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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We awoke before sunrise, eyes dreary and stomachs flipping. Night hadn’t brought me more than a handful of minutes of sleep — my conscious and subconscious juggling the unfamiliar sounds and smells, eyes registering, even from behind closed lids, the bright red numbers on an alarm clock that did not belong to me. We had already driven south from Illinois to Indiana, and now we were up early, our new destination farther south still: a small piece of public land just over the border to Kentucky. A sandstone bluff hovering above an old growth pine forest. A place to lay our blankets down, gulp trail-warmed water, and peel off our eclipse glasses at the precise moment of peak totality.

Before this year, I had never even heard the word. But in the months and weeks leading up to what was branded The Great American Eclipse, totality was on everybody’s tongue. We gobbled up every bit of content – lists, how-tos, longform essays, pinhole tutorials, super-spliced videos edited to perfection – all meant to clue us in to what we were about to experience. Day turning to night. A brilliant ring of sunlight in a suddenly dark sky. Bats flying, crickets chirping. Something weird, and wild, and beautiful.

Sunrise from the back window of the car, southern Indiana / Darker than Green

The day of the eclipse, we packed the car under early morning’s damp blue haze, and then took off. Driveways turned to old state roads, parkways merged with interstate highways. Low-lying patches of fog were slowly burned away as the sun made its hot, red arrival. I wondered if the birds swirling in the sky, the small herds of grazing cattle, the sun itself, had any hint at what was coming, any hint at the cosmic display scheduled for later in the day. We spotted other rugged hatchbacks, roof racks packed tight, bumpers sprinkled with clever stickers, and interior cabins filled with eager-looking faces. The rest of the natural world might have been none the wiser, but we humans were beside ourselves. The road ran below our wheels as we traveled south over hill and bridge. Morning’s wispy clouds dissolved above us, opening the door for a perfect summer day. The viewing conditions were ideal. Anticipation grew.

Gravel road near Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area, Princeton KY / Darker than Green

On the way down, we passed a handful of open fields filling with SUVs and campers, other adventuresome folks staking out their spots, but when we made it to our destination, only a few clusters of cars sat huddled along the side of the gravel road. We stretched our legs and grabbed what provisions our arms could carry. After our densely wooded half mile hike to the edge of the bluff, the sky opened up above us. We stood at the edge of the sandstone outcrop, where sixty feet below, the tops of trees ran out for miles in every direction. We found ourselves a spot, pulled on our eyewear, and peered up at the sun. The eclipse had started. The sun was being eaten, a small chunk missing from its edge. A timid arc, almost unnoticeable, but we all saw. Camera phones were held behind protective plastic lenses. Photographers perched on cliff’s edge readied their setups, and soon enough the light began to change.

View from Hunter's Bluff, Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area, Kentucky / Darker than Green

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green

Trees during partial solar eclipse / Darker than Green

Plant during partial solar eclipse / Darker than Green

As we moved closer to totality, shadows deepened, colors grew more saturated. The world looked like an underexposed photograph whose details were hazy and indiscernible. I squinted to try and sharpen my gaze, reached to remove my sunglasses before I remembered I wasn’t wearing any. I felt my heartbeat speed up. The sun, which I had just seen with my own eyes, looked right at it for the first time in my life, was disappearing. A man nearby spotted Venus, bright as an airplane’s blinking lights in a moonless night sky. And then we were in it. The small crowd, all of us instinctively, cheered aloud as totality pulled into view. We briskly removed our glasses and gazed directly up at the sun’s glowing white corona. Cicadas began to scream, the colors of sunset brightened on the horizon, turning giant cumulus clouds pink, orange, and blue, even as the sun itself continued hiding directly above our heads.

Clouds just after totality / Darker than Green

From our vantage point in Western Kentucky, totality lasted two minutes and 36 seconds. The time felt longer, and infinitely shorter. To say it was a beautiful thing to witness is a vast understatement. As the tops of the farthest clouds began to turn back to fluffy white, the signal that daylight was on its way back, I felt full of wonder, joy, gratitude. To see a total eclipse is to see something equal parts extraordinary and completely ordinary. The sun and the moon cross each others’ paths multiple times a year, it’s not rare or remarkable. What’s remarkable about it is that we stop to take notice. There are billions of natural events happening around us every day — flowers blooming, clouds shifting, tides rising, winds eroding. It’s a total improbability that we’re here at all, that we have this planet to call home, that we can experience the very real cosmic activity happening around our planet. It’s incredible, and it’s something to be aware of and grateful for everyday, not just during a total solar eclipse.

Pine needles just before totality / Darker than Green

Sunset off the highway, southern Indiana / Darker than Green

It took us a while to muster the motivation to pack up and head back down the trail. I hesitated leaving behind the experience we’d just had, and the beautiful place we had it in. But the sun, which had followed us throughout the day, stuck by our side the entire return trip north. In the evening, the tops of cotton ball trees ignited in rosy pastel hues, their branches and trunks glowing bright orange against the dimming skies. The morning’s fog turned to evening mist and the sun finally dipped below the hills, throwing the silhouetted trees into perfect contrast against a sky streaked with early evening color. At moments, the sky looked almost identical to how it appeared hours earlier, at 2:35pm, during peak totality. The main difference was how I perceived it, and the entire world around me.

We drove south to Princeton, Kentucky to view the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area has a beautiful lookout point called Hunter’s Bluff, which is about a half mile hike up from the gravel parking lot. The trail is not very well maintained, with lots of overgrown plants and fallen logs. Wear sturdy shoes. And if you make the trip, make sure you bring ample water and food, and a trowel – the WMA has no public restrooms or running water. The basic amenities, however, are easy to deal with when your view is so incredible.

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On She Goes

The view toward Pelican Bay from Cayo Costa, Florida / Darker than Green

A new website has recently launched, aiming to support and connect female travel writers of color through personal essays, city guides, travel tips, videos, podcasts, and forums. It’s called On She Goes, and I’m thrilled to have a piece live on the site. I wrote about the camping trip I took in February in Florida, to beautiful and remote Cayo Costa State Park. I’ll be posting more photos from the trip, but in the meantime, here’s the story: Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa.

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New Orleans, then and now

What places exist only as images in your mind, clipped, collaged, and disjointed? What once bright and vivid colors, now locked behind lowered lids, have yellowed and browned with age? What smells stick sour to the edges of your nostrils, even though you haven’t breathed them in in years? What ghostly textures tickle your palms, even now, decades later?

People say New Orleans is a haunted city, a city settled and buoyed by ever-wandering souls. When I’m there, the spirits I sense are those I know and knew: ghosts of my younger selves, and ghosts of my family, the ones still alive and the ones laughing, talking, cooking, forever in my memory. I used to spend a lot of time in New Orleans: every Christmas and at least one slow, heavy summer, when I passed my days lying on a blue bed in a blue room watching hornets outside build and buzz. In spite of the storm and the flood, that old house in New Orleans East still stands, as colorful and dignified as it was then, the rooms now rebuilt in perfect order inside my mind.

Then and now, in New Orleans: shimmering orange light bounces off the gulf, weaving through canals in the low-lying streets like neon warp and weft. Humid air wraps its thick arms around me, tucking me in tight, pushing against my skin, filling my lungs, slowing me down. Things cling — Spanish moss to live oak branches, mardi gras beads to iron railing, centuries of grime to wooden floorboards and victorian detailing, short shotgun houses to soft ground, ground that opened up beneath them before and surely will again.

I just spent a handful of too-short days back in New Orleans. My family was there with me, some in body and some in spirit, as they have always been. There are more words to be written about this place, to help me sort out and understand the hazy images and sounds in my memory. But for today, at least, this is a start.

Backyard container garden in the Marigny, New Orleans / Darker than Green

House in the Marigny, New Orleans / Darker than Green

Our hands, New Orleans / Darker than Green

St. Louis #3 Cemetery, New Orleans / Darker than Green

Palms in the Marigny, New Orleans / Darker than Green

American flag in the Marigny, New Orleans / Darker than Green

Walking to the French Quarter, New Orleans / Darker than Green

Feelings Cafe, the Marigny, New Orleans / Darker than Green

New Orleans greenery / Darker than Green

In the French Quarter / Darker than Green

Live oaks in Washington Square Park, New Orleans / Darker than Green

On Esplanade, New Orleans / Darker than Green

In the French Quarter, New Orleans / Darker than Green

Across from Cafe du Monde, New Orleans / Darker than Green

At Cafe du Monde, New Orleans / Darker than Green

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