Bell Hooks 1952–
(Born Gloria Watkins) American essayist.
Known as one of the new African American intellectuals along with Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Derrick Bell, hooks reaches a wider audience than most essayists because of her dismissal of academic convention and her inclusion of personal reflection in her scholarly work. Hooks, who addresses such subjects as feminism, civil rights, and black womanhood, raises important questions about the tension between black women and white women in the feminist movement and analyzes how the media and popular culture portray African Americans.
Born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks chose to write under the name of her great-grandmother to honor her foremothers; she often refers to a household full of strong black women as one of her greatest influences. Hooks received her bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University in 1973 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1983. Throughout her years of study, hooks had difficulty reconciling her small-town Southern roots with her academic life. This disparity would later become a subject in her essays. In the mid-1980's, hooks became an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies and English at Yale University. Later she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Oberlin College and then moved to City College in New York as a professor of English. Hooks had always been interested in expressing herself through writing, and a friend finally convinced her to write her first collection Ain't I a Woman (1981). In 1991 hooks was presented the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Yearning (1990).
The major theme of hooks's first two works, Ain't I a Woman and Feminist Theory (1984), is that of black women finding a place in mainstream feminism. She explores this issue by tracing the oppression under which African American women have suffered since slavery. Arguing that domination is at the root of racism, classism, and sexism, and that black women are at the bottom of the hierarchical struggle in this country, hooks asserts that mainstream feminism is interested in raising only white women up to the level of white men. According to hooks, real equality can only be gained by overturning the whole hierarchical system. In Talking Back (1988), hooks begins to infuse more of her personal life into her work. In this collection she combines her personal experience as an African American woman with theory and analysis to show that feminist perspectives can be useful to assess the position of African American women in American society. In several of her works hooks discusses how portrayals of African Americans in the media have hurt African American women. Breaking Bread (1991) is a dialogue with African American social critic Cornel West in which hooks and West discuss the crises many black communities face, and how the media has contributed to these problems. Hooks also asserts in Black Looks (1992) that the mass media has denied the existence of a critical black female subjectivity. In addition to criticizing the media's complicity in racism and sexism, hooks attacks the educational system in Teaching to Transgress (1994) for its role in perpetuating the hierarchical system in this country. She asserts that true freedom can only be obtained when our education system is free. The focus of all of hooks's work, including her most recent book, Killing Rage (1995), is to heal the divisions in American society by creating a dialogue that respects all people and leads the way to rebuilding a new society.
Hooks has received varied critical response throughout her career. Many reviewers praise her for her insight and boldness. However, while most agree that her arguments are strong and challenging, many disagree with her opinions. The flaw most often noted by critics is her flouting of academic style. Many are uncomfortable with hooks's lack of footnotes and scholarly references and her reliance on self-help rhetoric and pop psychology. They also argue that she shows contempt toward black men and what they have suffered, and that she appears to be homophobic. Many of her reviewers, however, praise her for bringing a balance to feminist theory by including nonwhite, poor, and working class women into feminist discussions. Patricia Bell-Scott has observed that "we must keep in mind [hooks's] goal, to enrich feminist discourse and 'to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology,' as we struggle with the uncomfortable issues she raises."
Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (essays) 1981
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (essays) 1984
Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (essays) 1988
Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (essays) 1990
Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life [with Cornell West] (essays) 1991
Black Looks: Race and Representation (essays) 1992
A Woman's Mourning Song (essays) 1992
Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery (essays) 1993
Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (essays) 1994
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (essays) 1994
Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (essays) 1995
Killing Rage: Ending Racism (essays) 1995
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SOURCE: "Black Feminism Divorced from Black Feminist Organizing," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 38-45.
[Smith is an American editor. In the following essay, she criticizes hooks's antagonism toward black men and white women as well as her apparent homophobia in Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.]
In 1973, when I began to identify as a black feminist and to do black feminist organizing, there was barely a word in print that spoke about black women from a feminist perspective or which even admitted that sexism was a daily factor in our lives. In women's movement literature there was a stray sentence here or there. And in writings by black women and men black women were occasionally discussed without, miraculously, ever breathing a word about male privilege or women's lack of it. The best source for those of us who were dying to read something about ourselves that made sense was black women's creative writing. Hurston, Lorde, Petry, and Walker at least told the truth, perhaps theory would have to wait until we got our movement off the ground.
In 1982 there are more things to read that supposedly address the sexual politics of black women's lives, but too often the writing seems peculiarly untouched by a Third World feminist movement that is now at least ten years strong. Such disconnectedness is not surprising in books from trade and academic...
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SOURCE: "Sojourner Rhetorically Declares; Hooks Asks; Kizzy Spits in the Glass," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 46-52.
[Randall-Tsuruta is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, she expresses disappointment with the lack of documentation and the abundance of unsubstantiated opinions in Ain't I a Woman, stating "the book is a disgrace to American publishing."]
A startling foretelling of Bell Hooks' Ain't I a Woman comes in the Acknowledgements and Introduction. She begins by sharing how when out to dinner she discussed with companions the subject of the book in question and "one person in a big booming voice, choking with laughter exclaimed, 'What is there to say about black women!' Others joined in the laughter." The author does not tell us if these were friends or strangers, but the liberties they take, and the fact that she dines with this sort is an indication of what she can stomach.
The excellent thing about Hooks' book is that it pinpoints annoyances over which many black American women daily sigh, yet repress, in an attempt to get through the work day without flying off the handle. Then just as we begin to vent our rage through Hooks', she confounds us by drawing conclusions, to her experience, which are either damaging to black women or unsupported by black experience in America.
Point in fact....
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SOURCE: "The Centrality of Marginality," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. II, No. 5, February, 1985, p. 3.
[In the following review, Bell-Scott praises Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center because of its critique of American feminism and its vision of the future of the feminist movement.]
Four years ago, I was introduced to Bell Hooks 'with the publication of Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. This "first book" by a courageous, young, talented social critic generated a great deal of controversy and debate—some substantive, some unmerited. Hooks was charged with being ahistorical, unscholarly (there were many complaints about the absence of footnotes), and homophobic. Whether or not one agrees with any of these charges, Ain't I A Woman was an important book for at least three reasons: it provoked discussion between and among black and white women about the issue of racism and American feminism; it represented one of few efforts at Black feminist analysis; and it was accessible to (readable by) people outside of academe. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, the latest book by Bell Hooks, is a continuation of what was begun in 1981. It reflects the maturing of a brilliant writer and is certain to have a lasting impact on feminist theory and praxis.
"To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside of the main body." This, the first...
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SOURCE: A review of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 11, No. 4, summer, 1986, pp. 788-89.
[In the following review, Pettis praises Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center for the balance it brings to feminist theory and the feminist movement.]
Bell Hook's second book [Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center] is distinguished from other texts on feminist theory by her Black feminist stance. Hook's perspective, as one who understands not only the meaning of being on the margin but also the workings of the center, informs her merciless dissection of conceptual blunders in the ideology of feminist theory that excludes nonwhite and poor white women or masses of American women.
Chapter by chapter, Hooks points out how the articulators of feminist theory have excluded nonwhite and working-class women primarily by disregarding "white supremacy as a racial politic," and by ignoring "the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state." Through these lenses, Hooks scrutinizes the shaping of feminist theory, the definition of feminism, the meaning of sisterhood, what feminist struggle can mean to men, and power, work, violence, education of women, and revolution as legitimate subjects of feminist theory.
Pointing out successive biases and omissions...
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"Rude Girls," in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 4, May, 1989, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review, Philip discusses the major themes in Talking Back, stating "one of the strongest themes … is the need to talk back or come to voice, as an act of resistance for individuals and groups that have traditionally been oppressed or silenced."]
Where I come from, talking back to adults meant you were rude. It was proof that you weren't well brought up; this in turn was a reflection on your parents and their ability to raise clean, quiet, tidy children. In the Caribbean (which is where I am from), this tradition was a hangover from Victorian times; it was also an essential part of the baggage our parents carried with them from the time of slavery, when the ultimate sin was talking back to massa. It could result in severe punishment, if not death. And so, if they were able to keep their children quiet, and could successfully instill in them the taboo against talking back, African parents were, in fact, carrying out that oldest and most fundamental of parental duties—keeping their offspring safe.
Talking back as a metaphor for the empowerment of the oppressed is, therefore, a powerful one, and like all good metaphors resonates with a multiplicity of meanings. Talking back means the breaking of proscriptions and taboos against coming to speech, against coming to voice, against, in many...
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SOURCE: A review of Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, in Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 49, No. 14, October 9, 1989, pp. 317-18.
[In the following review, Williams praises Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black for putting forth a new model for the relationship between black women and feminism.]
With her usual polemicism and honesty, Bell Hooks peppers her latest book [Talking Back] with observations that are sure to unsettle just about everybody. Take her characterization of the academy: "The academic setting … is not a known site for truthtelling." Or her thoughts on a "revolutionary feminist pedagogy":
My classroom style is very confrontational…. Unlike the stereotypical feminist model that suggests women best come to voice in an atmosphere of safety (one in which we are all going to be kind and nurturing), I encourage students to work at coming to voice in an atmosphere where they may be afraid or see themselves at risk. The goal is to enable all students, not just an assertive few, to feel empowered in a rigorous critical discussion. Many students find this pedagogy difficult, frightening and very demanding….
Herself a feminist, Hooks is careful to indicate why such a pedagogy is needed: "… to overcome the estrangement and alienation that have become so much the norm in the...
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SOURCE: "A Political Homeplace," in Ms., Vol. 1, No. 4, January-February, 1991, pp. 62-3.
[In the following review, Walker asserts that "Yearning is about wanting to find health in an ailing community, and doing so through coming to voice, sharing ideas, and healing the whole community."]
In these times of increased division and coalition, based on ideology and political consciousness, it is helpful to find a writer who wants to put us all together, but who does not want us to be the same. bell hooks, in her fourth collection of essays, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, writes about the need for those of us engaged in what her publishers call "the politics of radical social change," to speak with true voices to one another in order to forge a healthy and spiritually dynamic community.
She proposes that criticism be used as a means for diversity and integration; she suggests that we not hate or cut out what does not exactly jibe with our agenda, but instead engage it, unearth its fallacies or hegemonic tendencies, and bring that interpretation back to the group. Setting an example, she enjoins us to follow her interpretations of popular culture, and as we allow her words to form new spaces in social political theory, we begin to envision new forms of counter-hegemonic togetherness.
In this book, hooks applies her "critical yet supportive"...
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SOURCE: "Piecings from a Second Reader," in Hypatia, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 177-87.
[In the following review, Alexander discusses the themes and postmodernist techniques in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics.]
In Yearning (1990), her fourth book, bell hooks writes across disciplines of a variety of longings and desires: for beauty, for artistic freedom, for complexity, for spiritual awakening, for community and a home place, for renewed political partnership between black women and men, and—on a more ominous side—for a nostalgic, romanticized past, for erotic playgrounds, for support from academic institutions (at whatever cost), for commodities and material goods, for liberal individualistic success, for addictive substances—for all the postmodern ways of dying.
Yet all of these yearnings—some liberatory, others destructive—are woven together as enactments or displacements of the yearning that most concerns her:
… as I looked for common passions, sentiments shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice, I was struck by the depths of longing in many of us.
… the yearning that wells in the hearts and minds of those whom such ["master"] narratives have silenced is the longing for a critical voice.
In one of two interviews in which...
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SOURCE: "Rebel Without a Pause," in VLS, No. 109, October 1992, p. 10.
[In the following interview, Jones and hooks discuss how contemporary media portray black men and women.]
It began, as it often does, with a photograph. Cultural critic/feminist poobah bell hooks received a postcard of a 19th century black Indian woman. The photograph bewitched hooks: how direct the woman's gaze was, how contemporary she looked. Every detail of her visual persona challenged simplistic constructions of black identity. To hooks, the photo underscores how representations of race in mass media, though très chic, still fail to envelop the complexity of black lives and viewpoints. When we see black images, on screen, in advertising, and in fashion magazines, what are we looking at, hooks asks, and what's missing from the frame? This meditation hatched Black Looks, hooks's latest, and what may be her most slyly provocative, collection of essays. Gracing the book's cover is the black Indian woman of the photograph—gilded, silent, but many moons from complacent.
A sought-after lecturer and popular professor (at Oberlin, her courses on black women's fiction and the politics of sexuality are booked solid), hooks has journeyed in the last 10 years from unsung women's-studies scholar to internationally known critical thinker. Her six books include Yearning, 1990, which solidified her...
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SOURCE: "Left Hooks," in Art Forum, Vol. XXXI, No. 5, January, 1993, pp. 10-11.
[In the following review, Coleman discusses hooks's attempt to "decolonize" the minds of African Americans in Black Looks: Race and Representation.]
We have to change our own mind…. We've got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to come together with warmth.
Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life.
A call to action is different in 1992: the tactic is a privately owned liberation theology, the faith Blackness, the patron saint Vision. In her latest book of essays [Black Looks], cultural critic bell hooks gives up the quotidian for the spooky no-man's-land of mass-media representation, her site of excavation "images of black people that reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy." The dig takes her across, rather than down, the broad face of American film, advertisement, and literature, in an effort to "decolonize" the mind...
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SOURCE: "Seeing is Believing," in The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, p. 23.
[Madison is an American writer. In the following review, she discusses hooks's attempt to delineate the "connections between race, representation, and domination" in the media in Black Looks: Race and Representation.]
How we are represented by others shapes how we represent ourselves, what is real to us and the worlds we imagine; and images and representations are a formidable cultural force. An urban street gang logo, a painting, a flag, Rodney King, Malcolm X or Anita Hill—each can become a sacred icon, a taboo and something worth fighting for.
For victims of what Bell Hooks calls "white supremacist culture"—and for those who 'resist it—representation becomes more provocative and complex. Precisely because representation is so important a force in self-identification, particularly for people of color, Black Looks: Race and Representation, the sixth book of essays by Bell Hooks (the pseudonym of a feminist and cultural critic who teaches at Oberlin College), is an important work.
In 12 essays, she lays out the connections between race, representation and domination in literature, popular music, television, advertising, historical narrative and film. Forcefully stating that controlling the images of a people is central to dominating them, she moves her argument...
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SOURCE: "'I Think White Women Are Really Happy When Black Women Abandon Feminism': Bell Hooks on Being a Black Woman in Middle America," in Metro Times, Vol. XIV, No. 47, August 24-30, 1994, p. 14.
[In the following interview, hooks and Cooper discuss feminism and African American men.]
Since Ain't A Woman, published in 1981 and recently named one of the 20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years by Publisher's Weekly, Bell Hooks has been a trailblazer and guide in the nebulous territory that belongs to the contemporary black American woman. A professor at Oberlin College in the English and Women's Studies departments, Hooks has received numerous literary awards. Her most recent book, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, is a call for reunification among a diverse, and increasingly divergent, segment of society.
In this edited interview, Hooks talks about white feminism, black men and where to go from here.
[Cooper]: What do you think of the much-publicized schism between the traditional feminist movement and African-American women?
[Hooks]: I think this is really a fiction. Part of that fiction arises from the tremendous ignorance people have about feminism, about where it began. Individual African-American women were always part of feminist movement. We were not there in large numbers; we tended to be...
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SOURCE: "Fighting Words," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 27.
[Karabel is an American educator and sociologist. In the following review, he discusses Teaching to Transgress: Educating as the Practice of Freedom and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Although he complains of hooks's occasional excess of language, he states that "hers is a voice that forces us to confront the political undercurrents of life in America."]
Like her friend Cornel West, with whom she wrote an absorbing book of dialogue, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, Bell Hooks (nee Gloria Watkins) is an unconventional scholar, constantly crossing the boundaries separating the academic disciplines as well as the division between scholarship and politics. Ms. Hooks has produced a formidable body of work, including more than a half-dozen books on topics ranging from feminist theory to representations of blacks in popular culture.
Now Ms. Hooks, who is a Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York, has published two new collections of essays, both bearing her distinctive combination of autobiographical narrative and cultural critique.
The first, Teaching to Transgress: Educating as the Practice of Freedom is inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, a radical Brazilian educator known worldwide for his advocacy of...
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SOURCE: "Practicing Freedom," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 6, March, 1995, pp. 10-11.
[In the following review, Haley provides a detailed analysis of Teaching to Transgress and Outlaw Culture.]
Have you ever read a book and felt that it was written about you? This usually happens to me only with novels, so I was especially startled to read bell hooks' latest collection of essays, Teaching to Transgress. Like hooks, I have been teaching in a college or university setting for twenty years. Like hooks, I am a Black woman who advocates feminism; like hooks, my degree is in a traditional Eurocentric field—Classics for me, English literature for her. We share a passion for curricular transformation and critical thinking.
As I read Teaching to Transgress, I found myself sighing with relief many times; here, for all to read, was my experience of teaching, pedagogy and classroom dynamics. Here, clearly articulated, was a Black feminist critique of a hierarchical system of higher education that promotes research over teaching and service. I can't help emphasizing how important it is to have the voice of this Black feminist activist/teacher as a counterpoint to books like The Bell Curve: Hooks—always an academic outlaw—sharply criticizes its "liberals-are-taking-over-the-ivy-tower" mentality.
The main message of...
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SOURCE: "For Whom the Bell Tolls: Why America Can't Deal With Black Feminist Intellectuals," in VLS, No. 140, November, 1995, pp. 19-24.
[In the following excerpt, Wallace complains that hooks's work has become increasingly "self-centered, narcissistic, and even hostile to the idea of countervailing perspectives."]
It's interesting to visit different bookstores in Manhattan just to see how they handle the dilemma posed by the existence of a black female author, who is not a novelist or a poet, who has 10 books in print. At the Barnes & Noble superstore uptown, they are getting perilously close to having to devote an entire shelf to hooks studies, in the manner that there are presently multiple shelves on MLK and Malcolm X.
And yet she might prefer it if instead I compared her to the white male Olympians of critical theory—Barthes, Foucault, Freud, and Marx—and that it was only conformity to what she likes to call "white supremacist thinking" that prevents me from classing her with the founding fathers.
In the past 14 years, as the author of 10 books on black feminism, bell hooks has managed to corner the multicultural feminist advice market almost singlehandedly, bell hooks is the alias of Gloria Watkins, who is now Distinguished Professor of English at the City College of New York. Raised in the rural South of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Watkins collected her B.A....
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Berube, Michael. "Public Academy." The New Yorker LXX, No. 49 (13 February 1995): 73-80.
Discusses the new generation of black thinkers, including Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and Derrick Bell, and their public following.
Giddings, Paula. "Black Feminism Takes Its Rightful Place." Ms. XIV, No. 4 (October 1985): 25-6, 30.
Criticizes hooks's Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to Present for measuring black women's commitment to feminism by their participation in predominantly white organizations.
Willis, Ellen. "Sisters Under the Skin?" Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 8 (June 1982): 1, 10-12.
Discusses the issue of antagonism between black women and white women, especially in the feminist movement, and how hooks and other authors deal with this issue in their writing.
hooks, bell, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and Urvashi Vaid. "Let's Get Real About Feminism." Ms. IV, No. 2 (September-October 1993): 34-43.
Four activists debate why so many women hesitate to call...
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