What bell hooks Knew About Being a Kentucky Writer – The Atlantic
listen little sister
angels make their hope here
in these hills
I will guide you
(From Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place, by bell hooks)
For all the things that bell hooks was—one of the foremost Black intellectuals in the world, renowned feminist, author of more than 40 books, revolutionary cultural critic—and all the places she lived, she was still Gloria Jean Watkins from Hopkinsville, daughter of Rosa Bell and Veotis. There is no doubt that her entire body of work was shaped by her homeplace and that when she found her voice, she helped a generation of Black Kentucky women writers find ours too.
Though bell often wrote of her “wounded childhood,” she was also influenced by her ancestors, like her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks (from whom she devised her pen name) and others who taught her to, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, “draw up power from the deep.” bell grew up in the Western part of the state, near the Tennessee border. In Belonging: A Culture of Place, she explains that her spirit of resistance was nurtured by rural Black agrarians who valued self-reliance and self-determination above all else. “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully,” she later wrote in Sisters of the Yam. bell often spoke of the loss she felt when her family left the hills to move into town. She called this longing her “first deep grief.” The significance of our Kentucky roots—the wounds, the salve—was among the things bell and I talked about after we became friends.
Though I settled primarily on fiction, my work, too, looks back and remembers. My people, real and imagined, gather strength from the Bluegrass. I grew up in the foothills of south-central Kentucky, where nature was abundant, where I was free to roam the creeks and knobs. Like bell’s people, my grandparents grew gardens and tobacco and tended animals. They relied on white folks for little. I, too, have written about nature’s capacity to heal, especially for Black women, and know that bell was homesick for that balm.
When I met bell, in 1993, she was already an acclaimed writer and theorist. She had lived away from Kentucky for decades. I was a part of a mighty enclave of Black women that included Nikky Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis, Donna …….