Affrilachian Poet to Appalachia: Give Voice to the Silenced, Make the Invisible Visible

Mar 23, 2016

Frank X Walker
Credit Eliza Griffiths

The 39th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference was held March 17-20 at Shepherd University. More than 800 people attended the four-day event, which explored the culture and the future of Appalachia. Conference-goers spoke about many topics, including diversity and social justice throughout Appalachia. 

One main focus of the conference this year was about confronting Appalachian stereotypes that portray all people from our region as white, rural hillfolk. Responding to these stereotypes led one African American poet, Frank X Walker, to coin the phrase Affrilachian a few years ago. Walker was the keynote speaker at this year’s ASA conference. 

For years, the ASA conference has focused on environmental issues, relating them to cultural, literary and historical writing and scholarly studies about Appalachia. Dealing with Appalachian stereotypes is nothing new -- and neither is trying to diversify the canon of Appalachian writers and thinkers.

"My first year at the Kentucky Book Festival, a man said, I've been looking at a map all day, and I can't find Affrilachia nowhere."

But this year, the inclusion of many diverse voices throughout Appalachia was the main focus of the ASA conference, which was named “Diversity and Unity, a New Appalachia.”

“This year’s conference theme acknowledges that it is time to write our whole history and to right our wrongs," said Walker, who is a Kentucky native. He coined the term "Affrilachian," which refers to African Americans who are from Appalachia.

“My first year at the Kentucky Book Festival, a man said, 'I’ve been looking at a map all day, and I can’t find Affrilachia nowhere.'”

Walker said that man was serious, so he decided to play a little joke on him.

“I smiled, considering my many optional responses and asked him if he’d been using a black and white map or a four colored map. When he responded with 'Black and White' I reckon', I said, 'well that’s the problem…. you need a colored map to see Affrilachia.'”

Walker said that man walked away, scratching his head, still not sure how to find Affrilachia.

"To us it was about making the invisible visible, or giving voice to a previously muted or silenced voice."

And finding Affrilachia - or rather,  reclaiming Affrilachia - is what Walker spoke about to a packed auditorium.

He said that though Affrilachia has been a word in the Oxford Dictionary since 2011, some still don’t accept it.

“My critics have pledged allegiance to a study that said Appalachia is more striking in its homogeneity than its diversity and that rural Appalachia lags behind rural American, urban Appalachia lags behind urban America, and that metropolitan Appalachia lags behind metropolitan America to perhaps plant the idea that Appalachia was not really America.”

Walker went on name many African American social activists and intellectual thinkers who are from Appalachia - but who often are not identified as Appalachians.

“When people talk about the father of Black History week, Carter G. Woodson, who was born in New Canton, Virginia, a former share cropper and miner who attended Berea College before going on to become the second African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, neither he, nor perhaps an even more famous American, Virginia’s ex slave Booker T. Washington, are ever recognized as sons of Appalachia.”

Walker called for fellow Appalachians to reclaim African American cultural gems who were from the Appalachian south but are often excluded from studies about the region as a whole.

“When people talk about the woman known as the mother of the blues, Rome, Georgia's Bessie Smith, Black Mountain, North Carolina's Grammy Award Winning Roberta Flack (who wrote "Killing Me Softly”).

Walker said that even though the Oxford American Dictionary defines an Affrilachian as an African American living in Appalachia, when he and his colleagues began using the word years ago, it included people who are from many different races - and places - including Hispanic Appalachians, and even Asian Appalachians.

“To us it was about making the invisible visible, or giving voice to a previously muted or silenced voice,” he said.

And giving voice to minority groups in Appalachia - that’s the challenge that Walker said will determine the future of the region.