What does author bell hooks have to do with the 2022 Senate race in Ohio?
On the face of it, nothing, but her volume of poetry “Appalachian Elegy,” published in 2012, certainly does — mostly because when you hear the words “Appalachian elegy” and think of a book, you may think of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” His memoir details his experience as a child of Appalachian heritage growing up in Middletown, Ohio, recounting stories of his upbringing, his grandparents who left Kentucky for Ohio in hopes of a better life and his mother’s opioid addiction.
Over the course of a few hundred pages, Vance uses his upbringing to write his own version of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, all the while telling his readers that the reason Appalachians are poor is because they didn’t work hard enough not to be poor. What Vance misses is the rich culture of Appalachia and the very real and intentional ways the U.S. government has worked to take agency away from Appalachian people and how there are movements within Appalachia attempting to undo years of voter suppression and neglect.
Conversely, bell hooks’ “Appalachian Elegy” explores the very land that makes up the Appalachian region. Kentucky is hooks’ home place, and her poetry considers the beauty, tradition and violence that the region and its inhabitants have experienced. When you read hooks’ writing, which I hope you will, it is clear she is writing from a place of care — care for the people, care for the land, and care for a future she is exploring in her poetry as she reflects on the past.
In the introduction, hooks writes: “while I do not claim an identity as an Appalachian, I do claim 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 sense of freedom.” By expressing her solidarity, hooks challenges her readers to build solidarity with groups with whom they may not identify.