bell hooks on black farmers and racial politics
Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks.
I just finished bell hooks’s book, Belonging: A Culture of Place. It was released in October 2008. It is her reflection on black farmers in Kentucky, intersections of race and class, and how uneven power relations and white racism contributed to the loss of black farming land. One of the most important premises of this book is the connection between black self-recovery and ecology, with issues around land and land ownership. As a Black American, she wants to set the record straight: black folks past and present are committed to local food production and organic living; however, the mainstream organic and ecosustainable movement makes it appear that black folks have never known how to live sustainably, appreciate nature, or eat healthy. hooks wrote her book while residing in her home state of Kentucky, contemplating deeply on the politics of regionalism and class, and remembering how she received a rude awakening when she arrived at Stanford University for her undergraduate education. She was met with ridicule from peers who had never met people from Kentucky- but only had stereotypes in mind.
Throughout the book, hooks continuously focused on how place shaped her identity and her relationship to the natural world. Being raised in rural Kentucky during Jim Crow era, she never knew that being “rural” and from the South had a negative connotation, until she met her peers at Stanford University. Experiencing her childhood in the rural hills, she writes, “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” (hooks 2008: 8). She continues to explain that this self-reliance was vital in an era in which a white supremacist Jim Crow state did not care for Black Americans. Ultimately, she reflects on how Black Americans in her community could feel powerful, knowing that nature will always be more powerful than the white supremacist system that had institutionalized racial segregation.
What is a culture of belonging? hooks refers to Carol Lee Fliners’s definition: “an intimate connection with the land to which one belongs, empathic relationship to animals, self-restraint, custodial conservation, deliberateness, balance, expressiveness, generosity, egalitarianism, mutuality, affinity for alternative modes of knowing, playfulness, inclusiveness, nonviolent conflict resolution, and openness to spirit” (hooks 2008: 13).
One of the most moving parts of the book is when hooks reflects on how a significant number of Black Americans in the USA fear rural nature, often equating it with “white racist hillbillies” they perceive as wanting to harm black people. She recalls a conversation she had with her sister, who lives in an urban neighborhood. When telling her sister that she is buying a home in a rural Kentucky, her sister is fearful for bell’s life, asking her if she is afraid of being attacked. hooks felt this was a strange question, particularly since her sister lived in an urban area in which crime and violence were more likely to occur than where bell’s new home would be located.
Her sister, like many Black Americans who were living in the south, migrated north during Jim Crow and left behind a rich agrarian past to pursue “freedom” within urban areas. However, when they arrived to the northern cities of the USA, they were startled to find that it was nearly impossible to purchase land. Losing ownership of land meant that most lost their traditional ways to healthy home grown food, along with the physical exercise it took to produce one’s own foods. She writes, “certainly it must have been a profound blow to the collective psyche of black people to find themselves struggling to make a living in the industrial north away from land. Industrial capitalism was not simply changing the nature of black work life, it altered the communal practices that were so central to survival in the agrarian south. And it fundamentally altered black people’s relationship to the body…Without the space to grow food, to commune with nature, or to mediate the starkness of poverty with the splendor of nature, black people experienced profound depression.” (hooks 2008: 37-38). It is within the context of this unique history that hooks proposes a collective black self-recovery that is intertwined with the current USA ecological sustainable movement. Ultimately, she feels that healing from racism and exploitative practices of industrial capitalism can only take place if Black Americans can reclaim the philosophies of their agrarian past. She writes, “healing begins with self-determination in relation to the body that is the earth and the body that is our flesh. Most black people live in ways that threaten to shorten our life, eating fast foods, suffering from illnesses that could be prevented with proper nutrition and exercise” (hooks 2008: 47).
However, there are two major weakness of this book, and it’s most likely the fault of the press, Routledge. There are very many typos in this book and I was surprised that such a prominent academic publishing company would let this book go to print with so many obvious typos in it. Second, there are no citations of any kind for the numerous quotes that hooks uses in her text. I found this disappointing, simply because I wanted to read many of the texts she was using quotes from.
Overall, this book was very enjoyable, as there really isn’t much being written about black identity, agrarian roots, and racial politics. hooks’s book adds this gap within an eco-sustainable movement that needs more ethnically diverse histories brought to the table.
hooks, bell. (2008). Belonging : a culture of place. New York, Routledge.