Kentucky Inducts First African American Poet Laureate

In the annual Kentucky Writers’ Day program at the Capitol, Governor Steve Beshear inducted poet Frank X Walker as the state’s new poet laureate. Walker is the first African American to hold the post, and at 53 years old, the University of Kentucky professor is also the youngest. The Kentucky Arts Council announced Walker’s appointment in February.

Walker is the author of six books of poetry. The latest, from the University of Georgia Press, is “Turn Me Loose: the Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” a collection of persona poems honoring the civil rights leader who was assassinated 50 years ago. This book joins Walker’s impressive body of work concerned with giving voice to significant, yet often marginalized, historical African American figures, like Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Isaac Murphy and York, the slave who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition. 

In his remarks, Governor Beshear praised Walker’s craft and dedication to social justice.

“To read Frank X Walker is to sometimes leave yourself emotionally exhausted. His poems take you to uncomfortable places – cemeteries and prisons, street corners, mountain hollers, playgrounds, poverty, the kitchen of an angry mother, the heart of an anxious father,” said Beshear. “And you leave these scenes both drained of energy and a little bit more enlightened. He helps you recognize things about yourself, including things you’d rather not embrace. And he does this in the context of Kentucky’s complex history.”

Beshear also recognized Walker as the co-founder of the influential writing collective The Affrilachian Poets and as the creator of the word “Affrilachia,” a term coined to “challenge the notion of a homogenous, all-white literary landscape of the Appalachian region.”

“In so doing, Walker has given identity and voice to an entire culture and community of people who had previously been ignored and shunned,” said Beshear. 

When Walker took the podium, he spoke candidly about growing up in a creative household in Danville’s public housing projects, and emphasized the role public schools and libraries played in his early development as a writer. 

“My real dream was to grow up and get a chance to drive the book mobile,” he said. “When I was a kid, the book mobile in my neighborhood was more important than the ice cream truck. When that big blue bus rolled up the street they knew I would be the first up the steps. And they’d have to enforce whatever the book limit was every time on me because I’m trying to get out with all I could carry.” 

He also called on the audience to expand their understanding of Kentucky’s literary legacy.

“You guys know the names of Harriet Arnow and Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Bobbi Ann Mason, George Ella Lyon, Silas House, Maurice Manning, Anne Shelby, Ed McClanahan. You know those names,” he said.

“But I wanted to make sure I took this opportunity to say some other names that should be added to that list. Names like William Wells Brown, the first African American novelist in America, a Kentuckian. Effie Waller Smith, a poet from Eastern Kentucky, a black woman writing in the Harlem Renaissance Era along with Langston Hughes and those other great writers. George Wolfe, from Frankfort, a playwright who is also very talented and nationally known.”

The event in the Rotunda drew a standing-room-only crowd, including students from Danville High School, Walker’s alma mater, and representatives from the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, where Walker previously served as executive director. 

Six former poets laureate were on hand to read from their own work, including Sena Jeter Naslund, Joe Survant, Richard Taylor, Jane Gentry Vance, Gurney Norman and outgoing laureate Maureen Morehead, who opened the program with a reflection on her tenure as poet laureate, giving Walker a preview of what the next two years has in store. 

“I drove through our beautiful horse country into rolling hills and stately mountains. I saw miles of thriving farmland and grazing livestock. I followed the Ohio River to Northern Kentucky. I experienced Cumberland Falls, Natural Bridge, Black Acre, Old Mulkey State Park, and the Land Between the Lakes,” she said. 

Walker closed the program by reading a poem, “Kentucke,” which he calls his “official response to those who ask if there are other black people in Kentucky.”

“We are the amen in Churchill Downs, the mint in the julep, we put the heat in the Hot Brown and gave it color,” he read. “Indeed, some of the bluegrass is black.”

Read the entire poem here

Walker will serve a two-year term, traveling around Kentucky to speak on literature and literacy. The poet laureate is selected by an independent review board, with nominations and the selection process administered by the Kentucky Arts Council, which is part of the state’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage cabinet.

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