Bell hooks | Critical Review by Shelley P. Haley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
This section contains 2,671 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shelley P. Haley

Critical Review by Shelley P. Haley

SOURCE: "Practicing Freedom," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 6, March, 1995, pp. 10-11.

In the following review, Haley provides a detailed analysis of Teaching to Transgress and Outlaw Culture.

Have you ever read a book and felt that it was written about you? This usually happens to me only with novels, so I was especially startled to read bell hooks' latest collection of essays, Teaching to Transgress. Like hooks, I have been teaching in a college or university setting for twenty years. Like hooks, I am a Black woman who advocates feminism; like hooks, my degree is in a traditional Eurocentric field—Classics for me, English literature for her. We share a passion for curricular transformation and critical thinking.

As I read Teaching to Transgress, I found myself sighing with relief many times; here, for all to read, was my experience of teaching, pedagogy and classroom dynamics. Here, clearly articulated, was a Black feminist critique of a hierarchical system of higher education that promotes research over teaching and service. I can't help emphasizing how important it is to have the voice of this Black feminist activist/teacher as a counterpoint to books like The Bell Curve: Hooks—always an academic outlaw—sharply criticizes its "liberals-are-taking-over-the-ivy-tower" mentality.

The main message of Teaching to Transgress is that the teacher is also a student and the student is also a teacher. In "Embracing Change," hooks writes:

To teach effectively a diverse student body, I have to learn these [cultural] codes. And so do students. This act alone transforms the classroom…. Often professors and students have to learn to accept different ways of knowing, new epistemologies, in the multicultural setting.

One of the most striking aspects of Teaching to Transgress is the way it echoes the works of early Black women educators like Fanny Jackson Coppin, principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia from 1869 to 1906, who emphasizes in her 1913 Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching the importance of the reciprocity of respect between teacher and student. The personal anecdotes hooks interweaves with scholarly sources demonstrate the respect she has for both her students and colleagues. She offers a touching tribute to a student, O'Neal LaRone Clark, to whom the book is dedicated: "… we danced our way into the future as comrades and friends bound by all we had learned in class together."

For hooks, education is the practice of freedom—especially as crystallized in Paolo Freire's liberation pedagogy, which she also espouses. My own experience with the excitement of education mirrors hooks' engagement with Freire's work. I was educated in upstate New York schools that were overwhelmingly white; the facilities were quite good, but my self-esteem and independence of thought were established at home by my mother, grandmothers and aunts. The women in my family showed me how to use education to rise above the bigotry of my teachers: reading, writing and learning other languages became safe spaces where I expanded my mind.

In "Paulo Freire" hooks uses the dialogue form to convey the impact of his work on her. In recent years, she has increasingly constructed dialogues as a way to represent different voices and positions. In "Building a Teaching Community," she notes:

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.

Hooks' first dialogue was with Cornel West in her 1991 book Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. What makes the dialogue in "Paulo Freire" different is that she holds it with herself as Gloria Watkins (her given name), and through it we find out as much about hooks/Watkins as we do about Freire. (We learn, for example, that Freire reinforces her deep convictions about the importance of social and political activism.) This dialogue also reveals how hooks copes with the male orientation and sexism of Freire's language in his early works: "There is no need to apologize for the sexism. Freire's own model of critical pedagogy invites a critical interrogation of this flaw in the work. But critical interrogation is not the same as dismissal."

Hooks, in everything she writes, strives to make her work accessible to a broad and diverse audience. This has meant rethinking academic format and eliminating obstacles to understanding, whether footnotes or jargon. She often draws on the whole range of human knowledge and doesn't concern herself with petty questions of scholarly appropriateness. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Nanh is quoted alongside Paulo Freire; articles from The Village Voice are given as much weight as those by feminist scholars Mimi Orner or Chandra Mohanty; and a collection of essays edited by Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, Conflicts in Feminism, shares the spotlight with The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman.

In "Theory as Liberatory Practice," hooks explains why she has adopted this format: "my decisions about writing style, about not using conventional academic formats are political decisions motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations." However, my reaction to this subversion of academic format is split. My inner rebel says "You go, girl!" At the same time my prim classicist self says "It would facilitate the location of articles and books cited if there were a bibliography. I mean, really, who is going to read this except academics?"

As much as I admire Teaching to Transgress—and I do plan to use it in a seminar on Black feminist thought and practice—I was annoyed by some of hooks' assumptions. I have always been sensitive about class. I am a middle-class Black from the North; my "Black" vernacular is the vernacular of central New York; yet I have known poverty, racism and sexism. As a radical in the sixties, I always resented the notion that only Southern, working-class Black folks are authentic Blacks.

Hooks is from a Southern working-class background and she rightly focuses on this, but her negative attitude toward the middle but her negative attitude toward the middle class puts me on the defensive. In "Language," she claims that by using Black vernacular "we take the oppressor's language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language." But "we" are not all from Southern, rural, working-class backgrounds. "We" all don't speak Black vernacular, though we still strive to liberate ourselves in language, in theory and in teaching.

In fact, hooks is quite aware of problems with essentialism. In "Essentialism and Experience" she criticizes Diana Fuss, author of Essentially Speaking: "I am disturbed that she [Fuss] never acknowledges that racism, sexism, and class elitism shape the structure of class-rooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins." But while hooks emphasizes the importance of experience here, I worry that when it comes to social class, she falls into the same essentializing trap that she so very persuasively criticizes.

Nevertheless, hooks raises important questions throughout Teaching to Transgress. For instance, how can we teach with our bodies as well as our voices? In "Building a Teaching Community," a dialogue with Ron Scapp, a philosophy professor at Queens College in New York, she discusses the body in the classroom. Questions of movement, body language, placement of teacher and students are closely tied to the level of intellectual risk-taking with which both teachers and students are comfortable. "Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process" and "Ecstasy" are extensions of this discussion. In the former, hooks recalls an occasion when she had to use the restroom partway through a class in order to examine how we teachers are forced to deny our bodies and become disembodied voices of expertise. She then critically questions whether that approach is fruitful for anyone involved in a truly liberatory pedagogy.

Outlaw Culture takes on another contested subject: recent representations of Blacks in popular culture. My reaction to these essays was more mixed. Part of the reason is that when it comes to popular culture, we are all experts. While reading Outlaw Culture, I had to restrain myself from dissing hooks' interpretations merely because they disagreed with my own. Often I wished she and I were sitting at my kitchen table so we could talk through our differences. As in Teaching to Transgress, the language is accessible, but I did get tired of reading polysyllabic phrases like "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and "stimulate voyeuristic masturbatory pleasure."

The essay titles grab your attention—who can resist "Power to the Pussy"? Despite the catchy, colloquial title, this discussion of Madonna's coffee-table book Sex is informed by both feminist and queer theory. Hooks analyzes how Madonna has moved away from her former "transgressive female artistry" and toward "cultural hedonism." The non-revolutionary, homophobic and racist representations are what rightly disturb hooks: "Throughout Sex, Madonna appears as the white imperialist wielding patriarchal power to assert control over the realm of sexual difference."

Outlaw Culture was an exhilarating read when hooks and I were in sync—and we were most of the time. I was happy that she agrees with my assessment of Mama, There Is a Man in Your Bed. This 1989 French film is a collage of folktale themes, primarily based on Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet (in fact, the main characters are named Romauld and Juliette). Romauld is the CEO of a yogurt company in Paris; Juliette is the office cleaner for his building. Greed and marital infidelity combine to ruin Romauld's reputation. Soon he is fired from his position and is in need of an avenger: Juliette comes to the rescue. As a Black domestic, Juliette is invisible and able to gather evidence of wrongdoing the other executives leave behind. She carries through a plan to reinstate Romauld and clear his name.

My summary doesn't do justice to the intersection of race, class and sexuality in this film, but it is one of the most important recent films about Black women. (I've seen it five times!) Juliette is smart, perceptive, observant; she has good business sense; she is a loving mother, a proud, independent and absolutely gorgeous woman. It's also true this film could only have been made in France. Applying all these character traits to a woman of African descent is so foreign to Hollywood that here we are, five years after the French release of Mama, and there's still no American remake.

Hooks also echoes my own concerns about The Crying Game. In "Seduction and Betrayal," she analyzes the significance of gender roles inverted, supposedly, by terrorism. The white woman, Jude, is not a nurturing mother figure but an IRA terrorist; the nurturing role is taken on by Fergus, the reluctant terrorist—and the reluctant lover of the Black transvestite Dil. Hooks makes a crucial observation:

Most critical reviews of The Crying Game did not discuss race, and those that did suggested that the power of this film lies in its willingness to insist that race and gender finally do not matter: it's what's inside that counts. Yet this message is undermined by the fact that all the people who are subordinated to white power are black.

I only wish hooks had added that the movie billboard (which shows an elongated Jude dressed all in black and holding a smoking gun) contributes a demonic twist to the only biological female in the film.

Yet even given her interesting interpretation of these movies and Madonna, I had serious reservations about some of the essays in Outlaw Culture. For example, in "Ice Cube Culture: A Shared Passion for Speaking Truth: bell hooks and Ice Cube in Dialogue," I was surprised and deeply distressed that hooks doesn't acknowledge the misogyny and mother-blaming of the recent movie Boyz N the 'Hood. The movie tracks the everyday violence of South Central LA through the lives of three friends: Tre, the boy who goes to college through the support of a strong father; Doughboy, out on parole as a teenager (and played by Ice Cube); and Ricky, Doughboy's more successful brother, bound for college football until he is brutally murdered. In hooks' dialogue, Ice Cube says, "and I think Doughboy would a been just like him [Tre] if he had the right guidance, the right father." Bell—call him on his sexism, please! As the mother of a black man-child of sixteen (who, by the way, identified more with Tre than Doughboy), I'm worried about the backlash against single Black mothers in the community and in the media. Audre Lorde's inspirational piece, "Man-child: A Black Lesbian Feminist's Response," has clearly grappled with these issues. If only hooks had suggested this to Ice Cube, instead of validating his patriarchal, macho pronouncement that "a woman can't raise a boy to be a man."

A more satisfying essay is "Malcolm X: the Longed-for-Feminist-Manhood." I was intrigued by hooks' assertion that before his death Malcolm X was moving toward a new and transformed view of sexism and gender issues. She highlights two anecdotes from his life, both involving Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist. In the first, early in his career, hooks notes: "Malcolm castigated black men for their failure to protect black women and children from racist brutality." She analyzes his patriarchal socialization and how that still informs Black Muslim thought. The break with the Nation of Islam gave Malcolm X an opportunity to rethink his position on gender, hooks argues, pointing out that "it was again in the company of Fanny Lou Hamer, shortly before his death that Malcolm made one of his most powerful declarations on the issue of gender…. Malcolm declared: 'You don't have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is be an intelligent human being.'"

Hooks challenges us to look at Malcolm X through a feminist lens, not just to condemn the sexism of his early work. But for me, Malcolm X was never a mentor; what hooks reads as passion, I read as aggression. I remember the painful reaction of my family members whenever Malcolm referred to Blacks like us as "so-called Negroes." I wondered then what good could come from such divisiveness. Now with the reclaiming of Malcolm, I wonder why no one, neither Spike Lee nor bell hooks, remembers the pain that this divisiveness caused our community.

As hooks herself writes in Teaching to Transgress,

Again and again, black women find our efforts to speak, to break silence and engage in radical progressive political debates, opposed. There is a link between the silencing we experience, the censoring, the anti-intellectualism in predominantly black settings that are supposedly supportive (like all-black woman space), and that silencing that takes place in institutions wherein black women and women of color are told we cannot be fully heard or listened to because our work is not theoretical enough.

In Outlaw Culture's "Censorship From Left and Right" she targets censorship by the Black intellectual elite:

What cultural conditions enable black male thinkers to be critical of black women without being seen as giving expression to sexist or misogynist opinions? And what critical climate will allow black women a space to critique one another without fear that all ties will be disrupted and severed?

I will always be grateful to hooks for her articulation of Black women's need for a space where we can constructively criticize each other's work. In Outlaw Culture she acknowledges that "critique causes some pain and discomfort." Truth be told, no one likes negative criticism, but, as hooks points out, dialogue is the key and not dismissal. It takes courage to hold a dialogue with a hostile or patronizing critic. In fact, all the dialogues hooks has held so far are with folks she respects and fundamentally agrees with: Cornel West, Ron Scapp and Marie France Alderman. I'd love to see a dialogue between bell and Madonna or Diana Fuss—I have no doubt she is up to the task. Thank you, bell/Gloria, for making feminism the location for an exciting discussion of education, popular culture and life.

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This section contains 2,671 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shelley P. Haley
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