How many students can claim to be taught by a professor who has created a word, much less led a literary movement?
Named one of the most creative professors in the South by a leading literary and cultural magazine, he is the originator of the word, Affrilachia, which now appears in the Oxford American Dictionary. The Lannan Poetry Fellowship Award recipient has degrees from UK and Spalding University, as well as two honorary doctorates from UK and Transylvania University.
A native of Danville, Kentucky, Walker coined the word "Affrilachia" in 1991, after attending a literary reading featuring prominent Appalachian authors. After looking up "Appalachian" in his dictionary, he found the definition: "white residents of the mountainous regions of Appalachia," didn't include anyone who looked like him, so he reconciled that conflict with a new word that spoke to the union of Appalachian identity and the region's African-American culture and history.
"The larger society continues to perpetuate a vision of Appalachia that is mostly a caricature," Walker said. "Many think of Boss Hogg or Lil' Abner, when important icons like Nina Simone, Bill Withers, Carter G. Woodson (the creator of Black History Month) and playwright August Wilson are also part of the region. The vibrant black culture and history in areas like Birmingham and Pittsburgh are almost always left out of the definition by those who prefer the rural and homogeneous notion of the heartland."
The author, poet and UK professor has spent several decades leading a literary movement that prides itself in giving voice to previously muted and silenced voices. They have continued to redefine traditional conceptions of Appalachia while promoting excellence in teaching, writing, art, and activism.
The Affrilachian Poets is a group composed of published writers who are also educators and activists. The members, which include Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario-Colon, Mitchell L.H. Douglas, Kelly Norman Ellis, National Book Award recipient Nikky Finney, and others, strive to create art that reflects the experience of all people.
Walker's first collection of poems carries the movement's name, "Affrilachia," and his publications continue to focus on social justice issues as well as multiple themes of family, identity and place that challenge the notion of a homogeneous all-white literary landscape in Kentucky and Appalachia. Since the movement's conception, almost all of the core members have become university professors and have published books that promote the movement's goals. Walker has edited two anthologies of poetry and serves as the founding editor of Pluck!: The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture. His sixth full collection of poetry, "Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers" is due out this spring from the University of Georgia Press.
"Because the Appalachian region is more diverse than the shallow stereotypes and caricatures say it is, the Affrilachian Poets have embraced a motto that is about making the invisible visible," Walker said. "I think the impact and longevity of the movement stems from the strength of the name; it’s an immediate and tangible illustration of the region's diversity that acknowledges a connection to the land and the mountains. I don’t think we recognized what was happening back in the '90s, in terms of what qualified it as a movement, until the word was put in the dictionary, but we've accepted and now celebrate it. It has slowly become bigger than us. Because of the family dynamics, any success like Finney's National Book Award for poetry or continued recognition of our word is something we all get to share in." Walker has received numerous accolades for his work in the movement, his writing, his teaching and his community work.
West Virginia's Humanities Council has named Walker the recipient of the 2013 Appalachian Heritage Literary Award. The Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice named Walker as one of its Humanitarian Award winners. The "Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing" named Walker as one of "The most creative teachers in the South" in 2011.
He is the recipient of the 2006 Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence, Actors Theatre's Keeper of the Chronicle Award and a 2005 recipient of a $75,000 Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry. The University of Kentucky awarded Walker an honorary Doctorate of Humanities in 2001 for his collective community work and artistic achievements. Transylvania University awarded Walker an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 2002.
Walker is a former contributing writer and columnist for Ace Weekly and the first Kentucky writer to be featured on NPR's "This I Believe."
He is founder and has served as executive director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, the program coordinator of the University of Kentucky's Martin Luther King, Jr. Cultural Center and the assistant director of Purdue University's Black Cultural Center.
He has held board positions for the Kentucky Humanities Council, Appalshop and the Kentucky Writers Coalition. He has held government appointments to the Cabinet for Education, Arts & Humanities and the Committee on Gifted Education. He has served as vice president of the Kentucky Center for the Arts and the executive director of Kentucky's Governor's School for the Arts.
A KET special that features Walker's original play and his collection of poems on Isaac Murphy, "I Dedicate This Ride: Frank X Walker," aired January 2013 as part of the Kentucky Muse series.
Walker and his son, D'Van, a mechanical engineering junior, are proud members of the Big Blue Nation.