Belonging: A Culture of Place


What does it mean to call a place home? How do we create community? When can we say that we truly belong?


Heartfelt issues of connection and community are the subject of bell hooks’ new book,
Belonging : A Culture of Place.
Moving from past to present, hooks charts a journey in which she moves from place to place, from country to city and back again, only to end where she began in her native place—Kentucky.


In this provocative book, hooks explores a geography of the heart. She focuses on issues of homeplace, of land, and land stewardship, linking these issues to local and global environmentalism and sustainability. Naturally, it would be impossible to contemplate these issues without the politics of race, gender, and class. hooks writes about ecology, sustainability, and finding solace in nature. She writes about family and the ties that bind. She focuses on the experiences of black farmers, past and present, who celebrate local organic food production.


With boldness, insight, and honesty,
offers a remarkable vision of a world where all people—wherever they may call home — can live fully and well, where everyone can belong.

About bell hooks

bell hooks
is a writer and cultural critic. Among her many books are the feminist classic
Ain’t I A Woman,
the dialogue (with Cornel West)
Breaking Bread,
the children’s books
Happy to Be Nappy
Be Boy Buzz,
the memoir
Bone Black
(Holt), and the general interest titles
All About Love, Rock My Soul,
She has published six books with Routledge:
We Real Cool, Where We Stand, Outlaw Culture, Reel to Real, Teaching to Transgress,
Teaching Community.
Readers can look forward to her latest book in the teaching trilogy
Teaching Critical Thinking: Engaged Pedagogy.
Currently, she is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.




bell hooks





First published 2009
by Routledge
270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016

Simultaneously published in the UK
by Routledge
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This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2008.

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
hooks, bell.
Belonging : a culture of place / bell hooks.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Home — Social aspects. 2. Home—Kentucky. 3. hooks, bell. 4. African American women—Kentucky—Biography. 5. African Americans—Kentucky—Biography. 6. Kentucky—Biography. I. Title.
HQ503.H76 2008

ISBN 0-203-88801-4 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN10: 0-415-96815-1 (hbk)
ISBN10: 0-415-96816-X (pbk)
ISBN10: 0-203-88801-4 (ebk)

ISBN13: 978-0-415-96815-7 (hbk)
ISBN13: 978-0-415-96816-4 (pbk)
ISBN13: 978-0-203-88801-8 (ebk)




To dancing in a circle of love — to living in beloved community


I am grateful for everyone in Berea for welcoming me — for giving me a place to belong —


And I especially give thanks for Pete Carpenter, Paige Cordial, Timi Reedy, Jane Post, Vicky and Clarence Hayes, Bobby Craig, Eugene Powell, Susan King, Stephanie Browner, Linda, Alina, Libby, Peggy, Tammy, Mayor Steve Connelly, Vernon, Angela and all my Kentucky family.


Chapter 4
“Touching the Earth” appeared first in
Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery
(South End Press, 1993) © 1993 by Gloria Watkins.


Chapter 8
“Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination” appeared first in
Black Looks: Race and Representation
(South End Press, 1992) © 1992 by Gloria Watkins.


Chapter 10
“Earthbound: On Solid Ground” appeared first in
The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World,
edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. Savoy (Milkweed Editions, 2002).


Chapter 11
“An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional” and
Chapter 14
“Aesthetic Inheritances: History Worked by Hand” appeared first in
Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics
(South End Press, 1990) © 1990 by Gloria Watkins.


Chapter 12
“Inspired Eccentricity” by bell hooks, from
Family: American Writers Remember Their Own,
by Sharon Sloan Firfer and Steve Firfer, copyright © 1996 Sharon Sloan Firfer and Steve Firfer. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


Chapter 13
“A Place Where the Soul Can Rest” is reprinted by permission from
Etiquette: Reflections on Contemporary Comportment
edited by Ron Scapp and Brian Seitz, the State University of New York Press © 2007, State University of New York. All rights reserved.

Preface: To Know Where I’m Going

Talking about place, where we belong, is a constant subject for many of us. We want to know if it is possible to live on the earth peacefully. Is it possible to sustain life? Can we embrace an ethos of sustainability that is not solely about the appropriate care of the world’s resources, but is also about the creation of meaning — the making of lives that we feel are worth living. Tracy Chapman sings lyrics that give expression to this yearning, repeating, “I wanna wake up and know where I’m going.” Again and again as I travel around I am stunned by how many citizens in our nation feel lost, feel bereft of a sense of direction, feel as though they cannot see where our journeys lead, that they cannot know where they are going. Many folks feel no sense of place. What they know, what they have is a sense of crisis, of impending doom. Even the old, the elders, who have lived from decade to decade and beyond say life is different in this time “way strange” that our world today is a world of “too much” — that this too muchness creates a wilderness of spirit, the everyday anguish that shapes the habits of being for those who are lost, wandering, searching.

Mama’s mama Baba (Sarah Oldham) would say a world of “too much wanting and too much waste.” She lived a simple life, a life governed by seasons, spring for hoping and planting, summer for watching things grow, for walking and sitting on the porch, autumn for harvest and gathering, deep winter for stillness, a time for sewing and rest. All my childhood and into my first year of being grown up and living away from family, Baba lived secure in the two story wood frame house that was her sanctuary on this earth, her homeplace. She did not drive. No need to drive if you want your place on earth to be a world you can encompass walking. There were other folks like her in the world of my growing up, folks who preferred their feet walking solidly on the earth to being behind the wheel of an automobile. In childhood we were fascinated by the walkers, by the swinging arms and wide strides they made to swiftly move forward, covering miles in a day but always walking a known terrain, leaving, always coming back to the known reality, walking with one clear intent — the will to remain rooted to familiar ground and the certainty of knowing one’s place.

Like many of my contemporaries I have yearned to find my place in this world, to have a sense of homecoming, a sense of being wedded to a place. Searching for a place to belong I make a list of what I will need to create firm ground. At the top of the list I write: “I need to live where I can walk. I need to be able to walk to work, to the store, to a place where I can sit and drink tea and fellowship. Walking, I will establish my presence, as one who is claiming the earth, creating a sense of belonging, a culture of place.” I also made a list of places where I might like to dwell Seattle, San Francisco, Tucson, Charleston, Santa Fe (these were just a few of the places on my list). I travel to them in search of that feeling of belonging, that sense that I could make home here. Ironically, my home state of Kentucky was not on the list. And at the time it would never have occurred to me, not even remotely, to consider returning to my native place. Yet ultimately Kentucky is where my journey in search of place ends. And where these essays about place began.

Belonging: A Culture of Place
chronicles my thinking about issues of place and belonging. Merging past and present, it charts a repetitive circular journey, one wherein I move around and around, from place to place, then end at the location I started from — my old Kentucky home. I find repetition scary. It seems to suggest a static stuck quality. It reminds of the slow languid hot summer days of childhood where the same patterns of life repeat over and over. There is much repetition in this work. It spans all my life. And it reminds me of how my elders tell me the same stories over and over again. Hearing the same story makes it impossible to forget. And so I tell my story here again and again and again. Facts, ideas repeat themselves as each essay was written as a separate piece — a distinct moment in time.

Many of these essays in this book focus on issues of land and land ownership. Reflecting on the fact that ninety percent of all black folk lived in the agrarian South before mass migration to northern cities in the early nine teen-hundreds, I write about black farmers, about black folks who have been committed both in the past and in the present to local food production, to growing organic and to finding solace in nature. Naturally it would be impossible to contemplate these issues without thinking of the politics of race and class. It would be impossible to write about Kentucky’s past without bringing into the light the shadowy history of slavery in this state and the extent to which the politics of racial domination informs the lives of black Kentuckians in the present. Reflecting on the racism that continues to find expression in the world of real estate, I write about segregation in housing, about economic racialized zoning. And while these essays begin with Kentucky as the backdrop, they extend to politics of race and class in our nation as a whole.

Similarly the essays focusing on the environment, on issues of sustainability reach far beyond Kentucky. Highlighting ways the struggle to restore balance to the planet by changing our relationship to nature and to natural resources. I explore the connections between black selfrecovery and ecology. Addressing the issue of mountain-top removal, I write about the need to create a social ethical context wherein the concerns of Appalachians are deemed central to all American citizens. I write here about family, creating a textual album where I recall the folk who raised me, who nurtured my spirit.

Coming home, I contemplate issues of regionalism exploring my understanding of what it means to be a Kentucky writer. This collection of essays finds completion in my conversation with the visionary Kentucky writer, poet, essayist, and cultural critic Wendell Berry. Away from Kentucky I discovered Wendell’s writings my first year in college. What excited me most about him was his definitive commitment to poetry (at that time poetry was the central focus of my own writing). Yet he explored a wide range of issues in his essays that were fundamentally radical and eclectic. Following in Wendell’s footsteps was from the start a path that would lead me back to my native place, to Kentucky. The first class I taught at Berea College focused on Berry’s discussion of the politics of race in
The Hidden Wound.
In our conversation we reflect on this work, on his life and my own, the ways our paths converge despite differences of age and race.

On the journey to Wendell’s farm in Port Royal, Kentucky, I saw many beautiful barns storing recently harvested tobacco. These images were the catalyst for the short reflection on the tobacco plant included in this collection.

Naming traits that he sees as central to Kentucky in his work
Appalachian Values,
Loyal Jones emphasizes the importance of family commenting: “We think in terms of persons, we remember the people with whom we are familiar, and we have less interest in abstractions and people we have only heard about.” Certainly many of the essays in
begin with the family and kin with whom I am most familiar, especially in the essays focusing on creativity, aesthetic, and imaginative process. Writing about the past often places one at risk for evoking a nostalgia that simply looks back with longing and idealizes. Locating a space of genuineness, of integrity as I recall the past and endeavor to connect it to the ideals and yearnings of the present has been crucial to my process. Using the past as raw material compelling me to think critically about my native place, about ecology and issues of sustainability, I return again and again to memories of family During the writing of these essays Rosa Bell, my mother, began to lose memory, to move swiftly into a place of forgetfulness for which there is no return. Witnessing her profound and ongoing grief, about this loss, I learn again and again how precious it is to have memory.

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