Frank X Walker is a famous African American poet from Kentucky who was the first person who coined the word “Affrilachia” that emphasizes a great importance of African-Americans in Appalachia. One of his most known books of poetry is Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York. This is a collection of persona poems that are focused on the Lewis and Clark expedition story from the perspective of York, who was Clark’s personal slave. These poems can be seen as a transformation or trip from slavery to freedom, from a servant to a person that wants to be free, and from the plantation to the great northwest. The poetry is focused on the environment, buffalo, slavery, Native Americans, and literacy. Although Buffalo Dance shows the historic events, the poetry is a fiction where the history is blended. This historic fiction work is a great achievement that succeeded in giving voice to the voiceless. The main point is that the York’s voice and the voice of Walker are the same. Thus, this common voice talks about the desired freedom and struggle against oppression as the critical issues not only for Affrilachian but also for all people who face the homogenization threat from impersonal forces that are intended to take power over others. In the poems, Walker expresses the soul and the heart of his community. Moreover, the dramatic oral representation of this story revives the sacred ritual’s function, ensuring the health of community’s soul and heart. Therefore, through the transformation of the character into a free man in the collected poems in Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, Walter shows the dramatic portraits of individuals and culture and touches upon the themes of harsh human nature and slavery injustice.
As Walker gives voice to York, it becomes clear that the identification the main character had with Native Americans and the part they played in his freedom rising were basic in this historical retelling. For the first time, Walker learned about York’s story on the Hasan Davis’s presentation. The author told that he was fascinated by this story and when he realized that York’s role was not covered in the expedition’s work he decided to share his story (Burriss 317). Therefore, in the Preface to Buffalo Dance, the Walker explained that he focused on this project to provide “a vessel for his [York’s] voice and for His story.” As the author was further exploring the story he realized that he had to emphasize the oral traditions to reflect both African-American and Native-American traditions that are interconnected in the poems (Spriggs 22).
The book has a structure that through the further progression shows the York’s transformation from a slave into a free man. It opens with a poem “Wind Talker,” which takes place at the midpoint of the expedition’s journey when explorers reached the Pacific Ocean. In the second poem “Work Ethic,” the main character begins the story by telling about his childhood when he “was deeded to Massa Clark/down on the plantation in Virginia, when he was just a green sapling” (Walker 3). Then the poems show some progression and tell the story in a chronological order until the end of the journey and the return of Clark and Lewis expedition to St. Louise. The final poem is named “Birth Day” and it follows the York’s “death.” The first poem represents York as a dynamic personality, a strong individual, and a person with a moral consciousness that was partly formed by his master Clark. Since York is strong and fearless, he is taken by his master on the expedition. This was a good choice because, during the journey, York saves his master from a grizzly and, due to this, Clark gives him freedom after the trip. However, York becomes a free man not owing to his master but due to his transformation from an objectified slave without own voice and language into a free person who is in a spiritual harmony with nature and is able to express the humanity and sensitiveness to others.
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By giving voice to York, Walker puts a great emphasis on the slavery injustice that was expressed in taking away slaves’ language. This was a great problem of Walker’s time, despite big time differences between York and Walker’s periods. Thus, for any underclass group, it was critical to win back their language because it has the power to create the reality, and the revisionist history is not an exception. Walker stated that his book deconstructed the accepted notions of love, history, love, and freedom while reaffirming the literacy power, as well as the role of storytelling and mythology in the truth exploration that was presented in the poems (Jolliff 91). The main character emphasizes the importance of the oral telling of stories because slaves were not allowed to learn how to write and read. By denying literacy tools, York often reflects on his appreciation of the life-preserving and life-giving role of the story. During York’s childhood, his father played a critical role in the life of York and other slaves by telling them stories about their history. For instance, in the poem “Primer,” York says:
I figures my respect for a good telling
come from listening to Old York
weave his magic at night.
Folk hung from our porch like baby possums
an lived off the breath
he give to every story, no matter how many times
they tasted the tale. (Walker 6)
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The above lines explain the understanding of York that his father was doing much more than a simple recounting of tales; instead, he was literally giving life to his listeners. Moreover, York’s father was breathing the life in his stories and, as a result, he was breathing life in the archaic meaning of the word inspiration for people (Jolliff 94). In the poem “Ananse,” the main character describes how he was sitting around the fire and listening to the Hidatsa, Arikara, and Mandan tribes’ creation stories and calls them “so full they puts/that tale from Genesis to shame” (Walker 42). The main point is that York tries to remember the stories he has heard to take them back home because he is assured that these stories would be appreciated due to their focus on the survival that is very common to life conditions at home. Therefore, it is possible to note that language and voice are the most critical tools for free people because, with their help, they are able to express their position and point of view. By taking away these tools, some individuals try to take power and control over the others. Exactly this situation can be seen in the poems about York. White masters took away the voice of their slaves to own and control them. This problem is strongly emphasized by Walker through York’s realization that he has a voice that can be expressed and that the voice and language are able to breathe the life into people. Therefore, by giving voice to York, Walker puts an accent on his position that no one has a right to take away language and voice from other people. Thus, from this moment, York begins to understand that there is nothing right in his role and starts to form the image of himself as a free man in his mind. Exactly this idea was expressed and gained through the York’s realization of nature.
In the story, it is possible to see the key role of respecting the nature in achieving freedom, developing spiritual well-being, and gaining some powers from ancestors. York appreciates nature, and it is expressed through the desire for freedom that he believes can be seen in a way in which the trees, rivers, mountains, and buffalo represent the natural order, in which harmony and freedom exist. Through his journey and nature appreciation, York reaches the same freedom. In the poem “Sad Eye,” the main character has a close experience with nature that reminds him of the stories about the time and Africa that his father used to tell before he was stolen for the slavery trade (Jolliff 94). York realizes that his father’s eyes were sad when he was telling the stories because he missed his freedom. Exactly at this point of the journey, York becomes completely aware of what it might be like to feel as a free man, free as his father was in Africa, free both spiritually and physically. In the poem “Vision Quest,” the dream about freedom guides York to his family (Jolliff 94). In these dreams, he turns into the creature that is free enough to escape from the earthly and human bonds. This poem begins with the York dreaming that he became a buffalo. When he looks back on Virginia and Kentucky, all his family also transformed into buffaloes. This poem ends with York’s promise to return to free all people he loves:
Then as a strong wind came an carried me off
I hollas back to the herd an say
“One day I will return an bring all a you wings.” (Walker 39)
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Through nature, York believes to gain his freedom and free his family. From these dreams, readers can feel the pain of York’s separation from his family, particularly from his wife, even more intensely (Jolliff 95). The main character longs for his wife, and this longing is made more poignant by the fact that, even if York were not crossing the continent, he would not be allowed to stay with his wife except Christmas and Sundays because she was owned by another Louisville family. His meeting with the wife after the return from the journey is short and it represents the new York’s understanding of the universe (Jolliff 95). Such freedom to love shows the complete rejection of the power of one human to enslave the other. Therefore, York is trying to reach his freedom through his perceptions of nature, which leads him to the realization of the family importance. He dreams of turning himself and his family into buffaloes to be free in their surroundings. These dreams make the situation even more difficult when York loses his wife. His love makes York realize that his right to love, express sympathy for other people and respect nature can turn him into a man who is free from the unjust slavery. Exactly this idea is one of the most critical for Walker, and such desire to reach freedom through nature, humanity and love is the author’s voice that can be heard in the York’s story. Based on these changes, York realizes that he refuses to be a slave; instead, he wants to talk freely. Readers can see the author’s voice in this position Walker insists on the abolition of slavery.
The last two poems of Buffalo Dance show the strength of the new will and purpose. “Cumulonimbus” starts with York’s words that no man was born a slave (Walker 68). Moreover, the main character realizes that his father also knew this, and this realization becomes the author’s voice. In the end, York refuses to be a slave, which is expressed in the last poem of the book. The title of the poem “Birth Day” refers to the birth of free York. Therefore, the slave York died with his refusal to serve Clark. His rebirth is expressed in these lines:
the other side a Rock Mountains,
in the middle ova herd a wooly headed buffalo
breathing mountain air so clean an cold it make
your ears fill up, your head try an float away
your eyes just turn to ochians. (Walker 70)
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This refusal is a climax of the York’s story about slavery injustice that is put by Walker as one of the most critical themes in the poems. From this point, the main character accepts himself only as a person free from slavery and White men’s bounds. Moreover, he realizes that he has a right to love, sympathize, and express own humanity freely. Such transformation is the author’s way of expressing his position on racial segregation and conveying the idea that people have to fight against oppression despite everything. York experiences a strong transformation regarding slavery issues, which leads him to the desired freedom.
However, it is worth mentioning that the factor of harsh and corrupted human nature played a great role in the transformation. Buffalo Dance includes this theme in addition to the slavery injustice among the white population that believes in owning both other humans and nature. The harsh human nature in this poetry is brightly expressed through the objectification. All men on this trip see women as objects, and the same attitude can be seen toward nature. Therefore, both nature and women are possessed and used for economic gain or pleasure. At first, York does not see that his master objectifies him the same way he objectifies women with whom he sleeps. However, Nez Perce wife is completely different and, due to this, she teaches York the power of love. Through her free expression of herself, York becomes more aware of his essential self. It is critical to notice that women play a great role in York’s transformation. His two wives represent two different legitimate kinds of love that play an important role in the poems (Jolliff 95). With the help of these women, York manages to transform by disentangling himself from the White colonizer mentality. At first, during the journey, York is freely taking any opportunity to gain sexual satisfaction. However, when he falls in love with his Nez Perce wife, he starts to see females from the different perspective and separates himself from the White man attitude and objectification toward women (Jolliff 95). Therefore, it is possible to see that the human harsh nature is expressed through the objectification of nature and women. Moreover, York first behaves just as white men do and shows no respect that is expected from the men of honor. However, due to the women in his life, he slowly begins to change and, within some time, starts to realize that his attitude is wrong. The moment of this realization means that the main character has managed to become free from White men’s perceptions of the work and people. When York understands that now superiority can be expressed toward nature and other people, he makes a great progress in his transformation into a free man. At the same time, the author gives voice not only to York but also to his women. The main point is that the voices of women were not heard, which can be seen in the case of York’s slave wife and Nez Perce wife. This provided the emotional undercurrent of this trip retelling (Jolliff 95). The author changed that, making the poems force readers to take another look at the voices in this story that were silent before.
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Another issue, due to which York was able to free from the White man’s perceptions and complete his transformation, is his humanity development that was formed based on the comparison between Native Americans and White men. In particular, through the realization of the inappropriateness of objectification and comparison of Native Americans and White masters, York develops his humanity. Therefore, it is possible to see that, during the trip, York is slowly becoming conscious of the White man’s shortcomings and European ideas that are so different from the Native Americans who are critical of the expedition’s success (Jolliff 91). A great part of the York’s transformation is the development of sympathy toward the Native Americans. He starts to see the difference in the values of the White and Red people and realizes his master’s hypocrisy and shallowness. Moreover, very quickly York notices the condescension that Whites have toward Indians and the disdain that Native Americans sometimes have for Whites superior assumptions. Thus, he begins to question these assumptions about White superiority by understanding that even aesthetic values and standards are relative. Therefore, starting from this moment, the York’s sensibilities are awakened and a great change happens in his sensitivity to the natural wonders. He realizes that the whole Native Americans perception differs from that of the White men who believe in a linear fashion and perceive the land as something that can be owned while the Native Americans believe in a circular fashion and perceive the universe as something to co-exist with (Jolliff 92). Even their houses and interaction with landscape differ because the Indian homes are created to keep them in touch with their world and the larger universe, and such attitude helps them to stay humble. On the contrary, Whites see the natural world largely in terms of economics (Jolliff 93). Therefore, through analyzing the differences between Native Americans and White men, York realizes that White masters’ perceptions are wrong and he cannot accept them anymore. Based on this, the humanity and sympathy in York toward the Native Americans are developed. Consequently, the main character finally finishes his transformation into a free man despite slavery injustice and the harsh human nature.
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Overall, it is critical to notice that in Buffalo Dance, the author as the storyteller gives his character the voice that helps to express the pain and concerns about people. Just as the stories of York’s father breathed the life in the listening slaves, Walker’s poems breathed the life in York. This work has a transformative power and, through the Buffalo Dance, the author himself becomes the vessel through whom the present and past are made whole, united and merged. Moreover, Walker gives voice to voiceless and restores the integrity of historical images of the past by reinserting the York’s figure in one of the most famous American tales about survival, exploration, and adventure. He unites the cultures from the global to regional levels, from Africa to Eastern Kentucky. Walker, as a spirit doctor, prophet, and griot, calls upon the present to pull wisdom and strength from the past to save the future for children and all people. Therefore, by giving York voice and personality, Walker expressed his active voice. The author was present in poem titles, epigraphs, and poem lines that show the individual passion of Walker to express the power of written and spoken words for all times.