a hundred years, give or take. When they were young, the trolley tracks ran right up the middle of the street. The horse carriages went down at break-neck speed not because the hill was all that steep (though a kid on a bicycle could peddle himself breathless) but because some horses just have an evil glint in their eyes.

After the road was paved, the sewing machine man and his wife parked their 1953 Buick in the corner of the yard. Eventually the tire ruts made a driveway. They set up shop because what with all the modern conveniences, the neighborhood housewives could all trade their foot treadle machines for modern electric sewing machines that plugged in and rattled off at a startling speed. You could button-hole your thumb before you realized what you were doing.

The sewing machine man claimed he could repair any brand, and he put a sign in the front yard that said as much. It wasn’t strictly true in the beginning, but he was handy with mechanical things — pocket watches, wringer washers, the rabbit ears on the black and white TV — and he learned fast.

The man’s wife handled the accounts and the housework and he fussed over bobbin winders, feed dogs, tension springs and thread take-up levers. His world grew in vocabulary and shrunk in proximity — everything was miniaturized. He could pass a good silk thread through the eye of a needle every time, without fail. And, if the work hunched his spine and pinched his neck, he learned to admire the elegance and specificity of the sewing machine’s finely wrought inner workings.

In the evening, the sewing machine man and his wife pulled TV dinner trays up in front of the “Lawrence Welk Show.” They slept under a friendship quilt taken in barter from a local woman who couldn’t pay cash to have her Singer 99 refurbished. But surely the handiwork of those pieced rectangles, cut from worn-out calico dresses, was worth far more than the handful of hours the man put into her machine.

It was a quiet life, with humble rewards, but the man and his wife were happy that way. And even after his eyes dimmed and he could no longer see the bobbin winders, feed dogs, tension springs and thread take-up levers, he still took in work. It subsidized their meager social security checks, for one thing, but it also gave structure to the days. The man would sit at his work bench, his fingers reading the braille of the machine while his wife stood behind him and narrated what needed to be done. Thread snag, rusty hinge, adjust the tension, dust the bed plate.

They worked as one like that, her eyes and his hands. They moved on autopilot while replaying back episodes of the “Lawrence Welk Show” across the screens of their memories, humming an absent-minded duet. And then, at the end of the day, they slowed the tools and turned off the lights. They locked the front door, climbed into bed, and pulled the friendship quilt up to their chins one last time.

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Photos from the 5 Points Neighborhood Facebook page