The X Decade: A Journey of Sociological Exploration through the Poetry of Frank X Walker

By Mead, Susan Virginia | Appalachian Heritage, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The X Decade: A Journey of Sociological Exploration through the Poetry of Frank X Walker


Mead, Susan Virginia, Appalachian Heritage


The recent tenth anniversary of the attacks of September,, has spurred reflections upon what life was like before the recent terrorism decade dawned: what were people doing on that last "normal day," September ? At Ferrum College on that Monday night, Frank X Walker, Bernard Clay, and Crystal Wilkinson were sharing their verse and vision of the Affrilachian Poets with hundreds of first year students. Clay brought down the house with his hip-hop style, Wilkinson turned them around with her somber images of cancer and her delightful images of family, and Walker taught them a lesson of how, by listening closely and with respect, they could find wisdom in words arranged as they had never heard before. That night, Walker showed that he is the consummate teacher, capturing imaginations so that students must give pause and consider the social fabric of their world. The morning after the reading, when the planes hit, that social fabric they thought they knew was ripped asunder; students yearned for ways to understand the complex multi-cultural world in which they lived. If they were listening closely the night before, they had gained new literary tools to do just that.

Those students who heard Walker in have now been joined by twenty semesters worth of students who have learned from Walker's poetry first through his inaugural book Affrilachia (Old Cove Press, 2000), and then through his follow up collection Black Box (Old Cove Press, 2006). These works have been core texts at Ferrum College in Appalachian studies, in introductory sociology, and in courses studying cultural diversity in the United States. The initial goal was to introduce students to the multicultural richness of Appalachia, countering the mono-chromatic stereotype of the region and bringing them to a realization that

 Indeed some of the bluegrass is black (Walker 2000, 97) 

The poems in Affrilachia are ideal for this purpose. Walker carefully crafts his words to reflect rich personal memories of places and people he holds dear, and brings home the smells, tastes, and views of both urban and rural Kentucky. His themes, love for the land and appreciation of families rooted for generations in Appalachia, might be considered typically Appalachian. However, one of his many gifts to Appalachian literature is that his poems also infuse our mental images of Appalachia with something we might not expect: hard-hitting, even visceral moments and memories that represent the universality of racial-ethnic oppression. Such images seldom come to mind with the stereotypes associated with the word "Appalachia." Nevertheless they are indeed a very real part of the region's fabric, and life in the mountains, while unique, is also a microcosm of "our own north American/apartheid-flavored democracy" (Walker, ). As a pedagogical tool for reaching a broad spectrum of learners, Walker's poems serve as catalysts for deeper sociological, historical, and personal exploration, ultimately leading to a more complex understanding of society.

Walker is able to show what people have in common across racial or rural/urban divides, such as "a mutual appreciation/for fresh greens/and cornbread" (Walker 2000, 92 ). Likewise, he reminds us that throughout history, maladies such as aids, cancer, and Black Lung have been "as indiscriminate / as calluses / & hunger" (Walker 2000, 93 ). As much as he highlights universal experiences in his work, Walker's primary message is that too often his ancestors have been denied recognition as Appalachians; reminiscent of his forebearer, Langston Hughes, Walker stakes his claim: "I too am of these hills" (Walker 2000, 96 ). To make sure people of all hues are included in the images of Appalachia henceforth, Walker brings us the word "Affrilachia" to "make visible / to create a sense of place / that had not existed / for us" (Walker 2000, 88 ).

When students are faced with Walker's challenging images, they are able to place themselves within Appalachia, looking outward to critique their social world, and inward to examine their own political consciousness--and conscience. …

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