Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Berry Center shares their journey to bring neighbors together in conversation across lines of difference in their rural community of Henry County, Kentucky.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
The Berry Center is a nonprofit committed to putting Wendell Berry’s writings to work by advocating for farmers, land-conserving communities, and healthy regional economies. Our initiatives seek to provide solutions to essential questions: “What will it take for farmers to be able to afford to farm well?” and “How do we become a culture that supports good farming and land use?”
We believe that the answers – while firmly rooted in local work – are central to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, including the devastation of natural resources and biodiversity, rapid onset of climate change, economic and social inequities, and the collapse of healthy farming and rural communities.
Experts judge the Best of Henry County Bake Off at the NEA Big Read: ALL Fall Festival kickoff. Photo by Lou Lepping, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
The Berry Center is located in rural Henry County, Kentucky. Like rural communities across the United States, our region has experienced steady economic decline over the past decade. This has led to shuttered businesses in our small towns, social isolation, and a rise in drug addiction and crime.
Our work here at The Berry Center is dedicated to the well-being, economic stability, and cultural health of our home place and its people, as well as rural communities across the country. In addition to a rural reading program that we host each year called the Agrarian Literary League (ALL), Henry County serves as a classroom for students who are enrolled in our tuition-free, undergraduate Wendell Berry Farming Program. Our neighbors also have free access to our archives which house works of Wendell Berry and the Berry Family, and our agrarian lending library.
Enraptured audience at the NEA Big Read keynote. Photo by Morris Grubbs, courtesy of The Berry Center.
What makes your Big Read unique?
There were a number of things that contributed to making our Big Read a unique experience. From the start, it was clear that we made the correct choice in reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. This book brought neighbors together in conversation across generations, gender, ethnicity and race. Because of our location and resources we were able to open up the discourse to include the rural African American experience, as well as the history of black agrarianism in our country – themes that are present throughout Dr. Gaines’s body of work and are unique in the American catalogue.
We were also lucky to be able to call on Wendell Berry to participate in several events, including a book group leaders’ conversation where Mr. Berry shared stories of his friendship with Ernest Gaines. Both Mr. Berry and Dr. Gaines were Wallace Stegner Fellows at Stanford University in 1958 and celebrated 60 years of friendship last year. Both men, after attending university and beginning careers in major cities, made a decision to return to their rural home communities in order to write the stories of their people and cultures.
Book group leaders discuss A Lesson Before Dying with Wendell Berry. Photo by Ben Aguilar, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Set in the rural south in the 1940s during Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, Gaines’s eighth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, tells the story of a falsely-accused young black man on death row and a Louisiana-born, college educated teacher who visits him in prison and helps him regain his dignity. In telling their story, Gaines poses one of the most universal questions literature can ask: Knowing we’re going to die, how should we live?
At The Berry Center, we recognize that rural places in the United States are experiencing a crisis of culture. In addition to the importance of good land use, stabilizing economies, and offering place-based education to young people throughout the countryside, we see the potential for reclaiming a dying culture through literature that gathers neighbors together in conversation.
It was clear to members of our Agrarian Literary League Committee that A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines had the potential to stimulate conversation about a part of our community’s history that is not often told and is quickly being forgotten. A Lesson Before Dying has been universally loved and praised by our membership.
Stacks of books waiting for the NEA Big Read kickoff giveaway. Photo by Virginia Aguilar, courtesy of The Berry Center.
What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
We were honored to partner for the first time with the local chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans (NABVets) and to work with members of the Grand United Order of the Odd Fellows Lodge #1513 (GUOOF). Many NABVet and GUOOF members have long family histories in this region and through their generous efforts we organized and led the first tour of African American historical sites ever conducted in Henry County. While sharing stories, there was talk of funding needs for a several preservation projects. From this, new partnerships were formed that will help continue these efforts.
Our NEA Big Read keynote featured a conversation between Wendell Berry and Kentucky author Crystal Wilkinson, who reflected on the legacy and influence of Ernest Gaines’ writing on her life. Ms. Wilkinson was the recipient of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her stunning novel, The Birds of Opulence. Moderated by former International Director for the Center for Food Safety, Debbie Barker, Wendell and Crystal’s conversation included the art of common language – the necessity of familiarity and affection for the people they’re writing about; the culture and joy of shared work, and the craft of writing.
Reflecting on the legacy and influence of Ernest Gaines’ writing on her life, Ms. Wilkinson said, “Wendell, Gurney [Norman], Bobbie Ann [Mason], George Ella Lyon, Gail Jones gave me permission to write about Kentucky. Ernest Gaines gave me permission to write about rural black people.”
Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson in conversation. Photo by Morris Grubbs, courtesy of The Berry Center.
NEA Big Read: ALL members take part in a tour of African American historical sites in Henry County. Photo courtesy of The Berry Center.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
In our specific case, we were committed to offering our programming and materials free of charge. We found that this opened the doors of our Big Read to groups of people who often feel excluded from these kinds of conversations. And we were moved to hear many times over from our members that they were touched by the generosity of the program.
One of the NEA Big Read: ALL participants, who learned of the program through her NABVets membership, drove two hours round trip to attend each of our Big Read events. At Brunch with Wendell, she told the group that the kindness and warmth of this program is unlike anything she’s experienced in years.
“This Big Read feels like the old community festivals we used to have. I couldn’t believe it when I came to the [NEA Big Read: ALL] Fall Festival and you weren’t trying to sell me anything – instead you were giving things away and inviting me to join. I decided then that I would come to each and every event that you are having.”
NEA Big Read: ALL participant
Brunch with Wendell. Photo by Ben Aguilar, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
A close partnership with the Henry County Public Library made many of our most rewarding and creative programs possible. At one of our Big Read events hosted by the library, we were lucky enough to hear testimony from Kentucky Innocence Project attorney Jimmer Dudley and one of his former clients, Jeffrey Clark. Mr. Clark’s testimony of wrongful conviction and 25 years of incarceration before exoneration was profoundly moving.
Time and time again, the Big Read: ALL Committee heard from those who got to meet and speak with Mr. Clark about a dramatic shift in their thoughts on criminal justice and prison reform. Some groups of readers have gone on to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, in order to learn more about these issues. First-person accounts like this one were impactful in ways that will resonate through this community for a long time to come.
Jeff Clark shares his experience of wrongful imprisonment. Photo by Virginia Aguilar, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
In the early days of the 2018 NEA Big Read: ALL, just after the programming schedule was published, an African American member of our community approached the circulation desk at the Henry County Public Library. In tears, and holding the schedule in her hand, she asked who was responsible for the program. When two NEA Big Read: ALL committee members came forward, the woman embraced and thanked them. “I never thought I would see anything like this in Henry County. I’m coming to them all. Thank you.”
Several members of our local chapter of NABVets commented to the NEA Big Read: ALL committee that this program was the first time they have felt included in a general community program; “[We] have been invited, but this is the first time we have felt included.”
Following the NEA Big Read: ALL keynote and finale, a book group leader approached one of the Big Read committee members. This group leader wanted to share that, because of reading A Lesson Before Dying, she would never forget the names of Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones. Mr. Stallard and Ms. Jones were shot and killed by a white supremacist in Louisville weeks earlier on October 24th. This group leader wanted us to know that A Lesson Before Dying had placed this hate crime in a new context for her. That in the past she would have found it “terrible” but that she now understood better the horror of this act; that as a tribute to the dead and their families, she would never forget their names.
Several members of the Henry Counter chapter of NABVets volunteer at the NEA Big Read: ALL Fall Festival Kickoff. Photo by Lou Lepping, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Visitors enjoy the Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement exhibit at Henry County Public Library. Photo by Ben Aguilar, courtesy of The Berry Center.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
Our Big Read book groups discussed lines throughout the pages of A Lesson Before Dying that individuals found meaningful and moving. I think this speaks to the fact that Dr. Gaines writes with a careful consideration of each sentence that leaves you with a sense that nothing could be lost or added without making less of the whole.
It’s difficult to take one of these lines out of context and pick a favorite, but maybe this line of dialogue between two of the main characters, that captures the redemption of both:
“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying