Posted: October 27th, 2022

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Free Spirits: A Legacy of Wildness
Bell Hooks

Appalachian Heritage, Volume 36, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 37-39 (Article)

Published by The University of North Carolina Press
DOI:

For additional information about this article

[ Access provided at 5 Feb 2021 02:30 GMT from The University of Arizona Global Campus ]

https://doi.org/10.1353/aph.0.0087

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/250425

https://doi.org/10.1353/aph.0.0087

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/250425

37

FREE SPIRITS: A LEGACY OF WILDNESS

bell hooks

Sublime silence surrounds me. I have walked to the top of the hill,
plopped myself down to watch the world around me. I have no fear
here, in this world of trees, weeds—and growing things. This is the
world I was born into—a world of wild things. In it the wilderness
in me speaks. I am wild. I hear my elders caution mama, telling her
that she is making a mistake, letting me “run wild,” letting me run
with my brother as though no gender separates us. We are making
our childhood together in Kentucky hills, experiencing the freedom
that comes from living away from civilization. Even as a child I knew
that to be raised in the country, to come from the backwoods left
one without meaning or presence. Growing up we did not use terms
like “hillbilly.” Country folk lived on isolated farms away from the
city; backwoods folks lived in remote areas, in the hill and hollers. To
be from the backwoods was to be part of the wild. Where we lived,
black folks were as much a part of the wild, living in a natural way on
the earth, as white folks. All backwoods folks were poor by material
standards; they knew how to make do. They were not wanting to tame
the wildness, in themselves or nature. Living in the Kentucky hills was
where I first learned the importance of being wild.

Later attending college on the West Coast I would come to
associate the passion for freedom, for wildness I had experienced as
a child, with anarchy, with the belief in the power of the individual
to be self-determining. Writing about the connection between
environments, nature, and creativity in the introduction to A Place
In Space, Gary Snyder states: “Ethics and aesthetics are deeply
intertwined. Art, beauty and craft have always drawn on the self-
organizing ‘wild’ side of language and mind. Human ideas of place and
space, our contemporary focus on watersheds, become both models
and metaphors. Our hope would be to see the interacting realms,
learn where we are, and thereby move towards a style of planetary and
ecological cosmopolitanism.” Snyder calls this approach the “practice
of the wild” urging us to live “in the self-disciplined elegance of ‘wild’

38

mind.” By their own practice of living in harmony with nature, with
simple abundance, Kentucky black folks who lived in the backwoods
were deeply engaged with an ecological cosmopolitanism. They fished,
hunted, raised chickens, planted what we would now call organic
gardens, made homemade spirits, wine and whiskey, and grew flowers.
Their religion was interior and private. Mama’s mama, Baba, refused
to attend church after someone had made fun of the clothes she was
wearing. She reminded us that God could be worshipped everyday
anywhere. No matter that they lived according to Appalachian values,
they did not talk about themselves as coming from Appalachia. They
did not divide Kentucky into East and West. They saw themselves as
renegades and rebels, folks who did not want to be hemmed in by
rules and laws, folks that wanted to remain independent. Even when
circumstances forced them out of the country into the city, they were
still wanting to live free.

As there were individual black folks who explored the regions
of this nation before slavery, the first black Appalachians being fully
engaged with the Cherokee, the lives of most early black Kentuckians
were shaped by a mixture of free sensibility and slave mentality. When
slavery ended in Kentucky, life was hard for the vast majority of black
people as white supremacy and racist domination did not end. But
for those folk who managed to own land, especially land in isolated
country sites or hills (sometimes inherited from white folks for whom
they had worked for generations, or sometimes purchased), they were
content to be self-defining and self-determining even if it meant living
with less. No distinctions were made between those of us who dwelled
in the hills of Eastern or Western Kentucky. Our relatives from
Eastern Kentucky did not talk about themselves as Appalachians, and
in Western Kentucky we did not use the term; even if one lived in the
hills where the close neighbors were white and hillbilly, black people
did not see themselves as united with these folk, even though our
habits of being and ways of thinking were more like these strangers
than those of other black folks who lived in the city–especially black
folks who had money and city ways. In small cities and towns, the life
of a black coal miner in Western Kentucky was more similar to the
life of an Eastern counterpart than different. Just as the life of hillbilly
black folks was the same whether they lived in the hills of eastern or
western Kentucky.

39

In the Kentucky black subcultures, folks were united with our
extended kin, and our identities were more defined by labels like
country and backwoods. It was not until I went away to college that
I was questioned about Appalachia, about hillbilly culture, and it
was always assumed by these faraway outsiders that only poor white
people lived in the backwoods and in the hills. No wonder then that
black folks who cherish our past, the independence that characterized
our backwoods ancestors, seek to recover and restore their history,
their legacy. Early on in my life I learned from those Kentucky
backwoods elders, the folks whom we might now label “Appalachian,”
a set of values rooted in the belief that above all else one must be
self-determining. It is the foundation that is the root of my radical
critical consciousness. Folk from the backwoods were certain about
two things: that every human soul needed to be free and that the
responsibility of being free required one to be a person of integrity, a
person who lived in such a way that there would always be congruency
between what we think, say, and do.

These ancestors had no interest in conforming to social norms
and manners which made lying and cheating acceptable. More often
than not they believed themselves to be above the law whenever the
rules of so called civilized culture made no sense. They farmed, fished,
hunted and made their way in the world. Sentimental nostalgia does
not call me to remember the worlds they invented. It is just a simple
fact that without their early continued support for dissident thinking
and living I would not have been able to hold my own in college and
beyond when conformity promised to provide with a sense of safety
and greater regard. Their “Appalachian values,” imprinted on my
consciousness as core truths I must live by, provide and provided me
with the tools I needed and need to survive whole in a postmodern
world.

Living by those values, living with integrity, I am able to return
to my native place, to an Appalachia that is no longer silent about
its diversity or about the broad sweep of its influence. While I do
not claim an identity as Appalachian, I do claim a solidarity, a sense
of belonging, that makes me one with the Appalachian past of my
ancestors, black, Native American, white, all “people of one blood”
who made homeplace in isolated landscapes where they could invent
themselves, where they could savor a taste of freedom.

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