A sweet potato rested half-submerged in a clear glass on the shelf just inside our kitchen window in East Memphis. Four toothpicks pierced its flesh like compass points and rested on the glass’s rim keeping the top half suspended above water. Two weeks before the roots sprouted into an angel hair mire and grew underneath submerged in milky water. Looking at the potato it was clear it anticipated being transplanted into its rich earth of a planter soon. Waiting much longer to do so would bar its potential to flourish.
I could see the potato from where I sat to write about Wendell Berry and bell hooks—two American authors, activists, and Kentuckians. Rural life was their roots. Both elevated and educated themselves beyond their rural Kentucky beginnings. Berry, a white agrarian-activist-author born in 1934, left his remote central Kentucky farm life to pursue education which ultimately led him to New York City where he was poised by his thirties for literary success as a professor at New York University.
hooks was born in 1952 and her childhood roots were in Hopkinsville, Kentucky soil but transplanted to Southern California for college. She hoped, as an African American girl raised in racial segregation, to find a more accepting climate for community. Studying English at Stanford University, she garnered success as a writer and activist and, a couple of decades after Berry, found her feet planted in New York City with diverse community and career dreams.
Berry and hooks are kindred although not kin. Their careers took them to the biggest apple from which an American can bite. Yet upon arrival they found it lacking sustenance. So, independently from each other, Berry, then hooks, made their way back to Kentucky. Berry’s Bluegrass State homecoming in 1965 planted him in Port Royal where he has farmed and written an impressive canon of essays, poetry, and novels.
hooks, partly inspired by Berry’s agrarian essays, decided to depart New Yorck and make Berea, KY, a town begun by abolitionist pastor John Fee in 1850 as a place for blacks and whites to dwell in community, her home in 2004.
But why did Berry and hooks decide Kentucky had for them what NYC didn’t? New York offered publishing houses and pubs, Times Square and TV stars, networking ops and New York Knicks. Authors are observant people. Did these two not see what they were giving up?
In a recent interview in The New Yorker, Berry lamented “Well, part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, ‘Where you from?’ And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere.” For Berry, industrialism’s rise was community’s fall. Before there were machines to do tasks there were people—interconnected and interdependent—who were vital to the work and world of community life. People knew each other because they must in order for the common good to be accomplished. This gave people a sense of belonging. With the advent of technologies which removed the necessity of humans from being directly connected to each other—think self-checkouts and social media—people lost their rootedness in membership.
hooks, in her book belonging: a culture of place, reflects on her time in New York:
New York City was one of the few places in the world where I experienced loneliness for the first time. I attributed this to the fact that there one lives in close proximity to so many people engaging in a kind of pseudo intimacy but rarely genuine making community. To live in close contact with neighbors, to see them every day but to never engage in fellowship was downright depressing.
She goes further to express her desire to be in a community where she is seen and known. hooks knew she had national notoriety while in New York but was a no-name on her own street. Real proximity to progress, particularly for African Americans, stirred her courage to think global about racial change but live local to invoke it. hooks notes, “Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken or are allowed.” Berea was a small enough town for her to be seen and known within an intentionally racially mixed community dynamic envisioned by its founder and abolitionist pastor, John Fee, in the 1850s. There are fewer blacks than whites, but historically the town’s core population is mixed because of a pastor’s vision for conciliation and community.
Berry’s primary concerns were—and still are—agrarian. For him our communal, psychological, and economic success or failure as humans originate, literally, from the ground ground up and our treatment of that soil. For Berry, we must live in spaces respecting its capabilities and limitations. Cities offer skyrise views but the further our feet leave the earth the more in danger of betraying it we become. And so, in the last verse of his poem “A Timbered Choir,” he pens with a prophet’s eye:
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
For both hooks and Berry their lives got bigger as they choose to live smaller. Their direct impact for both racial conciliation and agrarian initiatives became more intimate and, miraculously, amplified as the roots of their lives reached further into Kentucky soil. Ironically, the deeper their roots have grown the broader their impact has rippled.
As I sat staring at my sweet potato in my East Memphis kitchen, I wondered what this means for urban dwellers? Should we get on Zillow and research how much it costs to increase the population of a small Kentucky town?
I don’t think that is the point. The point is to pay attention. Pay attention to where you are and the soil on which your zip code rests. Can you wait an extra minute in line at the grocery store to know the name of and provide a job for the clerk? Self-checkouts, afterall, don’t have children at home who need to eat. Do you know your neighbors’ names?
Plants don’t flourish without roots and people who don’t plant themselves somewhere won’t flourish either. I once heard a preacher say “If you want to make a difference somewhere plan to stay at least ten years.” I remember feeling the enormousness of ten years when he said that twelve years ago. My feet were prone to wander more at that time toward whatever new, novel adventures were “out there somewhere.” Now, my family and I have dug deep in Memphis soil. Our kids know blue jays show up in our oak trees in January and they recognize the waiters at Huey’s Burgers—our local joint. We may not have moved to a farm but we’ve made a go at paying attention to our urban abode.
I better go find a planter for that sweet potato.