Black Mountain's Kennedy creates exhibit on substance abuse and recovery in Appalachia

Courtesy of John Kennedy
Special to Black Mountain News

In January, Pack Memorial Library in Asheville will host an oral history exhibition that explores the history of substance use and recovery in Southern Appalachia. The exhibition was created by documentary filmmaker John Kennedy, of Black Mountain, who has spent the past two years collecting oral histories from individuals who are currently using substances or who are in recovery.

Scene from John Kennedy's "Let us Now Listen" exhibit at Pack Memorial Library in Asheville.

“Let Us Now Listen” will be unveiled at Pack Memorial Library on Jan. 10, with an opening event from 6-8 p.m. that will feature recorded oral histories, portraits by professional photographers, and a “living library” of peers who will be on hand to share their stories and answer questions.

Photography is by Jeremy Wilson, Scott Sturdy, Keith Wright and Tony Shivers.

The exhibition, which runs through January, is a partnership between Kennedy, Pack Memorial Library, Buncombe County Health and Human Services, Department of Health, and the Mountain Area Health Education Center.

Kennedy has collected 53 stories to date with a goal of 100 stories representing a diverse group of men and women who are active or former substance users from across Western North Carolina. These stories explore the intersections between drug use, mental health, sex work, and trauma.

The collection also explores the empowerment and hope that can be found in community-based syringe services, peer support, and treatment.

Scene from John Kennedy's "Let us Now Listen" exhibit at Pack Memorial Library in Asheville.

“Once people began to trust me enough to share their stories, I visited them in their homes, workplaces, cars, benches in a park — wherever they would see me,” Kennedy said.

“I invited each of them to answer the same two questions: (1) what do you want to share about your experience and (2) what do you want the outside world to know about your experience? Then I listened.”

Michelle Henson, a recovery ally, has transcribed recordings of these interviews that range in length from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Excerpts from these interviews are included in the exhibition.

“When we break the silence, we break the cycle in our own lives and help others who still suffer,” says Ginger Malcom, one of the storytellers.

John Kennedy's "Let us Now Listen" exhibit is being set up Jan. 9 at Pack Memorial Library in Asheville, ahead of its Jan. 10 opening.

These stories provide an intimate and personal look at the data collected on the opioid epidemic by the Buncombe County Health and Human Services, Department of Health, which will be on display as a story map.

About the oral historian

John Kennedy is a master at listening. In 2017, he produced a documentary for PBS "Frontline," with The New York Times, about individuals leaving the prison system called “Life On Parole.” In 2018, he directed and produced a 14-part video series for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” program about community traditions and better health outcomes.

Kennedy has also directed and produced short documentary pieces for Open Society Foundations, the UN Millennium Campaign, and the Global Fund. His journalism has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other publications. He has also received international attention for his art activism.

Kennedy named this exhibit "Let Us Now Listen" in honor of James Agee's collection of Southern Appalachian oral histories from the Great Depression entitled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Agee’s work inspired Kennedy to always look for the beauty in people’s stories.