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...
(This entire section contains 4141 words.)
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: bourgeois, reformist, professional, and self-aggrandizing. It is the equating of the women's movement with its least progressive elements (long a tactic of the slick media and certain varieties of anti-feminists) which I think most distorts the impact of the book. Hooks describes the women's movement and white feminists in such derogatory terms that it is hard to imagine why any black woman reading this would want any part of it or why any white woman would be inspired to change. Yet ostensibly it is Hooks' purpose to encourage feminist opposition to sexual oppression in the black community and racial accountability among white women. It is necessary to examine how this fundamental contradiction in the book came about.
First, I want to validate Hooks' perception that the women's movement has indeed been and continues to be racist. And since being racist in this country is thoroughly interlocked with being white, this racism has affected all sectors of the movement, from conservative to revolutionary. What Hooks does not acknowledge is that the differing politics of white feminists have resulted in many differing responses to the issues of racism and cultural difference, ranging from merely cosmetic to absolutely serious. Hooks never admits that there are parts of the women's movement, especially in the last five years, that define taking responsibility for racism as a top priority. Instead she makes the following statement:
Few, if any, white women liberationists are willing to acknowledge that the women's movement was consciously and deliberately structured to exclude black and other non-white women and to serve primarily the interests of middle and upper class college-educated white women seeking social equality with middle and upper class white men. While they may agree that white women involved with women's liberationist groups are racist and classist they tend to feel that this in no way undermines the movement.
[Italics added by Smith]
There are countless statements like this in the chapter "Racism and Feminism" which combine partial truth with opinion so as to undermine understanding of this crucial issue.
One of Hooks' cherished beliefs which reinforces her negative view of the movement is that all white women are better off than all black women dating from slavery. Not surprisingly she also believes that: "No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women," thus completely erasing the existence and struggles of Native American, Asian-American, and Latin women. Hooks makes no effort to examine parallels in the experiences of all women of color, which, at the very least, would have strengthened the work analytically. Instead she puts all her energy into emphasizing the gulfs between women, black and white. She writes:
Prior to slavery, patriarchal law decreed white women were lowly inferior beings, the subordinate group in society. The subjugation of black people allowed them to vacate their despised position and assume the role of a superior.
Consequently, it can be easily argued that even though white men institutionalized slavery, white women were its most immediate beneficiaries.
As in her previous statements about black men's masculinity, the factors of autonomy and power are completely ignored. Hooks firmly believes that:
In America, the social status of black and white women has never been the same. In 19th and early 20th century America, few if any similarities could be found between the life experiences of the two female groups…. In fact, white racial imperialism granted all white women, however victimized by sexist oppression they might be, the right to assume the role of oppressor in relationship to black women and black men.
The first sentence in this statement is absolutely accurate. The second sentence overlooks the reality of obligatory child-bearing, rape, and battering, to name only a few common female life experiences. Both the second and third sentences astonishingly do not take into account class as a factor in white women's oppression. Class oppression is certainly something poor and working class women of all races have in common, no matter how much the system tries to obscure this fact. In the period Hooks refers to there were poor white women on farms south and north, white women working in unspeakable conditions in factories, white women domestic servants and prostitutes, and millions of women immigrants from Europe who came here with nothing. Yes, they had white skin privilege and were no doubt racist, but why doesn't Hooks examine the complexities of being white combined with being economically and sexually exploited instead of acting as if no such women exist? For one thing, integrating an analysis of class would not support her opinion that white women are not oppressed.
The lack of a realistic perspective on class is one of the book's major theoretical flaws. It's not that class isn't mentioned at all in the work, and this is what makes Hooks' mode deceptive, it's that it is never integrated into her analysis, but only invoked to prove that white women have it over black women. So much of Ain't I A Woman is based upon a "pitting against" mentality, black women against white women and black men, which simply would not hold up if class oppression was taken into account. Hooks writes:
In fact, the contemporary women's movement was extremely class bound. As a group, white participants did not denounce capitalism. They chose to define liberation using the terms of white capitalist patriarchy, equating liberation with gaining economic status and money power. Like all good capitalists, they proclaimed work as the key to liberation. This emphasis on work was yet another indication of the extent to which the white female liberationists' perception of reality was totally narcissistic, classist, and racist.
How does socialist feminist analysis and practice, campaigns to organize clerical workers, other unionizing efforts, the exposing of sexual harassment at the work place, and a general desire to equalize women's salaries, working conditions, and job opportunities fit in with "total narcissism, classism, and racism"?
But Hooks does not seem to know anything about these aspects of the movement. Her examples are overwhelmingly drawn from "women's studies classes", "conferences," "books," and "groups" whose purposes are never identified. I have often been frustrated when talking with black women about feminism that they have little knowledge of the activist women's movement with which I am most familiar. Ain't I A Woman, which could have provided such information, perpetuates this problem. Even in relying on printed matter, Hooks could have drawn from a vast array of feminist periodicals and books from feminist presses. Of the more than one hundred sources she lists in her bibliography, however, only one could be considered a women's movement publication. Almost all of the works cited in the bibliography also appeared before 1975, the very point at which Third World women's organizing began to take hold.
According to Hooks, however, even black feminist organizing is neither positive nor important. I found her criticism of autonomous black women's groups absolutely heartstopping. She writes:
Some black women who were interested in women's liberation responded to the racism of white female participants by forming separate "black feminist" groups. This response was reactionary. By creating segregated feminist groups, they both endorsed and perpetuated the very "racism" they were supposedly attacking. They did not provide a critical evaluation of the women's movement and offer to all women a feminist ideology uncorrupted by racism or the opportunistic desires of individual groups. Instead, as colonized people have done for centuries, they accepted the terms imposed upon them by the dominant group (in this instance white women liberationists) and structured their groups on a racist platform identical to that of the white-dominated groups they were reacting against. White women were actively excluded from black groups. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of the black "feminist" group was its focus on issues relating specifically to black women. The emphasis on black women was made public in the writings of black participants. The Combahee River Collective published "A Black Feminist Statement" to explain their group's focus.
[Italics added by Smith]
Hooks then quotes from the opening paragraph of the Statement which affirms a commitment to coalition politics and a multi-issued approach. She then comments: "The emergence of black feminist groups led to a greater polarization of black and white liberationists."
Obviously she does not comprehend the meaning of the word coalition. As a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, I can verify that this particular organization was never racially separatist, that it always considered itself a part of the women's movement, and that it practiced coalition building in countless ways.
Why is Hooks so scathingly critical of contemporary black feminist organizations, accusing them of "anti-white racism," yet quite supportive of nineteenth century independent black feminist efforts? Of these groups she writes:
In fact, black female reform organizations were solidly rooted in the women's movement. It was in reaction to the racism of white women and to the fact that the U.S. remained a society with an apartheid social structure that compelled black women to focus on themselves rather than all women.
There may be other reasons for this inconsistency, but one I suspect is that those early black women organizers were ostensibly heterosexual while many contemporary black feminists are also lesbians. In a book of over two-hundred pages Hooks does not mention the word lesbian once. This is the other crucial key to the author's perspective on feminism, her overriding homophobia. Her constant attacks on the women's movement are no doubt tacitly motivated by her anti-lesbianism, although her position of course is never clearly stated.
Why is it when a black woman dismisses lesbianism, she acts as if she is not attacking a single black woman? There are hundreds of thousands of black lesbians and hundreds of thousands more black gay men for that matter alive and well in the U.S. at this very moment, not to mention the millions of us that cover the globe wherever people of African descent live. To attack lesbianism is not merely to slap the wrist of the "white" women's movement, it is to eviscerate us.
By ignoring lesbianism and lesbian-feminism, Hooks conveniently ignores some of the most vital and radical work of the movement. Because of my involvement with Third World and white lesbians who are radical activists, I can, despite all its failings, feel positive about the movement we've created. In 1981, Hooks, on the other hand, writes in her conclusion:
Right now, women in the U.S. are witnessing the demise of yet another women's rights movement. The future of collective feminist struggle is bleak. The women who appropriated feminism to advance their own opportunistic causes have achieved their desired ends and are no longer interested in feminism as a political ideology.
Hooks' homophobia not only eliminates essential theory and facts, it totally distorts the history of contemporary feminism. For instance, it allows her to avoid mentioning an organization like D.A.R.E. (Dykes Against Racism Everywhere), the kind of racially mixed antiracist group she implies does not exist, or citing Elly Bulkin's important article, "Racism in Writing: Some Implications for White Lesbian Critics." Homophobia also results in a narrowly heterosexist perspective on the issues she does address, leading to yet another level of distortion. Heterosexist solipsism results in the following statement:
White and black women have been socialized to accept … fierce competition between the two groups; a competition that has always been centered in the arena of sexual politics, with white and black women competing against one another for male favor. This competition is part of an overall battle between various groups of women to be the chosen female group.
What does it mean for lesbians that all racial conflict between women can be reduced to vying for male favor?
The closest Hooks comes to suggesting that lesbians exist is not surprisingly in a general put-down of the women's movement. She writes:
Attacking heterosexuality does little to strengthen the self-concept of the masses of women who desire to be with men…. The women's movement has become a kind of ghetto or concentration camp for women who are seeking to attain the kind of power they feel men have. It provides a forum for the expression of their feelings of anger, jealousy, rage, and disappointment with men. It provides an atmosphere where women who have little in common, who may resent or even feel indifferent to one another can bond on the basis of shared negative feelings toward men.
[Italics added by Smith]
So feminists and lesbians are nothing but man-haters who make life difficult for women with heterosexual privilege. Haven't I heard this somewhere before? This comment seems particularly ludicrous in the context of a book which itself evidences so much negative feeling toward men. I also find Hooks' image of the women's movement as "a kind of ghetto or concentration camp" appalling because she completely trivializes the suffering of the Jews and the experience of every group that has been forcibly segregated, at the same time she uses the image to attack another group. Didn't anyone read this manuscript and react to the devastating implications of these words?
This brings me finally to the issue of the publisher's role in the problems with this book. Why did South End Press, a publisher known for its high-level primarily white-male theory, demand so little from a book on feminism by a black woman? The answers are no doubt themselves lessons in the racism and anti-feminism that pervade white-male-left establishments. Some left/socialist groupings have made sincere efforts to integrate an understanding of sexual and racial politics into their theory and practice. In this case, however, South End's desire to appear "politically correct" with minimal effort is transparent. Clearly an insidious double-standard was operating that led the editors-publishers to overlook the book's grave analytical and ideological problems, which would never have been permitted in another work—for example, not requiring footnotes or a concise approach to class. I despise the kind of racism that says, "black people are just different. We can't ever understand them and it's not our place to question or challenge them." This attitude no doubt explains why the book's homophobia was allowed to stand and why such a blatant deficiency did not lead to a serious questioning of the politics of the work as a whole, before it was published. But how better to disavow the significance of the women's movement than through the words of a black woman who is supposed to be a feminist? The fact that there are countless women who need a good book about black feminism was clearly of little concern. From all accounts Ain't I A Woman is selling well and spreading confusion and division in its wake.
The problems with Ain't I A Woman lead me to ask what is theory and what comprises good analytical writing? Theory and analysis are not merely the listing of opinions, but this is generally Hooks' method. She never says what kind of organizing is to be done, what kinds of political issues are crucial, how black women might be brought together around feminism, or what issues and organizing she herself has been involved in that have contributed to the formation of her analysis. Ultimately, I find this and similar books so worrisome, because they make the real work of black feminist organizing so much more difficult than it needs to be.
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. In the introduction Hooks' own chagrin belts to crescendo her "white sisters" for among other things feeling:
… comfortable writing books or articles on the 'woman question' in which they drew analogies between 'women' and blacks…. By continuously making this analogy, they unwittingly suggest that to them the term 'woman' is synonymous with 'white women'
[Italics added by Randall-Tsuruta]
Any black woman who has ever had to deal with white women in an organizational setting, or neighborhood, or friendship, knows that whites—women and men—do not "unwittingly" assert a racial complex. However cathartic Hooks' anger is at times, she nonetheless reasons wildly—thus the troubled complexion of her study.
Hooks is so mad at her white sisters that she cannot sit still; yet prefers them to black feminist thinkers who "responded to the racism of white female[s] … by creating segregated feminist groups … and structured their groups on racist platform." Hooks expounds:
White women were actively excluded from black groups. In fact the distinguishing characteristic of the black 'feminist' group was its focus on issues relating specifically to black women.
Besides being flabbergasted that Hooks should think it wrong for black feminists to organize independently, I find it scandalous that Hooks places in quotes the word "feminists" referring to black women. Is this a slip of tongue, a scoff of sorts, a denigration translated, "if you ain't white (nor under white umbrella), you sho ain't no feminist?" But most incredible is Hooks' wording which singles black feminists out, for "creating segregated feminist groups." This despite her own words denouncing white feminists as "reactionary." Half the time while reading this book I kept asking the author if she was for real—and not rhetorically either.
According to Hooks, slavery was worse for black women than for black men because while black men may have had their testicles cut off this was not as frequent as rape, nor were they forced to perform homosexual acts. (Hooks' way of knowing this last suggests she is reincarnated with a clear memory and omnipresent.)
Ain't I a Woman contains five chapters: 1—Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience; 2—Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood; 3—The Imperialism of Patriarchy; 4—Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability; and 5—Black Women and Feminism.
The historical data on slavery provided in chapter one is bereft of documentation, and is further reduced by argumentation which begs the question; specifically whether slavery was worse for women or men. The author plays down the suffering of black male slaves saying, that "individual black men were castrated by their owners or by mobs" for the purpose of setting "an example for other male slaves so that they would not resist authority." But she contends that white "women and men" were not "obsessed by the ideal of destroying black masculinity" for they did not force "black men to assume 'feminine' attire or perform so-called 'feminine' tasks." And she argues, comparatively, that they were obsessed with destroying black femininity for they forced "black women [to] perform the same tasks as black men," plowing, planting, and harvesting crops. When I was approaching graduate school, the noted scholar St. Clair Drake counseled a gathering of black students, saying when it comes time for dissertation, don't waste your time researching where slavery was worse—Brazil or the United States: it was horrible in both to the extent that figuring the degree is ludicrous.
In this chapter Hooks also criticizes black parents for their failure to "warn their daughters about the possibility of rape or help them to prepare for such situations." On and on she controverts. She concludes:
The slave parents' unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality.
Hooks has the galling habit of allowing enslaved ancestors choices of action no master allowed them. Further she demeans her ancestors, without benefit of documented evidence. Who told her this about slave parents?
Hooks singles out slave men for chiding, reasoning they did not move to protect female slaves from rape because in Africa they were socialized to aid only the women of their own tribe. No mention of how in America they were restrained. Alas, more global reductionism for Western anthropologists out to prove the heathen's halo is an Afro. Hooks thus aptly reads down the white sister's ancestor for her role in all this.
Chapter three plunges into "The Imperialism of Patriarchy." Here Hooks wins my applause for taking on Baraka and Jim Brown for their rationalizations bereft of admission that the white woman fills their dreams. Hooks submits for review, almost as an effigy, Baraka's response to the question concerning militant black men and white women:
Jim Brown put it pretty straight and this is really quite true. He says that there are black men and white men, then there are women. So you can indeed be going through a black militant thing and have yourself a woman. The fact that she happens to be black or white is no longer impressive to anybody, but a man who gets himself a woman is what's impressive. The battle is really between white men and black men whether we like to admit it that is the battlefield at this time.
While no footnote is provided, the bibliography implies that Baraka's quote is taken from Black World, 1970. Seeing as how this is dated material, its purpose is limited, but does attest to what yet pains black women.
In chapter four, "Racism and Feminism," the author returns to her overriding contention with white feminists, taking on black feminists as well. Here the book succeeds in painting a graphic, and in this informative, sketch of her coming to grips with her "white sisters" as well as black feminist sisters who split off into race related groups—she calls the latter "Others." Considering the chapter—indeed the entire book—reads in large like an angry cry to white feminists, it smacks of a letter from an unrequited love. The reader feels at times like an eavesdropper, seeing the author seated miserably amongst "white sisters" whom she depicts as coolly indifferent to truths with which she confronts them. She exclaims they are just apt to turn on such as herself, snorting, "We won't be guilt tripped."
Yet Hooks bad raps black women who, "to express their anger and rage at white women" evoke "the negative stereotypical image of the white woman as passive, parasitic, privileged being living off the labor of others as a way to mock and ridicule the white women liberationists [sic]". In this chapter poet Lorraine Bethel is singled out for chastisement because of her poem "What Chous Mean We White Girl? Or, The Cullud Lesbian Feminist Declaration of Independence." (No reference given for this work.)
Interestingly here, Hooks suggests that hostilities between blacks and whites involved in the women's liberation movement, were not only due to disagreements over racism, but were also due to "jealousy, envy, competition, and anger, which took root during slavery." She explains how, as she sees it, slavery provided white women with creatures who were more denigrated by white men than they themselves. She seems to be saying this drove white women to sadistic acts, resorting "to brutal punishment to assert authority," which yet "could not change the fact that black women were not inclined to regard the white female with the awe and respect they showed the white male." She seems to be saying black slave women preferred their male torturers to their female torturers—you remember, those men who brutally raped them, beat them harder than they did men, hung their babies upside down until dead if they did not eat their food, and made them harvest the ground along with the men to the loss of their femininity. The point here is Hooks' penchant for arguing the degree of difference in the face of unmentionable horrors.
Hooks romanticizes slave owners much as Capote does criminals in In Cold Blood. Pretty soon these sadists start to emerge as personalities. If they were alive they might be able to turn a pretty profit from their crimes as did the John Deans and Richard Nixons, and presently the Dan Whites (George Wallace convinced a needed black voter-ship of having changed for the better).
Finally in chapter five, "Black Women and Feminism" Hooks returns to the theme begun in her introduction, that black women passively stand outside the women's movement because they lack sexual esteem. She also returns to her witness of what whites "unwittingly" do, this time rendering the white man who yelled at Sojourner, 'I don't believe you really are a woman.' Hooks reasons he "unwittingly voiced America's contempt and disrespect for black womanhood." Since Hooks again offers no documentation for this quote, one can only assume it is hearsay across generations. But in what context and at what event was Sojourner being thus read down? Hooks' book would be better if such documentation were supplied. It leaves one wondering at the publishing motive which dumps on the public such poor black scholarship.
Besides not documenting evidence, Hooks, throughout the book, works quotes which do not even serve her intent—like a puzzle piece forced into a pattern. For instance, referring back to her discussion of white women flaunting a "women and blacks" analogy, in her introduction, Hooks asserts that:
When black people are talked about sexism militates against the acknowledgment of the interests of black women; when women are talked about racism militates against a recognition of black female interests. When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.
But then for proof she offers (from William O'Neill's book Everyone Was Brave):
Their shocked disbelief that men would so humiliate them by supporting votes for Negroes but not for women demonstrated the limits of their sympathy for black men, even as it drove these former allies further apart.
Whatever the point she was trying to make becomes lost in the scathing "humiliate" (in this reference) incites.
But Hooks has some interesting things to say about black women's organizations—how they changed over the course of history from being concerned with social services to focus instead on social affairs like debutante balls and fundraisers. In this she is instructive, and given a second attempt might even embed this information in a book more carefully organized, researched and edited. Yet, even as she sounds promising, in chapter five, she also reduces Angela Davis to "a poster pinup" who Hooks says was not admired for her intelligence but for her beauty. Again Hooks shows herself not contained by her own opinion, but wallowing in the stew whites would make of blacks. She offers further antagonism toward black women who dared deem themselves free, criticizing now black sociologist Joyce Ladner, and essayists Ida Lewis and Linda LaRue. Even charging this she insists that black women today are afraid to "openly confront white feminists with their racism." Deaf and dumb to her own conflicting charges, priding herself on being able to turn the other cheek, Hooks closes the book on the hope that black women everywhere will take courage from her pioneering in feminist ideology and follow suit.
While the book straddles five chapters, it is the essence grasped in the Introduction that essence recalls its passion long after the book is closed. For it is here that the author springs an admirable spirit let down by a sputtering intellect. The section also alerts the reader to Hooks' summation of blacks, that lack of racial esteem which so intrigues social scientists rent with wicked purpose. If the black reader approaches the book with the understanding it is addressed to Hooks' "white sisters," she or he may only wince seeing red when coming across such fabricated confidences as:
Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women's rights because we did not see 'womanhood' as an important aspect of our identity.
and further along:
When white men supported giving black men the vote while leaving all women disenfranchised, Horace Greeley and Wendell Phillips called it 'the Negro's finest hour' but in actuality what was spoken of as a black suffrage was black male suffrage. By supporting black male suffrage and denouncing white women's rights activists, white men revealed the depths of their sexism—a sexism that was at that brief moment in American history greater than their racism.
Is Hooks serious? Is she really so naive as to believe white men ever embraced the needs of black men in preference to those of white women, suffragette or not? And could this mean she actually believes white men neglected to build into the system control of black men—vote or no vote?
What emerges here is the embarrassing probability that Hooks derives hope for a united women's movement by drawing analogy from white males' support of black males which she contends for a brief moment relegated sexism more important than racism: thus if white men can do this perhaps their womenfolk can as well.
This glimmer of hope lurks in the shadow of her voice, when vicariously reliving the words of toxic pig Elizabeth Cady Stanton whom she quotes cringing aghast that "'niggers' should be granted the vote while 'superior' white women remained disenfranchised." Though purporting to be alerting her sisters to racism, her voice betrays something akin to despising what the enemy despises, a condition sadistic biographers report gave strut to Hitler's walk, and entertained him in idle moments.
Concluding observations turn first to Hooks' title. As the words are Sojourner Truth's, taken from her famous speech it does us well to review them in context:
That man over there say that woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me a best place … And ain't I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me … And ain't I a woman? I could … eat as much as a man when I could get it, and bear the lash as well … And ain't I a woman? I have borned thirteen children and seen them most all sold off into slavery. And when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard … And ain't I a woman?
Speaking this, Sojourner stepped into the limelight asserting the will of a visionary disgusted with the charade before her eyes. Clearly in her phrasing "ain't I a woman?" she is not asking a question but asserting indeed I am! Here we are presented with a wonderfully proud woman. She was no tail along feminist-hopeful, but a leader who as Hooks admits "could refer to her own life as evidence of woman's ability." Her patience, desire for certain comforts, sturdy arms firmed by plowing, equal footing with men, motherhood, and sufferings which none but Jesus heard are strengths she claimed. Sojourner delivered this speech in 1852 before a group of white women who Hooks informs, "deemed it unfitting that a black woman should speak on a platform in their presence screamed: 'Don't let her speak! Don't let her speak! Don't let her speak!'" Seeing as how that was 131 years ago, yet the picture Hooks paints of white feminists reveals them significantly unchanged today, it seems this would suggest something to her—other than that her patience is meritorious.
For many black women Sojourner's message has been instructive as they grew keen on living embraced by a compassion which yet never undermines that spirit of fight Sojourner resounds. You see these black women everywhere; some grouped for action in clubs or organizations which bear witness to our having come a long way since the only organization addressing female concerns was a band of white women. My early years as a teacher in a community college in Northern California saw my coming into a newly built school and helping to form a women's organization concerned with directions for black women, though open to other Third World women and working class women of all races who joined us from time to time in a common cause. Our group served the entire campus and community, providing model to middle class whites who that first year were enlightened at our conference, and the second year started a women's program of their own—then commenced to fret because we were separate. But we yawned perplexed by their behavior, continuing purposefully and intact until their tactics debilitated those in our ranks who believed "white folks water wetter and their ice cooler." A reading of Hooks' book leaves the impression she knows only of black women organizing in reaction to negative treatment from white women. The group I helped form, typical of many in this nation, came together quite naturally as a first impulse.
In contrast to the firm declaration Sojourner's "ain't I a woman?" sounds, Hooks' adaptation is marked by uncertainty. In the latter's delivery neither contextual clues, nor content reveal a sense of self. Indeed it is a sob in her mouth, revealing one painfully in doubt which could be eased if only her white sisters would mend their ways.
Hooks defines feminism, then goes on, ignoring the connotation, to label so many of our black female ancestors "feminist." While a fine title for contemporary women who self proclaim this attuned to problematic aspects, it is not fair to those dead who cannot be consulted. She goes on and on about "black feminist Mary Church Terrell," when here I sat holding that woman's autobiography aptly titled, A Colored Woman in a White World. The pervasive theme of the work is injustice endured, fought, and survived by blacks, with much focus on the black family. Here and there is constructive analysis of purposeful uses of suffragette agitation, but in no way does she paint her life as one given to feminist impulse. Black women have long been organized in the silent manor of prisoners of war—signaling when conversation meant death, and passing on to daughters ideas and remembered models that kept them from going mad; from standing on the corners burning bras. Much of what black women have long known about how to raise a family while holding down a job, white women are presently celebrating as some new discovery. In her introduction Terrell states, "this is the story of a colored woman living in a white world." Note she does not qualify it solely a white male world. In fact the first paragraph suggests an analogy of "women and whites." The second sentence reads, "It cannot possibly be like a story written by a white woman."
Terrell continues the paragraph with:
A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race. I belong to the only group in this country which has two such huge obstacles to surmount. Colored men have only one—that of race.
Since Terrell speaks posthumously telling the group to which she belongs—black women—her example serves better black feminist groups (which Hooks decries) than white feminist groups (though Hooks ignores history insisting otherwise). In the page before the last of Colored Woman in a White World Terrell boasts being made an honorary member of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and how she happily complied with that organization's request for her to write their creed. Thus further proof of the racial group with which she identified, and felt significant impact on her womanhood. The final thought Terrell leaves us with, however, in her autobiography focusses not on sex but race. The final paragraph reads:
While I am grateful for the blessings which have been bestowed upon me and for the opportunities which have been offered, I cannot help wondering sometimes what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, but had allowed me to reach any height I was able to attain.
When referring to contemporary black feminists, as shown, Hooks is not very kind. She is particularly competitive with Michelle Wallace (Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman), saying of Wallace's book:
While the book is an interesting provocative account of Wallace's personal life that includes a very sharp and witty analysis of the patriarchal impulses of black male activists, it is neither [sic] an important feminist work nor an important work about black women.
To this condescending assessment of Wallace and her work, Hooks adds (inadvertently perhaps), "All too often in our society it is assumed that one can know all there is about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person." Yet in her acknowledgement she admits Ain't I a Woman is about her own "lived experiences."
Of Wallace's book "sister" Steinem has praise. Hooks, however, is miffed that Steinem could value Wallace's book comparable to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. (Seems ole Steinem makes out the report cards.)
As stated in the outset Ain't I a Woman gives vent to much that is daily suppressed by black women who look askance on white feminists, while accepting of black feminists as exercising their right to join the movement which best attends their needs. Given time to rethink some of her conclusions, to add documentation, to have edited, and to reconfront her identity, Hooks might just write a book we all can be proud of. As is the book is a disgrace to American publishing. One wonders the motive backing its release.
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 sentence in the book, summarizes the basic theme—that the masses of poor and minority women are marginal to feminist activism and theory-building. Though some readers might find Hooks to be repetitive in her emphasis on this theme, her analysis of how racial, sexual and class oppressions are inextricably intermingled proves to be powerfully illuminating.
In twelve chapters, she provides a comprehensive, well-documented (there are footnotes for each chapter and a bibliography) critique of contemporary American feminism. Most issues considered to be central to a feminist agenda are addressed: female sexual oppression, sister-hood as political solidarity, the role of men in feminist struggle, the devaluation of women's paid and unpaid labor, the design of educational curricula, the restructuring of parenting and family life, the redefinition of power, the American culture of violence, and revolution versus reform as social change. In a discussion of these issues, Hooks offers a vision of what feminism is not and should be.
For example, she warns that contemporary feminism has taken a "dangerous direction" toward cooptation, equivalent in significant ways to the "competitive, atomistic liberal individualism" characteristic of traditional American thinking. To illustrate this point, she quotes from an essay by Carol Ehrlich, which outlines major contradictions in feminist theory and praxis:
Women need to know (and are increasingly prevented from finding out) that feminism is not about dressing for success, or becoming a corporate executive, or gaining elective office; it is not being able to share a two career marriage and take skiing vacations and spend huge amounts of time with your husband and two lovely children because you have a domestic worker who makes all this possible for you, but who hasn't the time or money to do it for herself; it is not opening a Women's Bank, or spending a weekend in an expensive workshop that guarantees to teach you how to become assertive (but not aggressive); it is most emphatically not about becoming a police detective or CIA agent or marine corps general.
Of what feminism should be, Hooks writes:
Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives. Most importantly, feminism is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into.
Of the book's twelve chapters, I found chapters Four, "Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women," and Six, "Changing Perspectives on Power," to be especially noteworthy. Not since Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives by Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis have I read such an affirming and poignant account of the barriers between black and white women. Major obstacles to women's political solidarity include a general distrust of women among women; exclusionary social bonding among women along racial and class lines; the use of the notion of women's "common oppression" as a strategy for avoiding the reality of women's varied experiences; the perpetuation of negative social stereotypes about women who are non-white and/or economically disadvantaged; internalized oppression among poor women and women of color; and intolerance for women's right to make choices about their own sexuality.
Hooks admonishes those of us who flaunt the banner of sisterhood and solidarity but practice something else:
The bourgeois woman who takes a less privileged "sister" to lunch or dinner at a fancy restaurant may be acknowledging class but she is not repudiating class privilege—she is exercising it. Wearing second hand clothing and living in low-cost housing in a poor neighborhood while buying stock is not a gesture of solidarity with those who are deprived or under-privileged.
She also explains why black women and other women of color remain alienated from the feminist movement. The reasons include a general unfamiliarity with the language and traditions of feminism, the media misrepresentation of feminists, the portrayal of all men as enemies and attacks on motherhood and family by some feminists, as well as recognition of white women's racism.
Hooks accurately points out that the elimination of the barriers among women of color, poor women and white women will be particularly difficult in light of the fact that consciousness-raising groups, once a forum for addressing such issues, are no longer popular or commonplace. Because few strategies for bridging the schisms among women exist, building solidarity is perhaps the greatest challenge facing modern-day feminism.
In Chapter Six, she calls for a redefinition of the concept of power. No longer can feminist theorists and activists accept and use patterns of human interaction characterized by control, manipulation and domination. Despite the obvious distinctions between decision-making processes which are consensual/collectivist as opposed to authoritarian/bureaucratic, many feminists find it difficult to break with traditional patterns of dominance. As an example of the way these practices undermine feminist efforts, Hooks excerpts a letter by Theresa Funiciello published in the July 1983 issue of In These Times:
Prior to a conference some time ago on the Urban Woman sponsored by the New York City chapter of NOW, I received a phone call from a NOW representative (whose name I have forgotten) asking for a welfare speaker with special qualifications. I was asked that she not be white—she might be "too articulate—(i.e. not me), that she not be black, she might be too angry. Perhaps she could be Puerto Rican? She should not say anything political or analytical but confine herself to the subject of what the women's movement has done for me."
Funiciello's account is not unlike the numerous conversations I have had with people soliciting advice about women of color who might speak on women's issues. I am often asked (in not so subtle ways) to suggest women who are articulate and congenial (the implications being that women of color—including those who are academics—have difficult personalities and poor interpersonal skills). I am especially annoyed by the carefully phrased requests to speak on black women's issues, which suggest that neither I nor any woman of color is capable of speaking about women's issues generally and that black women's experiences are outside of, marginal to, women's issues proper.
It is unfortunate that authoritarian practices as well as race and class biases continue to shape the development of feminist theory and praxis. Many of my feminist colleagues are unable to see that the exclusion of perspectives from poor women and women of color makes women's studies, feminist theory and feminist praxis less whole and therefore invalid. This means that those of us who have any measure of race and class privilege must resist the old ways of behaving and relating; we must redefine power. Though consensual/collectivistic practices are time-consuming (and difficult for some of us), the result will be a broadening of the feminist constituency base and development of inclusive theory.
Though I found Feminist Theory to be challenging and affirming, it was not an "easy read." In fact, it was unsettling: Hooks raises questions that most of us would prefer to avoid. Some readers will take issue with the chapters on men as comrades, female sexual oppression, and the feminist movement to end violence, as Hooks takes positions contrary, on the whole, to the popular feminist viewpoint. Others may be irritated by her phraseology; there is a Marxist flavor. Some readers may even react defensively to some arguments, as I did sometimes. However, we must keep in mind the author'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.
The book could have been strengthened by extended discussion of strategies for activists. Translating theory into action is a difficult task—even for the well-educated. For this reason, more discussion of how feminist education for men and women might be designed and how barriers between women of color might be eliminated, for example, would have been useful.
But in spite of these shortcomings, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center is an important book. It is a readable, comprehensive, analytical critique of American feminist theory which should be widely used in women's studies courses and read by both scholars and activists. We should all be encouraged by the author's vision of a theory and praxis, wherein
Women do not need to eradicate difference to feel solidarity. We do not need to share common oppression to fight equally to end oppression. We do not need anti-male sentiments to bond us together…. We can be … united by shared interests and beliefs, united in our appreciation for diversity, united in our struggle to end sexist oppression, united in political solidarity.
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 in a systematic critique of feminist theory accounts only for a portion of Hooks's text. Equally important are her ideas for altering the current direction of feminist theory so that it reflects and includes the lives of masses of nonwhite, poor, and working-class women.
A number of strengths are apparent in the text. Hooks's methodical and straightforward exposure and analysis of basic but ignored problems—capitalism, patriarchy, classism, racism, sexism—in the formulation of feminist theory is commendable. Her explanations of how these systems interact with each other and her discussion of their effects on the formulators of feminist theory are cogent, forceful, and objective. The prose conveys her impassioned convictions. Additionally, the text does not deviate from the thesis explicit in the title: the need to bring women who have existed only marginally in the feminist movement into the center of it. Hooks's text, rather than being antimale, suggests that men should be a part of feminist efforts to end oppression since they, too, will become beneficiaries of the ultimate freedom.
Hooks's argument that the feminist movement, as originally conceived and executed, was for the benefit of middle-class white women is consistent with Paula Giddings's research as revealed in "The Woman's Movement and Black Discontent," in When and Where I Enter and in agreement with Black feminist Gloria Joseph's conclusions in "The Incompatible Menage À Trois: Marxism, Feminism and Racism" in Lydia Sargent, ed., Women and Revolution: The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. Hooks and Joseph also agree that the ideology of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism is inextricably connected to the sexual oppression of Black women.
In spite of Hooks's unorthodox way of listing references (she lists them by chapter and page number at the end of the text, and neither publication information nor the names of editors for anthology pieces is listed in the notes), her text is a useful one that brings a needed balance to the steady proliferation of books on feminist theory and the feminist movement.
"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 respects, coming to life. One of the strongest themes running through bell hooks's Talking Back, a collection of 25 essays, 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.
An equally strong theme in this work, and one that is closely related to the process of coming to voice, is "education as the practice of freedom" as Paolo Freire articulates it in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a work from which hooks quotes frequently. She argues persuasively that unless and until education at all levels becomes the practice of freedom, it remains yet another system of domination.
Talking Back covers a multitude of important topics. Suffice it to mention a few: the need to dismantle all systems of domination; the need for dialogue between black and white feminists; the need for theory written by black women; racism in academe; changing class as a consequence of education; white supremacy; and homophobia in black communities. Hooks engages virtually every issue of concern to individuals interested in profound and revolutionary change within society. Talking Back ought to be read.
Of particular interest to me, in the light of a current debate among writers in Toronto, was an essay entitled "feminist scholarship: ethical questions." In this essay hooks concerns herself with what she describes as the abdication of responsibility by white women "for responding [analytically and critically] to work by 'different others.'" Hooks considers this failure to respond to such work to be a retreat to a passive position, and states that she would like to hear what white women have to say as white women.
Such a position would allow white women scholars to share their ideas about black women's writing (or any group of women's writing) without assuming that their thoughts would be seen as "definitive" or that they would be trying to be "the authority."
While I agree with hooks's position, I would add that white writers, academics, and scholars have always had the privilege of engaging with all aspects of any culture; this has certainly not been the case with their black counterparts. Often the only time a black writer has an opportunity to do reviews is on work by other black writers. While this is a welcome change from having only whites review work by blacks, this practice, of blacks writing only about blacks, could serve, as hooks points out, to shore up differences and even, in some instances, racism.
Hooks admits she had difficulty putting this work together: in her introductory essay she describes her problems in trying to bring together idea, theory, and personal experience in one essay or article. When they came together, she writes, that "was the moment when the abstract became concrete, tangible, something people could hold and carry away with them." She found that she could be open about "personal stuff" in her speeches but not in her writing; her struggle was to bring the personal into her writing, to achieve in writing what she did in orality. And herein lies the problem I have with this collection of essays: they often read like speeches, but without all that goes to enliven a talk. This impression is further borne out by the repetition of the same quotations in many of the essays. There is, however, no acknowledgement that these are speeches, beyond what hooks writes in the introduction:
Often I stopped myself from editing, from working to construct the politically correct feminist thinker with my words, so that I would just be there vulnerable, as I feel I am at times.
"Translation" from orality to the page has not, in my opinion, been completely successful in Talking Back. In talk we are "allowed" to be far more expansive and anecdotal than we can successfully be in writing. This, of course, raises the very issue hooks talks about in her introduction—that what is acceptable in one forum is inappropriate or unacceptable in another. While each essay yields some valuable nugget of information or some new idea, I found that individual essays often lacked a centre or appeared to change focus midway. The collection as a whole has a rambling quality, and while the overall usefulness of the work may not be lessened, the reader's enjoyment certainly is. The repetition of quotations, for instance, becomes somewhat irritating and encourages the reader to skip in a work that ought to be read closely.
Hooks's desire to marry form and content has been, to my mind, best fulfilled in "writing autobiography" and "to gloria, who is she: on using a pseudonym." Less rambling and more focused, these two essays deal less with theory and more with personal experience and ideas. Content and form are less at odds with each other than in many of the other pieces. If hooks intended us to think about how and why we accept information, and how important a part form or the manner of delivery plays in this process, she has, however, succeeded.
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 contemporary university."
Talking Back contains 25 essays on a variety of subjects—from Hooks' experience as a black female graduate student, to homophobia in black communities, to Spike Lee's exploitation of black female sexuality in She's Gotta Have It. Along the way Hooks reflects on violence in intimate relationships, militarism, men, scholarship, black women and feminism, and feminism as a transformational political practice.
One of the most interesting efforts in this assortment is Hooks' essay on the links between her black working-class background in small-town Kentucky, her experiences in a white college and graduate school (Stanford University), and her professional life as a teacher at Yale. Hooks' ability to think about her suffering in a way that leads to new insight gives profound meaning to her journey.
One of the jokes we used to have about the "got everything" white people is how they just tell all their business, just put their stuff right out there. One point of blackness then became—like how you keep your stuff to yourself, how private you could be about your business. That's been a place where I've been hurt by family, by black folks outside family, by friends who say, "Girl, you shouldn't even be talking about that!" And then it seemed all through graduate school, and when my first book was published, white folks were saying the same thing: "Do we want to hear what you are saying?"… It has been a political struggle for me to hold to the belief that there is much which we—black people—must speak about, much that is private that must be openly shared, if we are to heal our wounds (hurts caused by domination and exploitation and oppression), if we are to recover and realize ourselves.
As Hooks sees it, healing for black people (especially black women) involves an openness—but an openness related more to survival than to "the luxury of 'will I choose to share this or tell that?'" Openness is about how to be well. It is about truth telling that has to do with putting "… the broken bits and pieces of the heart back together again. It is about being whole—being wholehearted."
While she points to some limitations in feminism as far as black women are concerned, Hooks believes adamantly that gender analysis is one of the best tools black women have for assessing the forces of domination in their lives—both within and beyond the black community. In discussing blacks' reaction to Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple ("Black Women and Feminism"), Hooks is especially critical of folks who argued "that sexism in black communities has not promoted the abuse and subjugation of black women by black men." She advises black women that they "must separate feminism as a political agenda from white women or we will never be able to focus on the issue of sexism as it affects black communities."
Hooks is also critical of the tendency among some black women to use the term "womanist" as against "feminist." She reminds us that Alice Walker, who coined the word womanist, did not mean to "… deflect from feminist commitment." Rather, Walker defined a womanist as also a feminist. Hooks' reservation about womanist is that it is not connected with a tradition of "radical political commitment to struggle and change." Her final advice to black women: "… the most basic task confronting black feminists (irrespective of the terms we use to identify ourselves) is to educate one another and black people about sexism, about the ways resisting sexism can empower black women, a process which makes sharing feminist vision more difficult."
Talking Back (like Hooks' two earlier works, Ain't I a Woman and [Feminist Theory:] From Margin to Center) is an effort to resist the forces that have historically dominated black women's lives. Feminist insights inform her method; she uses them to show her intended audience (apparently women—especially black women) instances of the domination of black women in North America. At the same time she insists that feminists cannot separate racism and sexism. She criticizes the tendency among some black women to identify racism as the major force oppressing them while ignoring or subordinating sexism; and she also faults white feminists for subordinating racism in their analysis of sexism.
Hooks' essay on "Keeping Close to Home" is especially meaningful to many black women who have, like Hooks, journeyed from black southern working-class roots through graduate school into teaching positions. Here Hooks shows clearly the tensions and anxieties that emerge for both black parents and their college-bound woman-child. The parents fear "… what college education might do to their children's minds even as they [parents] unenthusiastically acknowledge its importance." Alluding to her own experience, she says: "They [her parents] did not understand why I could not attend a college nearby, an all-black college. To them, any college would do. I would graduate, become a school teacher, make a decent living and a good marriage."
Even greater tensions and anxieties emerged as she tried to make sense of her working-class values in an upper-class white environment:
I was profoundly shocked and disturbed when peers would talk about their parents without respect or would say … they hated their parents. This was especially troubling to me when it seemed that these parents were caring and concerned. To my white, middle-class California roommate, I explained the way we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care. She would always shake her head, laughing all the while and say, "Missy, you will learn it's different here, that we think differently."
By the time Hooks landed her position at Yale, she saw the class hiatus between professional blacks and black workers. "When I first came to Yale," she says, "I was truly surprised by the marked class divisions between black folks—students and professors—who identify with Yale and those black folks who work at Yale or in surrounding communities." "I soon learned that the black folks who spoke on the street were likely to be part of the black community and those who carefully shifted their glance were likely to be associated with Yale." In order for educated black people to deal with this class division. Hooks advises, they must fully understand and appreciate the "richness, beauty, and primacy of [their] familial and community backgrounds." She defines education as "the practice of freedom" to suggest that the function of education is not to fragment or separate. Rather, education as the practice of freedom "… brings us closer, expanding our definitions of home and community."
Talking Back combines personal experience with theory and analysis to demonstrate that feminist insights are indeed useful for assessing black women's predicament in North America. Obviously Hooks' goal is to foster the kind of transformation that leads to new models for thought, action, and relationship. I can only hope that women take her efforts seriously.
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" model to a myriad of relationships and situations, many of which engage some of today's most dynamic issues. In the essay "Postmodern Blackness" she looks at what it means to be black and interested in elitist, usually white-male-dominated postmodern theory. In "Counter-Hegemonic Art: Do the Right Thing" she writes about Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing in terms of what it doesn't do to relieve oppression. In "A Call for Militant Resistance" she fearlessly connects the words of Lorraine Hansberry with Euzhan Palcy's film A Dry White Season, in recognition of the much maligned power of militancy.
A self-avowed African American feminist, hooks tackles many of the "detrimental to the community" pitfalls often found in relationships among black women, between black women and Euro-American women, and between black women and men. Her insights into perceived power relations and nonproductive assumptions are uncanny and enlightening.
Many of these problems are addressed in essays about black cultural reclamation, as in the especially powerful piece, "Homeplace." Here, hooks remembers the homes of her own black community as safe places of humanization, created by women as acts of resistance against the brutality that raged outside. She identifies the homeplace as a traditional site of resistance, and reveals how the current patriarchal order has corrupted this space. Not only has violence against women made the home physically unsafe, but also, hooks argues, we live in a society that fails to recognize—and value—the political work that women have put into the creation of the homeplace.
While there is something here for everyone, some may feel the book is a bit academic, somehow inaccessible to those not versed in "the academic discourse." Others may find fault with just the opposite, the personal, not-strictly-academic tone. This ambiguity of style that blends prose with literary theory, and popular culture with deconstruction, embodies the message: interdisciplinary, intercultural, international discussion. In demystified terms, please.
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. It is about knowing how to read the nihilist, sexist attitudes that permeate our community, from Ice Cube and the new radical chic to Harvard seniors and "third world diva girls." It is about using that reading, that piece of cultural criticism, to forge a sustainable community. This equalized community unites peoples from all fronts, and is a space for inclusive and progressive politics rather than exclusive and reactionary ones.
This is not, I repeat, not a community in which the critics bond in the process of criticizing the Other. hooks calls for a space in which criticism is understood as a necessary act of love and respect, and a base upon which revolutionary struggle can be built.
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 she, as Gloria Watkins, interviews herself, as bell hooks, she asks herself why she makes this split in her identity: "Funny to say 'split in two'—when for me these are two parts of a whole self that is composed of many parts." In the second interview, she speaks of her desire "to write in multiple voices, and not to privilege one voice over another."
She speaks/writes in this text with many different voices, acutely aware also of the different groups among her listeners/readers. Let me write briefly about the position from which I read and respond, about my own voice as reviewer. I am a white woman, a scholar and feminist, raised in a small midwestern city. Yearning is peppered with excellent warnings to readers like me. For example, hooks notes
how often contemporary white scholars writing about black people assume positions of familiarity, as though their work were not coming into being in a cultural context of white supremacy, as though it were in no way shaped and informed by that context.
Earlier, she observes that "even the most progressive" sometimes assume that "the first people we must always be addressing are privileged white readers."
Reading this text, I find it impossible to assume that I am being addressed as a "first" reader. Her "we" rarely includes me; usually, "we" means black women or black women and men or black radical women and men, occasionally radical people of many colors, including white—never black and white women. On the other hand, I read without any sense of intruding or eavesdropping; such is hooks's skill that I feel invited to read along—welcomed openly, even warmly—but always as a second reader.
In one of the pieces on aesthetics, hooks writes of her grandmother's practice of quilting and especially of the everyday quilts, crazy quilts pieced together out of worn-out clothing and other scraps:
Together we would examine this work and she would tell me about the particulars, about what my mother and her sisters were doing when they wore a particular dress…. To her mind these quilts were maps charting the course of our lives. They were history as life lived.
Her grandmother, Sarah Hooks Oldham, learned quilting from her own mother, Bell Blair Hooks, to calm her "renegade nature"; bell hooks, resolved upon the naming of these women's names, writes about quilting as a ritual, even meditative, practice of surrender, of coming back to oneself, of making space for stillness. The quilts themselves were both beautiful and warm, combining style and utility, aesthetics and practicality.
Yearning itself is a collection of twenty-three short pieces, commenting on popular films and current literature, discussing tensions between black academics, developing new black aesthetics, and critically reshaping resistance to racism. Critical discussions of relations between black women and men form one of the recurring patterns, punctuated by critique of white academic—especially white feminist—misappropriation of black people's work. She engages with insight and freshness in postmodern discourses on the nature of subjectivity, on identity politics and essentialism, on the nature and value of marginal spaces.
Like her grandmother's quilts, Yearning is made up of separate scraps, each piece a site of yearning, each potentially a site of resistance. hooks writes of the book's multiplicity that "there are so many different locations in this book, such journeying." Through this journeying among sites of yearning, she stitches together a diverse batch of short pieces to create a harmonious whole that is at once aesthetic, political, and spiritual. I look briefly at the piece with which she opens the book, then examine a pattern of opposition emerging from a sequence of four essays found near the end, and finally, give a reading of one of the many pervasive patterns that give harmony to the whole work—hooks's developing conception of postmodern black subjectivities.
hooks opens by discussing Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) as a counterhegemonic production, in which Mama pits the survival value of blacks' "oppositional ways of thinking" against Walter Lee's assimilationist desire to buy a liquor store; Hansberry prophetically suggests the linkage of "consumer capitalism with the production of a world of addiction." hooks argues that A Raisin in the Sun interrogates the desire in black communities for white-controlled commodities.
The recent film version, on the other hand, portrays Walter Lee as an "isolated black male terrorist," an image commodified to fit "with popular racist stereotypes of black masculinity." This image no longer allows an interrogation of longings for material commodities; it is itself a commodity. hooks's analysis turns on this displacement; commodification is not interrogated, but enacted.
How does this displacement alter Mama's message? hooks does not discuss it, but it seems to me that, stripped of its oppositional, anti-assimilationist character by the displacement of Walter Lee, her message becomes "reassuring" to the dominant white audience for which it was packaged. It becomes a conservative warning that blacks must stay in their own place, a warning that hooks analyzes elsewhere as conforming too neatly to—quoting Mark Miller—whites' "lunatic fantasies of containment."
Against the desire to evaluate representations of blacks simplistically in terms of good versus bad images, hooks repeatedly pits a cool, balanced, and complex vision. She evokes the active, critical, "oppositional" viewing of films and television as recalled from her childhood; she evokes also the politics of representation, "crucial for colonized groups globally in the struggle for self-determination" but as yet underdeveloped here.
This complex vision, this oppositional gaze, is nowhere more apparent than in the pattern made by the stitching together of four consecutive pieces about films. The outer pair of "movie reviews" places this gaze within a context of erotic desire, but the inner pair, which I discuss here, forms the lips of her desire for a voice linking aesthetics and politics. At the center of this pattern, she juxtaposes her discussion of Spike Lee's popular Do the Right Thing, marketed and commodified as radical, to that of Euzan Palcy's antiapartheid film A Dry White Season, often criticized for focusing on the radicalization of whites.
While recognizing Lee's courageous attempt to critique racism and his own sensitivity to class and gender as well as race issues, hooks provides a scathing indictment of Do The Right Thing:
Privileged elite white folks can be reassured that they are not "racist" since they do not espouse the crude racism expressed by Sal and his sons…. Bourgeois black folks can … be reassured that they have made it…. Underclass urban black people … may feel momentarily empowered … [blotting] out the way that experience is appropriated and used.
The stereotypic characters and the separatism (containment?) "assuages" white audiences' fears. White viewers identify with Mookie, an individualist making free, rational, considered responses, even throwing the garbage can, a gesture provoking violence. For black viewers too "this gesture sets him apart from the other black folks in the neighborhood," who are portrayed as powerless and lacking agency. Mookie's individualism conveys a simplistic notion of "freedom" based on individualistic concerns, a concept hooks analyzes in an earlier piece as feeding a "new racism" against black solidarity.
In contrast, hooks finds a complex portrayal of a spirit of militancy in A Dry White Season. It offers a "complex representation of 'whiteness,'" from the white father and son who become radicalized to the "privileged phallocentric white women," whose representations "do not allow the viewer to overlook race and class and see these characters as 'just women.'"
The calm, black militant—Stanley—is "the rational revolutionary strategist"; yet in contrast to the individualistic Mookie, he needs "collective support." Yet the blacks in this film have different understandings of their common plight: "Palcy shows radical critical consciousness to be a learned standpoint emerging from awareness of the nature of power and domination that is confirmed experientially." hooks poignantly describes a scene that "may have had little impact on viewers in this society who pay no attention to the affairs of little black girls"; a child faces the police who just shot her sister, "saying 'You killed my sister, kill me too!'" Crucial to this account is the girl's courage, her seeing, her remembering, her speaking. hooks's account of this film is juxtaposed to that of Do The Right Thing precisely in order to contrast their counterhegemonic power of representation, the power (expressed here but so lacking in the other film) to represent the spirit of militant resistance.
Let us turn to one of the many pervasive patterns that reach across the whole expanse of Yearning, stitching the diverse pieces into a harmonious whole. I refer here to the pattern of hooks's engagement with postmodern discourses, through which she envisions postmodern black subjectivities as standpoints, sources of insight, strategies, constructed grounds of struggle. She hopes that such a radical postmodernism may help other groups also to foster empathy, solidarity, and coalition.
But do such concepts—"radical," "struggle," "subjectivity," "solidarity"—belong in the postmodern lexicon? hooks plays with this tension, in various guises, gazes, sights, and sites, throughout this text. Here I will convey the harmony of this quilted pattern, interpreted through my own gaze, keeping wary for the dangers of any overly facile familiarity.
To establish a motif through which to display these patterned tensions, I re-ask a question hooks has asked herself:
GW…. I'm dying to know if you think that Yearning, despite its critique of postmodernism, is a postmodern work?
… To some extent the book could be seen as postmodern in that the very polyphonic vocality we are talking about emerges from a postmodern social context.
Not only does she place herself in that social context, but she also engages in the critiques of essentialism that have become standard postmodern fare. Three such critiques that I find particularly fascinating are her analyses of black aesthetics, black power movements, and patriarchal black social structures.
She recognizes that the Black Arts Movement "provided useful critique based on radical questioning of the place and meaning of aesthetics for black artistic production." Yet she criticizes its essentialism, which led it eventually to subordinate art to politics:
[It] was fundamentally essentialist. Characterized by an inversion of the "us" and "them" dichotomy, it inverted conventional ways of thinking about otherness…. Ironically, even though the Black Arts Movement insisted that it represented a break from white western traditions much of its philosophical underpinnings re-inscribed prevailing notions about the relationship between art and mass culture.
Specifically, this movement assumed that an art for the masses must not be "complex, abstract, or diverse"; its paradigms became "restrictive and disempowering," throwing "many Afro-American artists … into a retrogressive posture where they suggested there were no links between art and politics."
She frames this discourse in ways familiar to her readers but not common in the white postmodern academy. She tells stories about her grandmother's house and her practice of quilting. She calls neither for a dismantling of the Black Arts Movement—in many ways that has already been done—nor for an anti-aesthetic. She calls for a new "aesthetic of blackness—strange and oppositional."
Using a similar pattern, hooks discusses the black power movement of the sixties, acknowledging its accomplishments while noting how it "conformed to a modernist universalizing agenda." In particular, she critiques again and again the narrow politics of identity that would deny black diversity. Yet she never wholly repudiates the politics of identity, nor does she concur with the postmodern criticism of subjectivity that often follows such critiques. She wishes not to discard subjectivity but to multiply black subjectivities in a way that still somehow encourages unification. In this pattern, she frames her discussions with narratives—stories that she characterizes as nostalgic and even sentimental—about her segregated Southern upbringing, about the sense of black community from a circumscribed past to which she cannot and should not return.
Using a slightly altered pattern, hooks criticizes contemporary black cultures for misogyny, for essentialist acceptance of a patriarchy modeled on white America:
Let's talk about why we see the struggle to assert agency—that is, the ability to act in one's best interest—as a male thing…. Since the culture we live in continues to equate blackness with maleness, black awareness of the extent to which our survival depends on mutual partnership between women and men is undermined.
Yet the patriarchal model that harms both black women and men is supported not only by white racist mythologies but also by the very terms in which blacks have envisioned liberation.
This piece of the pattern also belongs to hooks's criticisms of white feminist racism. Many white feminists have held that male commitment to patriarchy erases racial difference. hooks carefully agrees that "oppressed black men and their white male oppressors … shared the patriarchal belief that revolutionary struggle was really about the erect phallus." Yet she argues repeatedly against the simplistic thinking that blinds many of us and insists on interrogating these interlocking systems of domination and on resisting "either/or ways of thinking that are the philosophical underpinning of systems of domination."
She gives a lucid and poignant analysis of the origins and historical permutations of the "overlapping discourses" of race and sex. "That discourse began in slavery…. Then, black women's bodies were the discursive terrain … rape was a gesture of symbolic castration." Yet that story "was long ago supplanted" by the myth, "invented by white men," of the black male rapist.
Much of the history of race in this country has been played out in the tension between these narratives:
The discourse of black resistance has almost always equated freedom with manhood, the economic and material domination of black men with castration, emasculation.
These discourses are hinged together on the pivot point of women's bodies. When black revolutionaries brag of rape, seeking to appropriate patriarchal power, they reinscribe the racist myth. In a less horrific but no less bitter example, when black men see themselves solely as victims they recognize neither their accomplishments nor their sexist dominance; both failures of vision harm them.
It happened that I was reading Yearning as the media-shaped confrontations between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were broadcast, hooks's discussions of these issues offered keys for reading these proceedings. (Note her references to prior political exploitations of race and sex.) Let me briefly explore some interlocking insights, questions, wonderings shaped by my reading of Yearning.
Reading hooks's analyses of the "either/or ways of thinking," I began to understand why media reactions focused on questions of either race or sex, rarely both. Newscasters lacked a language for discussing interlocking systems of domination, which they usually analyze "so well" separately; how could a "victim" be a "harasser?" They fell back on a more retrogressive, more simplistic pattern, asking the essentialist question of which story was "the whole truth."
I wondered about the impact of these televised images: articulate, suave, upper-middleclass, educated, conservative, and black. I wondered especially about their impact on young black viewers. Surely, here were exemplars of multiplicity within black subjectivity; here were blacks on TV who did not mirror the usual televised stereotypes. On the other hand, the very sharpness of the contrast might throw the impact back to dangerous, simplistic questions of good and bad images.
I tried to interpret Thomas's claim that Hill was evoking stereotypes about black male sexuality. Whatever the "truth" of this accusation, I found it fascinating for many reasons: it contrasted starkly with the nonstereotypic images of Thomas and Hill themselves; Thomas's own political ideology would seem to deny that such stereotypes ever hinder a black man from receiving employment; many Senators evinced such naive outrage, purporting never to have heard of such stereotypes.
hooks's interpretation of the overlapping discourses of race and sex made sense of Thomas's claim. He employed a slight shift of strategy: from representing himself as a victim who is not quite sure what all the fuss is about, a strategic blindness to sexism, to representing himself as a victim who is able to explain the fuss in terms of racism alone. Evoking racism reinforces the blindness to sexism.
I wondered too about the intersection of race and sex for Hill. Did the fact that both are black diminish or erase race as a factor? hooks's criticisms of such assumptions among white feminists point toward a different understanding. Both the context of the hearings and the "stereotype" accusation kept Thomas's blackness at the forefront. How did Hill's blackness shape the hearings?
Her accusation evoked in many a sense of betrayal. Some felt that, quite separate from the question of "truth," she shouldn't have told. If liberation is "the right to participate fully within patriarchy," then "black women who are not willing to assist black men in their efforts to become patriarchs are 'the enemy'" and "black women who succeed are taking something away from black men." Could these myths have exacerbated reactions to Hill's accusations into the claims that she must be a crass publicity hound, an insanely jealous scorned woman, or a pathological liar? Yearning reveals insight but also warns me when to stand back from assuming that I know what's at stake.
Let me return to examining one of the pervasive patterns shaping Yearning, hooks's engagement with postmodernism. I've shown how her criticisms of black modernist essentialisms—aesthetic, political, sexual—are never offered in isolation from stories of her childhood or from visionary, sometimes utopian, descriptions of new, nonessentialist black aesthetics and communities.
Her critique of the racism of white feminists has already figured in this pattern. Postmodern academic discourses have exacerbated the erasure of women of color: "White feminists could now centralize themselves by engaging in a discourse on race, 'the Other,' in a manner which further marginalized women of color." Furthermore, why do white feminists willing to overlook racism or sexism in "important" writers such as Derrida or Said, cite misogynism when they refuse to read, for example, Ismael Reed?
hooks also discusses racism "in interactions between powerful Third World elites and black Americans in predominantly white settings," in which, for example, they act as interpreters between black and white Americans:
The current popularity of post-colonial discourse that implicates solely the West often obscures the colonizing relationship of the East in relation to Africa and other parts of the Third World.
I am ashamed of the relief with which I fell upon these passages, reassured not to be the sole oppressor—let somebody else take the heat. Yet hooks teaches her readers to mistrust reassurance as reinscribing paradigms of oppression.
She criticizes any "solidly institutionalized and commodified" cultural studies, divorced from radical political strategies; postmodern buzz words like difference and the Other "are taking the place of commonly known words deemed uncool or too simplistic, words like oppression, exploitation…." What anti-essentialist, deconstructive, postmodern slippage is achieved here? None. This language serves to divorce talk of race from recognition of racism, masking the absence of Afro-American voices and allowing the reinscription of racist paradigms.
Insofar as she is addressing white readers, hooks must use a "counter-tongue" to the exclusionary voices discussing multiplicity, which erase the concern with racism when talking of race, which employ a deconstructive rhetoric, but reinscribe essentialist paradigms, old hierarchies. Those of us who have sometimes spoken with that voice are only second readers here; she is waiting for us to stop talking. She asks herself: "Dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?"
What reinscribing essentialism grips her first readers? It is not black modernism; she finds white appropriation far more frustrating. Indeed, the modernist "elements were soon rendered irrelevant as militant protest was stifled by a powerful, repressive, postmodern state." What, then, is the pervasive essentialism confronting her first readers? Hopelessness plays out everywhere: in drug and alcohol addiction; in violent crime; in erotic longings inexorably tied to despair; in feelings of apathy, indifference, and powerlessness, coming from "the real concrete circumstances of exploitation" that feel inevitable in the televised light of colonizing values; in feelings of nostalgia for inaccessible modes of experience. Privileged blacks no longer feel connected, accountable to poor and underclass blacks but are subject to a "compulsive consumerism," what West called "commodified stimulation."
"Nihilism is everywhere." Against the deadening weight of this negative essentialism, this metaphysics of absence, this reification of despair, hooks envisions a postmodern blackness, a pluralistic, historicized solidarity, epitomized by the powerful space of her aesthetics, her sense of black identity, her thoughts about community, margin, home.
The aesthetic hooks envisions and practices develops aspects of her grandmother's way of seeing: "Aesthetics is a way of inhabiting space … of looking and becoming … of a sense of history." Linked to this sense of history is the conception of art as bearing witness, as intrinsically political; her aesthetic "explores and celebrates the connection between our capacity to engage in critical resistance and our ability to experience pleasure and beauty."
This aesthetic-erotic-political space is a place of testimony, of sounds and silences: "Language is also a place of struggle." She recognizes identity politics as one stage in a process of liberation, and she uses the postmodern critique of essential identity to call forth a multiplicity of black voices:
This critique should not be made synonymous with a dismissal of the struggle of oppressed and exploited peoples to make ourselves subjects. Nor should it deny that in certain circumstances this experience affords us a privileged critical location from which to speak.
As shown in her discussion of A Dry White Season, this standpoint emerges from specific historical experiences, informed by collective struggle, historically and culturally bound.
So, her space is also a place of community. Crucial to the development of such communities is a radical reworking of relationships between diverse groups of blacks, in particular between black women and men. She envisions a spiritual sense of community moved by love and joy of struggle yet unifying diverse and polyphonic voices.
She identifies this space as the margin, a place of both deprivation and resistance. From this space, she transforms the meaning of memory, calling for
a politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia, that longing for something to be as once it was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.
She transforms the meaning of "home" to name this space as a site that makes possible new ways of seeing. The language with which she writes is quasi-religious, inspirational, perhaps madly utopian. But when set against the gravity of pervasive, essentialist nihilism, it is strangely moving.
Just as her grandmother spoke to her of the spiritual work of quilting, hooks writes to us of her work:
I choose familiar politicized language, old codes … no longer popular or "cool"—hold onto them and the political legacies they evoke and affirm, even as I work to change what they say, to give them renewed and different meaning.
From the remnants of modernist political theories and from "that lived-in segregated world of my past and present," hooks stitches together the old words she takes up like scraps for a crazy quilt, transforming this quilted space, this complex landscape, this site of erotic, spiritual, political, aesthetic yearning.
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 reputation as an interrogator of postmodernism and cinema, and last year's Breaking Bread, a compilation of spirited dialogues with Cornel West. Publishers Weekly called hooks "one of the foremost black intellectuals in America today." She even made a recent roundup of "who's hot" in Essence magazine, sharing company with Wesley Snipes, George Wolfe, and Ice Cube. Media junkies, academics, diversity mavens, and 9-to-5 sisters looking for womanist affirmation—hooks groupies are a varied bunch.
Black Looks is cultural criticism at its sexiest for the essay titles alone. "Eating the Other" picks the bone of mass media's appetite for racial difference. The long-awaited manifesto on Madonna comes with the subtitle "Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?" An exploration of black female sexuality in the marketplace of images is packaged as "Selling Hot Pussy."
The new collection further installs hooks as an important American film critic. "Ivory-tower film criticism," she says, is not her design; she's after your white supremacist, patriarchal jugular, and is not stopping to observe any parlor games of this trade. There's no such pretense as entertainment in the hooks camp; film is just fodder for a larger ideological work horse. So, bring your 3-D glasses, and be warned: if you don't have those critical lenses on, you're likely to become what you consume.
[Jones]: In"Eating the Other,"the anchor essay of Black Looks, you argue that fashionable tropes of cultural difference in popular culture do little to challenge racism. But still you see hope.
[hooks]: I hold on to the idea of pleasure as a site of resistance. Not just pleasure (in exploring cultural difference) as an end in itself, but that pleasure might be the beginning of something else: of real subversion.
In writing the essay, I was trying to break through a sense of despair about it all. We just have so much commodification of blackness right now. Take a film like White Men Can't Jump. To me it's the quintessential expression of commodification that doesn't seek to change things, but to reestablish black people as territory for white people to invade. I saw an old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die, about a lone white man who defeats black people in every country in the world. I thought White Men Can't Jump was the 1990s version of that. Look what it did with Rosie Perez's character. What a plantation sexual relationship between Rosie's character and the white leading man! It was as if she was confined to this shack and the white man visited her.
There's a suggestion that white supremacist imperialism is more elastic these days, that it can actually open up to multiculturalism. But in many ways that's a power move. There's a little change, enough to appear like a progression, but not enough to institutionalize systems of liberatory racial and sexual justice.
I continue to be fascinated, though, and I feel that the jury is still out about whether these types of images can lead to changes in how people think about race. Many of the consumers of black commodification are young people. I'm acquainted with little white boys whose model for selfhood and identity is black masculinity in popular culture. Does this mean that there will be a new generation of white men who will respect the dignity and lives of black males? Or will they be positioned to become Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon—a generation of white folks who aren't afraid of black folks, and who can use them more effectively to serve their ends?
Why is film so crucial to representations of race right now?
When we talk about the commodification of blackness, we aren't just talking about how white people consume these images, but how black people and other people of color consume them, and how these images become our way of knowing ourselves. Black kids aren't going to see a film like White Men Can't Jump and consume it passively. They're also learning their ideas about how to be black.
A recent film that absolutely bugs me in its use of black people is Fried Green Tomatoes. Films that try to transgress one boundary often pacify us by reinforcing other status quos. I feel this about Spike Lee's movies. In Fried Green Tomatoes, we may be transgressing a boundary about how lesbianism is pictured, but the images of black people in that film fit every sort of stereotype. It was sad to see Cicely Tyson, a distinguished actor, assigned once again to the role of darkie on the plantation; the film was simply a modern plantation story with a white-lesbian twist.
You argue that black female spectators often experience the pleasure of cinema through denial, given the scarcity and one-dimensionality of representations of black women. How did you emerge as a critic through this wasteland of images?
Growing up in the Jim Crow period, one was always positioned as a critic, because without a critique of what you saw, you had no possibility of a redeeming image. No matter how educated black folks were, there was this recognition that one had to have some kind of critical gaze.
Watching TV shows like Amos 'n' Andy, my older siblings and I were very conscious of how representations of black people were being manipulated. My youngest sister, who grew up in the age of integration, is less able to accept that there are manipulative forces behind what she sees. It occurred to me how black people at this point in history are more deeply American than ever before. We're much more collectively taken in. That's why, to some extent, integration was necessary for the continuation of white supremacy.
So, in a sense, representations of black people work to pacify us?
Absolutely. I ask myself, what does it mean that 20 years ago black people could not have imagined sitting in movie theaters and laughing at the kinds of degrading images of blackness that we see in the mass media today? And it's important to note that these representations aren't just made by white people. Many assume that if a film is made by a black person, the representations will automatically have integrity beyond anything a white person can produce. But what we're seeing is black people reproducing the prevailing "exploitative" images to create work that sells. And because these films are solely judged by their representation of narrow ideas of blackness, they can get away with having anything-goes standards of production.
Many of us are counting on black female filmmakers to provide more complex visions of African American life. But judging from your critique of contemporary fiction by black women and its failure to imagine new identities, should we have any reason to be hopeful?
It's disturbing me that practically every black woman I know, from every social class, from all walks of life, can talk about the stereotypes of black womanhood. But when I ask these same women to name what types of images they'd like to see, they can't answer that question. That's scary.
I had a sad feeling after reading Terry McMillan's new book, Waiting To Exhale, and Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy. Sometimes it seems we are offered only two messages around black female representation. One says: become the "expected" image, but work it, like the bitchified, take-no-prisoners black women we see in Waiting To Exhale. Or the other option is to be the tragic black women we see so much of in contemporary fiction. The prototype for this is Toni Morrison's character Sula, and Tashi in Possessing the Secret of Joy follows suit. How can we move away from casting ourselves as trapped in those two images—the tragic figure, or the tough, sexualized survivor? What disturbs me about the Walker book is that she has the resisting black woman character, who follows the same path as Sophia in The Color Purple. But once again, this resisting woman, who tries to define herself completely outside the realm of fixed roles, is punished. Part of what I want to turn my life into is a testimony to the fact that we don't have to be punished. That we don't have to sacrifice our lives when we invent and realize our complex selves.
As I approach 40, sometimes I ask myself, will I see in my lifetime diversified representations of black womanness?
Do you see these coming from any quarters?
Camille Billops's latest film, Finding Christa, has many provocative images. We meet, in the film, the woman who becomes Christa's adoptive mother. When I say there are subversive images, I felt this is one. This is a black woman—heavy-set, dark-skinned—who never enters Hollywood except as mammy, except as someone who is subjugated. Billops shot that image with the kind of beauty and power it's rarely shot with.
Some of the most arresting images of black women I've ever seen were gathered in the film Julie Dash did for PBS's Alive From Off-Center of the dance group Urban Bushwomen. These images are about black women struggling to find space to exercise creativity, and that's what made them so powerful for me.
In my bedroom I have that famous photograph that I mention in Black Looks of Billie Holiday taken by Monetta Sleet. It was given to me by the curator Deborah Willis, who does much of the work on black photographers. I am always thankful that there was significant visual documentation done of Holiday's generation of black artists and thinkers. It's been crucial to my generation to see pictures of those black artists and thinkers in their studies and their spaces. The posture Holiday has in that photo is like that of Rodin's The Thinker. Every morning when I wake up and see this picture, I feel an affirmation from her of the space that I have claimed in my life, as a black female, to be a contemplative person.
I believe much is going to come from the world of theory-making, as more black cultural critics enter the dialogue. As theory and criticism call for artists and audiences to shift their paradigms of how they see, we'll see the freeing up of possibilities. It's my hope. That's one of the reasons so much of my new work is focusing on looking relations—in a sense, on seeing. I think it's the main source of intervention right now.
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 and locate "Revolutionary Attitude."
The argument includes a feminist reconstruction of black masculinity, a discussion of "hot pussy" in the marketplace, and a conjuring of the renegade alliance between blacks and Native Americans. In "A Feminist Challenge" (subtitle: "Must We Call Every Woman Sister?"), hooks asks not whether Anita Hill is a black feminist hero—her answer is no—but what justice Hill expected from the Senate Judiciary Committee when she brought her naive albeit poised testimony to their table. Though Hill might have lost her case faster had she enlisted an explicit feminist agenda, hooks argues that she would have gained ground as a speaking, public person, and would have given the viewing audience—the black female and every other viewer—something more to sink our teeth into than despair. Madonna, "Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?," is hooks' other woman, in a surprisingly dry analysis after such a fabulous title. "Though I often admire and, yes at times, even envy Madonna because she has created a cultural space where she can invent and reinvent herself and receive public affirmation and material reward, I do not consider myself a Madonna fan." Too high to go over, too low to go under: must we all position ourselves in relation to la M?
Despite the interest of these analyses, it's the three essays on film that moor the book, and where hooks hits stride. "Is Paris Burning?," a very rough read of white consumption, presses the question of whether a film is de facto radical because its subject matter is. In "Micheaux's Films," hooks gingerly unfolds Oscar Micheaux's celebration of a complex image of blackness in his movies of the '20s. The tour de force is "The Oppositional Gaze," which locates black female spectatorship beyond the pain of the offensive black images that Hollywood is so good at, to include pleasure. In perhaps the most subversive maneuver of the book, hooks looks for pleasure in every situation—for recovery of a private, personal joy that a lot of living in America can take away.
When hooks writes as film critic, working within the relative safety zone of a subject contained by the screen, her arguments stand thorough and coherent. When actual black people enter the picture, things get irksome. There is a flavor of being Saved to the writing, a degree of: "If you don't see it this way then you are in denial." And in this jihad for the souls of black folks, denial is tantamount to conspiring with the enemy. Hooks portrays herself as a decolonized person in a position of righteousness … because she is decolonized. Fine, but for those who might still be in the loop of oppression, a leap of faith needs to happen. Hooks does not explain this leap.
Something of a tender tyrant is hooks, teaching the politics of self-liberation as bound by a rather rigid authorial presence that overwhelms equally as it withholds. In "Loving Blackness as Political Resistance," for example, she writes in the aphoristic style of the manifesto, which either speaks to those who already understand what it is to love blackness, becoming an exercise in flaunting, defiance, or else wants detail, more explanation. What it is we are talking about when we say "blackness"? Hooks utilizes the many slipping meanings of "black"—cultural/historical construct, true fact in the eyes of God, transcendent state of grace and pain—without owning the slippage.
To be sure, revolution doesn't come with a directive (Buy bread at Muslim bakery!) anymore. Compare Malcolm X's easily quoted call to love black, which hooks uses to introduce her essay on the subject, to hooks' own. One is a paragon of self-containment and practicability; the other poses more questions than answers. The purpose of comparison here is not to decide "worth" but rather to acknowledge history and, well, yes, difference. Recognizing our post-civil rights, post-Modern moment—the public oratory and soapbox gone—hooks calls for the revolution to begin at home, privately, with reflection and introspection, then clangs the phone down hard in your ear. Now, is that ringing noise the sound of a specious identity politics or a strategy to disrupt?
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 forward in two ways: through a discussion of the pain these representations can cause people of color seeking to create a sense of self, and through her stress on the need for progressive thinkers to intervene to combat the destructive consequences of that pain.
"If we, black people, have learned to cherish hateful images of ourselves," Bell Hooks asks, "then what process of looking allows us to counter the seduction of images that threatens to dehumanize and colonize?" Her answer: "Clearly, it is that way of seeing which makes possible an integrity of being that can subvert the power of the colonizing image. It is only as we collectively change the way we look at ourselves and the world that we can change how we are seen."
Engaging her readers in a discussion of the power of "looking," she argues that recognizing the influence of domination is the first step to change. Bell Hooks contends that sexism and racism overlie the way we see, and she holds up an oppositional gaze as a counter, declaring that one must look a certain way in order to resist. Deploying a range of selected contemporary images, Bell Hooks helps the readers do precisely that, with a critical, oppositional and interventionist gaze.
Her most striking illuminations come in her essays on the Clarence Thomas hearings, the documentary film Paris Is Burning, and Madonna. In her analysis of Judge Thomas's cry that he was being subjected to a "high-tech lynching," she forcefully asserts that Anita Hill needed a more developed strategy, one that went beyond "daring to name publicly that she had been sexually harassed" to explicitly challenging the system that made the Thomas choice inevitable. Her discussion of Paris Is Burning, a documentary about black and Hispanic cross-dressers, raises important questions about the way black life can be appropriated as spectacle and turned into a commodity. In her critique of Madonna, she extends this argument, contending that even as Madonna, mocks the idea of "'natural' white girl beauty," she strives to embody it. Seen through Ms. Hooks's oppositional eye, the black characters in the Madonna video "Like a Prayer" are no different from the early Hollywood images of singing black slaves in the plantation movies or the Shirley Temple films, where "Bojangles was trotted out to dance with Miss Shirley and spice up her act. Audiences were not supposed to be enamored of Bojangles, they were supposed to see just what a special little old white girl Shirley really was."
The 12 essays are uneven in their analytical complexity and originality of thought, but such nuggets overall provide insight into race, representation and dominance.
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 in the minority. So what ends up happening is our presence gets erased altogether. People forget that Shirley Chisholm was one of the first politicians in this country to really champion abortion rights in the interests of young black females and older black females who were suffering repeated, undesired pregnancies.
That history gets lost, because white women weren't interested in it and didn't call attention to it. When younger black women like myself came on the scene in the '70s and began to critique that racism of white women, many people took that critique to mean (we were critiquing) the absence of black women. But our absence is very different from erasure on the part of those who are ignorant.
What you're describing is, perhaps, the conflict that black women feel choosing between racism vs. sexism, and often being forced to make that choice if they're going to be called a feminist.
I think that you said it, that we're often forced by others. I think white women are really happy when black women abandon feminism and act like our needs are not the same as theirs, because then they get to really dominate. It's really clear that white women have been that group which has most benefited from affirmative action in this society. And bourgeois, mainstream, white-dominated feminism was very crucial to putting that into place. So, of course, that group loves it when black women say, "Oh, this has nothing to do with us."
And, I think, of course, black men and white men love it when black women say feminism has nothing to do with us. Because it continues this age-old competition between women for male favor.
I think that a lot of black women realize that black men often are very threatened by the term feminism, and threatened by some sense that we are uniting past race.
Have we ever heard any black men, intellectual, from W.E.B. Dubois on to Cornel West, have any of them been told, "You must choose between being black and being on the left? Are you a Marxist first or black?" We won't see those questions asked of contemporary black male intellectuals on the left.
Twenty years ago, when I first became involved with feminism, the question I was most asked was, "Are you black first or a woman?" Twenty years later, that's still the question I'm most asked, particularly by other black people.
And what is your response?
My response is that it's precisely that kind of dualistic split that is at the heart of racist, sexist thinking around domination, this either/or. The thing is, what most black women say is, "We do not have a choice; we are both black and women."
In taking what you're saying as a given, then how does a black woman who wants to tackle the politics of dominance fit herself into the traditional feminist movement?
First of all, I think we don't try to fit into the mainstream feminist movement, because that movement is narrow-minded in its vision for all women. I think that what we have done in such a grand and revolutional manner that's so threatening to mainstream white women is that we've said, "This movement isn't really useful for the masses of people." We need to re-vision it. We need to make it more inclusive. If you look at the work of contemporary black feminists—Audre Lorde, who's passed away—you see such a call for a more expansive feminist vision. We don't just call for expanding that vision for blacks, we call for expanding it because it's really not very helpful for masses of men and women.
I also think that you get powerful black women revolting, calling this out, establishing the terrain for ourselves, for black people, and for the public as a whole to say, "Wait a minute. We're not going to just walk away from feminism. We're going to challenge this. We're going to demand change, and we're going to be at the forefront of creating theory that revolutionizes our thinking. Black women's demands that white women cut through their denial and face the reality of racism created a revolution in feminist thinking.
I think that part of the myth of white bourgeois feminism was that there isn't any price to be paid. You can have it all. You can have your beautiful yuppie home, you can have your beautiful yuppie children, your beautiful cars, your house in the Hamptons, you can have everything.
But the fact is there are not the structures in place to allow black women who are moving from the underclass and the working class into whole new spheres of class power to "have everything" in a kind of neat, simplistic way. And I'm not saying that we can't have everything. I'm saying that the mechanisms by which we grow into having everything may be very, very different from those that white women who are from more privileged classes, because I think white women who are not privileged suffer the same kinds of things we're talking about in terms of black women.
Let me ask you a more personal question. Your given name is Gloria Watkins, and you now prefer to be called Bell Hooks. Who is Bell Hooks and why is she different from Gloria Watkins?
I chose that name to honor my grandmother, my mother's mother, because I wanted to say, black women come from generations of powerful women who had given us something.
For me, Bell Hooks is a constant reminder of the fact that, as a black woman, I am not alone. And I think that's important for us, because while I might be the only black woman distinguished professor, and I could sit around being paranoid about what my colleagues are thinking about me, it's so much better for me to sit around and be thinking about how proud Bell Hooks would be of me, that I have not compromised myself.
Shirley Chisholm is so important to me. Girlfriend wrote that book Unbought and Unbossed, and when I read it, I thought, God, I want to grow up to be like this black woman, who can look at the world and say, "I am unbought and unbossed." That is what Bell Hooks means to me; fundamentally, that constant reminder of our creativity, our choice, the fact that I can choose this name, that I can play with words, that I can be as funky as a I want to be. All of those things are a source of empowerment for me.
There is such a large rift, it seems, between black women and black men. I've always said there's been a women's movement and no men's movement. The question is how to move for there to be real healing, I think.
I feel like I want to do more books like The Sisters of the Yam. I can't tell you how many black men come up to me and say, "I loved Sisters of the Yam. Why don't we have something like this?" Partially, we won't have things like this for black men until more black men dare to challenge their sexism.
I think this is absolutely true, and I think it's on the horizon. And that's exciting.
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 education for "critical consciousness." Ms. Hooks attempts to put Mr. Freire's pedagogy of liberation, which holds that students should be active participants and not passive consumers, into practice in America's multicultural context. Situating "identity politics" based on race or sex, which has become so pervasive on American campuses, as emerging "out of the struggles of oppressed or exploited groups to have a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures," she nevertheless acknowledges that the militant assertion of group identities can itself become "a strategy for exclusion or domination." A genuine pedagogy of liberation, Ms. Hooks suggests, will honor the need of marginalized groups to assert positive identities while rigorously challenging their own myths about themselves and the sources of their oppression.
As in much of Ms. Hooks's work, the strength of Teaching to Transgress resides in the jarring character of its insights. She evokes a shock of recognition for me, for example, in reminiscing about her days as a Stanford undergraduate, when she attended classes taught by "white male professors who wore the same tweed jacket and rumpled shirt." The real message of such professors, she says, is that they are in the classroom "to be a mind and not a body." Only the powerful, she notes acidly, have "the privilege of denying their body."
Unfortunately, the collection is often marred by a disconcerting reliance on pop psychology. A truly liberatory education, Ms. Hooks insists, will do more than stimulate critical consciousness; it will also be an experience in which "healing" and "recovery" can replace the "pain" and "abuse" of childhood. By forcing the radical third-world pedagogy of Mr. Freire into a troubled and unlikely marriage with the quintessentially American language of self-help, Ms. Hooks ends up at times sounding more like Norman Vincent Peale than Nelson Mandela.
Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations ranges widely over the American cultural landscape, as Ms. Hooks looks at contemporary cinema, rap music, feminist thought and the racial politics of beauty. She brings to the task of cultural criticism an astute eye and a courageous spirit, and her judgments—as in her essays on the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the writings of Camille Paglia ("sensational sound bites that often appear radical and transgressive of the status quo") and Katie Roiphe ("Roiphe completely ignores the connection between maintaining patriarchy and condoning male violence against women")—are frequently discerning.
Perhaps the best essay here is a penetrating discussion of censorship. Drawing on her own experience, Ms. Hooks notes that censorship is not simply a matter of state repression (though her book Black Looks: Race and Representation was seized for a time by Canadian authorities as "hate literature"). Candidly describing her fears of publicly criticizing an essay on the Op-Ed page of this newspaper by the prominent black writer Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ms. Hooks acknowledges that repression can take the form of self-censorship, especially when what one wishes to say seems likely to elicit disapproval and even reprisals from one's peers. Particularly among members of marginalized groups, pressure to conform can be overwhelming because of the fear that dissent will undermine group solidarity. Yet in the end, Ms. Hooks argues, even oppositional movements must find space for their own dissenters and "the courage to fully embrace free speech."
Though often evocative, Bell Hooks's prose suffers from lapses into academic obscurantism. One passage in Outlaw Culture speaks of feminists who "experience our most intense sexual pleasure in the oppositional space outside the patriarchal phallic imaginary." Yet to dwell on excesses in Ms. Hooks's language would be to miss her considerable power as a writer. For hers is a voice that forces us to confront the political undercurrents of life in America.
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 Teaching to Transgress is that the teacher is also a student and the student is also a teacher. In "Embracing Change," hooks writes:
To teach effectively a diverse student body, I have to learn these [cultural] codes. And so do students. This act alone transforms the classroom…. Often professors and students have to learn to accept different ways of knowing, new epistemologies, in the multicultural setting.
One of the most striking aspects of Teaching to Transgress is the way it echoes the works of early Black women educators like Fanny Jackson Coppin, principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia from 1869 to 1906, who emphasizes in her 1913 Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching the importance of the reciprocity of respect between teacher and student. The personal anecdotes hooks interweaves with scholarly sources demonstrate the respect she has for both her students and colleagues. She offers a touching tribute to a student, O'Neal LaRone Clark, to whom the book is dedicated: "… we danced our way into the future as comrades and friends bound by all we had learned in class together."
For hooks, education is the practice of freedom—especially as crystallized in Paolo Freire's liberation pedagogy, which she also espouses. My own experience with the excitement of education mirrors hooks' engagement with Freire's work. I was educated in upstate New York schools that were overwhelmingly white; the facilities were quite good, but my self-esteem and independence of thought were established at home by my mother, grandmothers and aunts. The women in my family showed me how to use education to rise above the bigotry of my teachers: reading, writing and learning other languages became safe spaces where I expanded my mind.
In "Paulo Freire" hooks uses the dialogue form to convey the impact of his work on her. In recent years, she has increasingly constructed dialogues as a way to represent different voices and positions. In "Building a Teaching Community," she notes:
To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.
Hooks' first dialogue was with Cornel West in her 1991 book Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. What makes the dialogue in "Paulo Freire" different is that she holds it with herself as Gloria Watkins (her given name), and through it we find out as much about hooks/Watkins as we do about Freire. (We learn, for example, that Freire reinforces her deep convictions about the importance of social and political activism.) This dialogue also reveals how hooks copes with the male orientation and sexism of Freire's language in his early works: "There is no need to apologize for the sexism. Freire's own model of critical pedagogy invites a critical interrogation of this flaw in the work. But critical interrogation is not the same as dismissal."
Hooks, in everything she writes, strives to make her work accessible to a broad and diverse audience. This has meant rethinking academic format and eliminating obstacles to understanding, whether footnotes or jargon. She often draws on the whole range of human knowledge and doesn't concern herself with petty questions of scholarly appropriateness. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Nanh is quoted alongside Paulo Freire; articles from The Village Voice are given as much weight as those by feminist scholars Mimi Orner or Chandra Mohanty; and a collection of essays edited by Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, Conflicts in Feminism, shares the spotlight with The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman.
In "Theory as Liberatory Practice," hooks explains why she has adopted this format: "my decisions about writing style, about not using conventional academic formats are political decisions motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations." However, my reaction to this subversion of academic format is split. My inner rebel says "You go, girl!" At the same time my prim classicist self says "It would facilitate the location of articles and books cited if there were a bibliography. I mean, really, who is going to read this except academics?"
As much as I admire Teaching to Transgress—and I do plan to use it in a seminar on Black feminist thought and practice—I was annoyed by some of hooks' assumptions. I have always been sensitive about class. I am a middle-class Black from the North; my "Black" vernacular is the vernacular of central New York; yet I have known poverty, racism and sexism. As a radical in the sixties, I always resented the notion that only Southern, working-class Black folks are authentic Blacks.
Hooks is from a Southern working-class background and she rightly focuses on this, but her negative attitude toward the middle but her negative attitude toward the middle class puts me on the defensive. In "Language," she claims that by using Black vernacular "we take the oppressor's language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language." But "we" are not all from Southern, rural, working-class backgrounds. "We" all don't speak Black vernacular, though we still strive to liberate ourselves in language, in theory and in teaching.
In fact, hooks is quite aware of problems with essentialism. In "Essentialism and Experience" she criticizes Diana Fuss, author of Essentially Speaking: "I am disturbed that she [Fuss] never acknowledges that racism, sexism, and class elitism shape the structure of class-rooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins." But while hooks emphasizes the importance of experience here, I worry that when it comes to social class, she falls into the same essentializing trap that she so very persuasively criticizes.
Nevertheless, hooks raises important questions throughout Teaching to Transgress. For instance, how can we teach with our bodies as well as our voices? In "Building a Teaching Community," a dialogue with Ron Scapp, a philosophy professor at Queens College in New York, she discusses the body in the classroom. Questions of movement, body language, placement of teacher and students are closely tied to the level of intellectual risk-taking with which both teachers and students are comfortable. "Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process" and "Ecstasy" are extensions of this discussion. In the former, hooks recalls an occasion when she had to use the restroom partway through a class in order to examine how we teachers are forced to deny our bodies and become disembodied voices of expertise. She then critically questions whether that approach is fruitful for anyone involved in a truly liberatory pedagogy.
Outlaw Culture takes on another contested subject: recent representations of Blacks in popular culture. My reaction to these essays was more mixed. Part of the reason is that when it comes to popular culture, we are all experts. While reading Outlaw Culture, I had to restrain myself from dissing hooks' interpretations merely because they disagreed with my own. Often I wished she and I were sitting at my kitchen table so we could talk through our differences. As in Teaching to Transgress, the language is accessible, but I did get tired of reading polysyllabic phrases like "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and "stimulate voyeuristic masturbatory pleasure."
The essay titles grab your attention—who can resist "Power to the Pussy"? Despite the catchy, colloquial title, this discussion of Madonna's coffee-table book Sex is informed by both feminist and queer theory. Hooks analyzes how Madonna has moved away from her former "transgressive female artistry" and toward "cultural hedonism." The non-revolutionary, homophobic and racist representations are what rightly disturb hooks: "Throughout Sex, Madonna appears as the white imperialist wielding patriarchal power to assert control over the realm of sexual difference."
Outlaw Culture was an exhilarating read when hooks and I were in sync—and we were most of the time. I was happy that she agrees with my assessment of Mama, There Is a Man in Your Bed. This 1989 French film is a collage of folktale themes, primarily based on Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet (in fact, the main characters are named Romauld and Juliette). Romauld is the CEO of a yogurt company in Paris; Juliette is the office cleaner for his building. Greed and marital infidelity combine to ruin Romauld's reputation. Soon he is fired from his position and is in need of an avenger: Juliette comes to the rescue. As a Black domestic, Juliette is invisible and able to gather evidence of wrongdoing the other executives leave behind. She carries through a plan to reinstate Romauld and clear his name.
My summary doesn't do justice to the intersection of race, class and sexuality in this film, but it is one of the most important recent films about Black women. (I've seen it five times!) Juliette is smart, perceptive, observant; she has good business sense; she is a loving mother, a proud, independent and absolutely gorgeous woman. It's also true this film could only have been made in France. Applying all these character traits to a woman of African descent is so foreign to Hollywood that here we are, five years after the French release of Mama, and there's still no American remake.
Hooks also echoes my own concerns about The Crying Game. In "Seduction and Betrayal," she analyzes the significance of gender roles inverted, supposedly, by terrorism. The white woman, Jude, is not a nurturing mother figure but an IRA terrorist; the nurturing role is taken on by Fergus, the reluctant terrorist—and the reluctant lover of the Black transvestite Dil. Hooks makes a crucial observation:
Most critical reviews of The Crying Game did not discuss race, and those that did suggested that the power of this film lies in its willingness to insist that race and gender finally do not matter: it's what's inside that counts. Yet this message is undermined by the fact that all the people who are subordinated to white power are black.
I only wish hooks had added that the movie billboard (which shows an elongated Jude dressed all in black and holding a smoking gun) contributes a demonic twist to the only biological female in the film.
Yet even given her interesting interpretation of these movies and Madonna, I had serious reservations about some of the essays in Outlaw Culture. For example, in "Ice Cube Culture: A Shared Passion for Speaking Truth: bell hooks and Ice Cube in Dialogue," I was surprised and deeply distressed that hooks doesn't acknowledge the misogyny and mother-blaming of the recent movie Boyz N the 'Hood. The movie tracks the everyday violence of South Central LA through the lives of three friends: Tre, the boy who goes to college through the support of a strong father; Doughboy, out on parole as a teenager (and played by Ice Cube); and Ricky, Doughboy's more successful brother, bound for college football until he is brutally murdered. In hooks' dialogue, Ice Cube says, "and I think Doughboy would a been just like him [Tre] if he had the right guidance, the right father." Bell—call him on his sexism, please! As the mother of a black man-child of sixteen (who, by the way, identified more with Tre than Doughboy), I'm worried about the backlash against single Black mothers in the community and in the media. Audre Lorde's inspirational piece, "Man-child: A Black Lesbian Feminist's Response," has clearly grappled with these issues. If only hooks had suggested this to Ice Cube, instead of validating his patriarchal, macho pronouncement that "a woman can't raise a boy to be a man."
A more satisfying essay is "Malcolm X: the Longed-for-Feminist-Manhood." I was intrigued by hooks' assertion that before his death Malcolm X was moving toward a new and transformed view of sexism and gender issues. She highlights two anecdotes from his life, both involving Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist. In the first, early in his career, hooks notes: "Malcolm castigated black men for their failure to protect black women and children from racist brutality." She analyzes his patriarchal socialization and how that still informs Black Muslim thought. The break with the Nation of Islam gave Malcolm X an opportunity to rethink his position on gender, hooks argues, pointing out that "it was again in the company of Fanny Lou Hamer, shortly before his death that Malcolm made one of his most powerful declarations on the issue of gender…. Malcolm declared: 'You don't have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is be an intelligent human being.'"
Hooks challenges us to look at Malcolm X through a feminist lens, not just to condemn the sexism of his early work. But for me, Malcolm X was never a mentor; what hooks reads as passion, I read as aggression. I remember the painful reaction of my family members whenever Malcolm referred to Blacks like us as "so-called Negroes." I wondered then what good could come from such divisiveness. Now with the reclaiming of Malcolm, I wonder why no one, neither Spike Lee nor bell hooks, remembers the pain that this divisiveness caused our community.
As hooks herself writes in Teaching to Transgress,
Again and again, black women find our efforts to speak, to break silence and engage in radical progressive political debates, opposed. There is a link between the silencing we experience, the censoring, the anti-intellectualism in predominantly black settings that are supposedly supportive (like all-black woman space), and that silencing that takes place in institutions wherein black women and women of color are told we cannot be fully heard or listened to because our work is not theoretical enough.
In Outlaw Culture's "Censorship From Left and Right" she targets censorship by the Black intellectual elite:
What cultural conditions enable black male thinkers to be critical of black women without being seen as giving expression to sexist or misogynist opinions? And what critical climate will allow black women a space to critique one another without fear that all ties will be disrupted and severed?
I will always be grateful to hooks for her articulation of Black women's need for a space where we can constructively criticize each other's work. In Outlaw Culture she acknowledges that "critique causes some pain and discomfort." Truth be told, no one likes negative criticism, but, as hooks points out, dialogue is the key and not dismissal. It takes courage to hold a dialogue with a hostile or patronizing critic. In fact, all the dialogues hooks has held so far are with folks she respects and fundamentally agrees with: Cornel West, Ron Scapp and Marie France Alderman. I'd love to see a dialogue between bell and Madonna or Diana Fuss—I have no doubt she is up to the task. Thank you, bell/Gloria, for making feminism the location for an exciting discussion of education, popular culture and life.
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. at Stanford, going on to finish her Ph.D. in English at UC Santa Cruz over a decade ago. We've been hearing from hooks regularly ever since.
Much like her previous work, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, consists of a collection of unconnected essays, some of them recycled from earlier books. As usual, the writing is leftist dogmatic, repetitive, and dated. For instance, in the book's penultimate chapter, called "Moving From Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination," Watkins offers the following turgid explanation of the failure of black struggle in the '60s:
Revolutionary black liberation struggle in the United States was undermined by outmoded patriarchal emphasis on nationhood and masculine rule, the absence of a strategy for coalition building that would keep a place for non-black allies in struggle, and the lack of sustained programs for education for critical consciousness that would continually engage black folks of all classes in a process of radical politicization.
But then it was never in the expectation of beautiful writing, or subtly nuanced analysis, that we turned to bell hooks. With chapters bearing titles like "Healing Our Wounds: Liberatory Mental Health Care," "Where Is the Love?" and "Overcoming White Supremacy," we are being offered, simultaneously, a series of potentially contradictory solutions to what ails us.
Hooks suggests that a black feminist analysis of "race and racism in America" is the essential missing component in current mainstream perspectives on race, at the same time that she offers a defense of black rage, in all its masculinist appeal, as inherently liberatory. "I understand rage to be a necessary aspect of resistance struggle," she writes. Meanwhile, interspersed with the rage and the feminist analysis, she is also slipping us a kind of hit-or-miss guide to self-healing, self-recovery, and self-actualization.
The new hooks began to emerge, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, about a year or two ago when Watkins abandoned the leftist rigors of the South End Collective in Boston and her post as associate professor at Oberlin College, more or less at the same time, moved to New York and CCNY, published Outlaw Culture and Teaching to Transgress with Routledge, and Art on My Mind with the nonprofit New Press, only to turn around a few months later to publish Killing Rage with Holt, her first major mainstream publisher, this fall.
Using cultural analysis of popular culture, film, visual art, and pedagogy, with occasional outbursts of self-help rhetoric (to which hooks had already devoted an entire book—Sisters of the Yam), Teaching to Transgress, Outlaw Culture, and Art on My Mind all continue in the direction hooks's work has taken the past few years, as amply demonstrated in Black Looks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. However, with Killing Rage, hooks is clearly trying to drive a wedge into the current white market for books on race and the recent upsurge in the black market for books on spirituality and self-recovery.
Given this onslaught of publication, accompanied by an alarming dearth of explanatory or analytic criticism about her work, either in mainstream or alternative venues, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the poorly researched cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education (the New York Times of academics) on the hooks/Watkins phenomenon considers her not only the most viable voice of black feminism, but also the only acceptable black female candidate for inclusion in the roster of the "new black intellectuals," whose emergence has been repeatedly announced in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker and even the VLS.
"When black feminism needed a voice, bell hooks was born," The Chronicle proclaimed a few months ago. Which makes her a candidate for the only black feminist that matters? Not. Perhaps the dominant discourse is given to these lapses of amnesia because some ideas are so repugnant to Western culture that they are forced to emerge, again and again, as if new.
There hasn't been much resistance lately to the idea of a mainstream feminist discourse or even to a left-wing alternative and/or academic feminism. But what continues to boggle the minds of the powers that be is that black feminism has been around for a long time….
All of this black feminist activity preceded the publication of bell hooks's first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, in 1981, as Gloria Watkins well knows. Indeed, Watkins begins the book she now claims to have actually written years before by chastising Gloria Steinem for her blurb on the jacket of Black Macho.
Steinem makes a such narrowminded, and racist, assumption when she suggests that Wallace's book has a similar scope as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics … One can only assume that Steinem believes that the American public can be informed about the sexual politics of black people by merely reading a discussion of the 60's black movement, a cursory examination of the role of black women during slavery, and Michele Wallace's life.
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that hooks is deliberately and maliciously attempting to obliterate the vast and subversive history of black feminist discourse. In Ain't I a Woman hooks does a fine job of providing the historical overview of black feminist thought. But progressively her analysis has become more and more self-centered, narcissistic, and even hostile to the idea of countervailing perspectives. Given more to the passive-aggressive approach in dealing with black women, she is never direct.
For instance, in an essay called "Black Intellectuals" in Killing Rage, while she claims for herself an exemplary humility, simplicity, open-mindedness, and commitment to revolutionary struggle, she also distances herself from the rank and file of black intellectuals with comments like "Most academics (like their white and non-white counter-parts) are not intellectuals" and "Empowered to be hostile towards and policing of one another, black female academics and/or intellectuals often work to censor and silence one another."
In Black Looks, hooks repeatedly rails against those pseudo-progressive whites who would "eat the other" in their perpetual attempt to appropriate the transgressive energies of artists, writers, and theorists of color. But then hooks is also capable of writing. "When patriarchal support of competition between women is coupled with competitive academic longing for status and influence, black women are not empowered to bond on the basis of shared commitment to intellectual life or open-minded exchange of ideas…. Since many women in the academy are conservative or liberal in their politics, tensions arise between those groups and individuals like myself, who advocate revolutionary politics."
What hooks is doing here is what I call eating the other. Yes, people of color can eat each other, too.
Those of us who first became black feminists in the early '70s knew so little about the black women—the artists, intellectuals, and feminist activists—who had come before us. It took a long time to find the record they had left. However, this wasn't because the record didn't exist. Rather, the documentation was either destroyed or mouldering in dusty attics and rare-book collections, and it was no simple matter to retrieve them. It no longer surprises me that Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Fauset all had to be rediscovered.
And it should come as no surprise to anyone that, not only was there a black feminism before bell hooks, there was a black feminism long before most of us were born. There were black feminist abolitionists before the Civil War and there were black women suffragettes, whose works are now preserved and annotated by the Schomburg Collection of 19th-century black women writers, as well as by other publishing efforts such as Florence Howe's Feminist Press.
But when I was a kid, the only one I knew was Sojourner, and I didn't know much about her.
The black feminist historian Nell Painter, professor of history at Princeton, is currently working on a biography of Sojourner Truth and has already published several excerpts from her research in which he suggests that the famous "Ain't I a Woman" which so many feminists have clung to over the years, might have been a historical conflation of a number of different events and speeches, none of them anything like the speech we've come to know and love.
Since Truth was illiterate, not an intellectual but a charismatic itinerant preacher who wandered about the countryside expecting strangers to provide her next meal and her next place to sleep, she wasn't exactly into knowledge production.
Moreover, Painter suggests that part of the legacy of the racisms of the period comes down to us in the iconography of Sojourner Truth. All of her portraits were carefully posed to confirm the myth of her unlettered, inborn, commonsensical strength, and as such, to confirm, as well, the peculiar and essential otherness then considered characteristic of the black woman—an "otherness," not coincidentally, that also served to highlight the beauty, delicacy, and intelligence of the women of the "superior race."
Meanwhile, Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech has been institutionalized as the originary moment of black feminist discourse. Many works—hooks's first book, as well as Deborah Gray White's history of slave women, Ar'n't I a Woman, and even Black Macho—bear witness to her presumed power as a black feminist foremother. But suppose Painter has uncovered a nasty little paradigmatic secret about black feminism: that the iconic status of Truth is much like the iconic status of Hurston, or indeed any single black female figure, in that it is meant to stand in for the whole. Its primary function is to distract us from the actual debate and dilemma with which black feminist intellectuals, artists, and activists are really engaged.
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the media success of Black Macho placed me in possible danger of the same instant iconic status. But I was 27, naive, inexperienced, and had no concept of the big picture that Painter is outlining. Whereas hooks has had a long, steady climb, from the publication of her first book to her present position, poised to enter the mainstream. Is she being manipulated by the structural racism and misogyny of the mainstream media or is she an opportunist trying to turn a fast buck? I think perhaps a little of both. Frankly, she can't begin to make a dent in this structural thing by herself. As for the opportunism, how do you suppose revolutionaries will occupy themselves in these reactionary times? And the timing is perfect.
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a black book boom. It has many dimensions, from the apartheid of the publishing industry itself, to the phenomenon of the black public intellectual, to Time magazine's construction (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s help) of a new black cultural renaissance. But one aspect of the boom that is grossly underreported is the accelerating interest in a New Age kind of spiritualism and the rhetoric of self-recovery. When this tendency is combined with a public black intellectual component—such as in the case of the works of bell hooks, Cornel West, and a host of others—it can be unfortunate indeed.
Watkins is openly and proudly religious, or what she would call spiritual, which is a euphemism for religious. Nobody has ever accused black folk of not being religious enough. But it may be precisely this religiosity that not only serves to fuel the overreported anti-Semitism but also the much more prevalent anti-intellectualism that is fast becoming the only thing that most dark peoples splattered around the tristate area have in common.
Watkins's Killing Rage suggests that we bury the racial hatchet in places like New York through spiritual growth. But in the title essay, hooks still has a long way to go. Her story begins with the words, "I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder." She and her traveling companion had sought first-class upgrades in exchange for their coach airline seats at a New York airport, but when they got on the plane, there was a white man sitting in the friend's first-class seat. Watkins immediately reads this situation as deliberate racist sabotage on the part of the airline representative at the counter.
A stewardess was called to clear up the dilemma of whose seat it was, but anybody who flies on airplanes with any regularity knows who won. If there are two people with the same seat assignment, the butt in the seat has the right of way.
But not without Watkins going ballistic. "I stared him down with rage," she writes, "tell him that I do not want to hear his liberal apologies … In no uncertain terms I let him know that he had an opportunity to not be complicit with the racism and sexism that is so all-pervasive in this society" by voluntarily giving up his cushy seat in first class to her black friend now condemned to the cramped conditions of coach.
I guess I'm just hard-hearted Hannah, but somehow I'm not weeping for Watkins here. I can remember the insanity that began to grip me in the midst of the whirlwind of publicity around Black Macho when, all of sudden, it became desperately important to me whether or not I traveled first class or coach. I am quite familiar with this illness. I call it first-class-itis, or, more simply, celebrity-itis. Given the symptoms, you shouldn't be surprised at all that there is no hint in Watkins's narrative of the seemingly obvious antibourgeois alternative of joining her friend, in solidarity, in coach.
Black feminist intellectuals generally kowtow to hooks and dutifully quote her numerous books, but they don't like her and they don't trust her. She doesn't represent the views of black feminist academics (most of whom she would dismiss, in any case, as privileged members of the bourgeois academic elite), and yet we go on mumbling under our breath.
Released in her last books from the rigor of the South End Press collective—where editorial decisions are made jointly—what was once merely typically bad leftist writing has become self-indulgent and undigested drivel that careens madly from outrageous self-pity, poetic and elliptical, to playful exhibitionism, to dogmatic righteous sermonizing. Sometimes as I read some of this stuff, I can't believe that I am reading what I'm reading.
For instance, in Outlaw Culture hooks sets an Esquire reporter straight about the notion that the women's movement was prudish in the '70s. "We had all girl parties, grownup sleepovers," she told him. "We slept together. We had sex. We did it with girls and boys. We did it across race, class, nationality. We did it in groups. We watched each other doing it."
Or, hooks will say, "the vast majority of black women in academe are not in revolt—they seem to be as conservative as the other conservatizing forces there!… I've been rereading Simon Watney's Policing Desire, and thinking a lot about how I often feel more policed by other black women who say to me: 'How can you be out there on the edge? How can you do certain things, like be wild, inappropriate? You're making it harder for the rest of us.'"
Watkins knocks everybody. She has done everything and known everything, long before it was fashionable to do so. Yet she is rarely specific or precise about her experiences or her references.
She can also be a chameleon, taking on camouflage colors in different environments, as in her interview with the rapper Ice Cube. In talking with him about Boyz'n the Hood, she says of the lead character, Tre, falling into the vernacular.
You don't want to be him 'cause he didn't have no humor hardly, he didn't have much. Part of what I try to do as a teacher, a professor, is to show people just 'cause you're a professor and you got a Ph.D., you don't have to be all tired, with no style and with no presence.
Constantly citing her experience of child abuse at the hands of her family, physical abuse by her former lover, as well as the "racist" and/or "sexist" reaction of the "white feminist" and/or "black male" and/or "white supremacist patriarchal" establishment, she epitomizes the cult of victimization that Shelby Steele, Stanley Crouch, and Jerry Watts have written about so persuasively.
While I have no desire to play into the hands of the right, everybody knows that p.c. rhetoric has become a problem, and hooks has made herself queen of p.c. rhetoric. Without the unlovely code phrases, "white supremacy," "patriarchal domination," and "self-recovery," hooks couldn't write a sentence.
Hooks reminds me of the young people in my youth who would come from the suburbs, dress up like hobos, and hang around in the Village for the weekend. You just sprinkle these words around and you're an automatic academic leftist.
In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky reminds us that the principal function of mass culture is to distract most Americans, perhaps as many as 80 per cent, from issues of real power, domination, and control. The other 20 per cent, whom Chomsky identifies as the educational/intellectual elite, votes, runs the media and academic, and, as such, is actively, although probably not consciously, engaged in manufacturing consent. Although it's not all that important how the 80 per cent chooses its poison, the predilections of the 20 per cent elite can be crucial.
According to Chomsky's vision, the correct information is almost always out there, but it is literally buried under the continuous and overwhelming flow and bombardment of mass cultural noise and distraction.
In an imperceptible shift from automatic leftism to Cultural Studies, most of what hooks chooses to write about—Madonna, The Crying Game, The Body Guard, Camille Paglia, shooping, and so forth—is noise. Part of the distraction of mass culture, and now the most popular mass cultural commentary (sometimes called cultural critique or cultural studies) as well, is that its function is increasingly continuous with that of its object of study. At best, it is becoming mind-fuck candy for the intellectually overendowed. In other words, much of it has become just high-falutin noise.
As for what there ever was to value about hooks's work, I am not the ideal person to say since I have never felt comfortable with the world according to bell hooks. Yet it should be said that hooks/Watkins has a saucy, mischievous, and playful side, which is fascinating. It emerges occasionally in her affect and intonation as a public speaker, but rarely makes it to the page. Although that edge peeks out in some of the riskier moments in Outlaw Culture—when she is dissing Camille Paglia, or in some of her speculations about rap—for the most part, hooks grossly underestimates the willingness of her reader to comprehend her particular journey.
In black feminism, two clearly divergent paths are emerging: Either one travels the high road, the intellectual-creative route, out of which such women as Walker, Morrison, and Bambara have carved their path—every step earned and copiously contextualized so that you know exactly where you are all the time; or one travels the low road, the gospel according to bell hooks firmly in hand, the path etched in the vertiginous stone of rhetoric, hyperbole, generalizations, platitudes, bad faith, phony prophetism, and blanket condemnation.
Inspired though we may be by the Morrisons, the Walkers, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the June Jordans, most of us don't have it in us to be them. And you can't really follow them because they're not leaders. I don't mean this as criticism. They don't present themselves as leaders. Whereas hooks is all too happy to present herself as your leader, if you just have to have one.
But, in fact, black feminists don't have any leaders, if you mean by leaders people who will stand up and say that they are leading black women down one independent and autonomous path because black women—whether they are lesbian, intellectual, married to white men, or considered atypical in any other way—have no desire to put more distance between themselves and black men, either individually or collectively. It has to do not only with romance, but with a political commitment to black identity, black struggle, and the painful lessons of black history.
On the other hand, if one stops looking for leaders who claim to know the direction black women should follow and looks instead for black female role models, for lack of a better term, who know their stuff and who have spent their lives conquering a particular field, there are tons of potential "leaders" all over the place.
If you think of an ideology as a religion, then the church of black feminists is not one that you have to attend or even declare yourself a member of. In fact, it is better if you don't. Like the Quakers, black feminists don't proselytize or seek converts, and they hold very few meetings. The history of organized women's movements and their symbiotic relationship to the dominant discourse is nasty indeed: see the work of Davis, Giddings, or any feminist historian worth her salt for details.
Also, it is precisely the point of black feminism, or any feminism on behalf of the dispossessed, to empower the disenfranchised—both women and men—what Gayatri Spivak has called the subaltern. Subalterns are not necessarily defined by race (although their skins are usually dark), gender, sexuality, or geography (although they are concentrated in certain parts of the world), but by their relationship to global issues of class, poverty, and power.
Their problem is their lack of symbolic power and agency in the dominant discourse. The subaltern speaks but it doesn't speak to us, hooks is not the link. The subaltern doesn't write books. As for whether or not Ice Cube can speak for the subaltern, I'll leave it to you to figure that out.