reading bell hooks
January 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
A few weeks ago, I went to the Stone Center (a first) in search of a book. I can’t remember how I heard about it–bell hook’s Belonging: A Culture of Place–but, whatever the referent, it contained a nearly irresistible trifecta of associations:
- bell hooks, as I understand things, is credited with having one of the best (‘best’?) description/definitions of intersectional feminism. That’s an interest of mine.
- there’s an interview with Wendell Berry somewhere in there.
- She’s currently Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea, which, I don’t have to tell you, is an amazing place that gives me hope whenever I think of it. Zac’s parents met there.
Belonging is a collection of essays that intentionally cover the same ground, over and over. They’re circuitous because they’re about her origins, and her ending-up-back, in rural Kentucky. “Hearing the same story makes it impossible to forget,” she says, “And so I tell my story here again and again.” She writes about land and land ownership, about black people and their (mostly) elided history as black farmers and landowners, and about the intersection of racism, capitalism, and environmental degradation in the Appalachians.
I ended up spending the rest of that morning in the library (now my favorite library, due to its perfect light, quiet & peaceableness).
I guess that would take about two weeks. I’m not an expert on these matters–I’m just one girl who’s read one book (to admit an appalling fact, I cannot remember the last book I read written by a black person. I think it might have been Things Fall Apart, in the 10th grade, which is pretty shameful). I don’t think I’m qualified to analyze what bell hooks is saying here (haven’t done the reading, so I’m scared to write the paper, you know?), so I think the most I can do is quote the passages that stuck out most to me. These are all things I have never thought about before.
Nature as ‘the place of victory’:
What we had learned in the hills was how to care for ourselves by growing crops, raising animals, living deep in the earth. What we had learned in the hills was how to be self-reliant.
Nature was the foundation of our counter-hegemonic black subculture. Nature was the place of victory. In the natural environment, everything had its place, including humans. In that environment everything was likely to be shaped by the reality of mystery. There dominator culture (the sytem of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy) could not wield absolute power. For in that world nature was more powerful. Nothing and no one could completely control nature. In childhood I experienced a connection between an unspoiled natural world and the human desire for freedom.
and the trauma of being forcibly cut off from nature & animals:
Separating black folks, especially black jockeys, from the world of Kentucky horse culture went hand in hand with the rise in white supremacist thinking. For us it meant living with a culture of fear where we learned to fear the land, the animals, where we became fearful of the moist munching mouths of horses black jockeys would rarely ride again. This separation from nature and the concomitant fear it produced, fear of nature and fear of whiteness was the trauma shaping black life.
On black farmers, working with & in nature, who created an ‘oppositional consciousness’:
We have forgotten the black farmer, both the farmer of the past, and those last remaining visible farmers who still work the land…they are the ancestors who gave to black folk from slavery on into reconstruction an oppositional consciousness, ways to think about life that could enable one to have positive self-esteem even in the midst of harsh and brutal circumstances. Their legacy of self-determination and hard work was a living challenge to the racist stereotype that claimed blacks were lazy and unwilling to work independently without white supervision.
and who knew that, to survive, they needed to create their own peace, happiness, and joy:
Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy. More often than not peace and happiness was found in the enjoyment of simplicity. The pleasure of ripe fruit, a good tomato, smoking tobacco that one had grown, cured, and rolled into cigarettes, hunting, or catching fish. These simple pleasures created the context for contentment. Calling to mind these earlier times in African-American life and culture is not a sentimental gesture or an expression of empty nostalgia, it is meant to remind those of us grappling with the construction of self and identity in the present that we have a legacy of positive survival skills and identity in the present to draw upon that can teach us how to live with optimal well-being, regardless of our circumstance.
Suppressing these insights, erasing the agrarian roots of African-American folk, was a strategy of domination and colonization used by imperialist white supremacist capitalists to make it impossible for black folk to choose self-determination. Equating freedom solely with economic mobility and material acquisition was a way of thinking about life that led black folk to seek to distance themselves from their agrarian past…Fleeing their agrarian roots, most blacks left behind the oppositional values that had been a source of power, a culture of resistance based on alternative ways of living on that valued emotional intelligence.
There are also a two really wonderful chapters about her grandmother’s quilting that I neglected to except from, but I’d be remiss to not mention.
But, I mean, is this right? Is it true? Is this how it is? Do other people–black people–view their past like this? What are other viewpoints? I’m pretty familiar with how urban/rural tensions play out in mainstream (white) culture, but how does that conflict look from a black perspective?
I guess I don’t have anyone I can talk about this to, but, I know, that’s my fault: I’m insular. If I want good discourse, I ought to do some legwork.
As usual, I’m left with an long list of follow-up reading: