By Dr. Leah Bayens
Henry County Review of Books
The cover of Crystal Wilkinson’s novel The Birds of Opulence features a brilliant, rainbow-hued rendering of Sankofa, a mythical Ghanaian bird twisting its head and beak around to bring forth an egg from its back. The word sankofa is derived from san (return), ko (go), fa (look, seek, and take). It translates to the guidance that we go back to the past to bring forward what is useful. The past is a path to the present and what may be. This message is at the core of Wilkinson’s moving portrayal of the families entwined with each other and the land in the fictional black farming community of Opulence. The landscape and people are modeled after Wilkinson’s Indian Creek home place in South Central Kentucky in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Casey County. She sketches generations of the Goode family’s lives there, from the town’s post-Civil War Reconstruction era founding through the last four decades of the twentieth century.
The story opens with Lucy Goode Brown giving birth to daughter Yolanda in a squash patch, with grandmother Minnie Mae and mother Tookie as midwives. Out of the gate, Wilkinson lets readers in on the power these women possess—the depth of their characters and their connections to land passed down for generations, now through matrilineal lines. In this powerful scene, foretold by the birds, the story captures the essence of the family’s struggles and prides: the complexities and pleasures of motherhood, the baffling experiences of mental illness, an abiding devotion to farming in the face of so many forces set against it, and the history of and possibilities for black agrarianism.
As this moving coming-of-age story chronicles young Yolanda’s life and the lives of the constellation of family and friends around her, Wilkinson depicts what is and has been so seldom seen and heard in literature and, frankly, in broader conversations of U.S. culture. The novel illustrates a rural African American farming community that has been subject to the atrocities of slavery and its generations-long aftermath. The people dig in, in 1878, and found a town with the help of Old Man Hezekiah, freed from Virginia, who paid one hundred and fifty-six dollars for eight acres of land. When confronted with racist violence and denigration, Hezekiah placed a hand-carved sign across the road proclaiming the place Opulence, illuminated by carved elk, bison, foxes, and birds.
Minnie Mae Goode is his successor. She claims the place and makes a pride out of the disparagement of slavery and segregation. Talking to her sons June and Butter, she explains: “‘This is y’all’s what-for,’ . . . placing one hand on her hip and the other one spreading far and wide from one edge of the knob cross the creek to the other side. The moon is out and the farm is glowing behind her. ‘All this,’ she says, ‘been up under your people’s feet since slave times. My mama and daddy worked this land, and their mama and daddy before them.’” But June and Butter have bought part and parcel into a narrative of progress that tells them city life is real life, and they tell her she ought to just sell the farm. Minnie Mae holds fast to her convictions and says, “Can’t see yesterday then you don’t know what’s coming your way tomorrow.” These words capture the heart of the matter, advice that is especially poignant in these moments of intense tension, violence, discernment, and reckoning.
The novel depicts some of the intra-racial social pressures that drove so many black Kentuckians off the land, all of which occur within the context of inter-racial systemic inequalities and gross violence. According to the 2010 report “Status of African Americans in Kentucky,” around the turn of the twentieth century, Kentucky’s African American farm families began to move from rural communities to cities. Many black Kentuckians (urban and rural) moved to northern and western cities because of legal segregation. Rural African Americans moved to cities within the state, too. In 1890, seventy-two percent of African American Kentuckians lived in rural areas. By 1910, fifty-nine percent lived in the country. Now, 1.3 percent of the primary farm operators in Kentucky are black, accounting for less than 600 of more than 76,000 agricultural operations. In Henry County in 2017, 3.5 percent of our population identified as African American.
Pete Daniels’s book Dispossession, reviewed by John Inscore Essick in the June 10th edition of The Henry County Local, spells out the protracted, calculated history of black land loss. Bringing it home, Inscore Essick described a recent tour of black-owned farms in Henry County organized by The Berry Center’s Agrarian Cultural Center and the NABVETS Kentucky Tri-County Chapter #125. He wrote, “I was surprised to learn that we know of only one black-owned farm in the county. One. And the owner doesn’t even live in Henry County. Were there other black-owned farms in Henry County? If so, how many? Where did their farmers go? Why did they leave? What are they doing now?”
Crystal Wilkinson’s beautifully crafted novel The Birds of Opulence tells an essential story of why and how some black farming families stayed. The story is important for several reasons. It bears witness to lives seldom represented. It holds up voices and histories we ought to listen to and learn from. It illustrates the backstory of racial injustice at the heart of U.S. agriculture while presenting an alternative, palpable example of African Americans farming in ways that are interdependent and empowering. This portrayal is vital for folks who tend to associate agriculture with subjugation.
The novel encourages me to keep learning about the particulars of black farmers and rural landowners in Henry County and elsewhere and to listen and act based on their guidance. Wilkinson provides a glimpse of this guidance in fictional form. A slate of organizations is also doing the work on the ground. Most notably in Kentucky is Black Soil. Co-founded by Ashley Smith and Trevor Claiborn, Black Soil’s mission is “to reconnect black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture,” as is Western Kentucky’s Russellville Urban Gardening Project. Soul Fire Farm, founded by Leah Peniman in Grafton, New York, has a similar mission. Black-owned agricultural co-operatives across the country have helped African American farmers pool resources and power since the Reconstruction era. The National Black Farmers Association, founded in 1995 by John W. Boyd, Jr., represents and advocates for African American farmers and their families in the U.S. by focusing on civil rights, access to loans and funding, education, rural economic development, and land retention and acquisition. Learn with and from these groups. Learn with and from Wilkinson how to bring forward from the past what is useful for fair, neighborly farm life.