From the Hood to the Holler

A Story of Separate Worlds, Shared Dreams, and the Fight for America's Future

About the Book

Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker tells the improbable story of his journey from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country to a political career forging new alliances among forgotten communities across the New South and beyond.

“Charles Booker is a rising leader in our nation, and an inspiration to me and all those who get to know his story and vision.”—Senator Cory Booker

Charles Booker grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kentucky, living in the largely segregated West End of Louisville. Faith and love were everything in his family, but material comforts were scarce. The electricity was sometimes shut off. His mother often went hungry so her son could eat. Even after he graduated from law school, Booker rationed the insulin he took for diabetes. Determined to build a world in which poverty and racism would not plague future generations, he charted his own course into Kentucky politics, a world dominated by the myth of an urban-rural divide, and controlled by the formidable Republican establishment.

In this stirring account, Booker unfolds his journey from the heart of Louisville to the deepest reaches of Kentucky’s rural landscapes, reflecting the journey America itself must make on the way to a progressive future. Robbed of multiple family members by gun violence, Booker found the roots of a system built to fail him and his neighbors in everything from the hypocrisy of elected officials to the structural racism embedded in the state’s budget.

Yet it wasn’t until his unlikely appointment to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources that he understood the transformative power of the issues that bound his family with those in rural Appalachia. In coal country, he met citizens who, like those in the West End, suffered from extreme isolation, for whom fresh food and economic stability were scarce, who lacked the resources to overcome their cynicism about change. Through his work as the youngest Black state legislator in Kentucky, Booker built an unprecedented alliance between the hood and the holler. This coalition was the basis for a thrilling grassroots Senate campaign that nearly stunned the nation, putting Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul on notice that the days of business as usual were over.

From the Hood to the Holler is both a moving coming-of-age story and an urgent political intervention—a much-needed blueprint for how equity and racial justice might transcend partisan divisions in Kentucky, throughout the South, and across America.
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Praise for From the Hood to the Holler

“Charles Booker captured America’s imagination during his inspiring campaign for a Kentucky U.S. Senate seat in 2020. His determined efforts to build a more just and fair country for everyone have always been at the center of his life’s work, and From the Hood to the Holler shares the story of how his values are rooted in his incredible lived experience. He is a rising leader in our nation, and an inspiration to me and all those who get to know his story and vision.”—Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)
“In a time when so much of American life is defined by bitter division, fear, and hatred, Charles Booker’s abiding faith in the possibility of a new politics is downright refreshing and inspiring. From the Hood to the Holler details the origins and power of that faith.”—Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Princeton University, bestselling author of Begin Again and Democracy in Black
“Charles Booker’s passion for public service is undergirded by his faith and sustained by the recognition that public service at its best brings people together in a coalition of good will. Charles has taken the baton of committed service and shares a vision that is more than just progressive—it is powerful. His voice is one that will resonate broadly.”—Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., founder and president, Rainbow PUSH Coalition
“Charles Booker’s story is not only intensely personal and moving, but inspirational as well. From the Hood to the Holler shows how faith, love, and courage can take someone from the throes of poverty to the highest levels of American politics. It is the quintessential American success story.”—Rep. John Yarmuth (Kentucky)

“Charles Booker’s story represents the best of Kentucky. He has overcome a number of obstacles but has always kept an unending love for community and his state. This book documents his story perfectly, and shows why he is a perfect symbol of perseverance for people of all backgrounds.”—Matt Jones, host of Kentucky Sports Radio and author of Mitch, Please!
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From the Hood to the Holler

Chapter 1

Grandma’s House

On cold winter nights, my childhood bedroom would get well below freezing. The furnace in our old house worked, but the cracks around the windows let air in, and the holes in the roof where the squirrels gathered made sure any heat we did generate quickly escaped. Since the only heat vents were on the main level, by the time you made it to the bedrooms on the second floor it felt like you were walking around outside. The floors were made from skinny wooden planks that creaked when you walked. When it was that cold it was like walking on ice, but wearing my socks inside the house would get me in trouble, because my mom didn’t want to deal with dirty socks. “C.J.!” she’d holler up the stairs. “You know better than to have those white socks on in the house. You’re gonna have sock feet!”

To avoid “sock feet” I would quickly run from room to room, hurrying to get to the warmest place in the house: my bed. It was covered with big, beautiful quilts my mom used to sew from the scraps from her old work suits and blue jeans and wool coats. I had four or five of them layered one on top of another, creating a mountain of covers on my bed. They were so heavy I had to slide my feet in near my pillow and burrow my way under.

Eventually I got a space heater, too, courtesy of Mr. Eugene, my mom’s second husband. I wasn’t a fan of Mr. Eugene. They’d gotten married about a year before, and in all the pictures from their wedding I’m this grumpy seven-year-old hanging around in the back of the frame, a big frown on my face. My new stepfather was a fast-talking preacher who always kept a Bible close by and usually walked everywhere he went. I liked that he made my mom laugh, but I didn’t trust him.

Mr. Eugene was always looking for a way to save a dollar—or “cut corners,” as my grandad would say. Whether it was tattered clothes from a thrift store or junk from a back alley, Mr. Eugene would snatch things up and bring them home for us to use. One day Mr. Eugene walked through the door carrying this busted-up floor heater with a frayed power cord that he must have pulled out of the trash. “I’m sure this still works,” he said, as he hauled the old thing into the house. “We can use it in Charlie’s room.” He pulled out some electrical tape and wrapped it around the hole in the cord. Then he hauled it up the stairs and down the hallway and set it up near the foot of my bed.

When he plugged it in, sparks flew and there was a loud POP! Then the power went out. My mother stared at him, worried, but Mr. Eugene waved her off. “Ain’t nothing wrong with this heater!” he huffed as he went down to the basement to throw the circuit breaker and put the power back on. When he did, the floor heater slowly hummed to life, eventually getting so hot that my skin burned if I got too close to it. I was grateful for the heat, but I didn’t trust that thing. I couldn’t forget the pop of that spark. The way it was always buzzing and cutting out was not reassuring. The fact that my old bedroom door always jammed and got stuck, that wasn’t great, either.

Mr. Eugene was the whole reason we were living in a run-down old house with squirrels in the roof in the first place. My mom and dad had split up when I was a couple years old. After their divorce, my mom and I moved around a lot, eventually settling in a little apartment in South Louisville for a few years. I loved that apartment. It was just the two of us playing endless games of Uno and her watching me ride my Big Wheel around the parking lot. It was home. All that changed the day she met Mr. Eugene. He started coming around more and more, and so did his older son and two daughters. Then my baby cousin Bianca moved in with us while her mom, one of my older cousins, got on her feet. So my mom and Mr. Eugene went house hunting, and pretty soon we were moving into this ancient wooden house from the 1920s at 35th and Market in the West End.

The first time I saw it, my heart sank. It was big—big enough that it had been carved up into three apartments that now needed to be converted back into a single-family home. But it had been abandoned, left to the squatters and the elements. There was junk all over the lawn, broken appliances, rotted wood and shattered glass, pieces of furniture left behind by the previous tenants or squatters. Inside, every couple steps you’d come across a roach or a mouse dropping. Off the living room was a huge closet filled to the ceiling with old tires, pieces of chairs, bricks, and dirty mops. A rank odor followed you from room to room.

But my mom is a visionary. She sees only the potential in things, so we moved in, and she rolled up her sleeves and put on some gloves and set to work making a home. With every step through that dilapidated house, her smile grew. Everywhere I saw a problem, Mom saw an opportunity. She’d walk to a corner, wave her arm across the room, and describe everything she could do with it. Everywhere there was blight, she saw the chance to turn it into something beautiful. And when I looked at the house through her eyes, she was right. Every room had original hardwood floors. Underneath the dust and debris, the dining room had wood trim and brass finishes that looked like something you’d see in the movies. Out on the front porch there was this old, rotted, rickety swing hanging from rusted chains. My mom took one look and blurted out with joy, “We can sit out here and watch the sun set!”

After we moved in, weeds were pulled, mops were pushed, paint was rolled, and piles of trash were loaded up and carried out. It took some time, but in the end we had a place that felt like home. Mom even restored the old wooden floors throughout the house. By the time she was done they shined like new. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.

Then, one week before Christmas, not long after I turned eight, I’d crawled up under my mountain of covers and drifted off to sleep with the orange glow of Mr. Eugene’s heater flickering at the foot of my bed next to the closet. It was toasty, but as the night went on it got hotter than it had ever been, so much so that the heat wrenched me out of my sleep. As I opened my eyes, everything was blurry, but I could sense a thick haze in the room, like a cloud glowing orange. I scratched my head and started rubbing my eyes. Then the smell hit me. This wasn’t a dream. I bolted upright, and the whole room snapped into focus. Sparks had leapt from the heater into my closet, sending my clothes up in a tower of flames that stood between me and the door. A sheet of fire was slowly creeping its way to the edge of the mountain of blankets that covered me.

I screamed, “Mama! Mama! My room is on fire!” I screamed it over and over again, sweat pouring down my face, but no one responded. No one could hear me. I looked over at my window but realized right away that jumping from the second story wasn’t an option. I turned and looked back through the flames to the door. It was closed tight, which meant it was surely stuck. I knew I didn’t have any choice. My survival instincts kicked in. I threw off the covers, stood up on the bed, got my balance, and jumped for it.

And I made it, crashing into the door on the far side of the flames. I didn’t even stop to see if I’d been burned. Petrified that the door would be jammed shut like it always was, I grabbed the doorknob with both hands and yanked on it with all my might. Miraculously, it swung right open, as if there were angels looking out for me.

I ran down the hall and into Mom’s room, screaming the whole way. Mr. Eugene woke up first, groggy and rubbing his eyes. “What’s going on, Charlie?” he said. I tried to tell him my room was on fire, but, agitated from being woken up, he didn’t hear a word I was saying. He cut me off and told me to go back to bed.

I kept screaming at my mom that there was a fire and she needed to get up. Her eyes flew open, and it was like she understood me in her sleep, because she woke up screaming, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” as she jumped out of bed and burst out of the room to grab little Bianca out of her crib.

Mr. Eugene finally got up as well. Completely misreading the peril of the situation, he took his little cup from his nightstand to get some water from the bathroom to try and put the fire out. My mom wasn’t about to stop and debate him on the matter. She yelled at me from Bianca’s room down the hall, “C.J.! Get downstairs! Right! Now!”

She didn’t have to tell me twice. I ran down the hallway and all the way down the stairs, and as I got to the bottom I could hear my mother coming right behind me. I turned and looked up and she came flying through the air. She’d jumped the last ten steps, cradling Bianca in her arms as she glided to the landing, falling to the floor and twisting her body to avoid landing on Bianca before rolling up to her feet by the front door. The whole thing seemed like it had happened in slow motion. Neither of them even got a scratch.

Running to the kitchen, Mom grabbed the phone and made two calls, the first to 911 and the second to my grandad. Then we ran outside and stood in the street and watched our house burn.

About the Author

Charles Booker
Charles Booker represented the 43rd District in the Kentucky House of Representatives. A graduate of the University of Louisville and its Brandeis School of Law, Booker is a Bingham fellow and a Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Team fellow. He is the founder of the advocacy group Hood to the Holler, which continues the work of his campaign, building bridges between previously siloed communities. More by Charles Booker
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