What is Affrilachia?

An interview with Frank X Walker

I sent Mr. X Walker a long list of questions. Some of them went unanswered, and I have not included those questions in this report. Questions he answered, either fully or partially, include:

  • There has been disagreement over what the region of Appalachia encompasses. What is your take on this?
  • You grew up in Danville, Kentucky, which is in Boyle County. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Boyle County is not technically considered Appalachia, and yet you clearly identify as an Affrilachian. What do you make of the ARC’s delineation of Appalachia? Is it accurate? Why or why not? Is Danville, Kentucky, a part of Appalachia? What makes it so? How do you define Appalachia?
  • Considering the unclear boundaries of Appalachia, how does one know if they are Appalachian/Affrilachian?
  • How has living in Appalachia shaped your identity? Are there certain characteristics Appalachia has given you that you might not have adopted otherwise? Certain experiences you had that you might not have had if you had grown up elsewhere?
  • What sorts of things remind you of home (in the sense that your “home” is Appalachia)?
  • Tell me about your family history. Where were your parents from? Do you have an idea of where your ancestors lived and how you came to grow up in Danville, Kentucky?
  • The general stereotypes about Appalachian people specifically apply to poor whites. These say that Appalachian folk are ignorant, isolated, unclean, fecund, lazy, backward, moonshining feuders. How do these stereotypes affect blacks in the region? In your own experience, did you encounter these stereotypes being applied to you? If not, did the fact that these stereotypes were not applied to blacks in the region offer Affrilachians more freedom to construct their own identities?
  • Are there particular stereotypes applied to Affrilachian people? What are they? How do they compare with stereotypes placed upon African Americans in general?
  • Your poem "Violins or Violen...ce" is very apt at describing the symptoms of oppression as exhibited by many urban black children and teens. Considering this subject matter, how does the black experience in Appalachia compare with the black experience within America in general? What are the similarities and differences? What are the ways being black in Appalachia could be seen as easier or more difficult than elsewhere in the States?
  • Appalachian culture is known for certain arts and crafts, such as bluegrass music, pottery, square dancing, types of food like cornbread and country ham, etc. In what ways have African-Americans influenced, created, or contributed to Appalachian culture?
  • Do Affrilachians have their own culture? Discuss this. What sorts of arts, activities, and traditions specifically define Affrilachian culture? What are some features of the rich cultural and artistic heritage of Affrilachia?
  • Are there common characteristics you could attribute to Affrilachians?
  • Who contributes to PLUCK!, The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture you edit?
  • How does the concept of Affrilachia intersect with the Native American experience in Appalachia?
  • What are some obstacles you face on your journey to "make the invisible visible," giving non-white Appalachians a voice? If any, what sort of criticism does your work receive?

              Frank X Walker is a pioneer of “Affrilachia,” a term he coined to denote the experience of African American Appalachians. But before exploring Affrilachia, one must first discover the meaning of “Appalachia.” What is Appalachia? Is it geographical? Regional? Cultural? In the early 1960s, the federal government allotted funds for an Appalachian Regional Commission. The first task of the Commission was to define the region of Appalachia. The result, according to ARC's website (www.arc.gov) “is a 205,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi.” Walker acknowledges the ARC's official definition of Appalachia's boundaries, but laments that this definition does not take into account the cities just outside the official borders; cities like Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. Walker himself is a native of Danville, Kentucky, another close-but-not-quite-Appalachian city. He asserts that these places are certainly Appalachian. He points out that these urban populations are partially composed of people who migrated from 'proper ARC Appalachia' in search of work, and that there are significant and active Appalachian communities within these cities.

              Appalachia and thus Affrilachia, then, certainly extend beyond the geographical boundaries laid out by the ARC. Not to be contained by geography, Walker is more concerned with regional identity. Nearly twenty years ago, he came to the realization that nationally-recognized stereotypes against Appalachia were not deterred by geographical borders. Walker writes:

The county I was born in (Boyle County) is one county away from the ARC definition of Appalachia, but the disenfranchisement and poverty that define it (Appalachia) did not stop at the border.

He also found that, according to the dictionary, media portrayals, and generally accepted knowledge, Appalachians were white. This concerned Walker, as he felt that as an African American in Appalachia, he, along with others of non-white backgrounds in the region, were being rendered invisible.

Frank X Walker coined a term, and in doing so, began a movement to give people of color in and around Appalachia a sense of place. What makes Frank X Walker Affrilachian?He was born in Kentucky. His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were also born in Kentucky; their lineage tracing back to the region beginning in the early 1800s. This history, combined with the world's refusal to acknowledge his existence as a black person in the region, make Frank X Walker Affrilachian. He writes:

I'm Affrilachian because people outside of this region don't think people of color live               here or in Hunnington or Knoxville or Ferrum.

His coined term, “Affrilachia,” is political, and the use of it challenges hegemony and the imposition of false concepts onto actual experience. In creating the term, Walker, in a sense, rewrites history. He paints a picture of Appalachia that is more realistic and certainly more diverse than regional stereotypes have perpetuated. In his picture, he “illustrates the face of Appalachia” to include people like Henry Louis Gates, Nina Simone, August Wilson, Nikki Giovanni, John Edgar Wideman, Kathleen Battle, Bill Withers, Booker T Washington, and Carter G. Woodson. Walker reminds us that people of color have always been in Appalachia, asserting that their absence in the definition of the region is “almost criminal.”

Frank X Walker is interested in exploring the commonalities between Appalachians (specifically whites in the region) and Affrilachians (those of color in the region). He lists commonalities such as a sense of place, a set of morals valuing family and community, oral traditions, love of music, and puritan work ethic. In addition to these ties, Walker points out that stereotypes applied to rural white Appalachians – laziness, poverty, fecundity, violence, and ignorance, to name a few – are almost identical to those applied to blacks in the American south as well as Native Americans. This is not coincidence. The nature of the application of such stereotypes is imperialistic, and feeds financial gains (and thus securing hegemony) of those in power. Walker mentions a vital point that the stereotypes created about these groups – Appalachians, Southern blacks, Native Americans – rendered them unimportant in the eyes of the majority, encouraging the general public to ignore the subjugation and resulting plight of these groups. These stereotypes and their propagation, then, help to keep the powerful in power and the poor in poverty, while also removing the disenfranchised from popular sight and denying them a voice.

Affrilachian culture, Walker says, is not distinct from African American culture. Again, Affrilachia is composed of people in both rural and urban areas. Affrilachian culture is just African American culture as it exists in a certain place: in and around Appalachia. You might say that Affrilachians are a subgroup of African Americans. The only difference between Affrilachians and African Americans elsewhere in the United States, according to Walker, might be the sense of invisibility applied to Affrilachian people. And this invisibility is unfair, as African Americans have certainly contributed to the development of Appalachia as a region and culture. Walker uses the phrase, “bluegrass is black” in one of his poems. The banjo was originally an African instrument!

Walker is the editor of PLUCK!, a journal of Affrilachian arts and culture. This journal contains works by people of many backgrounds. It's authors are not only black, but also Asian, Latino, Native American, and Caucasian. He says that contributors to PLUCK! are not limited to African Americans because the journal welcomes works from anyone who wants to record, acknowledge, or appreciate the role of people of color in Appalachia.

Making a political statement and working to support the formation of identity always has obstacles, especially when the identity you are attempting to foster belongs to a subjugated group. Walker says that his main challenge in building the concept of Affrilachia has been those who limit Appalachia to the regional definition as presented by the ARC. The “Appalachianness” of Affrilachians is called into question based on that limited perspective. But Walker asserts he never claimed to be Appalachian, just Affrilachian.

Frank X Walker challenges the hegemonic idea that Appalachia is composed only of whites. His creation of the term and concept “Affrilachia” helps to break down centuries-old stereotypes which help to support an unjust power structure. He says, “I know how empowering the word (Affrilachia) has been for people of color in the region. They are beginning to feel like they have a voice. They feel less invisible than they did twenty years ago.” When an oppressed group of people begin to find a voice, begin to discover and create their own identity, they start to cultivate an ability to fight back.