The Women of Blackbelt Voices

Black Belt was a term coined in the late 19th century to describe the fertile lands of the South worked by slaves. In present day, it has been used to represent the crescent-shaped area stretching south from Virginia through the Carolinas into Georgia and Florida, and west into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas where African Americans make up the majority of county residents. 

Three Black, Arkansas women use it to call attention to the overlooked, underappreciated stories of the Black experience and rich culture in the antebellum South.

From Juneteenth to health care disparities and interior design, to natural hair and the history of racism, rioting and Jim Crow, Adena White, Katrina Dupins and Kara Wilkins use Blackbelt Voices to “propagate the richness of Black Southern culture.”

In a little more than two years, Blackbelt Voices has grown from a small, blog-centric operation to include a podcast that has gained national notoriety in the aftermath of the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

The road to what it is today started in the weeks and months following the 2016 election. The results brought hopeless nights for White, but it sparked something that would bring about a medium to share the stories so many of us have failed to appreciate.

‘I Felt Like Black Southerners Got Left Out’

The days following the 2016 election were filled with protests throughout the country. It culminated with the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when more than seven million people participated in organized marches and protests around the world. The primary march in Washington, D.C., drew more than 470,000 people. 

White admired those who were using their voices and speaking out. She even took part in the local Women’s March in Little Rock. That wasn’t where she found purpose, though.

“I wanted to do more,” she said.

From blogs and popular culture that posited the southern experience to post-election analysis of the region, it seemed like Black people were being shut out and ignored.

“I felt Black southerners were getting left out,” White said. “The blog became the best way to tell those stories.”

So, Blackbelt Voices started in May 2018. Posts would follow for the next year and a half before the first podcast episode was released in September 2019. With White and Wilkins as hosts and Dupins as producer, the trio hit its stride highlighting the census, HIV testing and Heirs property law along with the history of racism and discrimination and other topics central to the Black experience. 

Accolades and badges of honor, like being included in Apple Podcasts’ New & Noteworthy section, and thousands of episode downloads soon followed. Through its first season of 10 episodes, the podcast has had nearly 100,000 downloads.

On May 25, George Floyd was apprehended by Minneapolis police officers for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. It would end up being the last moments of his life as former officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes as two other officers held down his lower extremities and Chauvin’s partner, Tou Thao, kept distraught onlookers at bay. 

Video of the encounter shows Floyd’s pleas to his late mother for help and repeatedly to officers that he could not breathe. Those pleas and calls for help would go unanswered as he slowly lost consciousness and stopped breathing under the pressure of Chauvin’s knee.

His death sparked a national outrage with protests, riots and unrest across that continues across the country now. The social unrest has helped Blackbelt gain a larger audience, wanting to learn more about the Black experience in America. 

‘I Didn’t Watch It’

The visceral, raw emotions ignited by the sight of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd have let loose protests, riots and general unrest in our country.

The familiar refrain of “I can’t breathe,” uttered by numerous unarmed, Black men in police custody, paired with the sadistic delight on Chauvin’s face as he brought Floyd’s life to an end brought our nation’s discussion of police brutality and race relations from a persistent undertone to an unrelenting fever pitch.

“I didn’t watch it,” White said. “I’ve stopped watching them. I don’t want to normalize it.”

Wilkins said she’s learned to scroll fast when she sees stories like Floyd’s on her social media feeds.

“The last video I watched or paid attention to was Tamir Rice,” she said. “I have a little brother who was two years older and plays just like Tamir played. To see an officer pull up and shoot a child without asking questions, finding out what’s going on, or anything, that was enough for me. I was done at that point.”

She was aware of the Floyd case, but had paid more attention to the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by plainclothes Louisville police officers March 13 executing a search warrant on her home.

Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were asleep in their home when police kicked in their door. Unaware the men who entered their home were police, Walker grabbed his gun and opened fire in self-defense. Police officers returned fire, killing Taylor in the process.

Subsequent reporting has revealed police were searching for another person who did not live at the home and was already in police custody. The Courier-Journal in Louisville has reported Taylor received no medical attention from officers for more than 20 minutes.

“Her case hit us hard,” Wilkins said. “Police kicked down the door and shot her and it’s because her boyfriend was protecting himself.”

As I listened to them expound on their responses to the latest episodes of racism and injustice in our society, it became obvious to me as to why they wouldn’t want to watch video of the encounters. 

I have watched nearly all of the killings captured on video that have sparked national outrage in the past decade from Philando Castille to Walter Scott Jr. to Eric Garner to Laquan McDonald to Alton Sterling. I watched each with disgust, anger and guilt. But what differed from my experiences to those of my interviewees was I had never been forced to personalize those deaths. 

None of the victims looked like me or my family. Sure, I was outraged, but none of them brought fear or mental anguish about the future well-being of myself or those closest to me. The same could not be said for the women of Blackbelt Voices. 

Those deaths were their brothers, their sons, their sisters, their daughters, their nieces, their nephews, their significant others. Those deaths were them.

While each moment mentioned and others not have impacted their lives, none has more so than Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

‘(Charleston) Sparked Something in Me’

Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the night of June 17, 2015, ostensibly to take part in a Bible study.

Roof was welcomed with open arms by the church and took part in an hour-long discussion. Near the end of the gathering, the group joined in a circle and clasped hands to pray. That was when Roof decided to shoot and kill nine patrons. 

Survivors said he lamented that African Americans were taking over the country. One survivor testified that Roof said, “I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.” In his confession to federal investigators, Roof identified himself as a white supremacist and said he killed the worshippers to start a race war.

“It felt like 9/11 as far as being earth-shattering and a huge deal,” White said. “I went to work the next day and was distraught. Everything was business as usual, which made me mad. It showed me we were living in two different worlds.”

White remembers one cable news report that called the shooting an attack on Christianity, instead of an act of racism and white supremacy, furthering her anger.

“I had a lot of anger,” she said. “Anger at the situation, anger at the response, anger at the lack of response.”

Dupins, who is White’s sister, said she remembers crying on and off all day in her office. 

“Nine people were shot in a church and you couldn’t say anything until two weeks later and all you could talk about was the Confederate flag,” she said. “That sparked something in me.”

During our conversation, each of them spoke about how being Black and a woman comes with a steady stream of keeping up appearances and modifications and appeasements for those around you. There’s a story White shares to illustrate how tiring and all-consuming it is to be Black in the South and America. 

There are two fish swimming in the sea. One fish swims up to the other and asks how the water is. The other fish puzzlingly asks, “What is water?”

“We think about race all the time,” she said. “Depending on how you grew up, you’re always adjusting yourself. You learn how to adjust, but it’s hard to separate myself from it. That’s just the water.”

One of the places they didn’t have to make those modifications and appeasements and adjustments was church. It was one of the places they could go and be unapologetically Black. With several pulls of the trigger, Roof had taken away that place of refuge and the sense of security it brought.

“It took away all of the ‘It couldn’t have been me because’ arguments,” said Dupins.

“The scariest thing wasn’t the shooting,” Wilkins said. “It was that he sat there and worshipped with them and still made the decision to shoot them and to talk to some of them while he shot them.

“Your hatred is so strong, you can sit and worship with them — which I think is one of the most transformative things we can do together — they let him in and accepted him and he still made the decision to murder them,” she said. “That was jarring to me.”

‘I Hope It Transforms the South’

The first season of the Blackbelt Voices podcast wrapped with the story of Marvin Leonard Williams who died in police custody in 1960 and the reopening of his case with the help of his younger brother, Ronnie, a quarter-century later.

As with many of the episodes during production, Dupins played an early cut for White to review, but this one left her overcome with emotion.

“I sat in the car and cried,” White said. “I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. [Ronnie] allowed us to tell the story and it felt surreal to be a part of something he hasn’t talked about publicly since the trial was reopened.”

She had the same feeling reviewing bonus episodes about rioting and the Black Lives Matter movement released in the aftermath of George Floyd.

“It feels heavy,” White said. “We are the ones getting this out there. It felt overwhelming to think that it’s us. It’s a good thing, but it’s hard to believe.”

As attention turns to season two of the podcast, the women of Blackbelt Voices are focused on telling the stories of everyday Black Americans along with topical issues in Black history and culture.

“I want to show Black people aren’t a monolith,” White said. “We do all types of things.”

Looking forward, White wants to keep telling those stories and continue to grow Blackbelt Voices with a long-term goal of working with organizations across the South on their public relations and communication.

“The big picture is I hope it transforms the South and helps turn the South blue,” she said. “We can’t do it by ourselves, but we want to be a part of that.”

Find out more about Blackbelt Voices at Subscribe to the Blackbelt Voices podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Pocket Casts or Castbox. Follow Blackbelt Voices on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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