Having lived my early childhood on a Kentucky hillside where a lush natural world enclosed and contained us, I had no notion, no idea that the world outside did not see black folks being at home in the wilderness. Making our home in the hills, we lived in harmony with the earth and nature. The hills were where the poor lived. We were white and black, in some strange way all outcasts. As a child, I did not know how we came to live there. I did not know if our family was poor: “no one spoke it.” Ours was a rich vernacular language and culture of plenty.
It was only as I left the hills behind that I began to understand. I would only know these hills as “Appalachia” leaving home in my late teens. Far away, I would learn that my home state—Kentucky—was no pure land, but rather a landscape violated and plundered, taken over by greed and ruthless capitalism. Despite the devastation to the natural landscape caused by corrupt mining practices, the work of coal, parts of the Kentucky landscape remain beautiful, seemingly untouched. In the unforeseen wilderness, Wendell Berry shares the profound insight that: “what is being destroyed cannot be made beautiful.”
As a grown woman coming home to Kentucky after long years away, I purchased land in the hills to symbolically reclaim a bit of the African American Appalachian path. My intent was to protect the land so that no capitalist development would ever take it over. I don’t work the land. I don’t agree that those who want to hunt and kill can claim access there. I just let the land be. I seek to move the land beyond violation. As I heal the wounds from past personal trauma, I seek to heal a forsaken forlorn hillside. I plant trees. I plant the “white dawn” roses, favored by generations of women in my family. I write a book of essays, Belonging, about yearning for home place, about agriculture and land, about racism.
As a black woman writing about Appalachia, I receive little notice. I can talk race, gender, class, and be heard, but when I speak on environmental issues and all the ways agrarian black folks hold the earth sacred few listen. As a voice for Appalachia, Wendell Berry is heard. Suddenly, I listened to his words and learned. Fervently, he teaches me. But like a mighty giant, a goliath, as a Kentucky black female writer I stand always in his shadows. I am not considered a companion voice. We do not join together to speak our love for Kentucky, our hopes for an earth free from exploitation.
Unlike most Kentucky writers, especially those who are male, my work addressing environmental issues always calls attention to the politics of gender. Writers on the subject of land and the environment in Kentucky rarely comment on gender, or the particular experiences of women. No one speaks about our intimate relationship to land or the impact of war (the Civil War), environmental pollution, sexual predation, loss of jobs, and hunger on female lives. During the early years of my Kentucky homecoming, I invited Gloria Steinem to come to the hills. She was the first person to sleep in the cabin where I go to write. She spoke with Kentucky women of all ages, white, black, Asian, Latina, women of diverse sexual preferences, women who came from hills and hollers, and some from university settings. We came together to fellowship and to hear our stories, to speak our triumphs, our failures. Some of us came from positions of material plenty, some poor, some consciously choosing a simple life. When we met, there were no cameras, no publicity, no outsiders. Steinem, herself an outsider, who had not been initially excited about my return to Kentucky, was deeply moved by the Kentucky landscape. We shared with her both the beauty and the ugliness. During her visit, she saw where the indigent and poor reside—spaces that resemble war-torn refugee camps all around the world. All the places where women live with water that is not clean, where sexual violence abounds, where hunger persists. Steinem’s presence here helped to break the silences surrounding the world of Appalachian women. There is much work to be done, to create a positive environment where the collective voices of Appalachian women can be heard, across race, across class.
It was a tremendous intervention for Emma Watson, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, to make a short pilgrimage here to Kentucky, to Berea College, to the bell hooks Institute. Emma Watson travels all over the world to highlight conditions for women and to speak on behalf of gender equality. All over the world, there are Appalachias—sights of disenfranchisement where women bear the brunt of exploitation and oppression. For Emma Watson to include our Appalachia on the map of her journey was an incredible gift. Her meeting with folks, her speaking with students, though not on a large scale, helped expand awareness of a need for gender equality, both in Kentucky and in the world beyond. The solidarity and sisterhood, we embody (Emma and bell) serves as a guiding light for those of us who know that the fate of women everywhere will not change until we work together across all our differences to create the necessary conditions for liberation, collective optimal wellbeing.