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A photo of the Greenup Dam on the Ohio River. The photo is taken from the Ohio side.
Greenup Dam spans the Ohio River. Photo: Provided

Hello, friends!

Kendra Winchester from Read Appalachia here to tell you about more great Appalachian Literature. This week, we’re talking about the Affrilachian Poets.

After Nikki Finney was the only Black writer asked to participate at an event titled “Best Appalachian Writing,” Frank X Walker looked up the definition of “Appalachian” in the dictionary and saw that it defined the word as “white residents of the mountainous region known as Appalachia.” In response, Walker wrote a poem coining the term “Affrilachian,” representing the rich culture and history of Black Appalachians. Walker went on to become Kentucky’s first Black poet laureate and to co-found the Affrilachian Poets Collective.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Crystal Wilkinson, another founding member of the Affrilachian Poets and Kentucky’s current poet laureate. She described the feeling of finally finding a place where she felt seen:

There was a small group before I joined them that was already gathered together and writing together, but by the time I came along and became one of the founding members, they had already called it the Affrilachian Poets. For me, what it did was give me a place, a sense of belonging. A place where my back could be straight about all the pieces of who I am, about my Black self and my rural self and my country self and my Appalachian self, in one place. When before, you know, I felt totally comfortable going to an Appalachian event. And more times than not, I would be the only Black person there. So there was something missing. And then I would go to Black events sometimes, and I would be the only rural-based person there.

So working with the Affrilachian Poets and them having the same collective ideas and same collective memory gave me a comfortable place in which to write. I felt like I was heard. I felt like the particular culture that I came out of was held up a little higher. So I think it gave us a place to affirm who we are. If I’m speaking for myself, it gave me a place to affirm who I was, to also give myself permission to write the stories and the poems that I was writing, another place to have community, another place to have family, a place to be, where my work was critiqued and taken seriously outside of the academic realm.


(Transcript used with permission from Reading Women.)

Thirty years have passed since the Affrilachian Poets collective was founded. New generations of poets have joined the collective, and the group still produces some of the best poetry in the country. So if you haven’t picked up any books by any Affrilachian poets yet, or if you would like even more of them for your to-be-read list, here are a few recommendations!

A photo of "Affrilachia" by Frank X Walker. The cover is a black and white photo of a Black family with the title in red.
"Affrilachia" by Frank X Walker. Photo: Provided
"Affrilachia” by Frank X Walker

This collection’s title poem, “Affrilachia,” gives voice to Walker’s need for a word to describe his unique experience as a Black Appalachian. Affrilachia also includes themes around growing up as an artistic Black boy in Kentucky, giving the entire collection a deep connection to land and family.

Head Off & Split” by Nikki Finney

This collection won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, solidifying Nikki Finney’s place as a great talent in American literature. But you could choose any of Finney's other collections and find yourself taken in by the beautiful language and thematic heft of her poetry.
A photo of the books "The Birds of Opulence" and "Perfect Black" by Crystal Wilkinson sitting on a stone shelf.
“The Birds of Opulence” and “Perfect Black,” both by Crystal Wilkinson. Photo: Provided.

Perfect Black” by Crystal Wilkinson

One of my favorite books of 2021, “Perfect Black,” is Crystal Wilkinson’s first full-length poetry collection. I pored over this book as I waited to receive my COVID vaccine. By the time I walked out of the Walgreens, I’d covered the book in countless annotations, mostly out of wonder and awe at Wilkinson’s way with words.

Valley Girl” by Crystal Good

Crystal Good, the founder of the only Black-owned news outlet in the state of West Virginia, Black By God, is also an Affrilachian poet. Her work has appeared in “Pluck! The Journal for Affrilachian Culture," "Appalachian Review,” and “The Book of Now: Poetry for the Rising Tide.” She self published “Valley Girl,” her first collection of poems, but it’s going out of print soon so grab it while you can!

Other organizations that celebrate Black Appalachians:

  • Black By God: The West Virginian - Founded by Crystal Good, Black By God celebrates Black history and culture in West Virginia.
     
  • Black in Appalachia focuses on preserving Black culture and history across the region. Their podcast is by far one of my favorite shows. They have episodes interviewing authors Deesha Philyaw, Crystal Wilkinson and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few.
A photo of the poetry collection "English Lit" by Bernard Clay sitting on a white dresser with other books behind it.
“English Lit” by Bernard Clay. Photo: Provided.

On November 22 at 7 p.m. EST, I’ll be hosting an event on the 100 Days in Appalachia Instagram account with Bernard Clay, who is a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective. His first poetry collection, “English Lit,” came out earlier this year, and I loved it (as I professed very enthusiastically over on TikTok). To give you a little taste of the event, here is one of the poems from the collection - complete with my annotations! 

"Appalachian Smitten" by Bernard Clay, from his book of poetry "English Lit." Used with permission from the author. Photo: Provided.

That’s it for this week! Next week, I’ll be back with some of my all-time favorite Appalachian books. In the meantime, I hope to see you at our live event over on Instagram!

Looking for past books I’ve mentioned? You can find all of the books I’ve mentioned in this newsletter series over on bookshop.org. As always, you can find @ReadAppalachia on Instagram and TikTok, visit our website, ReadAppalachia.com, or reach us via email at readappalachia@gmail.com.

Happy Reading!

- Kendra

Some links are affiliate links through which Read Appalachia may receive a small commission. Thank you for supporting Read Appalachia.
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