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  • Effie Waller Smith: African-American Appalachian Poetry from the Breaks
  • Elizabeth Engelhardt (bio)

Effie Waller Smith loved the mountains surrounding her hometown of Pikeville, Kentucky. She especially treasured the Breaks near the Virginia border, where the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy cuts through the high mountains. Whitewater kayakers and rafters who travel there today will understand her description of the “grandeur, sublimity and … simple loveliness” of the river and mountains. In fact, they may share the thought with which she ends her poem “Among the ‘Breaks’ of Big Sandy River”: “Were I a hermit, sure this place / My hermitage would be.”

Smith imagined embracing the peacefulness of rugged eastern Kentucky in 1902—before parks were founded there, and before substantial numbers of women started camping and expeditioning on their own. And while the demographics of rafting and hiking in the United States may be slowly changing to include more women of all races and ethnicities and people of color, Effie Waller Smith still might not be recognized as the typical outdoorsy type if we met her hiking around the Breaks today with her “ankles bare and brown.” For her time, she struck a radically different figure than her fellow writers exploring humans’ relations to nature, the environment, and Appalachia—because Effie Waller Smith was an African-American Appalachian. As she says in her poem “Answer to Verses Addressed to Me by Peter Clay,” her ankles are brown because “birth had giv’n to them that hue”—but that her skin color cannot obscure her “genius,” regardless of what social prejudices might predict.

Born in 1879 on Chloe Creek near Pikeville, Smith had the good fortune to have parents who believed in education and had the economic resources to provide that education for Effie and her siblings. Although her parents Frank and Sibbie Waller were both former slaves, oral histories gathered by researcher David Deskins suggest that even by Effie’s birth, theirs was viewed as one of the most prominent African-American families in the community. The [End Page 80] Wallers sent three of their children, including Effie, to the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons in Frankfort, Kentucky. Smith uses the experiences of attending college away from home and teaching school to compare life in Appalachia to what she calls “city life,” a major theme in her poetry. She reads widely and politically, and others of her poems reflect her connectedness to events in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century: from battles in Cuba to the death of Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to life in San Francisco and Los Angeles, to media images of Woman’s Rights supporting “bachelor girls.” Yet she also always returns to intimately local details: her grandmother’s garden, a recipe learned from her mother, a favorite walk or view out a window.

Before the end of her life in 1960, Smith also experienced the tragedies and joys of private life: she was married, divorced, adopted a daughter, lived in several states, grieved for a loved one’s murder, found publishing success, and retreated into subsequent obscurity. Her poems speak of ambition, bliss, grief, religion, and friendship. She always returns to her particular location in the mountains, her identity as an African-American Appalachian, and her combination of what she calls “old fashioned” desires with modern life.

In fact, it is this insistence that the aspects of her identity are inseparable, and that one may need local knowledge to understand people and places, that makes Smith prescient and important today. “A Mountain Graveyard,” for instance, foregoes explicit statements of race, but instead weaves a complex code of Kentucky mountain burial practices (“uncarven stones are … brought there from the mountain side”) with African-American grave decorations (“bits of glass / That with white shells mingled lie”), with a celebration of rural virtues at the beginning of the twentieth century. She concludes, as she often does, that an outsider need “Smile not” at the unsophisticated burial grounds, because the local community has the final say about what is “most fair.” In other words, Smith rejects hierarchies of knowledge that would cast judgment without intimate knowledge of...