Reading: Belonging

Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks / Darker than Green

Daddy Jerry always tried to get his grandchildren to come out in the pitch dark “to learn the dark” – to learn its comforts and its solace. We can do that and learn to be comfortable in the darkness and beauty of our skin. No one can take that spirit of belonging away.

bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, from chapter 18, Healing Talk

There are books that wrap you up in another person’s story, immersing you in their new and different world. And there are books that, like a freshly cleaned mirror, reflect your own experience right back at you. From the very first page of the first chapter, “Belonging: A Culture of Place” was my mirror.

Belonging has been a central pursuit in my life since childhood. I felt a connection with the earth from a young age, but felt kept apart from it for many reasons. Not owning a home, not owning any land, living at the whim of landlords and gatekeepers – I learned my place by learning what places were not and never would be mine. As a young adult, I left behind the city where I grew up and started to learn what my new place could be. I’m still on that journey. I’m still in search of the perfect place, the place that welcomes and holds me, the place that remembers with me, the place I can feel at home.

With “Belonging,” bell hooks is telling her story. It’s a non-linear narrative, a series of essays ranging skillfully in topic and tone, but throughout the book she builds her own path toward a fully realized sense of place. Generously, she brings the reader along as she ventures inward, deep into her memories and personal experiences of finding and losing her connection with the world around her. The thread of this book weaves through issues of race, of gender, of environmentalism and self sustenance, of legacy and family, of art and artisanship. hooks swivels effortlessly from autobiography to rich critical theory, and references a diverse group of texts in almost every chapter. Many of my favorite writers are quoted (eg, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker), as well as essayists and critics I was unfamiliar with, but who now have prominent spots on my reading list.

Throughout “Belonging”, you gain an increasingly deep and complex understanding of what the process of returning to oneself looks like. hooks takes us with her, back to Kentucky, the land where she was born, back to the physical places she knew as a young girl, to uncover the elements that together create a sense of belonging. She also introduces us to some of the historic and systemic barriers to belonging – segregation, unchecked capitalist society, white supremacy, and the well known, widely shared, but ultimately false narratives about who we are, the narratives told to us over and over again, both internally and externally.

The most powerful plea hooks makes is for black people to remember their agrarian roots, and to rediscover the ways of knowing that were once central to our personhood, but that we drifted from in the rush to align ourselves with dominant capitalist culture. hooks’s beautifully wrought cultural criticism helped make me aware of my place in that legacy, the legacy of black people being deeply connected to the land, the legacy of being country people, southern people, earth people – the power in maintaining that knowledge of self, and how being separated from that legacy and history is one of the great sources of our generational pain. In speaking about agrarian black folks, hooks asserts “it is my destiny, my fate to remember them, to be one of the voices telling their story.” Reading this book, I realized that my work rests on that same line. That bearing witness to the natural world the way I do brings me closer to the people we were, and to the people we can be.

While reading, I found myself constantly reminded of experiences and thoughts I’d had, fragments of ideas I myself had written, and realizations I’d never been aware of, all laid out before me in a dazzling quilt. hooks is a master of critical theory, and at times I had trouble keeping up with her arguments, but she’s also a master of the personal essay, and has written her life and the lives of her family members so vibrantly that I almost feel as if I know them intimately. Nearly every page of this book left me vocalizing, the generations of black women who live on inside me, acknowledging recognition of themselves and their green lives lived. Nearly every page begs to be quoted, nearly every sentiment needs to be read aloud to whoever will listen.

As soon as I finished “Belonging”, I wanted to pick it back up and start it all over again. I delayed returning my cherished copy to the library, avoiding the calendar like in the days leading up to taking a visiting loved one back to the airport. Reading this book was like an extended therapy session. I felt seen and known. I felt part of a community of thinkers and writers, artists and storytellers, creative and resourceful lovers of the land. With every turned page, I felt the comfort and relief you feel when you come home at the end of the day. I saw the map slowly appear before me, the invisible ink darkening on the page, marking the way toward finding the place I belong.

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Reading: Black Nature

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Edited by Camille T. Dungy

If we hurried, I could see it
before it closed to contemplate
becoming seed.
Hand in hand, we entered
the light-spattered morning-dark woods.
Where he pointed was only a white flower
until I saw him seeing it.

from “Ruellia Noctiflora” by Marilyn Nelson

Poems can be tough. I remember in grade school we all thrilled when our teachers introduced a unit on poetry, expecting the work to be quick and the homework painless. But we quickly discovered poems to be self-sustaining universes; each line its own world, each word a city block with millions of possible meanings.

In “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry” editor Camille T. Dungy has invited readers to reconsider the anatomy of the nature poem, and to reconsider the cultural and ethnic makeup of that poem’s author. Since being brought to the new world, Africans and African Americans have cultivated a unique, complex, and often fraught relationship with the land. These poems shed light on the pain and the reality of that history. And they also celebrate it, observing the beauty of the Earth, and our own beauty within it. Even works written from the city dweller’s perspective sound and feel different when read through nature’s lens.

The collection is organized into ten thematic cycles, each introduced with an essay written by one of the anthology’s represented poets. Themes include observation (the elements of the Earth, the beauty of living beings, finding ourselves in nature), confrontation (what happens when the land turns its back on you, natural disasters, and violence bestowed on us in this place), and reconciliation (largely embodied in the gorgeous-from-start-to-finish section titled “Comes Always Spring”).

The poems are beautiful. Some are angry and difficult. Most demand multiple reads — if not for comprehension, then for wanting to be enveloped just one more time. Each poem opens up its writer’s world, just a little, inviting you in to find yourself and your own experience between the line breaks and punctuation. As poems, they are evocative and insightful. As nature poems, they are gloriously visual and sensual. As black nature poems, they are all of the above, as well as indicative of our particular experiences as keepers, stewards, and inhabitants of this land.

My favorite aspect of the collection was the conversation each cycle of poems opened up between the pages and generations. The sections aren’t organized chronologically, so words written in the 18th and 19th centuries, by men and women born into slavery, share space with pieces written just in the past decade. As the book unfolds, the reader can’t help but gain a clearer understanding of the depth and history of our relationship to the Earth, discovering that even as time may pass, many things have stayed the same for us. Fascination with the world’s wild species. Fear of nature’s wrath, and the wrath of those we may encounter within it. Pride in the land, and pride in our own resilience. And joy and delight in the inevitable return of Spring.

This is a wonderful collection, one that I devoured during my daily commutes, saving me from myself during so many furious, traffic-bound bus rides. It introduced me to writers I hadn’t heard of, and reminded me of writers I’ve been wanting to return to. It also introduced me to myself, to a tradition that I’m clearly part of, to a legacy of listening to and learning from the Earth. A legacy that stretches far beyond me in both directions.

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