On a Thursday night in late June, the air is…
In her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, bell hooks writes of growing up in small town Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in the 1950s—of a girl “young, gifted, and black” who finds refuge in books, who creates a secret world, who notices the roles women and men play in her culture. It’s the story of her “girlhood rebellion,” of what she calls “my struggle to create self and identity distinct from and yet inclusive of the world around me.”
This battle is one that has defined hooks’s life and career as one of the world’s leading feminist intellectuals, cultural critics, and creative writers. It has played out in the more than thirty books she has produced, in the countless lectures she has given on university campuses across the country, and in her own life. As the only black undergraduate from Kentucky at Stanford University in California—where she wrote what would become the landmark book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism—hooks faced derision over her rural accent and country upbringing. She sought solace there from the natural world, looking for reminders of her beloved Kentucky hills in the landscape surrounding Palo Alto. Subsequent moves to Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Ohio reinforced her sense of self as a “country girl.” The struggle continued after her move to New York City, where she wrote and taught for many years, but where she also felt a profound disconnect from the culture of individualism and “intense anonymity” that she believed devalued community. In 2004, she returned to her native Kentucky, serving as Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College and finding the sense of belonging that she missed in her years away.
All these years later, hooks is still leading a rebellion, offering thoughtful—and often provocative—critiques of popular culture, giving readers moments of meditative beauty in new poems and essays, and moving academia and the wider culture towards a discourse grounded in the notion of intersectionality: how oppressive systems of misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and others work together.
As this year’s featured author, hooks and I have curated a mini-anthology of sorts that showcases the range of her work, including a craft essay, a poem, a conversation, and an unpublished novel excerpt. In her essay “Writing Without Labels,” she calls for a more inclusive definition of literature, one unconstrained by categories of race, class, and gender. Her poem “Wheel of Life” showcases the “universal witness” that has always marked her writing. The conversation with actress and advocate Laverne Cox covers a wide range of topics, including images and film, spirituality, the influence of family, and hooks’s legacy. Finally, hooks has delved into her archives and given us an excerpt from her unpublished novel Sister Ray Seeks Salvation, in a passage that features the title character having an internal, stream of consciousness dialogue about gender roles, objectification, desire, sexuality, race, social mores, and the role of the artist—and facing a moral dilemma around these issues.
In addition to new work from hooks, this issue of Appalachian Heritage also features sterling stories from Jessi Lewis and Lydia Munnell. Essayist Beth Newberry meditates on “The Curve of the Smoke,” while creative nonfiction writer and poet Leatha Kendrick contributes a revelatory essay about Appalachian poet Effie Waller Smith. Poets Divya Ramesh, Kathleen Lewis, Jane Sasser, Lucien Darjeun Meadows, and others offer moving moments of lyricism.
“Appalachia is my fate,” hooks declared recently at The Appalachian Symposium—held in September at Berea College—proclaiming her sense of belonging. May you find glimpses of yours in these writings.