Eric Douglas Published

New Children’s Book Looks At 'Affrilachia'

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When Frank X. Walker looked up the word Appalachia in a dictionary 30 years ago, he saw it was defined with the phrase “the white residents of the Appalachian mountains.” As a man of color, he said that shook him.

That’s when the poet coined the term “Affrilachia” with his writing group. He said it has driven him to show readers that our region is made up of more than one race.

His latest work is a children’s book, using the alphabet to identify and focus on people of color who grew up in Appalachia. It is called “A is for Affrilachia.”

News Director Eric Douglas spoke to him about poetry and the new book.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Explain to me — as a person who admits that they struggle with poetry — tell me what will make it clear for me. 

Frank X. Walker

Patrick Mitchell
Frank X. Walker

Walker: I don’t know if I can make it clear, I can make you feel less responsible. I think the challenge of poetry is that a lot of other people have given poetry a bad reputation. Because of the way it was taught in schools, if your first introduction to poetry is through a Shakespearean sonnet, and you’re 15 years old, and everything about Elizabethan England, is so, so far away from your world, versus your family, and where you live, and how you live and your diction and your language, and your culture and your music. If none of that is in poetry when it’s introduced to you, why would it not feel like a foreign concept?

I want to write poems that my grandmother might enjoy. Or even my father with an eighth grade education, that he would hear these words and not have to run to a dictionary, or feel left out, or even be mystified by the fact that he doesn’t recognize the people being talked about, the places being talked about. But if he hears that work, and it sounds just like some of his favorite music on the radio, without the music, that he’s not lost. If you think of poetry as a cousin to say, country music, or the blues, and you enjoy those two art forms, you can enjoy poetry.

Douglas: Explain to me, the genesis of roots of Appalachia, you’re credited with coining that term, but also the Appalachian poets. And where did all that start?

Walker: Right here in Lexington, about 1991. I have a group of friends who were meeting once a week, sharing our brand new poetry only with each other. This was before the big spoken word movement and cafes with poetry nights, that wasn’t happening at all. This was the 90s. It was even considered not a positive thing for young men to be walking around claiming to write poetry. So it was kind of a secret to most people. But we were doing it in our small group and we also started to go to public events. And we went to an event that was credited with showcasing the best writers from Appalachia. We all enjoyed the event. And I came home and I looked up the definition of Appalachia and in my dictionary in 1991, the definition of Appalachia said, “white residents of the mountainous regions of Appalachia.” And it shook me because I immediately thought, “What are you if you aren’t white?”

So I wrote a poem that kind of teased out that question at the very end of the poem. I wrote the line, “Imagine being an Affrilachian poet.” And I brought it back to my group that next week to share, and I fell in love with the word and we decided the same evening to name ourselves. We’d been meeting for about a year, unnamed and not even thinking of ourselves as a group, but we decided in that moment that there was something about the word that was electric enough to make us feel something, so we named ourselves The Affrilachian Poets.

About 10 years later, the dictionary, based on the amount of use that was happening with the word and a region, picked it up and decided it was a legitimate word. In the dictionary definition, it limited membership to descendants of Africa and African Americans living in the region. Our group from the very beginning was not all Black. We were multicultural. We had Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans and Lebanese descendants. So the multicultural, multi-gender, multi-age, very eclectic group of writers who just love poetry and writing, and enjoy proximity, and kinship groups and opportunities to work and live in and out there, the region of Appalachia. That’s the definition of the word, and the group. And even today, we’re still active as a group of writers presenting. We made a couple of documentaries, all of us either teaching or administrating. But we’re all definitely still writing books. And the group has grown from that small group of about a dozen to about 40 plus members, almost 30 years later. And we’re still creating and still feeling like a family.

Douglas: You’ve written books and essays, both with poetry and prose, but let’s talk about this children’s book. Why was it important for you to develop a children’s book?

Walker: People want to try to find Affrilachia on a map and I’ve always insisted that Affrilachia is an idea, not a geographical specific region. It is bigger than the ARC [Appalachian Regional Commission] definition of designated counties that make up Appalachia, particularly those communities that feature out migrants from the region, like Cincinnati, which probably has the largest number of Appalachian out migrants. I lived there for a while. People have these ideas about the space between rural and urban, but you almost never hear about the urban connections.

I’ve been telling stories about the region that really focused on the diversity and been struck by the fact that when you consider luminaries like Booker T. Washington and even John Henry stories, or Henry Louis Gates, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, they’re always discussed separately from the space they come from. People almost never connect them to the region of Appalachia. What I wanted to do was do a children’s book that also educated the people who read to children because most of the stuff in the book, their parents don’t know this information either.

Douglas: The glossary really impressed me for that reason. I mean, I knew most of the names, but I had no idea that Chadwick Boseman or Nina Simone were from the region. I recognize these people and their significance, culturally, but had no idea that they were Appalachian, or that they had Appalachian roots at all.

Walker: To me, I think that’s really important. And that it challenges the “why.” It blows the negative caricatures out the water. If you hold up Snuffy Smith and the Beverly Hillbillies, and then say, Chadwick Boseman, Jesse Owens, Nina Simone, in the same sentence, it is hard to say, well, I know who lives there. And it’s hard to leave out a group of people who’ve been there since the beginning, as well. It’s not a traditional children’s book in the sense that children read it and be hypnotized by the sound of the ABC’s. It’s more of a kind of subtle way to teach important history and to challenge people’s notion of what Appalachia is and and what Appalachia might feel like and look like.

Douglas: Who do you want to read the book?

Walker: Grandmothers, parents, high school students, middle school students, you know, young people who are literate enough to read on their own. And even people who just enjoy beautiful images, to flip through the book and enjoy the images, and then ask questions of whoever was there with you. I hope it’s a multi-generational experience. Every family should own one of these books, in my opinion.

The book is being published by the University of Kentucky Press and will be out in February.