The Affrilachian Poets, a diverse Lexington-based collective of writers directly or indirectly connected to Appalachia, has rejected its 2016 Governor’s Award in the Arts, citing Gov. Matt Bevin’s positions on education, the humanities and other issues.
“It is the opinion of the group that the governor’s comments, positions and actions regarding education in general, the Humanities specifically, universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, and the LGBTQ community have been reprehensible and go against the core of who we are as writers and educators and as artists committed to resisting oppression,” the group said in a statement posted on Facebook. “It is in the spirit of Kentucky’s rich literary tradition reaching back to William Wells Brown, that we vehemently reject any award given in this governor’s name.”
Questions to the Kentucky Arts Council, which administers the awards, were referred to the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which is the department the council is in. The cabinet’s communications office sent the following response:
“Each October, the Governor’s Awards in the Arts recognize individuals and organizations that have made extraordinary and significant contributions to the arts in Kentucky. The Affrilachian Poets were selected for their work which emphasizes the diversity and culture of the Appalachian region. The Governor’s Awards in the Arts is coordinated by the Kentucky Arts Council. Awardees are recommended by the Governor’s Awards in Arts Committee and chosen by the Governor.”
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Requests for comment from the governor’s office were not returned.
The Affrilachian Poets were founded in 1991 by a group of writers including former Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker and former University of Kentucky professor and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney. The term Affrilachian was coined by Walker to describe people of African-American descent living in the Appalachian region.
The group was announced Wednesday as the 2016 community arts award winner. The awards ceremony is scheduled for October in the state Capitol Rotunda. The date has not been announced.
A discussion of how to handle the award started online shortly after the group was notified of the honor, Walker said.
“We talked about what it meant, what our responsibility was, and what’s the appropriate response,” Walker said Friday afternoon. “We came to an agreement this morning and collectively drafted the press release that was sent out earlier.”
The crux of the issue was, “The governor’s actions, positions and comments, and the things he represents, are in direct conflict with things we believe in as artists and writers and that we have been writing against and commenting on in our 25 years in existence as a group,” Walker said. “It would just be a direct conflict of interest to suggest by accepting the award that we endorse any of his positions.”
The group had considered other options, including going to the October ceremony and rejecting the award there or simply not showing up, Walker said. But the group decided not to handle it that way out of respect to the Kentucky Arts Council and the other winners, and because they wanted to make a statement now, he said.
“We wanted to approach this thing in as civil a way as possible but still register our discontent,” said Walker, a professor of African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center.
According to the Tourism, Arts and Heritage cabinet, another recipient of the community arts award will not be chosen for 2016, and no other winners have rejected their awards. Asked whether anyone had ever rejected a Governor’s Award, cabinet spokeswoman Laura Brooks replied,, “Not to our knowledge.”
The Governor’s Awards were created in 1987 by Gov. Martha Layne Collins. The original governors arts award, the Milner Award, was first given in 1977. The annual honorees include nine recipients annually.
Among the 2016 winners, announced Wednesday, are Chester and Msiba Ann Grundy of Lexington, who won the top honor, the Milner Award; University of Kentucky jazz studies director Miles Osland, who won the education award; Versailles glass artist Guy Kemper, who won the artist award; the Frankfort-based Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which won the Government Award; and the Hindman Dulcimer Project, which won the folk heritage award. Rounding out the 2016 winners are Paducah Life Magazine, which won the media award; Owensboro Health, which won the business award; and Louisville native and longtime New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, who won the national award.
The biggest regret of the group is that it will not receive the award, which is an original artwork by a Kentucky artist, Walker said.
“That’s the only regret behind it all, is not bringing home another Kentucky treasure,” Walker said. “But I think having the respect of other artists means more.”