We’re not sure why the powerhouse trio behind the award-winning podcast Blackbelt Voices is so modest. Their show is the best thing going in the South and beyond.

We got to speak to the show’s creator and co-host, Arkansas native Adena J. White, on the idea behind Blackbelt Voices, the contradictions of living in the South and what we can look forward to on the next season of Blackbelt Voices.

A photo of Adena White, a Black woman with natural hair, wearing glasses and a plaid collared shirt.

AR Strong: Will you tell us about yourself and your life?

Adena J White: I’ve been in Arkansas all my life. I grew up in Center Ridge, which is in North Conway county – a very rural area. I grew up there with my two sisters and my parents, and went to school in Nemo Vista. It was a K-12 school all on one campus, a very small town. My mom helped my grandparents on their dairy farm until my grandpa died in 2001. So we grew up around dairy farming and all that stuff. I never did that, but my mom did, so it was always part of my life. 

So, after high school I went to school at Arkansas Tech, and I majored in speech communication and journalism, and I enjoyed my time there. Tech isn’t the most diverse school, but for me, where I grew up, it was like “Okay, there’s other black people here that I’m not related to.” 

I met my husband there, Matthew, and we got married two weeks after I graduated college. We lived in Conway ever since, and in 2018 we had our first child, Elijah. He’s almost 2. 

Why did you decide to start Blackbelt Voices?

End of 2016, early 2017 is when I opened the LLC for Blackbelt Media, which produces the Blackbelt Voices podcast. After the election, like a lot of other people, you felt kind of hopeless, wanted to do more. I was inspired by all the people who were using their voice to bring about change. I went to the Women’s March in Little Rock in January, and I knew it had different criticisms as far as diversity and stuff, but it was neat to be a part of it. It was a powerful moment. And then I kept feeling like something was tugging at me to do something. I’m not a real vocal person. Like I said, I write for a living. Even though I’m in communications, I’m not a huge talker. And I’m very introverted.

But even before 2016, when the Charleston nine were killed in the church by the white supremecist. It was around that time that I started to feel really bitter about the South. After nine black people were killed in church, people’s response [was] putting up confederate flags – I was disgusted, and I was like, I gotta leave the South. Knowing that I pretty much have stayed in a 75 mile radius my entire life, all of the sudden I just wanted to be somewhere else.

But then, I started dealing with that feeling by consuming more stuff about social justice, and racism beyond what I knew racism to be. You know, white kids I went to school saying [n-word]. They might not call me that, but every time they would say it – if I heard someone say it, I would call them out. So that was my way of fighting the good fight back then, and that’s what racism was. And then you grow up and you realize it’s more than just individual things.

Something that frustrated me about the election was just kind of how the South is seen as white. Like, when we think of “Southern,” we think, “white.” So I was kind of like, where are Black Southerners in the conversation? And even when Trump was President-elect and on the campaign trail, he would often use Chicago as a dog-whistle.

So anytime he would mean Black he would say “urban” – a lot of people do. But Black meant “urban”, and “the South” meant white, so I was like, where are Black Southerners in all this? Like, Black Southerners I grew up with? Where do we fit? So then I was like, maybe I can tell more stories about the people that I learn from. I just want to talk to them and get to know all the people down here who are like, really killing it. And there’s so many people, not just activists, just black folks in the South.

I didn’t know what the Blackbelt was until I was thinking about this project. And then I came across an article about the Blackbelt in the South. That the soil was rich, and dark, and fertile ground for growing crops. And it came to have a double meaning because black people had to work in the area to work the soil when they were slaves. And eventually living there after emancipation.

So I thought it was a good name, even though where I live now in Central Arkansas wouldn’t be considered a “blackbelt” county. There’s also a definition of a blackbelt county that they talk about in politics, where Black people outnumber white people. And it’s kind of an impoverished type area. So, my definition talks about all Black Southerners. And not just people who live here now, but people who lived here and moved away. The South influences so much of Black culture because so many people left during the great migration. That’s how it started out.

From there, a community of like-minded friends and family came together to create Blackbelt Voices. Kara Wilkins joined as co-host, White’s sister Katrina took on the task of producing and White’s brother-in-law wrote the theme music. “It was just a lot of people who cared about it as much as I did came together and just wanted to help,” said White.

From there, we started the podcast last fall. It took off faster than we thought. It actually took off nationally before it did locally. I think that because the timing is right, people are eager to learn. And that was kind of a combination of having the podcast, and then what happened this summer with the racial reckoning. So those things merged, and I think people are more receptive to it than they maybe have been previously. Like, [getting featured on Apple Podcasts New and Noteworthy section] happened before, you know, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all that happened this summer, but the Vanity Fair article we were in – that was clearly the result of people [talking] about race.

I feel like people were hungry for this. It’s exciting to see all of these Southern-focused media outlets…from regions that have been kind of dismissed, and ethnicities, and rural people, you know. I love seeing all of us use our voices. Don’t dismiss us because we’re not a blue state.  We have progressives here and we actually led the civil rights movement down here, so yeah. [laughs] 

Has this project changed your feelings of bitterness towards the South?

Yes. I think it really has. Well, first just reading other stuff. And appreciating that the South is not the only racist place in the United States. If you’re in America, you’re going to face some kind of racism. And it may not look the same everywhere, but it is there. That kind of helped me, and starting this helped me realize, you know, sometimes you may feel like you’re alone, like you’re a blue dot in a sea of red, but then thanks to the internet and thanks to all this stuff, we can find our communities in different ways. Different people who share our same values. And that’s been really helpful for me too, just seeing that I don’t have to go move to a bigger city to find community. 

I would never want to move too far. There’s certain things I just really appreciate about living here, and I can’t let people run me off. People who have been harmed have every right to leave  where they grew up. They don’t have to stay for any of that stuff. But, it’s kind of a way to reclaim it. This is my home, too. My family has been in the South since we were brought over from Africa. There’s people who moved, but like, I have people who migrated from South Carolina to Arkansas, my grandma has lived on the same piece of land for like, literally a hundred years. She just turned a hundred. 

I still have those thoughts from time to time, like with COVID and our state’s response sometimes compared to other states, I’m like…  oh gosh, I gotta get out of here. But there’s no where perfect. Whether it’s a city, or a job, or a church, it’s kind of like – do I leave, or do I try to be the change? It’s kind of the battle that we all face.

How is parenthood affecting your activism and work life? Do you feel it fuels or limits you?

I actually was afraid that it would be limiting. That’s one reason why we waited 12 years before we had a kid. Number one, I got married in my early 20s, so I wasn’t in a hurry to have any kids. But I was always trying to find my passion. Even though I had  jobs I enjoyed, I always felt like I wanted to really find that thing. So I felt like, “I don’t have my stuff together, if I have a kid I’m never gonna be as ambitious,” things like that. That wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to have one, but it played a role. I didn’t feel ready.

[Since having Elijah] I feel like I’m more… I don’t want to say more ambitious, but he hasn’t slowed me down like I thought it would. And it helps me get perspective in some ways. Like, with Blackbelt,  I think about growing it into something that is profitable and still impactful, and maybe he can have it one day. Or – my husband’s white – so he is… how do I put this…I still don’t know how to say it. Biracial is a common term, and he is biracial, but I always want to say Black biracial. I want him to be proud of that part of himself, and know that he’s Black and not try to shy away from that.

‘Cause even though I’m not biracial – my parents are Black – growing up we had…we can all tell you, both my sisters, how we probably have uncovered some internalized anti-Blackness that we may have held. And it can be as simple as hair, and how you see your hair versus someone else’s hair. My hair was straight and relaxed, and I never knew how it looked in its natural state until I went natural. Seeing people with their natural hair at the time – which was few and far between – but seeing it and being like, “Oh my God, look at their hair.” And you don’t even realize it. And that’s very surface level stuff.

You may go deeper, and then you may realize that black exceptionalism can be a form of anti-blackness. How a lot of people say things like, “I”m too black for white people and I’m too white for black people.” Like they’re not accepted by black or white people because they’re smart, and they’re well educated and all that other stuff. But when Black people hold themselves to that exceptionalism, it’s less about them and it actually shows you how they think about other Black people. I thought those thoughts before. Wondering, man, why are Black people always getting in trouble? Why are Black people involved in so much crime? Why do Black people live in these projects? Like, I would have these thoughts. 

But that’s a lack of education. Because you learn about red-lining. And you learn about housing segregation. And you learn about how things didn’t just go away after the civil rights movement like you were taught in school. 

Even though we’re Black, we grew up in the same environment that a lot of these people who were using the n-word that we had to call out grew up in. So, we had that personal experience with racism and we knew about racism. [But] there’s still those things that come out. I think that by our very nature of being Black, Black people know about race. Period. But, we all could benefit from some education on like anti-racism and systems and structures, because for people that grew up in a rural school like me, and went to a predominantly white college like Arkansas Tech or a lot of the state colleges here, we didn’t have a robust African American studies degree that you can go to and learn from. I felt – doing all that reading and learning more and more, I just felt like I”m behind. There’s so much I never even knew. 

Exposure. That’s what I want for him [Elijah]. I want him to not feel like he has to catch up, I want him to know things that – even though things are changing – there’s still gonna be stuff he doesn’t learn in school that I’m gonna have to teach him at home.

Library Club at Nemo Vista High School, 2001 – 2002 school year. Sponsor Mrs. Dollie Pickens pictured bottom left, Adena White (then Strickland) top row, far left.

I had a librarian – I never had a Black teacher but I had a Black librarian from like maybe Kindergarten through 10th grade or so, but in 7th grade is when you can join the Library Club. And almost all the black kids were part of Library Club. There wasn’t a lot of us, but if you look in the yearbook at the library club picture it’s probably mostly black kids, maybe a couple of white kids, because of Miss Pickens, just because of her. And she made me read books by Black authors -specifically Mildred D. Taylor. She would order these books for that school library, and she would get a new book in and give it to me to read, and they were good books, I enjoyed them.

I don’t know how the library’s changed since I graduated, but the fact that that small school probably has a lot of books by Black authors is all because of her. She was secretly helping me get this exposure and I didn’t even realize it. I knew enough, that like, ok she’s Black, I’m Black, we’re in it together. But the education she was giving me, I didn’t really think much about it til I got older. And I was like, “Man, she really was watching out for us.”

What can we look forward to from Blackbelt Voices?

I think the next season, we’re going to start it off talking a lot about the election. One episode will be about fighting for the South. Gennie [Hirschy]  will be on there, along with Representative  Flowers. We want Gennie to talk about messaging, and progressive candidates and progressive causes. And then we hope that Rep. Flowers will talk about getting people to run for office – black women. And then, an episode to follow that will be about mobilizing people. 

We’re going to talk about media. About bias and racism in newsrooms, and also independent media outlets. That’s when we’ll finally tell our own story. 

And then we’re hoping to do some lighter episodes. But the first couple months will be about  continuing the conversations from this summer and leading to the election. 

So yeah, we’re excited about it. And we’re introducing a new segment called Turn To Your Neighbor. And that will be our way to get back to the core of Blackbelt, where we talk to everyday Black Southerners. Cause like, to focus on these issues and these topics, we gotta talk to PhD’s and people who are well-versed in public policy, and all this stuff. But we also want to talk to folks who just have a cool story. That will be one way to kind of bring it back to the original purpose of telling stories about Black folks down south. 

Subscribe to Blackbelt Voices on the podcatcher of your choice, catch up and jump on the bandwagon for Season 2!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.