Here at Black Feminists HQ we love bell hooks, so much that we featured her on our Inspirational Women list last year. For you this International Women’s month we’ve republished a profile on bell hooks originally featured in Toronto’s NOW magazine in 1990.
In preparation for her talk in Toronto, bell hooks referenced the experience of Gloria Watkins, her younger self. Watkins grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Steeped in the tradition of the Southern black church, she began writing at age 12.
“A lot of my impetus came from seeing black women in active roles in the black church. I was particularly involved as a speaker and reader in the church, reading the scriptures for service, and I think that was important in creating in me the skill to talk in front of audiences. I began a lot of critical thinking in the church.”
Watkins, who changed her name to bell hooks, after her great-grandmother on her mother’s side (“a strong woman who spoke her mind”), is today one of North America’s foremost critical thinkers and lecturers, with a regular column called Sisters of the Yam in Zeta Magazine, an alternative US journal on politics and the arts, and three books published in Canada by Between the Lines.
Having taken the long route through several universities in a white-dominant society to achieve her goal to be a professor of African-American studies, bell hooks teaches at Oberlin College [at the time of the original writing of this article] and these days keeps a hectic schedule, writing, teaching, and travelling the US and Canada talking about her latest book.
Notorious in literary circles for her dedication to making intellectual discourse more accessible – for example, she refuses to use footnotes because she feels they’re off putting to many of her readers – hooks is passionate about the need for developing critical consciousness within the black community through the application of feminist theory for both men and women.
One of hooks’ interests is the ability of any person – regardless of socio-economic status – to take control of their destiny.
“I’m most obsessed with how and what are the ways that we can help one another understand our own agency, irrespective of degrees of exploitation and oppression. We maintain some sense of agency in the process of self-recovery,” says the soft-spoken hooks on the telephone from her home in New Jersey, where she lies bundled up in bed trying to get over a cold.
hooks’ own self-recovery is chronicled through her non-fiction works – the controversial Ain’t I A Woman? and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, as well as the most recent and moving autobiographical Talking Back – Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. This advocate of feminist politics will bend the ear of anyone who will listen and share in creative philosophical exchange, but she’s quick to point out that her primary audience is black women.
“I’ve been amazed by the reaction from so many black women. At first when I started out talking about silencing, I felt, ‘Well, maybe I’m experiencing this because of the particular dysfunctional setting that I came out of, but maybe all these other people weren’t experiencing this.’ What has been most overwhelming to me, and saddening as well, is realizing how many black women are feeling this, and it’s such a counter to the popular idea that black women are just rising up. People have this romanticized vision of us, as if we’re all powerful spokespeople right now,” says hooks, partly because of the popularity of writers such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker.
Talking Black also deals with issues such as homophobia in the black community and the charges of homophobia levelled at hooks after the publication of her first book, Ain’t I a Woman.
“It is a polemical book – I am critical of practically everyone,” she says in an interview in Talking Back. “My editor at that time, a lesbian white woman, felt that I should say more positive things about lesbian women.
“Basically, I was critiquing the whole equation of feminism and lesbianism, and also raising the question of whether or not to some extent lesbian women have more at stake in the feminist movement, in the sense of building culture,,, At that point, I was sick of writing. I mean, this was years of writing, But I said, ‘I realize this is a homophobic culture, and to say critical things about gay people without saying positive things does, in fact, lead you to run the risk of perpetuating homophobia.’ So I took out every single comment in which the word gay or lesbian was used. I didn’t put anyone’s sexual preference before their names.”
hook’s concern with including both positive and negative in critical analysis has extended to her scathing reviews of the two most controversial Spike Lee films, She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing. While Spike Lee fans do take issue with hooks’ analysis, she is firm about her responsibility to provide constructive criticism to someone who, in her eyes, is an extremely gifted filmmaker.
“One of the things that we have to talk about as black people is not being passive consumers of culture. I think we have to have a critical reading of how black people have traditionally responded to culture. A lot of our traditional responses have been, in Canada and in the US, that culture is about entertainment. So many black folks, I think, simply turn off our critical apparatus when we come to a film, and we think, ‘If I have my critical apparatus working, I’m not going to enjoy myself.’
“I think that this is a major thing that we have to change. The fact is that on a certain level, I do enjoy She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing. I just enjoy seeing black images on screen. But I think we’ve really got to talk about what it means to be a black spectator.”
Combating structures of silencing, and structures of repression are ongoing projects for hooks within the classroom and in day-to-day living. She distinguishes between literacy and critical literacy, and the importance of moving past the habit of merely evoking the images and names of black icons like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
“We have to read early Malcolm X and we have to read the later speeches, which I feel most people don’t do. We have to read as much as we can and we have to develop a critical legacy.”
hooks also feels that black political writers must write more about the question of exile, given the experience of dislocated African-Americans – the very people who locate her.
“I’m rejuvenated a lot by being collectively with other black people and people of colour who dream along the same lines. I think often we are crushed in our loneliness and isolation. Sometimes people think because you’re bell hooks or Angela Davis that you don’t have spaces of loneliness, which is not true. Because a lot of times people are coming at you wanting things, which is not necessarily an occasion for renewal – often it’s an occasion for depletion. I’m renewed in solitude. I like to meditate and pray and recentre myself.”