Award-winning author, editor, and visual artist Frank X Walker coined the term Affrilachian in reference to the often unrepresented group of African-Americans hailing from the Appalachia and pens revolutionary poetry telling the story of the region. After making his first-time appearance in Savannah as part of Seersucker Live, Joshua Peacock caught up with the Kentucky Poet Laureate and social justice warrior to chat about words, the global audience, and why it’s important to tell your own story.
Let’s start with “Affrilachian.” What’s so important about it?
The word exists to deconstruct the stereotype of the word Appalachian. Most people hear Appalachian and assume it means an all-white homogenous region. So we use Affrilachian to denote that there are people of color in the same spaces.
How does poetry open the door to exploring that definition?
Poetry is just one art form that creates an opportunity for people to have conversations and to come together and explore the things they have in common. It provides a safe space. Poetry is just one art form that allows a discourse between peoples that might not ordinarily be in the same space or at the same table having the same conversation.
Have you seen evidence of poetry opening the door to bigger conversations?
I would say so. The best example is, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Appalachian Studies Association Conference. That’s a meeting of all the Universities and programs that focus on Appalachian issues.
What has been your drive and purpose as you work outside Appalachia and is that different than the work you do inside the region?
It’s the same and different. My work is pretty broad, but the things that connect it are about social justice, identity, place, and family. I think those subject areas are applicable anywhere I go. Because of my history, I tend to write about things that have a broader affinity for different parts of the country. My recent book about Medgar Evers isn’t set in Kentucky, it’s set in Mississippi. But it’s not limited to people in Mississippi, it’s for people interested in a conversation about the Civil Rights struggle. There’s not a geographical limitation to the people that might connect with that book. I like to think that most of the work is broader than any geographical limitations might suggest.
Even though you start at a place in Appalachia, it sounds like you hit on themes that can resonate on a national or even global level.
Appalachian people tend to be connected to a geographical space. The way we think about Affrilachian we don’t give it geographical limitations at all. Because we think of it as people who may have been born in the region and moved elsewhere or people who came from somewhere else and moved into the region; both having equal access and the capacity to claim this space. So we just dispel all notions of geographical limits and think about Affrilachian as an idea and not space. As an idea, it’s bigger.
We’re dealing with some specific identity questions in our society. Have you found growing interest in that subject or something spurred from your work in relation to the question or idea of identity?
I would say that if anything, working with my students and other writers I think there’s been a growing understanding that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will. That carries more participation in creative work and self-expression. I think it’s important that people like myself exist. If you pay attention to the stereotypes of Appalachia, you wouldn’t even believe that there are people of color in the region. Some people don’t even think there are people of color in Kentucky. Part of what we do in the world is try and be as active as possible and publish as widely as possible and let people know that this region is more diverse than the national stereotype and national character portray it.
Photo source: Tumblr.