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Affrilachia: Poems by Frank X Walker Paperback – March 1, 2000
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"Finally, a gathering of words that fiercely speaks to what it truly means to grow up African-American in Appalachia. These are not stories of those of us transplanted conveniently into the territory for whatever reason. These poem-stories are from a native Affrilachian heart, more specifically, from the man who first created the word in order to define and not be rendered invisible. This personal poetic narrative is a historic valuable offering, one man's unapologetic truth, granting us an eagle eye view into what it means to be young, Black, artistic, and male in America as one century comes to an end and another begins. His poetry looks you in the eye, in plain-spoken unembellished, heartfelt language. Anyone who knows about the human heart and human nature can read it." --Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split (Triquarterly), winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry
"The poems in Affrilachia are funny and sad, tragic and hopeful, angry and determined, and as filled with generosity and love as poetry by any American writer in a generation. This book is powerful and beautiful. It is honest and true." --Gurney Norman, author of Ancient Creek: A Folktale, Kinfolks, and Divine Right's Trip
About the Author
Frank X Walker is a native of Danville, Kentucky. He is cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of African-American writers whose work addresses themes of race, family, place, social justice, and identity in the Appalachian South. He is Professor of English at the University of Kentucky.
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Affrilachia originates from the perspective of one who has experienced pain and pride, prejudice and triumph. The speaker who is similar to the poet himself involved in the classroom and recounting “free lunch/ commodities/ welfare checks” and “food stamps”, addresses difficult subjects with wit, gall and concern yet not without gravity, leading the reader to envision a life where family members are marked by imprisonment, sexual abuse, penury, random violence and apathy.
As Mr. Walker reflects on his surroundings, even the speaker is not without bias or personal flaws “caught in the middle” of racial animosities. The recurrence of “our” and “we” throughout the book depicts the speaker’s clear association with the black community, specifically in the Appalachian South. While praising the black community’s fierce determination as in “Matriarch,” the speaker refuses to accommodate in poems like “Death by Basketball.”
Three common themes that recur in the book are cultural. First, the creative eminence of ancient-day Egypt is celebrated for engineering “pyramids” from “clay.” Second, the cyclical approach to life that has its roots in Africa suffers western disregard becoming evident in lines like “…we/ are cyclical by design/ and not linear/ is now on trial”. Third, the tragedy of the black community scourged by oppression and corruption though not seeking improvement is addressed in “Lil’ Kings” where the speaker contemplates
the good revren doctah
was just marty
quoting gangsta rap
not ghandi (1-10).
These misunderstood, underappreciated and unique aspects of the Affrilachian heritage threaten its health like “a gun/ fired point blank/ at the symptom/ not the disease”.
Throughout the book the reader observes references to historical characters such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, et al. It seems that Mr. Walker has intentionally avoided historical detail surrounding these prominent historical figures to sustain an economy of words throughout the collection, which helps the poems to have little deviation. Allusions to “dr. king” and “gandhi” then become literary devices charged with emotional relevance. Nonetheless, this collection recognizes and represents an ethni-cultural significance. Affrilachia does so with punchy and clever language. There is a faith in the human struggle to emerge victorious through suffering and that “Faith/ won’t just go up/ in smoke”.
Walker acknowledges the identity of African-American Appalachians and coined the term “Affrilachia” in this anthology to identity with his culture and his roots. This autobiography is deeply personal and introspective as it coincides with the trend in contemporary African-American literature of creating autobiographical works as an ode to the past. The introduction of contemporary literature in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature explains that the autobiographical works of African Americans “reflects the recent and widespread popularity of the memoir as a genre, but it also harks back to the beginnings of the African American tradition” (926). Walker uses that tradition in a reflection of his upbringing and a journey to self-identity.
In Affrilachia, Walker begins by recalling his childhood and memorable people who influenced his life. He presents his family and friends as multidimensional people who are flawed but strong. His anthology continues with a reflection on an appreciation of African-American culture and a rejection of assimilation. Works including “Violins or Violen…ce” tackles the self-analysis of African Americans compared to the pressure and labels of society. The speaker urges African-American youth to be the solution and to defy the false labels that have been placed on them. Walker is unabashedly honest in his call as he encourages and gives hope to his readers. This call for action continues in “A Wake” when the speaker expresses the need for the church to become animated again, “and fight the devil/ for this soul” (35-36). Walker presents strong female characters in works including “Matriarch” and “Healer.” In both poems, the female characters lead the families in grace blending cultural traditions and wisdom in a fusion of strength and perseverance. Perseverance and strength continues in the illustration of the African-American church community in “Fireproof.”
He ends his anthology with poems about being black in Appalachia. In “Sara Yevo”, the speaker longs to relate his experiences as an African American in Kentucky to his friend who had recently immigrated from Bosnia. He states that “I wanted to tell her/ that the word Affrilachia/ was not intended to destroy families/ or divide communities/ that it existed to make visible/ to create a sense of place/ that had not existed/ for us/ for any unwealthy common/ people of color/ now claiming the dirt/ they were born in” (31-43). This journey to self-identity embraces the idea that a freedom in self-discovery can be made through reflection and pride in one’s culture and heritage.