Study Guide

Bell Hooks

by Gloria Watkins

Bell Hooks Essay - Critical Essays

Hooks, Bell

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Barbara Smith (essay date January-February 1983)

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 publishers. Unfortunately, Bell Hooks' Ain't I A Woman; Black Women and Feminism from South End Press, an alternative, left publisher, is also full of the contradictions that result when one attempts to talk about black feminism divorced from black feminist organizing.

Before going any further, I have to admit that this book has worried me nearly to death and reviewing it is no easy task. I wanted Ain't I A Woman to be good, incisive, and, most of all, useful. The fact that Hooks provides information about black women's historical oppression and asks some significant questions about sexism and racism raised my hopes. But from the very beginning I found myself questioning the conclusions she draws from the factual material she presents and being constantly surprised by her answers to the questions she poses. It soon became clear that despite its subject I was in profound disagreement with the assumptions of this book.

The book is divided into five chapters which potentially address pivotal black and feminist issues: "Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience"; "Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood"; "The Imperialism of Patriarchy"; "Racism and Feminism"; and "Black Women and Feminism." The first two chapters contain interesting documentation of black women's continuously inferior status in the U.S. I was mystified, however, to see that in these first chapters, as throughout the book, there are numerous quotations, but no footnote references and at times not even references to the author or book from which the quotations are taken. These omissions make Ain't I A Woman much less useful for research. Such an oversight is not merely the author's responsibility, but her publisher's, and is just one indication that this book was editorially handled in such a way that was a disservice to all.

The book's analytical difficulties are apparent in the first chapter. In order to disprove the familiar argument that slavery and racism were worse for black men than for women, simply because men are inherently more valuable beings, Hooks attempts to show not only that black women suffered more in slavery, but that black men suffered less than is commonly believed. This is tricky territory that scholars continue to debate: what was slavery actually like and what was the typical slave experience? I basically agree with Hooks that because of sexual oppression, systematized rape, forced breeding, and responsibility for domestic tasks, black women suffered in more ways than black men. What I find so upsetting is the contempt that Hooks shows for black men in the process. For example, in refuting the concept that black men suffered from a loss of masculinity in slavery, she writes:

Enslaved black men were stripped of the patriarchal status that had characterized their social situation in Africa but they were not stripped of their masculinity. Despite all popular arguments that claim black men were figuratively castrated, throughout the history of slavery in America black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role. In colonial times as in contemporary times, masculinity denoted possessing the attributes of strength, virility, vigor, and physical prowess … That white people recognized the "masculinity" of the black male is evident by the tasks assigned the majority of black male slaves.

Of course Hooks conveniently ignores power and autonomy as essential components of masculinity and male privilege. Being an unpaid and terrorized beast of burden has never had much to do with exercising power. Hooks continues:

The sexism of colonial white male patriarchs spared black male slaves the humiliation of homosexual rape and other forms of sexual assault. While institutionalized sexism was a social system that protected black male sexuality, it [socially] legitimized sexual exploitation of black females.

If the system protected Black male sexuality so thoroughly, what in the world is the history of lynching all about? This statement is disturbing on a number of levels. One is that it's not clear what is humiliating—the rape or the homosexuality. If the word homophobia had been used instead of sexism to explain why black men were not victimized in this way, it would be obvious that the author is critical of negative attitudes toward male homosexuality and lesbianism. But as I will discuss in more detail subsequently, she is not.

It isn't necessary to prove that slavery wasn't so bad for black men in order to prove how very bad it was for black women. It is obvious, however, that Hooks' conclusions are affected by her animosity toward black men which surfaces repeatedly throughout the work. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize, even castigate, black men for their oppression of black women, but I found the author's unveiled hostility shocking.

Hooks obviously has an ax to grind with black men and to an even greater extent with white women. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does not make for sound theory. Why do I constantly get the impression that Hooks sees Ain't I A Woman as an opportunity to finally put black men and white women in their place? Certainly her tone is a factor. Another is the major and minor inconsistencies of the book, the way that Hooks in building her case reshapes logic and history. According to the author even black women are culpable for perpetuating their own oppression.

At the conclusion of the first chapter Hooks states:

The fact that enslaved black women were forced to labor as "men" and to exist independently of male protection did not lead to the development of a feminist consciousness.

Her evidence for this assertion is that black women wanted the "considerations and privileges given white women" and that as soon as slavery ended many black women "refused to work in the fields." Hooks seemingly does not consider that "forced" equality under the horrors of the slave system, which she has just vividly described, might not automatically lead to higher consciousness, but merely to a desire for some relief. The ex-slave women probably did not want to be Miss Ann as much as she wanted to stop being sexual and economic chattel. Hooks also does not consider that a desire to leave the fields might have been a desire to have only one full-time job—childrearing and housework—instead of two. Ignoring these realities, she concludes the chapter:

By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and victims of these crimes.

Who are these black women who "completely accept[ed] the female role" and who are their descendants? I haven't met them. What I always find so heartening about black women, no matter how nonfeminist they might be in their pronouncements, is how seldom they unthinkingly conform to conventional feminine behavior. We've always had too much sense for that. Nevertheless, in the book's introduction Hooks states unequivocally:

Twentieth century black women had learned to accept sexism as natural, a given, a fact of life. Had surveys been taken among black women in the thirties and forties and had they been asked to name the most oppressive force in their lives, racism and not sexism would have headed the list.

To cite just one piece of evidence to the contrary which indicates that black women were indeed concerned about sexual discrimination in the 1940s, I refer readers to an article by novelist Ann Petry, published in March 1947, entitled "What's Wrong With Negro Men?" Petry's article appeared in Negro Digest, a widely distributed publication, and attacked head-on black men's bad attitudes about women, including sexual harassment on the street and unfair division of labor at home. For further evidence of black women's criticism and resistance to male dominance, as well as commentary on a host of other social problems, I refer everyone to the blues.

Hooks' interpretation of events to suit her purposes is most blatant in her discussion of the women's movement. She describes a movement I find barely recognizable. Hooks collapses the totality of feminism into its most conservative manifestations:...

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Dorothy Randall-Tsuruta (essay date January-February 1983)

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...

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Patricia Bell-Scott (review date February 1985)

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...

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Joyce Pettis (review date Summer 1986)

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...

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Marlene Nourbese Philip (review date May 1989)

"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...

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Delores S. Williams (review date 9 October 1989)

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":

...

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Rebecca Walker (review date January-February 1991)

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...

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Natalie Alexander (review date Spring 1992)

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...

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bell hooks with Lisa Jones (interview date October 1992)

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....

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Beth Coleman (review date January 1993)

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.

                                —Malcolm X

Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to...

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D. Soyini Madison (review date 28 February 1993)

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...

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bell hooks with Desiree Cooper (interview date 24-30 August 1994)

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...

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Jerome Karabel (review date 18 December 1994)

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,...

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Shelley P. Haley (review date March 1995)

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...

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Michele Wallace (essay date November 1995)

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...

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