In a literary landscape that all too often still assumes that Appalachian means white, the Affrilachian Poets collective proves just as vital to American literature today as it did at its founding thirty years ago.
When Frank X Walker noticed that Nikki Finney was the only Black writer asked to read at an Appalachian writers’ conference, he looked up the definition of Appalachian in the dictionary, which defined Appalachian as white people native to the region. From there, Walker coined the term “Affrilachian” to represent the unique experience of African Americans in Appalachia. He also co-founded the Affrilachian Poets collective, which is still producing some of the region’s best poetry.
Including members like National Book Award-winning author Nikki Finney and poetry legend Nikki Giovanni, the Affrilachian Poets represent a powerhouse of literary talent. Each writer brings their own unique experience to the page, creating poetry and prose that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading them.
The Affrilachian Poets emerged as a place that gives writers a chance to feel fully seen. Since its founding, the organization has welcomed dozens of members into the fold, ensuring that future generations of Affrilachian poets also have a dedicated space to work on their writing.
Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets edited by Bianca Lynne Spriggs and Jeremy Paden
In 2017, the Affrilachian Poets collective put out a 25 year anniversary anthology, featuring dozens of poems from across the years. If you’re just starting to wade into the wonder that is Affrialchian poetry, Black Bone is a great place to begin. Many of the poets featured in the collection also have full-length poetry collections, giving you an excellent reading list.
Affrilachia by Frank X Walker
In this cornerstone collection of Affrilachian poetry, Frank X Walker includes poems that speak to the experiences of Black Americans living in Appalachia. Some poems feature scenes inspired by his childhood, while others examine his present, always returning to the question of what it means to be Black in Appalachia.
Perfect Black by Crystal Wilkinson
Current Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson published her first full-length poetry collection, Perfect Black, which features poems that often pull from Wilkinson’s own life. Wilkinson’s collection also features prose poems, including one that highlights the foodways of the women from her family. If you love Wilkinson’s poetry, you should also check out her prose, including her novel The Birds of Opulence.
Valley Girl by Crystal Good
Crystal Good’s debut poetry collection Valley Girl is a beautiful look at Black womanhood. She uses blank space and font size to create her poetry, adding layers of depth to her work. Recently, Good founded Black by God, a publication focused on Black West Virginians, which you should definitely go check out if you haven’t already!
English Lit by Bernard Clay
Years in the making, English Lit includes poetry from several stages in Clay’s life, which allows readers to follow as his poetry style subtly changes throughout the collection. Often focusing on themes of being an urban Affrilachian, Clay examines what it means to be a Black man in Kentucky.
Make Me Rain by Nikki Giovanni
Yes, all-star poet Nikki Giovanni is also a member of the Affrilachian Poets Collective. You could start anywhere with her work, but I’ll just mention her most recent collection, Make Me Rain, which included both poetry and prose. One of my favorite podcasts, Black in Appalachia, released a fabulous interview with Nikki Giovanni that you won’t want to miss.
Appalachian Elegy by bell hooks
The late bell hooks, a proud Kentuckian, might be internationally known for her writings on feminism and civil rights, but her poetry is just as powerful. In Appalachian Elegy, she looks at her Appalachian roots, pointing out that the region all too often ignores Black people’s contributions and role in Appalachian history.
Horsepower by Joy Priest
This poetry collection grabs you from the first page. It features a mixed-race narrator being raised by the white side of her family, including her white supremacist grandfather. Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, one of the most famous horse tracks in the country, looms in the background as the narrator navigates early womanhood in the urban south.
These titles represent just a few of the incredible works put out by writers from the Affrilachian Poets collective, but they highlight the immense range of talent of its members. Whatever collection you decide to pick up, you’re sure to find something wonderful!