In 1991, poet Frank X. Walker attended a reading for "Appalachian writers" in Lexington, Ky., at which just one invited writer was black. Soon after, Walker read in Webster's that an Appalachian person was, by definition, both "rural" and "white." Walker, the son of African-American farm people, had grown up in nearby Danville, with great-uncles who were coal-miners. A new poem followed: "Affrilachia," in which Walker coined a word and sought 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."
Sixteen years later, Walker's coinage is itself in the Oxford American Dictionary. And the Affrilachian movement boasts its own magazine: Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture debuted in March, with Walker as editor and publisher.
The glossy periodical's essays, stories and poems lay claim to a mountainous region stretching from New York to Alabama -- including such cities as Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham -- and thinkers, writers and artists from Booker T. Washington to poet Nikki Giovanni, from Nina Simone to contemporary hip-hop artists from Bluefield, W.Va. Pittsburgh contributors to Pluck! include poet Terrance Hayes and writer Steve Halvonik, who explores the links between local playwright and producer Mark Clayton Southers and August Wilson.
Walker, 45, is author of three books of poetry, including last year's Black Box (Old Cove Press). On Sat., June 2, a local launch party and reading features Walker and acclaimed poet Lamont Steptoe, a Pittsburgh native. Walker spoke to CP from Lexington, where he is a visiting professor at Transylvania University.
What was your hometown like?
I grew up at the edge of Appalachia, in central Kentucky. My hometown was smaller than the college I went to. We still had a garden, but I grew up in the housing projects; that's kind of a paradox in itself. Both my parents grew up on farms and then came to the town to get jobs once they got old enough to leave the house.
Did you consider yourself Appalachian?
Not at all. I actually hardly think of myself as a Kentuckian, even, because the media images of what Kentucky is, they don't include me. That was the energy behind the acceptance of the word ["Affrilachia"] -- that people were recognizing that the power of that word allowed people of color to fit, to belong, in a place they were already born in, that their parents were born in, but they were never made to feel a part of.
What are some characteristics of Affrilachian art?
Nina Simone [born in North Carolina], and Bill Withers [West Virginia], and other artists, like Romare Bearden, spent considerable time in the region, and August Wilson. These artists in different genres almost defined their own movements. They were unable to be categorized in traditional areas, but there was something about coming from the place, and [from] those people with those particular values, that made them almost automatically avant-garde. Trying to invent a space for themselves or a space for their own work.
How does your book Buffalo Dance -- poems from the perspective of York, William Clark's slave on the Lewis and Clark expedition -- fit in?
I think of York as the original Affrilachian poet. He was born in Virginia, on a plantation, then migrated west to Kentucky and made the [Lewis and Clark] trip out and back. That survival instinct, that resilience that is encapuslated in his character in the book, is still very much a part of the people who claim the region.
Yet Affrilachia is urban, too?
There's this illusion that all of Appalachia is rural. Even in the coal camps, they built little mini-cities. There was always this urban flavor, this kind of hipness that was happening, that was never officially associated with the region. Which is why even today people have difficulty thinking about Birmingham and Pittsburgh as Appalachia.
How about music?
People say "Appalachia," they don't think "jazz." And then when people think of a bluegrass band -- we're gonna run a story in an upcoming issue about an all-black traditional string band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops: young musicians, all playing banjos, and fiddle, and music that, if you heard it, you would say, "That's traditional mountain music." But if you saw them, you'd say, "Wait -- what's wrong with this picture?"
Does Pluck!'s article on Affrilachian hip hop surprise people?
Even the title: "Hip hop in West Virginia." People do a double-take every time they look at the first part of the article.
Who's reading Pluck!?
The biggest surprise is that the subscription base is considerably bigger than our projected audience. I talked to a woman in Arizona. She described [...] "an immediate connection with home." She hadn't lived in West Virginia in 53 years. But she saw "Affrilachia" as part of the title and knew she had to subscribe. She's the kind of person that not only subscribes, but they send extra money. They finally found some way to connect with the region that feels natural to them, and positive.
Why do negative Appalachian stereotypes persist?
Those caricatures are so pervasive that as recently as several months ago, Leno was [telling] another hillbilly joke. And everybody was laughing. It's been said that Appalachian, or quote-unquote hillbillies, are the only group of people it's OK to make fun of. Because you don't hear this loud cry, or people outside the group stepping up in their defense.
Pittsburghers tell their share of West Wirginia jokes.
And I'll bet you half the people telling those jokes have relatives in West Virginia.
Pluck! magazine launch with readings by Frank X. Walker, Lamont Steptoe and others. 3 p.m. Sat., June 2. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. Free. 412-288-0358