Yearning Essay - Critical Context

Gloria Watkins

Critical Context

Yearning is unique among African American feminist works in its understanding of the necessary many-sidedness of African American women. Hooks “firmly resists,” says P. Gabrielle Foreman in her important review in The Women’s Review of Books, “any homogenizing notion of black essence.” Hooks manages to stay on the boundary (“choosing the margins,” she would say) in the various controversies among African Americans and among cultural critics of whatever race about identity politics and essentialism. Refusing to espouse only one position—that race is constructed by social and historical context or that race is a biological reality—she forces all sides, including the academic cultural critics and the political cultural nationalists, to participate in dialogue. Her work continually refuses absolutes; she therefore has been dismissed as assimilationist. As she clearly says, however, “We cannot participate in dialogue that is the mark of freedom and critical agency if we dismiss all work emerging from white western traditions.”

A second reason for the importance of Hooks as an African American theorist is her insightful judgment of those who continue to read African American writers only for race issues, “while whiteness remains,” says Susan Bordo in Feminist Studies, “unproblematized, unexamined, constructed as no race at all.” The ability of Hooks to understand and use the language of the postmodern theorists while at the same time pointing to their weaknesses is one of her greatest strengths. Although Hooks reiterates Audre Lorde’s assertion that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” it may be necessary to use the master’s discourse to move to the place where different tools (style, language, genre) will be usefully heard. This is the meaning of Hooks’s repeated call for a new aesthetic of blackness, one that arises from the history and culture of African Americans, that calls on the rich traditions of storytelling, preaching, and “signifying” (positive criticism) in the black community.