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Interview by bell hooks with Desiree Cooper
SOURCE: "'I Think White Women Are Really Happy When Black Women Abandon Feminism': Bell Hooks on Being a Black Woman in Middle America," in Metro Times, Vol. XIV, No. 47, August 24-30, 1994, p. 14.
In the following interview, hooks and Cooper discuss feminism and African American men.
Since Ain't A Woman, published in 1981 and recently named one of the 20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years by Publisher's Weekly, Bell Hooks has been a trailblazer and guide in the nebulous territory that belongs to the contemporary black American woman. A professor at Oberlin College in the English and Women's Studies departments, Hooks has received numerous literary awards. Her most recent book, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, is a call for reunification among a diverse, and increasingly divergent, segment of society.
In this edited interview, Hooks talks about white feminism, black men and where to go from here.
[Cooper]: What do you think of the much-publicized schism between the traditional feminist movement and African-American women?
[Hooks]: I think this is really a fiction. Part of that fiction arises from the tremendous ignorance people have about feminism, about where it began. Individual African-American women were always part of feminist movement. We were not there in large numbers; we tended to be in the minority. So what ends up happening is our presence gets erased altogether. People forget that Shirley Chisholm was one of the first politicians in this country to really champion abortion rights in the interests of young black females and older black females who were suffering repeated, undesired pregnancies.
That history gets lost, because white women weren't interested in it and didn't call attention to it. When younger black women like myself came on the scene in the '70s and began to critique that racism of white women, many people took that critique to mean (we were critiquing) the absence of black women. But our absence is very different from erasure on the part of those who are ignorant.
What you're describing is, perhaps, the conflict that black women feel choosing between racism vs. sexism, and often being forced to make that choice if they're going to be called a feminist.
I think that you said it, that we're often forced by others. I think white women are really happy when black women abandon feminism and act like our needs are not the same as theirs, because then they get to really dominate. It's really clear that white women have been that group which has most benefited from affirmative action in this society. And bourgeois, mainstream, white-dominated feminism was very crucial to putting that into place. So, of course, that group loves it when black women say, "Oh, this has nothing to do with us."
And, I think, of course, black men and white men love it when black women say feminism has nothing to do with us. Because it continues this age-old competition between women for male favor.
I think that a lot of black women realize that black men often are very threatened by the term feminism, and threatened by some sense that we are uniting past race.
Have we ever heard any black men, intellectual, from W.E.B. Dubois on to Cornel West, have any of them been told, "You must choose between being black and being on the left? Are you a Marxist first or black?" We won't see those questions asked of contemporary black male intellectuals on the left.
Twenty years ago, when I first became involved with feminism, the question I was most asked was, "Are you black first or a woman?" Twenty years later, that's still the question I'm most asked, particularly by other black people.
And what is your response?
My response is that it's precisely that kind of dualistic split that is at the heart of racist, sexist thinking around domination, this either/or. The thing is, what most black women say is, "We do not have a choice; we are both black and women."
In taking what you're saying as a given, then how does a black woman who wants to tackle the politics of dominance fit herself into the traditional feminist movement?
First of all, I think we don't try to fit into the mainstream feminist movement, because that movement is narrow-minded in its vision for all women. I think that what we have done in such a grand and revolutional manner that's so threatening to mainstream white women is that we've said, "This movement isn't really useful for the masses of people." We need to re-vision it. We need to make it more inclusive. If you look at the work of contemporary black feminists—Audre Lorde, who's passed away—you see such a call for a more expansive feminist vision. We don't just call for expanding that vision for blacks, we call for expanding it because it's really not very helpful for masses of men and women.
I also think that you get powerful black women revolting, calling this out, establishing the terrain for ourselves, for black people, and for the public as a whole to say, "Wait a minute. We're not going to just walk away from feminism. We're going to challenge this. We're going to demand change, and we're going to be at the forefront of creating theory that revolutionizes our thinking. Black women's demands that white women cut through their denial and face the reality of racism created a revolution in feminist thinking.
I think that part of the myth of white bourgeois feminism was that there isn't any price to be paid. You can have it all. You can have your beautiful yuppie home, you can have your beautiful yuppie children, your beautiful cars, your house in the Hamptons, you can have everything.
But the fact is there are not the structures in place to allow black women who are moving from the underclass and the working class into whole new spheres of class power to "have everything" in a kind of neat, simplistic way. And I'm not saying that we can't have everything. I'm saying that the mechanisms by which we grow into having everything may be very, very different from those that white women who are from more privileged classes, because I think white women who are not privileged suffer the same kinds of things we're talking about in terms of black women.
Let me ask you a more personal question. Your given name is Gloria Watkins, and you now prefer to be called Bell Hooks. Who is Bell Hooks and why is she different from Gloria Watkins?
I chose that name to honor my grandmother, my mother's mother, because I wanted to say, black women come from generations of powerful women who had given us something.
For me, Bell Hooks is a constant reminder of the fact that, as a black woman, I am not alone. And I think that's important for us, because while I might be the only black woman distinguished professor, and I could sit around being paranoid about what my colleagues are thinking about me, it's so much better for me to sit around and be thinking about how proud Bell Hooks would be of me, that I have not compromised myself.
Shirley Chisholm is so important to me. Girlfriend wrote that book Unbought and Unbossed, and when I read it, I thought, God, I want to grow up to be like this black woman, who can look at the world and say, "I am unbought and unbossed." That is what Bell Hooks means to me; fundamentally, that constant reminder of our creativity, our choice, the fact that I can choose this name, that I can play with words, that I can be as funky as a I want to be. All of those things are a source of empowerment for me.
There is such a large rift, it seems, between black women and black men. I've always said there's been a women's movement and no men's movement. The question is how to move for there to be real healing, I think.
I feel like I want to do more books like The Sisters of the Yam. I can't tell you how many black men come up to me and say, "I loved Sisters of the Yam. Why don't we have something like this?" Partially, we won't have things like this for black men until more black men dare to challenge their sexism.
I think this is absolutely true, and I think it's on the horizon. And that's exciting.
This section contains 1,406 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)