National Writing Project

Book Review: Belonging: A Culture of Place

By: Paul Epstein
Date: March 18, 2010

Summary: Finding lessons on the politics of race, class, and belonging that can inform teachers in rural writing projects, Paul Epstein, co-director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project, reviews and recommends bell hooks' book Belonging: A Culture of Place.


Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, was born and raised in Appalachian rural Kentucky. In this collection of essays she describes an early childhood running free and connecting deeply with nature among independent-minded people, whom she describes as being "anarchic," living in the hills of Appalachia.

Not until her family moved to town and better schools did she become aware of the "imperialist white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy" that she identifies in Kentucky and America.

She was, she acknowledges, taught by her family that the poor white folks who lived around them were all racist; she also notes that the blacks of the community held poor whites in the same contempt that the upper-class whites did.

As hooks discusses in Belonging: A Culture of Place , today she works to overcome these prejudices, engaging with her neighbors in her effort to build an antiracist "beloved community" and create a sense of belonging.

The Loss of Deep Connection

After finishing high school in 1970, hooks left Kentucky to escape the pervasive racism she felt and to study at Stanford University. There she experienced the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. While becoming an established academician, writer, and intellectual in the ensuing years, she experienced loss and loneliness, a disconnection from place—especially the place of her childhood.

In describing that homeplace she longed for, she identifies the influence of the elders, her grandparents, who though uneducated had a strong independent spirit, strong work ethic, strong ties to and love for the land, and an acceptance of their economic status.

She calls on African Americans to help create intentionally antiracist integrated communities.

She posits that African Americans, so many of whom left the rural agrarian south by 1900, have suffered from the loss of a deep connection to the land that she calls a "culture of belonging."

And this connection to the land that they lost in their migration from the rural south to the cities of the north, she believes, had given their ancestors a sense of the power of nature that could counteract the powerlessness imposed on them by racial injustices.

Building on and referencing the writings of George Washington Carver, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, and others who champion environmental, feminist, and racial issues, she denounces the coal-mining method known as mountaintop removal that ravages the earth, and decries racism and the fear of whites that racism has created among blacks.

But she also proclaims the positive, life-affirming, spiritual, and healing effects of a connection to nature.

Her longing to recapture the sense of place developed in childhood led her to return to Kentucky, where she is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. She has bought land in this progressive rural community and seeks to heal herself of her prejudices toward poor whites, protect the land from the devastation of development, and participate in the development of an antiracist beloved community.

Creating a Beloved Community

As a white Jew, I understand that I have benefited from America's racism in education, employment, and housing over a lifetime. I also understand that I harbor prejudices at the conscious and unconscious levels. Reading hooks encourages me to acknowledge and confront these facts as she acknowledges and confronts the effects of America's "racial apartheid" on blacks.

She says blacks raised in America experience post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by the experience of racism: fear of walking in white neighborhoods, fear of falling victim to racist violence, fear of being taken advantage of or rejected in transactions with whites in housing or commerce. She recounts purchasing property as a silent partner to a white friend, not revealing herself as the true owner until after the sale was complete.

She points out that some segregation is self-imposed by blacks in order to create or maintain safe spaces, and that black self-hatred can manifest itself as racism or classism toward poor whites. Identity politics, she warns, creates a paradox in which adherents call for an end to racism while giving loyalty to their own racial groups.

She calls on African Americans to help create intentionally antiracist integrated communities in order to realize Dr. King's dream of the beloved community.

According to hooks, "To a grave extent people of color who self-segregate are in collusion with the very forces of racism and white supremacy they claim they would like to see come to an end. Racism will never end as long as the color of anyone's skin is the foundation of their identity."

Finding Her Kentucky Voice

In hooks' essay On Being a Kentucky Writer , English teachers will find an interesting reflection on the changes her language has gone through as she learned to hide her Appalachian dialect and engage in formal, third-person writing before she found her voice.

In an essay and a conversational interview near the end of the book, hooks pays tribute to her mentor, Kentucky poet, writer, environmentalist, and cultural critic Wendell Berry.

From his 1968 book The Hidden Wound, she learned that there were whites in Kentucky who could deconstruct the experience of white racism in such a way as to work to heal their own racist upbringing and help her empathize with the destructive nature of racial imbalance on whites. With him, she shares both the experience of choosing a return to rural community rather than the cultural meccas of large urban centers, and the desire to protect that rural environment.

In the conversation, she and Berry cover much of the ground she has cultivated in the previous essays: the wounds that racism and segregation inflict on the whole of society, yet the possibilities of human interactions between the privileged and the subservient at times to overcome barriers.

bell hooks and Dr. Bill Turner celebrate "Appalachian Heritage."

Berry believes that by creating an underclass to do menial labor whites don't wish to do for themselves, a role Mexicans increasingly fulfill, whites debilitate themselves.

In Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks reveals a certain maturation of thought: while remaining a strong critic of racist structures that continue to exist in her native Kentucky, she tries to create antiracist beloved community there; she comes to terms with parents who are approaching the end of their lives; she seeks to protect the land from uncontrolled development and coal mining devastation.

She vacillates between, on the one hand, an entrenched ideology that views white America as a stark and brutal force that seeks to maintain a status quo through racial and class domination, and on the other hand her idealism and even nostalgia for a return to the independence and strength rural African Americans once felt working the land and knowing the rhythms of nature.

The writing is often strong and poetic, primarily formal and intellectual, occasionally dipping into vernacular, though she deserves a better editor: typos and other errors are so abundant as to make reading difficult at times.

But hooks' voice transcends these problems: she is a teacher who has wisdom to share, wisdom acquired both by wide reading and from experience.

About the Author Paul Epstein is co-director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project.

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