Belonging: A Culture of Place
by bell hooks
New York: Routledge, 2009. 230 pp. $19.95.
The mainstream media has stumbled upon rural America. Sometime over the past couple of years, during the many months of presidential campaigning and all the small town stops, through the health care politicking and the birth of the Tea Party, pundits seem to have discovered the vast expanse of land connecting the two coasts, the long corridors of space linking their cities. This rural America has begun to capture the public imagination. It is a rural America,we are told, that is broken by a drug epidemic, populated by “a cast of hollow-cheeked white people smoking meth behind the corn silo” (Egan, 2009). It is a rural America, others explain, notable for its voting patterns, filled with a few Democrats—a “special set of Democrats, white, low income and undereducated” (Davis, 2008)—but mostly conservatives, “white, smalltown, uneducated” Tea Partiers unhappy with the leadership of President Obama and uncomfortable with the fact that America “is becoming more urban, less white, and more educated” (Kling, 2009). One constant across this rural America, as portrayed in these media accounts, is its color. It is lily white, an association so common that “rural” seems to have become synonymous with “white.” But as columnists heatedly disparage assertions that this white, rural America defines real
America (Rich, 2009), they overlook their own faulty assumptions that this whiteness defines rural
There is another rural America, one that exists beyond stereotypes and caricatures, one more diverse and more complex. It is a place that thousands of African Americans, Latinas/os, Asians, and Native Americans call home, a place growing ever more racially and ethnically diverse. It is a place with rich histories and unfolding narratives, a place with dense politics of belonging and community. It is an altogether more complicated rural America than recent headlines suggest.
It is a part of this more complicated, more diverse rural America that is portrayed in bell hooks’s Belonging: A Culture of Place
. In this book, as she explores questions of place and belonging, she gives voice to a narrative that adds complexity and authenticity to current understandings of rural Ameras recent depictions are white; it is a place where African Americans have lived for generations, a place of ambivalence and comfort, oppression and liberation. In Belonging
, hooks—a leading intellectual and teacher devoted to issues of race, sexuality, gender, and education; author of enduringly influential works like Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism
and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
—returns to this rural America. She returns home.
is a collection of essays about her “repetitive circular journey,” she writes, “one wherein I move around and around, from place to place, then end at the location I started from—my old Kentucky home” (p. 3). She chronicles this journey through twenty-one essays—a third of them previously published, each “a distinct moment in time” (p. 3)—that address a handful of narrative threads, themes of place, environmental and cultural sustainability, black agrarianism, and racial politics. These themes loosely knit together the essays’ various topics, topics as diverse as quilting, tobacco use, and residential segregation. This collection is hooks making sense of generations of details, using memories of wide front porches and green rolling hills to anchor discussions about place and race and legacy, weaving stories of the land and wandering from that land. Her patchwork of commentaries pieces together a broader narrative of home and belonging in black rural America. She captures the conflicted ambivalence of many “southern born blacks [who] long to return to the rich sub-cultures of our upbringing yet fear returning to old style racism” (p. 60), and she urges a restoration of the black rural culture of resistance, stewardship, and connection.
As a researcher focused on the rural South, I am unsettled by the recent portrayals of rural America, finding many inaccurate or simplistic. I believe that hooks’s work can contribute to a more authentic understanding of rural America: hooks offers a counternarrative that exposes a place both black and rural and explores how its residents negotiate race and racism within that space. In this review, I describe the demographics of rural America and explore two of her themes—this black rural culture and its complex racial politics. I then consider how this counternarrative challenges current understandings of rural America.
The Rural Landscape
hooks’s Kentucky home is one small corner of a vast rural landscape that stretches from the arid landscapes of the southwest to the snowy mountains of Maine. Life across these rural locales has changed considerably over the decades; small farms have closed and jobs have dried up, trends forced by the decline of the agriculture industry and the rise of urban-based industries (McGranahan, 2003). Despite these trends, rural America is still home to about fifty million people,1 19 percent of them racial minorities, including four million African Americans, three million Latinos/as, one million Native Americans, half a million Asians, and half a million multiracial residents (Economic Research Service, 2008). This rural minority population continues to grow, and migration ensures a constant reshuffling of rural communities (Johnson, 2003).
But these broad characterizations do little to expose the regional details that give shape to homes across rural America: Alaska is a very different rural than Alabama. hooks’s rural—the state of Kentucky—has a little over four million residents; almost 8 percent of these residents are black, and about 40 percent of these black residents are rural (Rural Assistance Center, 2009). Before widespread migration to cities during the early twentieth century, 90 percent of black Americans lived in Kentucky and other states across the rural South, hooks reports, and many continue to do so. For hooks, rural Kentucky anchors a black culture that is tied to the land through a long history of farming and mining, a long legacy of independence and resistance. Her descriptions of this particular place and culture, I believe, also serve to anchor a more complex understanding of race and racial politics in rural America.
A Rural Counternarrative: Black and Rural
hooks wanders her rural Kentucky slowly, roaming through tobacco fields and hills and her childhood home, carefully dislodging outsiders’ “stereotypical way of seeing that world” (p. 14). Here, in hooks’s home, chests are full with patterned quilts, fields are green with large tobacco leaves, pantries are cluttered with hanging meat, and gardens are ripe with vegetables. She introduces family members—Baba and Daddy Gus, her maternal grandparents, and Big Mama, her father’s grandmother—and shows the ways they found sustenance and dignity from the land. She quotes the words and ideas of other authors—Alice Walker, Wendell Berry, Carol Stacks—who also describe the racial terrain of rural communities and includes the transcript of an extended conversation she shares with Berry at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky. Thus, she gradually gives shape to a home long made invisible.
We have forgotten the black farmer, both the farmer of the past, and those last remaining invisible farmers who still work the land. It has been in the interest of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to hide and erase their story. For they are the ancestors who gave to black folk from slavery on into reconstruction an oppositional consciousness. (p. 43)
Her rural America is populated by these black farmers, as well as black horse jockeys and black coal miners—men and women using skills born of resistance, born of the black rural ways of finding physical sustenance and psychological strength through the land, “to keep a hold onto life despite the impositions faced by the system of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (p. 61).
This resistance, she argues, is a product of two rural Kentucky traditions—Appalachian and southern. The Appalachian sensibility is rooted in the rugged individualism of mountain folk, people defined by the utter freedom and self-determination of the hills. The southern tradition is also one of selfreliance, as centuries of racial oppression shaped the independent spirit of generations of black farmers and “empowered non-conforming black folks to create a sub-culture based on oppositional values” (p. 19). This complicated tradition of resistance, both Appalachian and southern, sustained a culture of “renegade black and white folks who perceived the backwoods, the natural environment, to be a space away from man-made constructions, from dominator culture, [and who] were able to create unique habits of thinking and being that were in resistance to the status quo” (p. 19). For hooks, her rural Kentucky home is a “place of promise and possibility and the location of all my terrors, the monsters that follow me and haunt my dreams . . . the one state where I had known a culture of belonging” (pp. 6–7). This culture of resistance, a culture both black and rural, is a legacy worthy of recognition and, in her view, continuation.
I appreciated that hooks avoids nostalgia as she describes this legacy, admitting the harshness of a life dependent upon share-cropping, while also capturing the dignity and strength that comes with this agrarian lifestyle. But the book’s meandering path through the textures and sounds, the symbols and practices, of this black rural culture was sometimes disorienting. An essay on the work of quiltmakers comes directly before an essay about her identity as a Kentucky writer, and “Drive through Tobacco” follows “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”—transitions made with little guidance from hooks. But I became comfortable with the moments of disorientation; I think I would have been disappointed by a linear progression from beginning to end, finding that story too simple. With any authentic description of home may come a knot of narrative threads; deep roots are often tangled.
A Rural Counternarrative: Racial Politics and Belonging
Perhaps the most obvious—and, arguably, important—of hooks’s narrative threads is the complex racial politics that shape her home and inform her work. As she exposes a Kentucky both black and white, she reveals the sometimes painful, sometimes hopeful, always complicated ways this color line is negotiated. Here, hooks is at her most powerful and most evocative, as she shows the complex patterns of relationships that have evolved from the longstanding race and class boundaries of Kentucky and that have rooted her scholarly work on race and racial politics, the complex patterns that exist beyond the rural stereotypes.
Her home is shaped by “competing cultures . . . , the world of mainstream white supremacist capitalist power and the world of defiant anarchy that championed freedom for everyone” (p. 11). This controlling power worked to maintain a world riddled with color and class lines. In town, a Kentucky town she leaves unnamed, these rifts were deeply felt. Here, she
learned the depths of white subordination of black folks. While we were not placed on reservations, black folks were forced to live within boundaries of the city, ones that were not formally demarcated, but boundaries marked by white supremacist violence against black people if lines were crossed. (p. 8)
But in the hills, the vast wild expanses beyond town, poor folks, black and white, often lived together. These hills, hooks’s home in her younger years,provided some shelter from the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,”a “dominator culture” that silenced “the rebellious sensibilities of white mountain folk” (p. 13) and their black neighbors. Here, in these radical hills, both white and black folks could live beyond the patriarchy that was subjugating black people and “dehumanizing the hillbilly” (p. 20).
But even in the hills, the effects of oppression cannot be completely escaped; the racial rifts can silently stretch beyond the boundaries of town. hooks argues that a climate of racial distrust is often felt most strongly among the poor; in the hills, a suspicious wariness separated poor white and poor black. This distrust has become reflexive, taught for generations from parent to child, black and white. For many black people, the ongoing and unrecognized psychological trauma of oppression fuels fear. For those “living during the age of fierce legally condoned racial apartheid, the face of terror will always be white” (p. 10), and this unresolved history keeps younger generations fearful. Class adds a layer of complication to this fear. Self-hatred, a disdain for “those most like us in habits and lifestyle” (p. 54), also perpetuated by the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” ensures continued racial segregation.
Despite this harsh landscape and these complicated racial politics, occasionally, improbably, authentic cross-racial relationships do evolve. hooks cites white essayist Wendell Berry, a fellow Kentuckian who also chronicles the land, people, and politics that surround him. His own writings, described in hooks’s essays, detail his deep ties to Nick Watkins and Aunt Georgie, two black folks who were a part of his rural community while he was growing up. These intimate relationships emerged despite racial barriers. hooks shares a story from Berry’s childhood when, in act of racial resistance, he chose to leave his own birthday party because Nick was forbidden inside by his grandmother. In a conversation with Berry, recounted in Belonging
, hooks tells him:
You bring complexity to our understanding of the intimacy between white and black people, an intimacy that certainly was on one hand created by the circumstances of oppression and exploitation, but as you show in this work that did not preclude the possibility of deep and abiding connection of care happening between white and black people even with this structure of domination. (p. 189)
The conversations shared by hooks and Berry stand as a testament to thepower of this intimacy: they visit and revisit the racial rifts that divide and the near-impossible tendrils of connection that bridge, all the while negotiatingtheir own cross-racial relationship. These kinds of authentic relationships candisrupt the racial patterns ingrained in our collective psyche: “intimacy always humanizes, even though it forms itself within a dehumanizing social framework” (p. 177).
Living in close proximity or shared situation cannot magically foster intimacy—distrust and suspicion still blanket hooks’s radical hills—but ending the practices of residential apartheid would certainly be a large measure of progress, she argues. Residential segregation—rural and urban—continues for complicated reasons: distrust and apprehension, housing policies and practices, habit and a refusal to change. Black folks, long oppressed by white people, and white folks, long accustomed to living in racial isolation, both fear closer contact. On returning to Kentucky, hooks chooses to live in Berea, a college town founded by an abolitionist upon antiracist principles; she deliberately makes her home within an interracial community. She had her own apprehensions about this decision, especially as family members and friends worried for her “safety,” and she shares the story of meeting “the ‘redneck’ white hillbilly man” (p. 85) who built the cabin she was interested in buying. Worried about the possibility of a hostile reaction, she enlisted a white friend to meet this man with her, but she learned that her fears were unfounded. She reflected, “Our working together, the friendship we have nurtured, the effort we have made to face our differences and resolve conflict, served as a catalyst for me to probe deeper notions of race and class, white supremacy, bonding across difference” (p. 86). Through this relationship and others like it, she can examine and release the long-held racial fear—a reasonable fear of exploitation and aggression—that threatens the existence of an antiracist society. She is clear: dismantling the everyday habits of oppression remains the primary responsibility of white people. But she also cautions that “if whites and blacks alike do not remain mindful of the continual need to contest racist segregation and to work towards a racially integrated society free of white supremacy, then we will never live in beloved community” (p. 85). Unless we are all vigilantly committed to antiracism, committed to racial understanding through a deliberate decision to live in an interracial place, we will never find the belonging of home.
I left this book with the sense that arriving home, describing and naming this home, and uncovering and honoring its complexity is messy and difficult work. It is deeply emotional work, too, and hooks’s stark labels—“the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” for one—labels that evoke her work as a feminist writer, often seem jaggedly sharp in contrast to this collection’s more forgiving, nuanced narratives. I occasionally found myself on uneven footing, unsettled by what often seemed to be changing descriptions and definitions of home, culture, and community. I puzzled, for instance, over the distinction between Appalachian culture and southern culture—which really defined her home? Perhaps the shifting characterizations are to be expected; perhaps hooks’s own sense of home is still changing, a familiar foundation still settling into the land underneath.
What continues to perplex me is hooks’s childhood home, the Kentucky hills. Sometimes her descriptions seemed inconsistent. How free-spirited and independent were these hills if their residents could not escape the effects of oppression? How did “demarcations of race, class, and gender . . . not matter” (p. 7) if a shroud of racial distrust still enveloped the rolling landscape, preventing cross-racial interaction? Are these inconsistencies in hooks’s description or argument, or is this real-life integration—or at least the closest approximation we can hope for?
Maybe I am looking for too easy an answer, too simple a demarcation between segregated and integrated, too facile a description of a complicated landscape. Maybe hooks’s various descriptions are not inconsistent so much as they are complex; rural America occupies that messy space in between separation and unity. In this complex space, racial politics are experienced, perpetuated, and realized in a multitude of ways by both white and black people. Though unrecognized and unacknowledged in mainstream commentary, a color line is chiseled deep into the rural American landscape, and daily its
residents reinforce and resist, sustain and subvert this divide.
A More Authentic Rural America
Through this collection of essays, hooks exposes her home in rural Kentucky to the public eye, honoring a forgotten black agrarian tradition that shapes Appalachia and the South and uncovering a rural America that is both black and white. She speaks to a racial legacy long overlooked in rural America and reveals the complicated ways in which race, power, and belonging are negotiated in this context. Denying African Americans a presence in rural America is more than inaccurate, she argues; this making-invisible is an act of oppression in itself, a denial of home and belonging.
I believe we must continue to question the invisibility, for this is not the only act of rural denial. We must continue to complicate rural America, complicate it beyond black and white, and look to other rural spaces and other rural communities. For centuries, elsewhere in rural America, Native communities have struggled for recognition (Gonzales, 2003), and this struggle now also faces rising numbers of Latino communities (Saenz & Torres, 2003). These communities, too, are made invisible by the current portrayal of rural America, an absence that perpetuates a monolithic understanding of rural America and fails to tell the authentic legacies of these communities. Yet hooks’s analysis can illuminate the complex ways in which power and race may also be negotiated in these contexts, and it can serve as a caution against monolithic portrayals.
“Stereotypes abound,” hooks explains, “when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken or are allowed” (p. 96). With Belonging
, she initiates a more “real knowing” of rural communities. In honoring a legacy both rural and black and in exploring complicated negotiations of race in a rural space, she exposes the rural America beyond newspaper headlines and popular stereotypes—a complex, rich, and racial rural.
mara casey tieken
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