The Affrilachian poets represent a movement that includes not only blacks and not only poets, but people of color across a great swath of the United States touched in some way by Appalachian values, music and the intersection between race and art.
In the newly reprinted book, “Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets” (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95, printed 2017, reprinted 2018), editors Bianca Lynn Spriggs and Jeremy Paden write that “Affrilachia is both a geographic and a cultural space. ... And while it is true that the Affrilachian Poets, founded by a small group of students and professors, were born at the University of Kentucky, early on, they recognized the expansive nature of this new venture.”
The Affrilachian Poets “opened up the term to include all 13 states touched by the mountain chain that gives us our name, whether in the south or the north. ... (and) to include all portions of those states, whether in the coastal plains, riparian zones, plateaus and foothills, or the mountains proper, as a way to continue the conversation that region may operate as a cultural space and blur borders.”
Here are five poetic glimpses of Affilachian poems from the new book:
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1. Spriggs writes about reactions to racial violence in her poem “Black Bone.”
“Maybe it’s what happens/when a cacophony of tongues rise/against so, so many bullets/destined for Black skin./“Or that you won’t recognize it/until it shows up unbidden,/a howling maelstrom on your/doorstep that you dare not turn away.”
2. Frank X Walker’s poem “Affrilachia” shows a trenchant wit in separating the experience of black and white, rich and poor, in Kentucky.
“thoroughbred racing/and hee haw/are burdensome images for Kentucky sons/venturing beyond the mason-dixon”
“... but/if you think/makin’,‘shine from corn/is as hard as Kentucky coal/imagine being/an Affrilachian/poet”
3. Nikky Finney’s poem, “Brown Country,” is a gut-punching effort that starts with an ode to country music and subtly transitions into a final fiery indictment in which white men at a gas station “zip their pants up and down like a fiddle.” “Country music is historical/This is the music we were lynched by/These are the hangman’s songs.”
4. Dorian Hairston’s poem, “For Drunk Mike,” set during a University of Kentucky men’s basketball game at Rupp Arena, brings up the subject of what black athletes have given to the university, and how they are viewed by white fans.
“My eyes searched the rafters for comfort/but instead read the names & years/frozen in time dangling above spectators/who know exactly how much/profit all those bodies made for free/I can’t help but wonder/what you really mean by/If I was coach cal/I’d whip them boys/into shape”
5. Crystal Wilkinson’s poem, “O Tobacco,” looks back through an adult lens at her childhood, when tobacco was a considered a king crop in Kentucky (the late Wendell Ford, a former U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was nicknamed “the senator from tobacco”).
“A ten-year-old me/plays in the shadows/of the stripping room/the wood stove burns/calloused hands twist/through the length/of your leaves./Granddaddy smiles/nods at me when he/thinks I’m not looking.”