What Today Brings
“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” – Alice Walker
What today brings is a profound appreciation for literary activism. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning held the 2018 Kentucky Writer’s Hall of Fame ceremony last Wednesday. I had the pleasure of being there to witness author and Kentucky treasure, bell hooks inducted. She spoke eloquently, filled with the love she exudes for mankind and a profound understanding of what it means to be an artist, activist, survivor and vessel through which we may learn the tools to bridge “cultural, gender and racial divides.”
Bell was born, Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1952. It was a segregated and racially charged time but her small community encouraged the children of color to have healthy self-esteem and pride in their individualism. Their teachers, usually strong, single, black women, helped foster the strong sense of self that gave bell hooks confidence to speak out against racism and sexism from the very beginning. Her illustrious literary and academic journey led her from being a ten-year-old poet in Hopkinsville, to studying in California at Stanford, to the University of Wisconsin where she obtained a master’s in English, back to the University of California for her doctorate in literature, on to Yale, next Oberlin College in Ohio, then City College of New York and finally back to Kentucky where she currently is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. What lucky students in Berea to have found themselves under the tutelage of this extraordinary woman who brings with her knowledge and experience from all over the country. How lucky we are that she came ‘home’ after a long journey molding her into the leader she is. Sophisticated, intellectual and twenty-two published books strong, her contributions have never felt so relevant as the power struggle continues between races and genders.
I thank Neil Chethik and everyone at the Carnegie Center for putting together such a beautiful ceremony to honor, introduce and educate those of us not fully aware of bell hooks or the other inductees until now. Other authors inducted this year were John Fox Jr. 1862-1919, from Stony Point in Bourbon County. Fox attended Transylvania and later Harvard where he graduated cum laude in 1883, the youngest member of his class. He later wrote for the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly. A lifelong friend of President Roosevelt, Fox traveled the world reading from his novels and short stories and singing mountain songs from his homeland. His works included, A Cumberland Vendetta, The Kentuckians, and The Little Shepard of Kingdom Come, the first novel in the United States to sell one million copies. Annie Fellows Johnston 1863-1931, who wrote The Little Colonel children’s books was also among the inductees. She published thirteen of the popular series and after Johnston returned to Pee Wee Valley, 20th Century Fox released a film of The Little Colonel starring Shirley Temple. The final inductee was Walter Tevis 1928-1984, who was born in San Francisco but by age eleven was living in Madison County, Kentucky. His best friend from the Lexington High School, Toby Kavanaugh, became the inspiration for his novel, The Hustler. Both boys were avid pool players and Kavanaugh came to own a pool room in Lexington. That book was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Other Tevis novels made into films were The Color of Money with Tom Cruise and The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie. Each of these authors have helped create the fabric of our culture and have most certainly added relevant contributions to the world.
I am in awe of our Kentucky writers and especially inspired by the ideas offered up by bell hooks. “We’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war,” bell says. “When we think of Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of the heroic journey, it’s rarely a journey that’s about love, it’s about deeds that have to do with conquering, domination… living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic, to work at love, to really let yourself understand the art of loving.” I agree with the beautiful scholar and remain dedicated to the cause, the cause of love, the cause of art and the cause of literary activism.