Frank X Walker, an award-winning poet and teacher born and raised in Danville, gave the annual Founders Day address at Centre College on Jan. 18, 2017. As part of the Founders Day ceremony, Centre awarded him the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters.
Centre received its charter from the Kentucky legislature 198 years ago on Jan. 21, 1819.
“The core of who I am started several blocks away and on this campus,” he told the audience, citing his excitement at seeing a traveling production of “The Wiz” at Centre’s Norton Center for the Arts. It was the first time he’d seen a performance at that level and the experience brought him to tears.
“I was overwhelmed by the power of all that art,” he recalled. “I accepted the arts as a mission at that point.”
Walker is perhaps best known as co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets, a society of writers of color with ties to the 13-state Appalachian region. He coined the term “Affrilachian” in 1991 after noticing that African American experiences and contributions to Appalachian culture seemed to be “invisible.” The word is now an entry in the Oxford American Dictionary.
Walker earned a degree in English at the University of Kentucky, where he currently teaches, and an M.F.A. at Spalding University. He was the 2013-14 Kentucky Poet Laureate.
He has written eight collections of poetry, most recently “The Affrilachian Sonnets” and “About Flight.” Many students in the audience read his collection “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” as first-year students.
Walker closed his remarks with a tribute to his late mother, recognizing her birthday that day. Reading from his poem “Statues of Liberty” in his first collection, Affrilachia, he said:
rich white porcelain
and hard wood floors
on her hands and knees
hid her pretty face and body
in sack dresses
and aunt jemima scarves
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
before postwar women
they birthed civil and human rights
gave the women’s movement
sacrificed their then
to pave the way for a NOW
their hard-earned pennies
sent us off to college
and into the world
our success is their reward
are their monuments
are our statues of liberty
Read the complete poem here.
by Diane Johnson
January 20, 2017