On a spring day earlier this year, Chris Aluka Berry drove through Texana, North Carolina, a tight-knit African-American community in Appalachia founded in 1850, when he noticed a man hitting golf balls near his double-wide trailer. Berry, an award-winning photographer, got jazzed about this opportunity.
“It’d make for a great photo, and it can flip multiple stereotypes,” said Berry, 43, who’s based in Atlanta and working on a passion project-turned-exhibition titled, “Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains.” Affrilachia is a term coined by poet Frank X Walker meaning “Black in Appalachia.”
When he got out of the car to introduce himself, the potential subject wasn’t pleased about a stranger approaching him on his property.
Even though Berry tries not to let fear control him, he knows when there’s not a good vibe. In fact, Berry has a rule that when someone sternly says no three times, it’s time to leave.
Berry later learned that the golfer’s neighbors described him as odd. But that didn’t diminish Berry’s hopes.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “If I drive down that road again and I see that guy out there playing golf, I’m gonna try again.”
Berry has two secrets to his success. One is his unwavering determination to get his perfect shot and to find a way to tell a good story. The second is what Berry calls having a “passport person,” someone embedded in the community — a minister or an activist — who can make introductions.
“You need that person that already has trust in the community,” Berry said.
Marie Cochran, a Duke University professor, Affrilachia historian and resident, was Berry’s first passport person and helped him forge dozens of relationships in the region. Cochran and Berry have collaborated on this visual storytelling project since an Easter 2016 trip to an historic western North Carolina AME Church.
Since, he’s been all over Appalachia, including north Georgia, east Tennessee and North Carolina documenting the everyday lives of Black folks. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Black people consist of 9.9 percent of the total population in the region that spans from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi.
“The project exists to combat stereotypes about race and class, especially about people in the region,” Cochran said. “I am most interested in telling a complex and nuanced story of Black folks in the mountains that adds to the story of the American experience.”
Black activists and artists in Appalachia are finally being highlighted in history and in the media. But Berry’s project is often about the everyday person: Mae Louise Allen, the matriarch of a Cullowhee, North Carolina, family that spans generations or attendees of the Rock Springs annual camp meeting in White County, Georgia, a tradition since 1886.
Berry is biracial and mostly grew up in Black communities. His identity not only made him more comfortable working with African American subjects, it also spurred his interest in the project and strengthened his relationships with communities. When someone calls him “brother,” he knows they’re being genuine.
“That’s why it’s really important for me to show these communities in an honorable way, a way that has dignity to it,” Berry said. “Some of these folks are some of the best folks I’ve ever met in my whole life.”
When Berry works, he couchsurfs, stays in hotels or even in his own car or a tent in someone’s yard. An avid hiker and camper, Berry doesn’t mind the nomadic lifestyle, acknowledging that being a cisgender man affords him safety and other privileges.
But accepting a stranger into your home or place of worship requires finesse, something Berry has developed over the years. This includes his three-no policy. He said he rarely feels threatened, but he’s able to defuse difficult situations by name-dropping his passport person. And when he does gain that person’s trust he said he just “rides the wave” as he’s introduced to more people.
“I want to be around people that want to have me around,” Berry said. “And I want to document people that understand that this is important.”
Most of the subjects are either young or elderly. Berry and Cochran are grateful he’s been able capture the lives of people who have since passed away. His work with young people has inspired him to possibly focus his next project on growing up biracial in Appalachia.
“I feel like I need to focus on this new generation, and how the landscape is changing,” Berry said. “A lot of the newer generation are biracial or multiracial families and children.”
Berry’s form of visual storytelling requires patience, time and a certain level of risk. This isn’t a job that will make him rich, and constant rejection sometimes made him want to give up.
“I wanted to quit. There’s so many times where I felt like people just don’t care,” he said. “So now I’m really thankful. And I’m hoping for good things to come.”