To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re opening up our archives to share interesting profiles of interesting women — as reported by some of our most interesting women writers. To follow more in the series, explore the #womenbywomen on Twitter, and share your own favorites using the hashtag.
A woman of her words: Black feminist bell hooks finds no shortage of admirers — and critics
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Feb. 9, 1999
On a recent Wednesday night the crowd at Vertigo Books lined up early, taking up every inch of space and spilling out the front door into the dusk. They were mainly under 30, black and white, male and female — but mostly female, squeezed together to hear bell hooks read from her new book. It’s called “Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work,” and describes her reflections on famous writers, her own work and “women who write too much.”
More and more, this commanding feminist writer with the attention-getting name is drawing a devoted public. They respond to the themes in her essays and books about the exclusion of minority women from mainstream feminism, and how black women need to think more about loving and celebrating themselves instead of just surviving, and the dominance of men in all women’s lives. And yet, even as she is greeted by standing-room-only crowds in literary gathering places across the country, she seems to spend a lot of her public time explaining her enviable output of 17 books in less than 20 years.
A lot of people are stuck in old-time thinking that the role of an African American woman is servitude, she suggests. Certainly not that she could be a forceful and sometimes wry critic of all kinds of status quos, an iconoclast and a prickly intellectual.
“I can be standing in Barneys with my coat and purse and my selections and some white woman will say, Can you get this in my size?’ ” she says sharply. “What she sees is a black woman and her service button goes off.”
She is against all typecasting, and intended to remind everyone of that when she borrowed her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother and chose the lowercase as a symbolic critique of contemporary personality worship. But her frustration is definitely uppercase.
“No one said to John Coltrane, Why do you play the saxophone so much?’ . . . They accepted he had a passion for this,” says hooks. She is wrapped in black and red wool, as dramatic in person as she is on the page. Writing is as easy for her as breathing, and as necessary for life, she says. “There is a lushness to how my mind works. And sometimes I feel guilty because I have this abundance of ideas but I have my life mapped out in writing for the next 20 years.”
Despite the obstacles she sees, hooks has become the best-known voice of contemporary black feminism. Her books are taught in colleges, including “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the “20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years.” She’s often the only female presence on the panels with scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West. She returned to Washington Sunday, for the second time in a month, for a reading at Sisterspace and Books. Nursing the last vestiges of the flu with a cup of tea, she said the current book partly answers all those critics. “It really fascinates me what white people are allowed to write about,” she said, to supportive laughter.
She’s not surprised that her critics carp about her progressive ideas because this is “not a pro-feminist moment in our culture.” Nor does she expect a warm reception to radical feminism from many African Americans. But she is deeply annoyed about the slam that she writes too much. “It saddens me because I think of it as a form of censorship,” says hooks. “I believe that if I had 16 novels people would not have trouble with that. It is the idea that these books are about ideas. Part of it is [the critics] saying if it is a black woman you already know what she thinks. If it is Gore Vidal, you need to read the book to know what he thinks, but if you have read one bell hooks book you know what she thinks.”
At 46, she lives in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York, leading a spare existence rooted in her daily writing schedule. At the moment, she lives alone, a state that she labels “out-of-balance.” With her output and her credentials, hooks is solidly a member of the current brain trust, having taught at Yale University, Oberlin College and since 1994 at City College in New York.
When she emerges from her solitary writing life, she sees two worlds: those who find her provocative and applaud her right to say what she wants, and those who wish she would pick one cause instead of two. Straddling the often-separate battles for civil rights for black people and equality for women has not made her life easy. Jesse Larsen, co-author of “500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide,” wrote that “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black,” hooks’s 1989 book of essays, possessed a “thoroughly examined and well-articulated understanding” of domination. Kirkus Reviews noted that in her latest book “hooks in her usual, forthright and engaging style makes plain her opinions: on the dearth of nonfiction by black women authors, the role of race in the critical reception of new work, and the cynicism of the publishing industry. What could have been a caustic, scathing collection of essays, however, proves to be just the opposite: generous, open and inspiring.”
But critic Thulani Davis, while acknowledging that hooks is “provocative and prolific,” said her voice and writing style faltered in “Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood.” “The writing lacks the ease and energy of Ms. hooks’s other prose, the exuberance of her engagement with rich texts and conversation and solitude,” wrote Davis. And when reviewer Jewelle Gomez labeled her “the Joyce Carol Oates of black feminist writing” — that smarted.
So here is a woman who’s attacked not just for what she says but for saying it too much. She says race and class should be in the forefront of the discussion of feminism. She wants gender and class, which she thinks are not discussed openly enough, front and center in the analysis of civil rights. She complains that the literary shoguns reap unjustified credit for publishing more and more minority writers but they still are “not confident we are serious thinkers and writers.” She argues that eroticism “is not only sexual but a fundamental energy that underlies, informs and shapes everything we do.” She urges African Americans and whites to “decolonize” about what an acceptable black thought or person is. She explains, “We are a box of chocolates. A white editor will say in a meeting, I don’t like your flavor but do you know so-and-so, we like her flavor. Why don’t you try that.’ ” So, after decades of national debate about black vs. white, patriarchy vs. womanism, elite vs. disadvantaged, hooks finds herself on the defensive. And she feels there is another reason. The daughter of a janitor and a domestic worker, hooks thinks some of her critics, both black and white, feel her working-class origins lessen her right to speak out. In “Killing Rage: Ending Racism” she wrote “The ethic of liberal individualism has so deeply permeated the psyches of blacks . . . of all classes that we have little support for a political ethic of communalism that promotes the sharing of resources.”
During her recent visit, she sketched out her response to the latest round of literary rejection. You’d think that someone who has chosen the life of cultural provocateur would be more hardened to criticism. But she seeks approval as much as any writer does. “I am always amazed when people say my books are alike,” she says. “I think of them as musical compositions where the melody may have a hint of something that is in another song but it takes you to a new place.”
This continuing exercise, of responding to both devoted and critical readers, suggests that perhaps her ego has overtaken her political consciousness. But she sees in her story a more widespread reluctance to see bright black women as multidimensional. “Black women have trouble. [Writer] Naomi Wolfe is allowed to be both intellectual and sexy. Whenever a black woman is attractive and sexy, she must be a whore. It makes it difficult for black women to be fully complex. I’m playful, anybody who hangs out with me knows that, but I am also a dead-serious intellectual woman who is on the job.”
A Generation of Fans
Her bluntness has drawn a new generation of women to hooks’s feminist theory. During the Million Woman March in Philadelphia two years ago, actress Jada Pinkett Smith announced she had to leave the stage so she wouldn’t miss an interview session with bell hooks. The actress later said “Ain’t I a Woman” changed her life. There are hundreds of Pinkett Smiths.
But those who promote the concept of Kwanzaa were probably not happy with the dialogue between producer George C. Wolfe and hooks that appeared in Essence magazine two years ago. She doesn’t support the celebration, which borrows some African traditions, because she thinks “you’re talking about patriarchal Black Nationalist men who decided they had to reinvent [these principles]. As if they didn’t already exist. Suddenly we hadn’t had faith or self-determination.”
All of the hooks persona makes a lot of sense to her fans. Sandra DaVal, a local teacher, listened intently at the Vertigo reading and lined up quickly to get her book signed. “I found Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom’ was really inspiring. It looked at empowering people through education,” she said. “She talks so clearly about the idea of stepping out of place,” says Corinna Moebius, the director of a women’s Web site, citing the influence of “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.” “I have drawn on her ideas again and again. She has helped me to step out of my place and come to my voice.”
A Writer’s Childhood
As a child, hooks learned to use writing as a refuge from criticism. Her family in Hopkinsville, Ky., didn’t understand her need for an inner life, or her compulsion to write in her journal. But reading and storytelling were respected in her segregated community. Later she could write about everything, the nurturing moments, the devastating moments, much too candidly for her family, but then her escape was poetry.
She also wrote to erase her young self, the young Gloria Jean Watkins, described by her as “the girl who was always wrong, always punished . . . she was the girl who sat a hot iron on her arm pleading with them to leave her alone. . . . This death in writing was to be liberatory.”
She found political and literary freedom in California, where she earned her BA from Stanford University and later a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It was while she lived in the Bay Area that feminists discovered her work, which was deeply influenced by Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, by the beats and Buddhism, by Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. She emerged as what she calls “a cultural worker on the left.”
In her work, she looks carefully at the years that have followed the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. She has concluded that when black popular culture, like rap music and hip-hop, is tinkered with by the mainstream blacks and whites after it has been developed in poor or isolated communities, it becomes “colonized” and used for the purposes of the middleman, not the originators. She doesn’t particularly like rap, but she frames her criticism differently than most. “In hip-hop and R&B, we hear endless messages that make erotic desire a site for the exchange of goods or the enactment of aggression. Listening to the brutal expression of sexual desire found in much male-centered rap music makes you wonder what kind of sex young people are having and why they connect sex with hostility, violence and even hatred.”
These debates have gone on for a long time, as the voices etching out a framework for black feminist thought go back to the Civil War and the work of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. From the beginning of this century, black women used organizations to advance their cause, and used the strength of their numbers to pressure both presidents and black male leaders. Barrier-breakers, such as Lena Horne in entertainment and Pauli Murray in law, were expected to excel in their fields and also work hard for civil rights. When the women’s movement became a social action force in the late 1960s, many black men decided feminism was a frivolous distraction in the fight for civil rights. But the elected politicians of the early 1970s, notably Shirley Chisholm, showed how to fight both sexism and racism without compromise.
The emerging literary writers of the 1970s — Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde — opened the way for more theorists to have their say. In 1970 Toni Cade Bambara edited “The Black Woman,” a discussion of race and gender that electrified young women, including hooks, then a high school senior. She devotes a chapter in her new book to Bambara, and includes as well essays on Hurston, Dickinson, Ann Petry, Morrison and Hansberry. “Toni’s book was a beacon,” she says of Bambara’s influence. “Had she become a major spokesperson for the black liberation struggle, had her insistence that black men critique their sexism been taken seriously, the more militant dimensions of the black freedom struggle would have transformed the lives of black people everywhere.”
But for many reasons the call was not answered, except through women like hooks. She has had her say. Next she is doing a children’s book and a trilogy on love. So perhaps one year soon, she might beat her own personal best of two published books in one year, and have three or four.
But right now, as she talks about her writing and its reception, she is happy about Cheerios. One of her closest friends, Kim Sykes, is an actress who appears in a current commercial for the cereal. “We talk about how often black women are shot by photographers in ways we look monstrous. We are often shot from down under [the chin]. It is like we are all visualized into would-be mammies,” hooks says. But in this ad, she is happy to report, the family looks normal, even polished, and the boy is doing his homework — practicing his state capitals. When he stumbles on the capital of Vermont, his sister, from the depths of her highchair, says softly, “Montpelier.”
“It’s a very affirming image of blackness,” she says. And a moment of comfort to a feminist.