Frank X. Walker
Frank X. Walker
Frank X. Walker, author of four books of poetry, is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, is currently writer in residence at Northern Kentucky University and has lectured, read, exhibited and conducted workshops in places including New York, Ireland and Cuba.
I grew up in central Kentucky, one county away from at least one geographical definition of Appalachia. My earliest attitudes about the region were shaped by the “Lil’ Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” comic strips which ran in our local paper and by television shows like the “Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Dukes of Hazard,” “Hee Haw” and the Grand Ole Opry. I never questioned the authenticity of these media images of mountain people. And though I never had a chance to express it or have it challenged, those caricatures remained with me until I went away to college at the University of Kentucky and met my first creative writing instructor.
Having Virginia native Gurney Norman as a teacher was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. His the-whole-world-is-a-classroom methodology challenged everything I had taken for granted. I not only learned valuable lessons about the craft of writing, I rode with him into the mountains, discussing Wendell Berry, Chekhov and Tolstoy.
As he pointed and talked and taught, I learned to recognize community activism in action and working class values. I learned that some people considered the land and mountains sacred. I learned that some of the country’s earliest and most important union activity had happened in the mountains among multi-ethnic coal miners and mill workers. I learned about the rich African American history of Lynch, Ky., Charleston, W.Va., Roanoke, Va. and other mountain communities. I learned that Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists had trained at the Highlander Center in east Tennessee. I learned that real mountain values and people and my own family values and people were not only more alike than different, but that some Appalachians looked exactly like me and my family.
But I also learned that most people outside the region and far too many people inside the region still called up a homogeneous all-white image when asked to visualize Appalachia. In spite of the well-documented African roots of the banjo and early African American influence on the region’s music; in spite of the fact that such important African American luminaries like songstress Nina Simone, scholar Henry Louis Gates and poets Norman Jordan and Nikki Giovanni all hail from the region, the region’s true face has historically rarely been portrayed accurately in print, on the big screen or in literature.
That version of the “truth” had been institutionalized, so much so, that when I looked up the word Appalachian in my dictionary in 1991, I found “white resident of the mountains of Appalachia.”
I considered how that definition immediately rendered people of color in the same physical space apart from the region. I tried to explain it to myself in a poem and ended up inventing the word Affrilachian, jumpstarting my own version of community activism.
I made a commitment to use my energies to organize around a simple idea, at least to me: to make the invisible visible, to force people to rethink how they define the face of Appalachia. Over years, I have seen increasing evidence that others see the value in this idea and have joined me in passing it on. But I will consider it real progress when the day comes that I can travel as far away as Oregon and Washington without people asking me if other black people live in Kentucky.
Links, and more of Frank X Walker’s thoughts on regional stereotypes and the roots of the idea of “Affrilachian”…
Unfortunately, stereotypes have a way of becoming ingrained in a people’s psyche. And caricatures, which are even more false, negative, and dangerous, seem to dig even deeper. Thanks to mass media’s willingness to not only embrace stereotypes – however reduced to caricatures they truly are – but to perpetuate them, the majority of the general public has been lead to believe that people of color have no history, no place and no part in Appalachia. That perception is magnified when accepted authoritative sources like a dictionary defines Appalachians as “white” residents of the Appalachian mountain region.
Much has happened [since I coined the term “Affrilachian], now approaching two decades [ago] to do battle with those stereotypes, and much more is on the horizon.
With the birth of the word in 1991 came a writing group who adopted the name Affrilachian Poets. Though originally based in Lexington, Ky. we have inundated the region with poetry, fiction, scholarship, literary readings, videos, workshops and our community-building energies.
Many of the original founders still live and work in the region on university campuses. Crystal Wilkinson, the award-winning author of “Blackberries, Blackberries” teaches at Morehead State University. Nikky Finney, the award-winning author of “Rice,” is taking a break from her regular duties at the University of Kentucky to spend a year at Smith College. Some of us, including Kelly Norman Ellis, have set up new roots as out-migrants in regional outposts. She heads up the MFA program at Chicago State University. Paul Taylor is teaching at Temple University. Mitchell Douglass has relocated to Indianapolis to teach at IUPUI and I’m living in Cincinnati and teaching at Northern Kentucky University.
Spreading ourselves out and seeking ways to continue our original familial experiences have been aided by technology and the internet. Our collective distance also forced us to rethink our own views of our regional identities. There continues to be an increase in the academy about all things “Affrilachian” as we find ourselves the subjects of many a research paper, doctoral thesis, literary criticism, a potential university center, new category at the Library of Congress and, as of 2006, a new entry in the Oxford American Dictionary.
But the single strongest indicator of our arrival is the growing interest in our new journal PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, which has as its mission: to celebrate outstanding contemporary literature and feature images, essays and articles that celebrate the rich artistic and cultural heritage of the region and the urban centers that are home to many of its migrants, small towns, regional cities.
The first issue rolled off the press in 2006 and has steadily built a subscription base that reflects the broad interest in our chosen subjects. There are as many subscribers who live outside the region in states that include California, Minnesota, Washington and Arizona as there are in Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Pennsylvania combined.
College institutions have recognized the value of such a journal by signing up as institutional subscribers and in their expressed interest in operating as PLUCK!’s publisher. This is great news for though of us who have been in the trenches, donating time and money to put out the first few issues, with the hopes that it would eventually become institutionalized and live on beyond our limited resources. We also are hopeful that as a consequence of its expanding place in the academy and the media, that we will eventually see a measurable difference in what people both inside and outside the region see when they think about Appalachia.