‘We’re here’: Affrilachian Poets make visible the African Americans in Appalachia

University of Kentucky English professor Frank X Walker poses for a portrait in his office on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, at the Patterson office tower in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Akhira Umar

In 1991, South Carolina native Nikky Finney came to Lexington to perform at a poetry reading titled, “The Best of Southern Writing.”

Before Finney, who is black, was added to the list of performers, the event was called, “The Best of Appalachian Writing.”

Danville native Frank X Walker, a UK English professor and former Poet Laureate of Kentucky, was conflicted about the name change.

He wondered why this change was made and found that the definition of Appalachians at the time was, “white residents of the mountainous regions of Appalachia.”

Moved by this, he crafted a poem using the word “Affrilachian” for the first time and presented it to his friends at their weekly poetry group. This ultimately set in motion the formation of the Affrilachian Poets and the beginning of validation for many isolated Affrilachians.

This story was originally written to preview the 43rd annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference, hosted by UK. Like many other on-campus events in recent weeks, the conference was canceled over growing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus. This story ran in print on March 3.

From March 12-15, 2020, UK will host the 43rd annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference, with the theme of “Appalachian understories.” In the region’s temperate forests, the “understory” is a place of growth in both light and shade, and it is a place frequently overlooked.

“Recognizing that forest understories are places of beauty and strength, the 2020 ASA Conference will bring to light the many voices of Appalachia that are often obscured. In the understories, people confront stereotypes, myths, marginalization, and violence and meet them with resilience and hope,” states the Appalachian Studies Association website.

One of these groups the conference will focus on is African American Appalachians, otherwise known as Affrilachians, the word coined by Walker.

“Part of what we’ve done as Affrilachians is commit to this idea of making the invisible visible, giving the muted a voice, because we always felt like that. The structure was designed to make us feel invisible,” Walker said. “We pushed back against an idea and tried to say as loudly as possible that, you know, hell yeah we’re here.”

Though the group is called the Affrilachian Poets, it embraces different cultures and types of artists. Since 1991, the group has been fighting the stigma that Appalachia is a homogenous place. Though their cultures and races might be different, their identities are interwoven with the region.

In fact, one Affrilachian Poet and fellow UK professor considers herself “wholly Appalachian,” though some people have disagreed with her.

Crystal Wilkinson grew up in Indian Creek, Kentucky, just half an hour away from Walker, on the same land her family has owned for 250 years. Her family represented the only African Americans in their small community. And although Wilkinson faced racism and discrimination where she grew up, she wouldn’t think of calling anywhere else home.

However, she does admit that when growing up it was hard finding a place she was fully accepted. She said she was in constant defense of her place in the region.

It wasn’t until Wilkinson met the Affrilachian Poets that she finally felt seen. When she thinks about it, she still becomes teary eyed.

“That level of acceptance, of validation, of connections with family was probably the most inclusive environment I had been in at that time,” Wilkinson said. “Like I’d never really felt like I fit in anywhere else, not completely. Like there were things that I could relate to but not completely with both, my entire self. That was the first time. And so it was mind-blowing. So to be around a table where you’re fully accepted and everybody knows what you’re trying to attempt in a loving and critical environment, it was everything.”

Wilkinson sees herself and the other Affrilachian Poets as role models not only for writers of color but Appalachian writers in general. Walker’s sentiments are much the same.

“What the founders have done is make it easier for the next generations of poets who came behind us to just produce art,” Walker said. “We had to carve out a space initially and then defend it with a lot of energy.”

Makalani Bandele, a relatively new edition to the Affrilachian Poets, is one of many people inspired by the founders and their work. Going to his first Affrilachian Poets meeting is something he’ll never forget, he said, and he’s glad to be part of that now.

“It blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like that before and since then,” Bandele said. “If you get more than five of us to read at a time, some people be leaving crying, some people be shaking. It’s powerful. So that impacted me.”

Though Bandele is from Louisville, he spent part of his childhood in his father’s hometown of Needmore, Kentucky, which is the same town Walker’s mother is from. He considers himself a third- or fourth-generation Appalachian poet.

While Walker’s work focuses on family, identity, place, history, and social justice, and Wilkinson’s work focuses on land, storytelling, traditions, freedom, and nature’s capacity to heal, Bandele’s is different. Both Walker and Wilkinson’s works are heavily focused on Appalachia. On the other hand, Bandele’s work focuses on black history and social justice in general. He said since he’s a beneficiary of the Affrilachian Poets’ founding efforts, he doesn’t necessarily have to talk about place and defend himself like the older generation.

Wilkinson said this is one of the reasons why she became an educator, to “start to affect the youth so that the youth can grow up with pride and be happy about where they’re from, to have a feeling that they don’t have to leave Kentucky to make an impact.”

The Affrilachian Poets have even impacted schools. Walker said classes on Appalachian diversity were hardly available back in the ‘90s. Now, though, he gets emails from schools all across the country to evaluate syllabi for various Appalachian diversity classes. Northern Kentucky University and Eastern Kentucky University even have classes on Affrilachian history.

Both Walker and Wilkinson were excited about this year’s ASA Conference theme being “understories.” It will be an opportunity to showcase more than just the “poor, white and illiterate” stereotype the mainstream media has projected the region to be.

“When I think ‘understories,’ I don’t think minority, I think marginalized, you know, at the edge,” Walker said. “And I think that’s what people of color, and not just people of color, I think there have been a lot of groups that are at the margins of what people want to believe is Appalachia because the stereotypes, most of which have turned into caricatures, are so rigid that they don’t leave room for a whole lot of other groups.”

Combatting the monolithic view of Appalachia is something Wilkinson said she believes empowers people, especially those who saw themselves as invisible. And after connecting with many black Appalachians over the conference email thread, she’s looking forward to the conference even more.

“The ASA conference as I’ve experienced it over the years is one of the first places, one of the only places where Appalachian scholars, musicians, creatives, writers can all come together sort of in the same place and to celebrate the region in a creative and an intellectual way,” Wilkinson said. “I think it’ll be an occasion for us to be proud of the fact that UK is putting it on and I think it’ll be the largest African American gathering at an ASA conference. It seems to be shaping up that way.”