bell hooks

In these fraught times, the dis­course sur­round­ing the inter­sec­tion­al­ity of race, fem­i­nism and pol­i­tics has found a promi­nent place in con­tem­po­rary cul­tural con­scious­ness, but these themes have under­pinned fem­i­nist the­o­rist and acclaimed writer bell hooks’ work since she pub­lished her opus, Ain’t I a Woman?, in 1981.

bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins during the height of racial seg­re­ga­tion to a work­ing class family in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Her mother, Rosa, was a home­maker and her father, Veodis, a jan­i­tor. As a child, bell was already recit­ing the works of promi­nent black poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. Excelling at her stud­ies, she went on to achieve her B.A. in English from Stanford, her PhD in lit­er­a­ture from the University of California, and began writ­ing under the name bell hooks (writ­ten in lower case to focus the atten­tion on her mes­sage rather than her­self), adopted from her mater­nal great-grand­mother.

In a pro­lific career, she has writ­ten over 30 books dis­cussing how race and gender link to exploita­tion and the oppres­sion of the black com­mu­nity, and in doing so she has become one of the world’s most fore­most female aca­d­e­mics on race and gender. More recently, her essay Moving Beyond Pain, which bell penned in response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade care­fully cri­tiqued the album and its visu­als in rela­tion to the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the black female body. 

What is the role of the black female in modern day fem­i­nism and what, if any­thing, do you think needs to change?
The major inter­ven­tion black women, and women of colour, have made to con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nism has been the focus on what we now call inter­sec­tion­al­ity, what I would, back in the day, talk about as an impe­ri­al­ist white suprema­cist cap­i­tal­ist patri­archy. But it was about the refusal to accept the notion that gender defines every­thing about who a female person is, and that we have to con­sider other things, like class and race. People use the term inter­sec­tion­al­ity’ but it hasn’t really had the trans­for­ma­tive impact either on fem­i­nist think­ing and theory and action that we wanted it to have. Feminism is endan­gered in the United States, there is a tremen­dous hatred people in the States are show­ing to women in power, espe­cially to Hillary Clinton. It feels like we’re in a mighty anti-fem­i­nist back­lash.

It’s inter­est­ing that you brought Hillary up. She has largely got the sup­port of the older black female com­mu­nity but the younger gen­er­a­tion of black American women say they don’t feel rep­re­sented by her.
I don’t think that we’ve ever had a pres­i­dent that has showed any kind of sig­nif­i­cant con­cern with black people or the pol­i­tics of race, so I don’t think that we can expect any sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive change from either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

What part does black fem­i­nism play within the Black Lives Matter move­ment?
Everyone is aware that Black Lives Matter began with black females, many of whom are les­bians and many of whom are com­mit­ted fem­i­nists, but I don’t actu­ally see an anti-patri­ar­chal per­spec­tive within the frame­work of the move­ment. It seems that rad­i­cal women take part, and yet, in order to have that space and power they have to relin­quish the dis­course of fem­i­nism.

So much of what you are saying is built upon a sense of com­mu­nity, how do you think class has infil­trated the move­ment?
So much of the cul­tural dis­course cen­tres around an obses­sion with wealth and upward mobil­ity; it’s actu­ally made it harder for people to rad­i­calise in com­mu­ni­ties because there is such a refusal on the part of many people of colour and black people to really have a cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism.

Do you think there is a big dif­fer­ence between your expe­ri­ence as a black American female and mine as a black British female?
Absolutely. Here in the U.S. there has been an inor­di­nate focus on black mas­culin­ity and the assump­tion that the way to lib­er­ate black men is through patri­archy. I don’t see that run­ning through British cul­ture in the same way, that con­stant focus on black mas­culin­ity tends to obfus­cate and take away mean­ing­ful atten­tion from black females. The nar­ra­tive of lib­er­a­tion in the U.S almost always ends up in terms of black people val­oris­ing patri­archy.

Can you go into what you do with your organ­i­sa­tion, the bell hooks insti­tute?
The pri­mary focus of the bell hooks insti­tute is really twofold. One is to pro­tect my legacy and my work for the future, so included in the insti­tute is my own col­lec­tion of African American art, arte­facts and archive. Then the second pur­pose is to be a liai­son between aca­d­e­mic theory and every­day life. I’m really inter­ested in the role of con­ver­sa­tion as a teach­ing tool. At the insti­tute we don’t court an aca­d­e­mic audi­ence so much as a crit­i­cally think­ing audi­ence.

Why do you think con­ver­sa­tion is such an impor­tant tool for edu­ca­tion?
If you talk to some­one and they tell you oh, this is a really good book to read’ you remem­ber that book, but if you just read a review some­where, you might not be as engaged. Now that social media is so strong and pow­er­ful, people talk­ing to each other is actu­ally a cru­cial inter­ven­tion on the estrange­ment and iso­la­tion that can happen when people are too engaged with social media. Interacting with people face-to-face is crit­i­cal — dis­em­bod­ied con­nec­tions will never have the same value as embod­ied con­nec­tions.

What does the word jus­tice mean to you?
What we see in many cases is a white supremacy and what defines that as a polit­i­cal sys­tems is grave injus­tice. So jus­tice has a value worth work­ing for, worth sac­ri­fic­ing for. Dr Martin Luther King did talk a lot about jus­tice, but I also think of a modern day activist like Bryan Stevenson, who is com­mit­ted to trying to create jus­tice for black chil­dren and black people who are unjustly impris­oned; he’s just amaz­ing. Conversation is very con­nected to this, one of the books that we are look­ing at, at the insti­tute, is called The Soul Making Room by Dee Dee Risher, who used to write for a Christian mag­a­zine called The Other Side. Her whole thesis is around the degree to which hos­pi­tal­ity and will­ing­ness to engage the stranger aids us in efforts to end dom­i­na­tion. I can’t think of a more appro­pri­ate moment to dis­cuss this, as we going through such a rise in xeno­pho­bia and white supremacy at the moment. We need to talk about what it means to embrace people who are not like our­selves.

How do you con­vince the aver­age black American to have these con­ver­sa­tions with some­one who may be overtly against what they rep­re­sent?
Well… that is a chal­lenge, and we can’t say it’s easy. I was actu­ally just talk­ing with a woman this morn­ing about a white male that is very sup­port­ive of Trump, very con­ser­v­a­tive. I was saying how I’ve tried to be an open com­rade with him and to explain to him that Trump threat­ens our lives as people of colour, he just didn’t get it and I found that very dis­cour­ag­ing. Part of me just wanted to say oh I give up on this person.’ I think the chal­lenge of not giving up on people is very cen­tral to the strug­gle for jus­tice. You have to have hope in everyone’s capac­ity to trans­form. That is really the bottom line in terms of any kind of strug­gle to end dom­i­na­tion; that we don’t demonise groups and that we stay with the values that are moti­vat­ing and push­ing our con­cerns.

What advice would you give young people about social activism and how they can make tan­gi­ble changes within the com­mu­nity to inform and edu­cate other young people?
Revolution begins in the self and with the self. I see among my stu­dents an eager­ness to be engaged in social activism, but with­out the matu­rity of emo­tional aware­ness and sta­bil­ity that allows us to really look at a sit­u­a­tion and say, What’s my pur­pose here? What’s the intent here?’ On that level it’s really impor­tant for people, those who are young espe­cially, to engage in edu­ca­tion for crit­i­cal con­scious­ness and to not think that just because they think sexism is wrong to get up and be part of some protest. Young people need to remem­ber that it’s impor­tant to really study and reflect on what our aims are, and what we can actu­ally do. To ask ques­tions like, what does this par­tic­u­lar protest do?’ Like with Black Lives Matter, find out what the acts of social change are that came out of that move­ment? Of course, it’s a state­ment to just bring aware­ness, but what do we do after bring­ing aware­ness? It’s not just Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, it’s about how we take the emo­tional energy of social activism into an arena that cre­ates con­crete change in our every­day lives and in the lives of people around us. I am really big on work­ing for change in the actual com­mu­ni­ties we live in, because so often when we engage a larger cri­tique, and a larger protest, it doesn’t have an impact on where we live.

Engaging in huge move­ments is incred­i­ble, but you also need to take care of house and home, and try and effect change in the com­mu­ni­ties you live in, and amongst the people that sur­round you…
Yes, a lot of my young stu­dents have been amaz­ing in edu­cat­ing their par­ents for crit­i­cal con­scious­ness. That’s a mean­ing­ful sign of resis­tance because it really helps people to see the family as a place where it’s impor­tant to have an absence of dom­i­na­tion. The home is where many of us first learnt first hand about dom­i­na­tion and abuse.

What power do you think social media has in affect­ing change?
I think one of the clear mis­uses of social media is that people are fre­quently very hos­tile in their responses to dif­fer­ent opin­ions. The response to my crit­i­cal essay on Lemonade, is an exam­ple. So many people were so shal­low in their responses, like bell doesn’t like Beyoncé’ and I kept saying to people I don’t know Beyoncé! This is not about Beyoncé as a person, this is about ideas.’ I think that some­how social media allows people to both per­son­alise things in ways that are not healthy, but also to have a level of mean spirit­ed­ness in how they respond, because people often respond in a per­sonal way like bell hooks is will­ing to like Emma Watson, but she doesn’t like Beyoncé.’ To try to shift people away from the cult of per­son­al­ity and celebrity is dif­fi­cult, and I’m not so sure that social media has helped in that realm because it’s an easy way for people to claim celebrity or space’ through per­sonal beef towards other people.

So you’ve seen fem­i­nism almost become a vehi­cle of cri­tique and slan­der rather than a vehi­cle to unify? There is a whole wave of inter­net fem­i­nism that would say it’s done more for the move­ment, but you’re saying not nec­es­sar­ily…
Well, I wouldn’t say that it hasn’t, I shy away from any­thing as reduc­tive as either/​or. Whether it’s good or it’s bad, I think that what we see in some cases is a very pow­er­ful agent for gal­vanis­ing people towards work­ing for change, and in other cases it indulges some of the worst aspects of social organ­is­ing. I’m not a person that uses social media in the way that other people do, I have a helper who does email for me! I don’t do a lot on the inter­net and I don’t read a lot on the inter­net. I’m a prim­i­tive who reads books every­day. I think because of my com­mit­ment to a spir­i­tual prac­tice, I need to not over­load my mind and imag­i­na­tion. But the inter­net is great when you want infor­ma­tion you don’t have, I love how easy it is to access it.

It’s been 35 years since Ain’t I a Woman? was first pub­lished. How do you see it fit­ting into a con­tem­po­rary cul­tural land­scape?
One of the things I often find enor­mously dis­cour­ag­ing is that so many of the ideas that came out in my early books dis­cussed the deval­u­a­tion of black women and what’s really clear is that not a lot has changed. So many things have changed in terms of greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion and greater pres­ence, yet so fre­quently this pres­ence has lead to the unveil­ing of inor­di­nate hos­til­ity. So in the States we have more hatred, even though we have more aware­ness at the same time.

You also have the fetishi­sa­tion of the black image…
And that fetishi­sa­tion is an expres­sion of dehu­man­i­sa­tion and the colonis­ing gaze. I think people forget that when there is a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and then sud­denly there you are, it’s hard to main­tain that crit­i­cal vig­i­lance that allows you to unpack what a par­tic­u­lar image may actu­ally be con­vey­ing.