It’s fascinating, this idea of where. It’s a concept we can root in geography and identity. Where we’re from. Where we stand. Where we’re going. Perhaps more compellingly, we can connect where to who. We can bind a person to a place.
Over 20 years ago, poet Frank X Walker sought to challenge this intersection of person and place that, for him, had always been unmarked. An African American, a lifelong resident of Kentucky, he is a man of Appalachia, and yet this word has historically carried a whites-only definition. So Frank X Walker did what we black folk often do when we can’t be a part of something. He created something of his own, coining “Affrilachia,” a word meant to encompass those of color who hail from this varied and beautiful region that stretches from Mississippi all the way to New York State.
That Frank X Walker made his own space is fitting, because Appalachia has always been a sanctuary for those seeking a place for themselves. For thousands of years, Cherokee and Algonquin groups made this swath of land their home, leaning on its abundance of resources. The region was utilized by French trappers, the Scots-Irish, Germans, and poorer English settlers who sought cheaper land and a refuge from prejudice. Maroons—men and women of African ancestry who escaped slavery—carved out communities in the shelter of these mountains. Slave-owners also set down roots, creating towns like Harper’s Ferry, which would one day become a crucible in the nation’s reckoning with itself. Later, black and white men worked alongside each other not only as coal miners, but as agitators and organizers. In recent decades, people of Latin American descent have looked to this landscape for opportunities, just as European immigrants did centuries ago.
The pieces here juxtapose place and displacement, questioning and confronting how one shapes cultural and personal identity within a physical setting. However, this folio is merely one of many recognitions of this artistry, as collectives such as the Affrilachian Poets have shifted the Affrilachian presence to the known world of creativity. Once part of the liminal and invisible, the perpendicularity regarding who (person of color) and where (Appalachia) has been marked on the map of art and literature. It has become a named place.
Kalela Williams received her B.A. in English from the University of Mary Washington and her M.F.A. from Goddard College. From 2009-2012, she was Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, where she coordinated programs that promoted African American poetry, including a conference featuring Affrilachian writers. She is currently the program coordinator of One Book, One Philadelphia, a citywide reading project sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia with the goal of promoting literacy, library usage, and building community through the reading of a single book.