“the glory in old barns / surpassing time / wood gray shadowed black / faded colors / places where painted signs / tell of products / no longer in use / standing or falling down / these structures / carry the weight of history / work done and undone / memories of toil and torment / there was bounty here / tears for sowing / lamentations for the dead / all fragments that remain / remind us / give thanks / gather praise”
—(bell hooks, “20.” from Appalachian Elegy)
Like many others, I learned about Appalachia as Appalachia while seated in a college classroom. The place I grew up, where my family has called home for generations, was always just home to me, but on day one of an Appalachian Literature course at Young Harris College, I was assigned Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place by bell hooks. That assigned reading marked my first steps toward nuancing home: a place not just Southern, but also Appalachian. hooks’ collection is one I teach my own students today. Though her words respond to Kentucky’s history and give voice to Kentucky’s forgotten rural people of color, north Georgia students—once me, now my undergraduates—find many applicable images and lessons from the Appalachia hooks highlights because her comments on race, class, and other demographic differences push against dominant narratives across the region and nation-at-large. Her emphasis on the intersections between history and identity of the land, the people, and the power dynamics throughout bear important weight beyond Kentucky’s borders; hope for a better future, as balanced with awareness of the past, is an evergreen lesson for us all.
In poem “20.” from Appalachian Elegy, hooks’ speaker gives readers the image of an old barn wherein labor, loss, and triumph are all preserved by the slowly rotting wood: material memory. A single structure, replicated across Appalachia, embodies the very real labor of those who erected it and simultaneously the very real hope of those same individuals. All active farm work assumes a future touched at least partially by hope, as working the land requires comfort with time. A barn in its prime is a symbol of active labor, active hope, and obvious utility; however, those old barns peppered across the region today are stunted in regard to all three of the aforementioned qualities. Instead of pushing those ideas, their strongest claim is one of belonging. The old structures lay claim to the now and reiterate hooks’ points about knowing a land and people’s pasts because, even in their unkept states, they remind us of past generations who lived where we live, walked where we walk.
For me, the old barns I see daily in Union County, Georgia make me think about my dad, grandaddy, and many others who depended and still depend on returns from the land. The structures make me think about the toll manual labor takes on the body over time: human bodies and the clay. Our relationship, simply as people, with the land is complicated by widespread kairotic influences including but not limited to changing weather, occupation and income opportunities, important intersectional concerns, and blight; hooks’ poetry gives us ways to begin discerning this web of influence for the silenced voices of Black and Indigenous Kentuckians. Though it all begins with awareness, hooks’ words resonate with me in trying to find intergenerational balance, a way to mesh the past with our communal future, and hope for uncovering a sense of belonging. My students and I wrestle with these lessons in hooks’ abstract poems every semester—explicating “all fragments that remain” (hooks, line 16)—as we search for respectful ways to be. She helps us place ourselves and nuance existing structures, and that placing teaches us to think beyond the now and beyond the individual.
hooks, bell. Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place. UP of Kentucky, 2012.