Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Writer Bell Hooks has been in the forefront of African American feminist theory since the early 1980’s, and she continues with her groundbreaking work here. Yearning is the fourth of her feminist theory books, following Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989). She wrote her first volume while an undergraduate at Stanford University. It was the result of research she did when she found little about black women in her women’s studies courses. Yearning is an outgrowth of her involvement with cultural criticism and her concern that African American women are not significant in this field. She believes that cultural criticism is vital: It is interdisciplinary, and the best of its feminism includes perspectives of race and class.

The title Yearning suggests a “longing” across lines of race, class, gender, and sexual practice. All groups, believes Hooks, share a desire for radical social change. This shared “yearning” opens up a common ground where all people might meet and engage one another. For epigrams for her book, Hooks quotes four writers, all of whom speak of “yearning”: Lydia, a Salvadoran woman; Cornel West, a male African American cultural critic who teaches at Princeton; Robert Duncan, a white male poet; and Tayeb Salib, an Egyptian writer. Neither separatist nor exclusive, Hooks has thus included Third World women and men as well as white and African American men.

Most of these short essays were published previously in such alternative magazines as Zeta, Sojourner, and Emerge. Publication in this volume brings a wider audience. Many of the essays are reviews of films or dramatic productions—the 1988 television production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989), Euzan Palcy’s film about South Africa, A Dry White Season (1989), the film version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1985) and the controversy it sparked in the black community about the sexism of black men, and Isaac Julien’s 1989 short film Looking for Langston, about Langston Hughes’s closeted homosexuality. In all of these, Hooks takes a “counter-hegemonic” (or oppositional) view of the work. Throughout, she is concerned to note that African Americans must work on their own self-actualization, their own autonomy. They must no longer be objects or “Others.” They must be subjects.

Hooks’s manifesto, which lays out her political agenda, is found in two succinct paragraphs buried in her essay “Radical Black Subjectivity.” The characteristics are these: She believes in leftist politics and ending domination wherever it exists in the world, and she believes in remaining on the margins, the borders, of various cultures, but she is not afraid of losing her “blackness.” She is “one of the people, while simultaneously acknowledging our privileges.” She is working class and continues to claim her ties and roots to that part of the population. She believes in the primacy of identity politics, but she rejects essentialist notions that make assumptions on the basis of birth. She is in solidarity with both black men and black women but wants dialogue, so that dissent can be accepted without violating anyone. She believes in living simply and is concerned about the planet. She wants to conserve traditional black aesthetics.

Censorship, not in terms of First Amendment rights but in terms of ideological, political, and market factors, is a constant theme. She worries that manuscripts are rejected on the basis of...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bordo, Susan. “Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies.” Feminist Studies 18 (Spring, 1992): 159-175. An important scholarly review essay that relates Hooks’s work to that of other academic postmodernists and shows how she is both participant and observer of the contemporary condition.

Burford, Barbara. “Review of Yearning. ” New Statesman and Society 3 (November 30, 1990): 39. Reviews the book’s “black womanist” perspective from the vantage point of England.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Puts Hooks’s early feminist theory in the context of other radical feminists.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. “The Racism of Postmodernism.” The Women’s Review of Books 8 (September, 1991): 12-13. Analyzes the importance of Hooks’s critique of postmodernism and her refusal to succumb to strident diatribes against identity politics and anti-essentialism. Critiques her occasional deference to white feminists.

Hooks, Bell, and Cornel West. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. Boston: South End Press, 1991. Chapters on Hooks give much biographical information as well as exploring Hooks’s scholarly and activist goals, her intellectual influences, and her hopes and dreams.

Walker, Rebecca. “A Political Homeplace.” Ms. 1 (January/February, 1991): 62-63. Applauds Hooks for her “critical yet supportive” model of understanding diversity and analyzes the book’s varied audiences, both scholarly and activist.