York would wake him at 3:30 or 4 a.m. and say, "Write this down. I have something to say."
Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker would listen. He became captivated by York, William Clark's slave who accompanied his owner on the Lewis & Clark Expedition 200 years ago.
Walker's journey to know York began after he witnessed an excellent chautauqua performance in which York "really came alive." One Walker poem followed.
Now, after more than eight months of extensive research and writing, Walker has 57 poems about York. The collection of poems tells the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition from York's point of view.
Walker shared some of the poems from his upcoming book, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, with an audience at the Kentucky History Center Friday evening. The book, published by the University Press of Kentucky in Lexington, will be available in bookstores in February.
The poems form a narrative of York's inner and outer journey, before, during and after the expedition - a journey from slavery to freedom, from the plantation to the great Northwest, from servant to soul yearning to be free.
Through the poems, Walker treats readers to subtle and overt commentaries on literacy, slavery, Native Americans, buffalo, the environment, love and loneliness.
Although Buffalo Dance is fictionalized poetry, it is grounded in history. Walker's rare blend of history and art breathes life into an important but overlooked historical figure.
A Danville native and Louisville resident, Walker is executive director of the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts and vice president of the Kentucky Center for the Arts.
He has served as founder and executive director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium; program coordinator of the University of Kentucky's King Cultural Center; and assistant director of Purdue University's Black Cultural Center.
"I ran a cultural center at UK and part of my responsibility was to teach African American history," Walker said. "And I didn't know about York. I had a college degree (from UK, and now has a master's in writing from Spalding University), and I had never heard of this person. Part of my motivation (in learning about York) was out of embarrassment, and a commitment to make sure people would know the story."
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