By Barry Boyce
For bell hooks, fighting oppression doesn’t require anger or conflict—just opening our hearts and speaking the truth fearlessly. Barry Boyce tells the story of this renowned feminist and social critic, and how she came to embrace activism without enemies and a visionary kind of love.
Bell hooks is a woman of many call numbers. If you search for her in the library, you’ll find her lurking all over the place: feminist studies, African-American studies, education, health, film, children’s books, and more. Waiting there to pounce, like a curious cat, she is likely to jump out at you from any of these shelves and strike you with a flurry of provocative ideas—about race, gender, class, domination, and liberation, to name a few.
But if you do go searching for her in the library, try to find her on videotape or DVD, because while bell hooks articulates beautifully in print, she really shines when you see her face and hear her voice embodying what she thinks and feels and sees. They say she is an “outspoken social critic, a visionary, a public intellectual,” but what comes across most if you spend some time around her is love. She loves to be herself and be by herself—without the need to be defined by others—but she also loves to love others and to communicate: about herself and to herself and to others, but above all with others. She loves dialogue. She’s a great interviewer. And should you ever have the pleasure of speaking with her, beware. She will probably interview you, to find out what’s going on inside and whether you’re ready and willing to talk about it. To bell hooks, an idea is like a basketball. She doesn’t want to hold it up to be admired. She says she wants to “throw it to you and let you experience it for yourself.”
When I tell a friend I’m going to interview bell hooks, she says, “lower case, right?” By taking a pen name that honors her maternal great-grandmother—and writing it in lower case—hooks hoped to decrease ego-investment and create some distance between herself and her work. Twenty-five books or so later, “bell hooks” has become a brand and an icon. But when I try to find the buzzer for her apartment in Greenwich Village, there is no bell hooks. In spite of all I have read by her and about her, in that small moment I find myself wondering who “bell hooks” really is.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, she grew up in the southwest corner of Kentucky, in the small city of Hopkinsville, in tobacco country about an hour and half drive north of Nashville, Tennessee. And when I make my way up to her apartment, that’s the first thing she wants to talk about: her return to the rural South, to home. She spent more than thirty years mostly in cities and big universities: she earned her B.A. at Stanford, her master’s at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s been on the faculties of Yale, Oberlin, and City College. But in the fall of 2004, hooks returned to Kentucky to take a position as Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. Located in a small town just south of Louisville, Berea was founded in 1855 as the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Its aim, the college says, is to promote “understanding and kinship among all people, service to communities in Appalachia and beyond, and sustainable living practices which set an example of new ways to conserve our limited natural resources.” It’s also smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.
hooks refers to her modest Greenwich Village place, which she purchased when she taught at City College and returns to from time to time, as a pied a terre. But she makes very clear that her feet are now deeply planted in the terra firma of Kentucky. “It has been really sublime for me to return home,” she says, “to that Kentucky landscape, to a world of nature that I grew up in, where I was able to roam, and where I felt formed and very free.” hooks says she has also returned to the place that she escaped from, a difficult place of “dysfunction, madness, and trauma,” and a place where Buddhism is thought of as demonic by many, and where people ask fewer questions because the big questions have already been answered.
bell hooks 101 begins there, in Kentucky, where she struggled to find herself in the impoverished home she shared with a brother and five sisters, and in a racist world that had little to no room for a black girl who wanted to think critically and write for a living.
Bone Black, hooks’ chronicle of girlhood, as she likes to call it, is chantlike and elegiac. It proceeds in simple cadences and short chapters that do not try to lay out a Master Narrative. And there is no sense searching for one, or trying to tease it out of hooks. Her life is an open book—several dozen in fact—but she has no interest in putting it all together into something neat. What emerges is a series of vignettes and impressions, in no particular order, like real memory, and the picture they paint can make you laugh and cry.
“I must sell tickets to a Tom Thumb wedding, one of the school shows,” she writes. “It isn’t any fun for children. We get to dress up in paper wedding clothes and go through a ceremony for the entertainment of the adults. The whole thing makes me sick but no one cares. Like every other girl I want to be the bride but I am not chosen. It has always to do with money. The important roles go to the children whose parents have money to give… I am lucky to be a bridesmaid, to wear a red crepe paper dress made just for me. I am not thrilled with such luck. I would rather not wear a paper dress, not be in a make-believe wedding. They tell me that I am lucky to be lighter skinned, not black black, not dark brown, lucky to have hair that is almost straight, otherwise I might not be in the wedding at all, otherwise I might not be so lucky.”
Although she has not made a career of poetry, hooks has communed with poetry and written poetry from a young age, and much of her writing reads poetically. It sings and it breaks with convention. Her poetic tone in Bone Black enables her to present an agonizing tale without bitterness. Rhythmically, with underlying strains of empathy, she presents the tale of her oppressors. “We are not able to punish grown-ups for their lies,” she writes. “We are not even allowed to tell them they are lying. Once when I said, not thinking, not watching my every word, that so-and-so sure was a liar I was hit across the mouth. Sometimes the grown-ups could be heard talking about the preachers and how they stand right up there in the pulpit and lie. This makes the grown-ups laugh. It confuses us since we know that god loves truth. We do not understand why the good men of god who stand and lie are not struck down by a bolt of lightning or some other heaven-sent magic. It is confusing, strange and crazy making. Despite the confusion we try to be true.”
hooks often refers to the child she writes about in Bone Black in the third person, which she says is one of our modes of remembering. When her parents decide to move her to a more isolated room because of her strange and ungainly ways, she writes, “She is to live in exile. They are glad to see her go, they feel as if something had died that they had long waited to be rid of but were not free to throw away. Like in church, they excommunicate her.”
hooks’ girlhood is not unrelentingly bleak. She finds love in the gaps in people’s defenses, and she will build on that love later in life, when she champions a type of feminism—and liberation from oppression altogether—that does not need to demonize and create enemies. She also finds people to admire and emulate, older people who are connected to the land and to folkways that are not defined by what she will come to call, at the height of her critical powers, “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” These people do not buy into “dominator culture.” They define for themselves who they are. Prime among them is Saru, her grandmother. She writes, “Now that [Saru] is old she talks often to me about god. She tells me that believing in god has nothing to do with going to church. I love to hear her talk about the way she went to church and found that people were more concerned with talking about what you were wearing and who you were with and decided never to go again. She is a woman of spirit, a woman of strong language, a fighter. She tells me that she has inherited this fighting spirit from her mother, and that I may have a little of it but it is too early to tell.”
Stanford University, where hooks enrolled at age eighteen, was about as far from her “backwoods Kentucky life” as she could go. She does not feel that she was a rebel: she was pursuing an education, which was something her parents placed a high value on, despite their disapproval of her obsessive desire to read. It was at Stanford that she discovered the “open field” of the mind.
“The life of the intellectual was so exciting,” she tells me, “because it was a world of openness, radical openness, whereas my life growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home was a very narrow, confining life.” But, as she recounts in Wounds of Passion, the story of her intellectual coming of age, she was often very lonely at Stanford, where “there are not many black girls” and people had no understanding of the South, which was just an object of ridicule for sophisticates. At times, she wrote, “Sadness soaks my body like that moment when you are caught unexpectedly in a rain shower and are wet through and through.”
hooks’ moment of truth came in a feminist literature class, where her fellow students were “annoyed that I don’t seem to deal ‘just’ with gender.” She proclaimed that the world where only gender mattered didn’t exist. “The moment anybody black moves out into the world somewhere, away from segregation,” she writes in Wounds of Passion, “we always have to think about the ways that race matters, sometimes more than gender, sometimes the same as gender, but always in convergence and collusion.”
The interrelationship of different forms of oppression, all of which she subsumes under the label of “dominator culture,” would become a thread running through hooks’ work. She would always look at racial, gender, sexual, economic, and political domination not as separate topics for seminars, but as an interwoven web of influences that affect the behavior and thinking of everyone in a culture. Although she would write feminist scholarship that, by her own admission, is difficult to understand outside of the academy, the bulk of her attention would be on reaching ordinary people and helping them see the bonds that hold them and what they can do about it. She wanted to marry theory and practice, and when they started to slide toward divorce, as they are wont to do, she would bring them back together.
In time, hooks’ thought flowered and matured and branched in many different directions—became multi-dimensional—but she began her life as a public intellectual with a focused, searing critique of current feminist theory, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, a book she first drafted when she was nineteen. In her classes, she had become exasperated with white feminists who “romanticize the black female experience rather than discuss the negative impact of that oppression.” Conversely, she noted that black women of the day “did not join together to fight for women’s rights because we did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of our identity.” She found that black womanhood had been left out of the Venn diagram and almost all statements about women were about white women and all statements about blacks were about black men. For example, feminists frequently spoke about women needing to be empowered by entering the world of work, when in hooks’ observation, “Black women have always worked.”
Ain’t I a Woman takes its name from a refrain intoned by black feminist Sojourner Truth during a speech she gave at the second annual convention of the women’s rights movement in 1852. Truth stood up to present herself as living proof that women were the work-equals of men. hooks’ first book bristles with passion, but it is not a jeremiad. In 200 pages, she carefully outlines a history of black women, first under slavery, then under continuing conditions of patriarchy and racism. She ends with a call to revive the black feminist movement that emerged in the nineteenth century—not only for its own sake but also to become an integral part of “a feminist movement that has as its goal the liberation of all people.”
Although she penned the draft of Ain’t I a Woman in her early undergraduate years, she failed to find a publisher willing to take on such an outspoken work by an unknown. She put the manuscript in the closet in the early seventies and there it sat for a decade.
The seventies were a tumultuous and formative time for hooks. She hung out with Gary Snyder and attended all kinds of poetry readings and be-ins, and began to explore alternative forms of spirituality. Her interest in Buddhism endured and blossomed into a full-fledged commitment because, she says, “Buddhism allows us to embrace the complexity of the shadow self, the self that is not all smiley and have-a-nice-day, that is sorrowful, anguished, at times demonic. You get to work with that.”
During her school days, she says, she also enjoyed “chasing and vamping men—men of all sizes, colors, and shapes.” In fact, she sings the praises of the vamp, in Wounds of Passion, as an intelligent woman fully in control. In a number of areas related to sexuality, in fact, she breaks company with many feminists. For example, she does not believe that women in relationships with men of power are necessarily in a position of being dominated. For most of the seventies, she carried on a serious and at times very stormy relationship with an older black professor, who also served as a colleague and a mentor. Commenting on this situation, hooks tells me that there was “enough openness and sexual liberation and men engaged in feminism who were willing to teach you how to play. One often learns to play in a bigger sphere by engaging intimately with someone with more power. But those relationships broke down when we started to get more power, because those guys realized, ‘Hey, I actually don’t want someone who reads Heidegger as well as I do and would rather be reading it than fucking me, or making me dinner.’”
hooks and her partner spent over ten years together, during which she followed him around to various university jobs, made a home in each place, earned a master’s and a doctorate, and developed a writing life that mirrored his. But when she took Ain’t I a Woman down from the shelf, painstakingly polished it, and found an alternative press to publish it, their relationship seemed to deteriorate, as Gloria Watkins was giving birth to bell hooks. To her great surprise, and in spite of dressing rebelliously and behaving audaciously at her interview, she received an invitation to teach at Yale University, starting in the fall of 1985. Her partner declined to join her, and hooks began a pattern that would characterize many periods of her life: despite extreme attraction and desire to be in a relationship, her passion for ideas and a life of writing and teaching would leave her living by herself. As one ex-lover told her, “The next woman I’m with, I don’t want her to think.”
bell hooks is nothing if not a thinker. She firmly believes that well-considered and critically tested thought and theory is essential for any social movement to have real power. Beginning before Yale and during her time there, she began to develop a reputation as a key contributor to feminism’s way of thinking about itself. She is proud of what she calls “feminist movement” (declining to precede the phrase with the “the” that would identify it as a unitary institution rather than a phenomenon) for its thoughtfulness. “No other movement for social justice has been as self-critical as feminist movement,” she writes in the preface to the second edition of her second book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
In that book, she fulfilled her promise to broaden the debate started with Ain’t I a Woman, and argued that feminism needed theory that would “examine our culture from a feminist standpoint rooted in an understanding of gender, race, and class.” Her critique was as much strategic as theoretical. A feminism that was too one-dimensional would be a feminism that would remain at the margins of people’s lives, rather than addressing the central concerns of the culture. She also felt that feminist movement needed theory that “speaks to everyone, that lets everyone know that feminist movement can change their lives for the better.” In our conversation, she lamented that “most of our political movements on the left, whether feminism or black power or what have you, have gotten stuck, because they seem to most people in our culture to be unconnected to the practical realities of life in the community.”
Rather than write a series of books on a single topic before moving on to another topic, hooks will write a first work and then revisit the topic later on, after the ideas have been batted around and percolated a bit. Her body of work forms, then, a kind of quilt, something that Saru had taught her to admire as a child, something made of distinct pieces from different times and places that could nevertheless form a whole.
So, sixteen years (and about as many books) after From Margin to Center, hooks put out Feminism Is for Everybody, which had a cheery cover and a message intended to inform and uplift the uninitiated. hooks could point to many victories for feminism: “It has changed how we see work, how we work, how we love.” And yet she acknowledged that “most people have never spoken to an actual feminist, so they have no clue about visionary feminism. They have a one-dimensional view learned from TV and the movies,” where it is commonplace to “trash feminism.” As a result, no “sustained feminist revolution” has occurred, which places feminism’s gains in jeopardy. hooks feels, as she states in Feminism Is for Everybody, that feminism, the movement to end sexual exploitation and dominance, is “alive and well,” but it is not the mass movement that hooks has always felt we need it to be.
For feminism to move from outward gains to real spiritual gains, hooks believes, men and women alike need to understand how they are both bound and dominated by the strictures of a culture of dominator and dominatee. Each is trapped. But the difficulty seems to lie in the need to have an enemy for sustenance, which leads you away from discovering a deeper sustaining power. “Great moments for social justice have occurred, in civil rights, in women’s rights, and so on, but these movements have also been deeply flawed, in that they could not sustain themselves,” she tells me. “In the beginning, people push against an outward enemy, but once that push is over, things became like flat soda. What’s needed is a Buddha-like process of self-actualizing that spreads into the political world. Then you don’t have to fall into an abyss of despair, saying, ‘We failed. We didn’t achieve racial justice. Feminism didn’t complete itself.’ As we know from Buddhism, if we look for the end, we will despair and give up and not sustain our efforts. But if we see it as a continual process of awakening, we can go forward.”
When hooks began to teach at Yale in 1985, she had already found a stimulating home in academia, but she now discovered a love for teaching. At Yale, she has written, she found students who, like her, were “deeply committed to learning, to excelling academically, to doing rigorous work,” who were “a joy to teach.”
Despite her appreciation for “her Yalies,” and the African-American studies department’s desire to retain her, she felt isolated in the ivory tower amid the New Haven ghetto, and she published no books while living there. In 1988, she decided to continue her scholarship and her newfound love of teaching at Oberlin College in Ohio. Since it had bordered several slave states, Ohio had a unique and important connection with the South. One of America’s most progressive institutions, Oberlin was the first truly co-educational college in the United States. A stop on the underground railroad, its charter committed it to educating “people of color,” and it was the first college to graduate an African-American woman.
Oberlin seemed to provide a nourishing atmosphere for hooks, and during her seven years there she produced as many books: on feminism from her personal perspective, which sparked her love of “confessional writing”; on race and racism; on art and the power of images to form prejudices; on black womanhood. She also put out her first book on pedagogy, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, whose success propelled her into new and important territory. Many frustrated teachers in the academy liked what she had to say.
By the time of Teaching to Transgress, hooks had developed such a wide array of associations (reading a book a day for years on end) and ranged into so many areas, that she had become a unique thinker who nevertheless provided many external sources for her thought. In her first book on pedagogy, she paid homage to the Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and to Thich Nhat Hanh. Friere had taught her, from her earliest days in college, she wrote, to challenge the “banking system” of education, whereby a student was meant to store and spend what a professor deposited. From Thich Nhat Hanh she learned to think of the teacher as a healer, one who emphasizes wholeness, and teaching people as a unity of mind, body, and spirit.
Building on what she learned from these teachers, hooks encouraged teachers and students to “transgress” the boundaries that locked them into their roles as imparters and receivers of knowledge. The goal of education was not to be filled with knowledge, but rather to find “well-being.” Furthermore, to take part in the “engaged pedagogy” hooks advocated, teachers would have a responsibility not merely to be well-versed in their fields, but to have a commitment to their own well-being and self-actualization, breaking down—transgressing—the barriers between public and private, personal and institutional, educational and practical, even between mind and body. Otherwise, hooks posited, our schools would continue to be places where succeeding generations were schooled in the ways of dominator culture.
Just as she had done with feminist theory, hooks allowed the ideas in Teaching to Transgress to percolate before putting out her second book on education. By the time Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope came out in 2003, hooks had moved from Oberlin to become Distinguished Professor of English at the City College of New York, at 138th Street and Convent Avenue, in the heart of Harlem. As hooks recounts in Teaching Community, when she started at City in 1995 she went from teaching elite students in private schools to teaching “predominantly non-white students from poor and working-class backgrounds . . . , many of them doing the work of single parenting, working a job, and attending school.” She also found students who were increasingly being “educated” by media images, which fired her enthusiasm for teaching her students to think critically about the world those images conveniently invented for them.
hooks’ prodigious output continued during her time at City. She produced the autobiographical works about growing up quoted above, but she also began to turn her thoughts to the plight of black people in general and black men in particular. What she found teaching in Harlem was an endemic lack of self-esteem and a propensity for self-sabotage: fear of failure was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Her prescription, laid out in books like Killing Rage: Ending Racism and Salvation: Black People and Love, was to find within the rage that has arisen from repeated injustices a path to healing. From hooks’ point of view, this requires people to discover what it means to love—not just greeting card love or the love expressed in gestures, but self-love, and a love of others strengthened by justice. It is the deep “metaphysics of love,” where you learn to “bring to everyday life a sense, not just of doing things, but of being and meaning.”
What hooks means by this, she tells me, is that love is not possible when we are defined by images given to us by others, by the people and processes of dominator culture. Instead, we must be able to “self-invent,” to develop who we are from within. The same kind of thinking runs through her work on black men and masculinity, We Real Cool. “One of the big failures for black men,” she tells me, “has been a failure to imagine themselves beyond the terms of the existing culture. Feminism gave to black women and all women the ability to imagine themselves beyond patriarchal images. But black men have just continued to feel ‘I should be earning a certain amount of money.’
“I don’t necessarily feel the need for my partner to have a job,” she continues, “so long as he occupies his day with something that absorbs his imagination. But women will say to me, ‘Girlfriend, I would do nothing with a guy who didn’t bring in the money.’ So we see again there is no alternative vision of how black men who are unemployed could be leading their lives. And black men who have made it just see themselves as having won the competition. If you believe in competition, then you believe that those people who didn’t make it weren’t good enough. The whole issue is still framed within the existing hierarchy, and within the existing hierarchy, black men are doomed. Who cares about black men, the most ignored group in America? Black men need both regular literacy—they are the most illiterate group in the nation—and critical literacy. They need to critique the notion of patriarchal masculinity to save their own lives.”
bell hooks poured her heart into teaching in Harlem, but after a few years the challenges at City and the years of gargantuan output began to take their toll. In “Time Out,” a chapter in Teaching Community, hooks talks about her burnout, and how after years of being nurtured in the academy, she had to find a place “where teaching and learning could be practiced outside the norm.” A leave of absence evolved into a resignation and abandonment of the perks of senior professorship. She began to think of the world as the classroom and the community as both student body and faculty.
Some parents asked hooks why she worked only with students in their late teens and twenties, who already find it hard to unlearn the rules of dominator culture. hooks began to write children’s books about loving who you are and loving others, and to go into children’s classrooms. She likes “blunt speech,” truth-telling, and honest questioning, which she finds children are so very good at. She hates to see “the passion in the child repressed by those who are afraid of losing authority when they have difficulty answering the hard questions. Parents may pretend we’re all just people and race and class don’t matter, but children know what they see. But they are taught not to talk about it. They learn from a young age to stop giving a true account of what they see. And blunt speech becomes associated with anger, when it may just be speech that isn’t opaque.”
Her taking up children’s books coincided with her discovery of the need to bring out her “playfulness” more. It became important to her that she enjoy life and also be seen by students as enjoying life. Otherwise, they would think that a life of critical thinking is an unpleasant life. “When people used to ask me, ‘How do you write so many books?’ I would answer with a bad joke: ‘because I don’t have a life.’ I started to interrogate that joke and I saw that I had an unbalanced life, frankly, an unhappy life. The last year when I was really turning out work, I brought out three books in a year. My body suffered and my life suffered. It was the right time for those books, but there were whole other parts of life I needed to cultivate.
“The spark for going to Berea was that I had to change my life. Get away from being at the computer all hours, from people calling at all hours. I feel great now because I have more simplicity and more balance. I can move, but I can also be still.”
In addition to working on more children’s books about love, hooks is working on “little pieces about nature.” Returning home has caused her to “reflect on the restorative aspects of nature.” She has taken a strong interest in deep ecology, and the work of Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, and Vedana Shiva. She is taken with the healing power of the land and the fact that “the agrarian roots of black people can be a place of hope and possibility.”
Buddhism is another important strain in hooks’ life. It has helped her and allowed her to help others. She considers herself a Buddhist, but she would never say that to some people down home, because it could be taken the wrong way in a culture that has no context for it. She says she is a “Buddhist nomad,” not a part of any group. “I shy away from a lot of group-oriented things, where power and pettiness often emerge in ways that really turn me off. If I go to something like a Thich Nhat Hanh event, I am much happier on the periphery.”
As a result, many people don’t consider her or her work Buddhist. That annoys her at times, but in the end, she enjoys her right to “self-invent” and not be measured by others’ yardsticks. She notes that Buddhism in the West has largely been white and very cerebral, and when she’s taken siblings to Buddhist events, they’ve said, “It’s really cold here.” But she is cheered by the fact that in recent years there has been “more talk about loving-kindness and service,” and in any case, she says, “I don’t care about the label. I care whether I can do the work of the dharma. I seem to be able to talk about mind and body and love and healing, and integrate Buddhism into places where Buddhism doesn’t normally go.”
hooks likes to talk about “seasons of life,” and help her students learn to make choices that are not absolute—I am a this or a that forever—but that go along with the season. So, what would bell hooks like to do with her next season, this season of balancing and appreciating the earth? “I would like to spend more time than I already am helping individuals resolve the difficulties in their lives through love,” she says. “I would like to bring the work of mindfulness and awareness to everyday struggles. The most important field of activism, particularly for black people, is mental health. Activism does not need to be some kind of organized ‘against’ protest. When my students say they want to change the world, I espouse an inward to outward movement. If you feel that you can’t do shit about your own reality, how can you really think you could change the world? And guess what? When you’re fucked-up and you lead the revolution, you are probably going to get a pretty fucked-up revolution.”
hooks loves houses. She likes to renovate them and make them beautiful, and when it comes to summing up what she’s about, that’s the image she chooses. “For a house to be truly beautiful it has to have a strong foundation,” she says. “For us, that means finding the ground of our being, the place where we discover ourselves. Our foundation of self-invention does not preclude community. In genuine community there is lots of difference. We all make our contribution from a place of difference, not sameness. It is difficult to find the place where difference can exist in a context of harmony, where it is not necessary to dominate, but that is our foundation, the ground of our being. It’s where we start.”
Love Fights the Power, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, July 2006.