Frank X Walker: Even More than a Griot

Cropped screen shot from the Kentucky Educational TV video "Frank X Walker: I Dedicate This Ride" for the Kentucky Muse Series.  I published this post on 3/3/13/14 at 8:57 PM and last updated it on 3/5/2014 at 8:30 PM.


Frank X Walker's play I Dedicate This Ride, about Black Kentucky  jockey Isaac Murphy (1861-1896), is showing today through March 9 in Lexington KY with the Message Theatre troupeMurphy  became the subject of Walker's 2010 poetry collection of the same name when Frank X was commissioned to write a play that year at the Lexington Children's Theater.  The photo below of that production is by Rich Copely for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  

Walker's fellow Affrilachian poet Kelly Norman Ellis, has compared him to the griots: West African historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets and keepers of the oral tradition.  To me, Frank X is even more: with the oral tradition often vanished, he sifts through what remains in a variety written and sometimes video records and re-imagines and creates those praise songs.

Such was the case with  his wonderful poetry collection, Turn Me Loose, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers for which he won an NAACP Image Award last month.  (I was thrilled--Virginia Tech Library ordered the book  at my request, when it was first published.)

As in Turn Me Loose, Frank X  makes us feel history through imagining the voices of his protagonist  and those who surround him.  In I Dedicate This Ride, the speakers include Burn's wife Lucy, his mentor African-American trainer Eli Jordan, and his parents James and America Burns.  As Walker recounts in the KET video about his research:

It wasn't even the Isaac poems.  It was the research that revealed the poems that I wrote about Lucy and Eli Jordan and his parents that really made it a story to me.  Because I think Isaac just telling his own story would have been pretty flat and uninspiring.  But when you appreciate it in the context of a really good student who rose from nothing to become the greatest rider in the world.  The thing about the research that amazed me about the research is they spent more time talking about his character and his high values and how he conducted his life than they did talking about his success as a jockey.

Message Theatre started in the 1980s and produced plays through about 1994.  It relaunched in January with a performance of The Meeting, a two-man play about a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Here's the title poem, spoken by Isaac Murphy.  You can listen to Frank X read "I Dedicate This Ride" starting at minute 2:06  in the KET video.

When I come barreling down the stretch
I always think about my daddy, James Burns,
a runaway slave turned soldier.

At the start of every race I pretend
he's in the crowd, standing at attention
watching me ride for the first time,
his brass belt buckle gleaming
like his proud mouth.

I tell myself I don't dare lose,
that this race is for the Union.
For all ex-slaves who joined up,
who stole away with their families.
They taught us about sacrifice,
dug trenches, carried supplies
and ate a whole lot of rebel bullets

just so they could keep the freedom
they hungered so much for.
Just so their children could dream.

So I could ride horses and enjoy true quiet
and these visits with him
in the middle of all this noise.
The video includes other poems, excerpts from the play and interviews with Walker and others  about his creation of the work. It also includes footage the March 2011  Symposium on Affrilachia which Walker convened in Lexington at the University of KY, where he's on faculty. (That's where I got to meet him after knowing about his work for years and you can see me a couple of times when the camera pans to the audience.)

The video also captures Frank X talking about how he coined the word "Affrilachian."

I looked up the dictionary definition of Appalachian and it saw that it said white residents of Appalachian region and this disturbed me a little bit because I'd already accepted that the best writers in the State of KY at the time were Appalachian writers, but if that definition was correct, it meant that I coudl never be an Appalachian writer. I coudl never be one of the best writers in the state.


Yesterday, as the Academy awards were being shown, I learned via facebook from Washington Post environmental journalist Darryl Fears (article archive, twitter, facebook)  that Lupita Nyong'o had won an Oscar for what we both regard as a spectacular performance as Patsey in Twelve Years a Slave.   Darryl pointed me to Katie Calautti's (twitter) essay on Patsey, "What Will Become of Me.?" I told him that's the same question which  has haunted me since viewing the film.  And although I'm not one to give assignments, I'd bet that Frank X Walker would be up to the task of answering that question.

Of course, the records were probably more easily available on the folks Walker has chosen in the book's I've mentioned here. Medgar Edgars tragic death and the long battle to convict his murderer have been a topic much written and spoken about during my lifetime.  And Isaac Murphy was first to win the Kentucky Derby three times (1884, 1890, 1891). Part of the lore is that rather than use a whip or spurs, Isaac would simply talk to his horses.

I didn't realize until I read this collections the mostly lost history of Blacks in horse racing.  In the very first Kentucky Derby winners, thirteen of the fifteen jockeys were Black and of the first twenty-eight Derbies through 1902, fifteen of the winning riders were Blacks....before such jockeys began to disappear from the sport throughout the 20th century.

And even when history is "preserved" it can be dismaying:  Murphy's disinterment from what his family thought would be his final resting place gets told with a straight face by the Kentucky racing industry. 

For years, Murphy's grave was left untouched and nearly forgotten in an abandoned cemetery in Lexington, Ky. Finally in 1967, after a long search, his remains were found, exhumed and reburied at the old Man o' War burial site, and then were moved again, along with Man o' War, to the Kentucky Horse Park prior to its opening in 1978. Today, Murphy rests near Man o' War and some of his illustrious descendants, a champion among champions. 
As if getting re-buried with a horse and its descendent as his fellow champions were some kind of honor...maybe one only members of PETA could love.  What, if, instead, the racing industry had help restore the original cemetery?

What happened brings to my mind Traveler getting buried with Robert E. Lee.  Should we take comfort in the fact that Kentuckians didn't put Murphy's bones on display after disinterment, as Virginians did with Traveler for a time. Sadly, as the KET video points out, Murphy's beloved Lucy got left behind.

Kind of like Patsey.  Frank X Walker brings both Issac amd Lucy Murphy  back to us--along with  James and America Burns and Eli Jordan--and it is a great gift, and like them, worthy of praise.


UPDATE  3/5/2014

I contacted Dave Zirin, a  political sportswriter and sports editor for The Nation via titter and he kindly"favorited" my tweet. 

Jennifer Nardine, who handles acquisitions for the English Department for Newman Library at Virginia Tech, wrote me this morning to say she was ordering I Dedicate This Ride for the collection.

In doing a little more reading, I learned the reason for the disappearance Black jockeys from racing is truly ugly, as recounted by Christopher Klein (twitter) last year when Kevin Krigger from San Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, was only the second Black jockey to race in the Derby after 1921.
The rising tide of institutional racism that swept across Gilded Age America finally seeped into the world of horse racing. Jim Crow was on the ascent, and the U.S. Supreme Court itself blessed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Emboldened by the societal changes, resentful white jockeys at northern raceways conspired to force blacks off the track, in some cases literally. During the 1900 racing season, white jockeys in New York warned trainers and owners not to mount any black riders if they expected to win. They carried out their threats by boxing in black jockeys and riding them into—and sometimes over—the rails. In a cruel irony, free sons of former slaves felt the sting of whips directed their ways during races. Race officials looked the other way. Owners realized that black riders had little chance of winning given the interference. Even Willie Simms, the only African-American jockey to win all three of the Triple Crown events, had to beg for a mount.

By 1904, black riders had been virtually banned from the major racetracks, including Churchill Downs, and the complexion of the Kentucky Derby had been changed forever. Black participation dwindled, and no African-American rode the race between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien guided Curule to a seventh-place finish.

Barred from the United States, African-American jockeys took their talents to Europe. Winkfield, [Jimmy Winkfield matched Murphy's back-to-back Derby win the 1902 Kentucky Derby] for instance, starred in Czarist Russia, and after the Russian Revolution he raced in Poland, Germany, and France before retiring with some 2,600 wins in an incredible career. No black man has won the Run for the Roses since Winkfield’s 1902 triumph.