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Critical Essay by Michele Wallace
SOURCE: "For Whom the Bell Tolls: Why America Can't Deal With Black Feminist Intellectuals," in VLS, No. 140, November, 1995, pp. 19-24.
In the following excerpt, Wallace complains that hooks's work has become increasingly "self-centered, narcissistic, and even hostile to the idea of countervailing perspectives."
It's interesting to visit different bookstores in Manhattan just to see how they handle the dilemma posed by the existence of a black female author, who is not a novelist or a poet, who has 10 books in print. At the Barnes & Noble superstore uptown, they are getting perilously close to having to devote an entire shelf to hooks studies, in the manner that there are presently multiple shelves on MLK and Malcolm X.
And yet she might prefer it if instead I compared her to the white male Olympians of critical theory—Barthes, Foucault, Freud, and Marx—and that it was only conformity to what she likes to call "white supremacist thinking" that prevents me from classing her with the founding fathers.
In the past 14 years, as the author of 10 books on black feminism, bell hooks has managed to corner the multicultural feminist advice market almost singlehandedly, bell hooks is the alias of Gloria Watkins, who is now Distinguished Professor of English at the City College of New York. Raised in the rural South of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Watkins collected her B.A. at Stanford, going on to finish her Ph.D. in English at UC Santa Cruz over a decade ago. We've been hearing from hooks regularly ever since.
Much like her previous work, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, consists of a collection of unconnected essays, some of them recycled from earlier books. As usual, the writing is leftist dogmatic, repetitive, and dated. For instance, in the book's penultimate chapter, called "Moving From Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination," Watkins offers the following turgid explanation of the failure of black struggle in the '60s:
Revolutionary black liberation struggle in the United States was undermined by outmoded patriarchal emphasis on nationhood and masculine rule, the absence of a strategy for coalition building that would keep a place for non-black allies in struggle, and the lack of sustained programs for education for critical consciousness that would continually engage black folks of all classes in a process of radical politicization.
But then it was never in the expectation of beautiful writing, or subtly nuanced analysis, that we turned to bell hooks. With chapters bearing titles like "Healing Our Wounds: Liberatory Mental Health Care," "Where Is the Love?" and "Overcoming White Supremacy," we are being offered, simultaneously, a series of potentially contradictory solutions to what ails us.
Hooks suggests that a black feminist analysis of "race and racism in America" is the essential missing component in current mainstream perspectives on race, at the same time that she offers a defense of black rage, in all its masculinist appeal, as inherently liberatory. "I understand rage to be a necessary aspect of resistance struggle," she writes. Meanwhile, interspersed with the rage and the feminist analysis, she is also slipping us a kind of hit-or-miss guide to self-healing, self-recovery, and self-actualization.
The new hooks began to emerge, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, about a year or two ago when Watkins abandoned the leftist rigors of the South End Collective in Boston and her post as associate professor at Oberlin College, more or less at the same time, moved to New York and CCNY, published Outlaw Culture and Teaching to Transgress with Routledge, and Art on My Mind with the nonprofit New Press, only to turn around a few months later to publish Killing Rage with Holt, her first major mainstream publisher, this fall.
Using cultural analysis of popular culture, film, visual art, and pedagogy, with occasional outbursts of self-help rhetoric (to which hooks had already devoted an entire book—Sisters of the Yam), Teaching to Transgress, Outlaw Culture, and Art on My Mind all continue in the direction hooks's work has taken the past few years, as amply demonstrated in Black Looks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. However, with Killing Rage, hooks is clearly trying to drive a wedge into the current white market for books on race and the recent upsurge in the black market for books on spirituality and self-recovery.
Given this onslaught of publication, accompanied by an alarming dearth of explanatory or analytic criticism about her work, either in mainstream or alternative venues, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the poorly researched cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education (the New York Times of academics) on the hooks/Watkins phenomenon considers her not only the most viable voice of black feminism, but also the only acceptable black female candidate for inclusion in the roster of the "new black intellectuals," whose emergence has been repeatedly announced in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker and even the VLS.
"When black feminism needed a voice, bell hooks was born," The Chronicle proclaimed a few months ago. Which makes her a candidate for the only black feminist that matters? Not. Perhaps the dominant discourse is given to these lapses of amnesia because some ideas are so repugnant to Western culture that they are forced to emerge, again and again, as if new.
There hasn't been much resistance lately to the idea of a mainstream feminist discourse or even to a left-wing alternative and/or academic feminism. But what continues to boggle the minds of the powers that be is that black feminism has been around for a long time….
All of this black feminist activity preceded the publication of bell hooks's first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, in 1981, as Gloria Watkins well knows. Indeed, Watkins begins the book she now claims to have actually written years before by chastising Gloria Steinem for her blurb on the jacket of Black Macho.
Steinem makes a such narrowminded, and racist, assumption when she suggests that Wallace's book has a similar scope as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics … One can only assume that Steinem believes that the American public can be informed about the sexual politics of black people by merely reading a discussion of the 60's black movement, a cursory examination of the role of black women during slavery, and Michele Wallace's life.
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that hooks is deliberately and maliciously attempting to obliterate the vast and subversive history of black feminist discourse. In Ain't I a Woman hooks does a fine job of providing the historical overview of black feminist thought. But progressively her analysis has become more and more self-centered, narcissistic, and even hostile to the idea of countervailing perspectives. Given more to the passive-aggressive approach in dealing with black women, she is never direct.
For instance, in an essay called "Black Intellectuals" in Killing Rage, while she claims for herself an exemplary humility, simplicity, open-mindedness, and commitment to revolutionary struggle, she also distances herself from the rank and file of black intellectuals with comments like "Most academics (like their white and non-white counter-parts) are not intellectuals" and "Empowered to be hostile towards and policing of one another, black female academics and/or intellectuals often work to censor and silence one another."
In Black Looks, hooks repeatedly rails against those pseudo-progressive whites who would "eat the other" in their perpetual attempt to appropriate the transgressive energies of artists, writers, and theorists of color. But then hooks is also capable of writing. "When patriarchal support of competition between women is coupled with competitive academic longing for status and influence, black women are not empowered to bond on the basis of shared commitment to intellectual life or open-minded exchange of ideas…. Since many women in the academy are conservative or liberal in their politics, tensions arise between those groups and individuals like myself, who advocate revolutionary politics."
What hooks is doing here is what I call eating the other. Yes, people of color can eat each other, too.
Those of us who first became black feminists in the early '70s knew so little about the black women—the artists, intellectuals, and feminist activists—who had come before us. It took a long time to find the record they had left. However, this wasn't because the record didn't exist. Rather, the documentation was either destroyed or mouldering in dusty attics and rare-book collections, and it was no simple matter to retrieve them. It no longer surprises me that Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Fauset all had to be rediscovered.
And it should come as no surprise to anyone that, not only was there a black feminism before bell hooks, there was a black feminism long before most of us were born. There were black feminist abolitionists before the Civil War and there were black women suffragettes, whose works are now preserved and annotated by the Schomburg Collection of 19th-century black women writers, as well as by other publishing efforts such as Florence Howe's Feminist Press.
But when I was a kid, the only one I knew was Sojourner, and I didn't know much about her.
The black feminist historian Nell Painter, professor of history at Princeton, is currently working on a biography of Sojourner Truth and has already published several excerpts from her research in which he suggests that the famous "Ain't I a Woman" which so many feminists have clung to over the years, might have been a historical conflation of a number of different events and speeches, none of them anything like the speech we've come to know and love.
Since Truth was illiterate, not an intellectual but a charismatic itinerant preacher who wandered about the countryside expecting strangers to provide her next meal and her next place to sleep, she wasn't exactly into knowledge production.
Moreover, Painter suggests that part of the legacy of the racisms of the period comes down to us in the iconography of Sojourner Truth. All of her portraits were carefully posed to confirm the myth of her unlettered, inborn, commonsensical strength, and as such, to confirm, as well, the peculiar and essential otherness then considered characteristic of the black woman—an "otherness," not coincidentally, that also served to highlight the beauty, delicacy, and intelligence of the women of the "superior race."
Meanwhile, Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech has been institutionalized as the originary moment of black feminist discourse. Many works—hooks's first book, as well as Deborah Gray White's history of slave women, Ar'n't I a Woman, and even Black Macho—bear witness to her presumed power as a black feminist foremother. But suppose Painter has uncovered a nasty little paradigmatic secret about black feminism: that the iconic status of Truth is much like the iconic status of Hurston, or indeed any single black female figure, in that it is meant to stand in for the whole. Its primary function is to distract us from the actual debate and dilemma with which black feminist intellectuals, artists, and activists are really engaged.
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the media success of Black Macho placed me in possible danger of the same instant iconic status. But I was 27, naive, inexperienced, and had no concept of the big picture that Painter is outlining. Whereas hooks has had a long, steady climb, from the publication of her first book to her present position, poised to enter the mainstream. Is she being manipulated by the structural racism and misogyny of the mainstream media or is she an opportunist trying to turn a fast buck? I think perhaps a little of both. Frankly, she can't begin to make a dent in this structural thing by herself. As for the opportunism, how do you suppose revolutionaries will occupy themselves in these reactionary times? And the timing is perfect.
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a black book boom. It has many dimensions, from the apartheid of the publishing industry itself, to the phenomenon of the black public intellectual, to Time magazine's construction (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s help) of a new black cultural renaissance. But one aspect of the boom that is grossly underreported is the accelerating interest in a New Age kind of spiritualism and the rhetoric of self-recovery. When this tendency is combined with a public black intellectual component—such as in the case of the works of bell hooks, Cornel West, and a host of others—it can be unfortunate indeed.
Watkins is openly and proudly religious, or what she would call spiritual, which is a euphemism for religious. Nobody has ever accused black folk of not being religious enough. But it may be precisely this religiosity that not only serves to fuel the overreported anti-Semitism but also the much more prevalent anti-intellectualism that is fast becoming the only thing that most dark peoples splattered around the tristate area have in common.
Watkins's Killing Rage suggests that we bury the racial hatchet in places like New York through spiritual growth. But in the title essay, hooks still has a long way to go. Her story begins with the words, "I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder." She and her traveling companion had sought first-class upgrades in exchange for their coach airline seats at a New York airport, but when they got on the plane, there was a white man sitting in the friend's first-class seat. Watkins immediately reads this situation as deliberate racist sabotage on the part of the airline representative at the counter.
A stewardess was called to clear up the dilemma of whose seat it was, but anybody who flies on airplanes with any regularity knows who won. If there are two people with the same seat assignment, the butt in the seat has the right of way.
But not without Watkins going ballistic. "I stared him down with rage," she writes, "tell him that I do not want to hear his liberal apologies … In no uncertain terms I let him know that he had an opportunity to not be complicit with the racism and sexism that is so all-pervasive in this society" by voluntarily giving up his cushy seat in first class to her black friend now condemned to the cramped conditions of coach.
I guess I'm just hard-hearted Hannah, but somehow I'm not weeping for Watkins here. I can remember the insanity that began to grip me in the midst of the whirlwind of publicity around Black Macho when, all of sudden, it became desperately important to me whether or not I traveled first class or coach. I am quite familiar with this illness. I call it first-class-itis, or, more simply, celebrity-itis. Given the symptoms, you shouldn't be surprised at all that there is no hint in Watkins's narrative of the seemingly obvious antibourgeois alternative of joining her friend, in solidarity, in coach.
Black feminist intellectuals generally kowtow to hooks and dutifully quote her numerous books, but they don't like her and they don't trust her. She doesn't represent the views of black feminist academics (most of whom she would dismiss, in any case, as privileged members of the bourgeois academic elite), and yet we go on mumbling under our breath.
Released in her last books from the rigor of the South End Press collective—where editorial decisions are made jointly—what was once merely typically bad leftist writing has become self-indulgent and undigested drivel that careens madly from outrageous self-pity, poetic and elliptical, to playful exhibitionism, to dogmatic righteous sermonizing. Sometimes as I read some of this stuff, I can't believe that I am reading what I'm reading.
For instance, in Outlaw Culture hooks sets an Esquire reporter straight about the notion that the women's movement was prudish in the '70s. "We had all girl parties, grownup sleepovers," she told him. "We slept together. We had sex. We did it with girls and boys. We did it across race, class, nationality. We did it in groups. We watched each other doing it."
Or, hooks will say, "the vast majority of black women in academe are not in revolt—they seem to be as conservative as the other conservatizing forces there!… I've been rereading Simon Watney's Policing Desire, and thinking a lot about how I often feel more policed by other black women who say to me: 'How can you be out there on the edge? How can you do certain things, like be wild, inappropriate? You're making it harder for the rest of us.'"
Watkins knocks everybody. She has done everything and known everything, long before it was fashionable to do so. Yet she is rarely specific or precise about her experiences or her references.
She can also be a chameleon, taking on camouflage colors in different environments, as in her interview with the rapper Ice Cube. In talking with him about Boyz'n the Hood, she says of the lead character, Tre, falling into the vernacular.
You don't want to be him 'cause he didn't have no humor hardly, he didn't have much. Part of what I try to do as a teacher, a professor, is to show people just 'cause you're a professor and you got a Ph.D., you don't have to be all tired, with no style and with no presence.
Constantly citing her experience of child abuse at the hands of her family, physical abuse by her former lover, as well as the "racist" and/or "sexist" reaction of the "white feminist" and/or "black male" and/or "white supremacist patriarchal" establishment, she epitomizes the cult of victimization that Shelby Steele, Stanley Crouch, and Jerry Watts have written about so persuasively.
While I have no desire to play into the hands of the right, everybody knows that p.c. rhetoric has become a problem, and hooks has made herself queen of p.c. rhetoric. Without the unlovely code phrases, "white supremacy," "patriarchal domination," and "self-recovery," hooks couldn't write a sentence.
Hooks reminds me of the young people in my youth who would come from the suburbs, dress up like hobos, and hang around in the Village for the weekend. You just sprinkle these words around and you're an automatic academic leftist.
In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky reminds us that the principal function of mass culture is to distract most Americans, perhaps as many as 80 per cent, from issues of real power, domination, and control. The other 20 per cent, whom Chomsky identifies as the educational/intellectual elite, votes, runs the media and academic, and, as such, is actively, although probably not consciously, engaged in manufacturing consent. Although it's not all that important how the 80 per cent chooses its poison, the predilections of the 20 per cent elite can be crucial.
According to Chomsky's vision, the correct information is almost always out there, but it is literally buried under the continuous and overwhelming flow and bombardment of mass cultural noise and distraction.
In an imperceptible shift from automatic leftism to Cultural Studies, most of what hooks chooses to write about—Madonna, The Crying Game, The Body Guard, Camille Paglia, shooping, and so forth—is noise. Part of the distraction of mass culture, and now the most popular mass cultural commentary (sometimes called cultural critique or cultural studies) as well, is that its function is increasingly continuous with that of its object of study. At best, it is becoming mind-fuck candy for the intellectually overendowed. In other words, much of it has become just high-falutin noise.
As for what there ever was to value about hooks's work, I am not the ideal person to say since I have never felt comfortable with the world according to bell hooks. Yet it should be said that hooks/Watkins has a saucy, mischievous, and playful side, which is fascinating. It emerges occasionally in her affect and intonation as a public speaker, but rarely makes it to the page. Although that edge peeks out in some of the riskier moments in Outlaw Culture—when she is dissing Camille Paglia, or in some of her speculations about rap—for the most part, hooks grossly underestimates the willingness of her reader to comprehend her particular journey.
In black feminism, two clearly divergent paths are emerging: Either one travels the high road, the intellectual-creative route, out of which such women as Walker, Morrison, and Bambara have carved their path—every step earned and copiously contextualized so that you know exactly where you are all the time; or one travels the low road, the gospel according to bell hooks firmly in hand, the path etched in the vertiginous stone of rhetoric, hyperbole, generalizations, platitudes, bad faith, phony prophetism, and blanket condemnation.
Inspired though we may be by the Morrisons, the Walkers, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the June Jordans, most of us don't have it in us to be them. And you can't really follow them because they're not leaders. I don't mean this as criticism. They don't present themselves as leaders. Whereas hooks is all too happy to present herself as your leader, if you just have to have one.
But, in fact, black feminists don't have any leaders, if you mean by leaders people who will stand up and say that they are leading black women down one independent and autonomous path because black women—whether they are lesbian, intellectual, married to white men, or considered atypical in any other way—have no desire to put more distance between themselves and black men, either individually or collectively. It has to do not only with romance, but with a political commitment to black identity, black struggle, and the painful lessons of black history.
On the other hand, if one stops looking for leaders who claim to know the direction black women should follow and looks instead for black female role models, for lack of a better term, who know their stuff and who have spent their lives conquering a particular field, there are tons of potential "leaders" all over the place.
If you think of an ideology as a religion, then the church of black feminists is not one that you have to attend or even declare yourself a member of. In fact, it is better if you don't. Like the Quakers, black feminists don't proselytize or seek converts, and they hold very few meetings. The history of organized women's movements and their symbiotic relationship to the dominant discourse is nasty indeed: see the work of Davis, Giddings, or any feminist historian worth her salt for details.
Also, it is precisely the point of black feminism, or any feminism on behalf of the dispossessed, to empower the disenfranchised—both women and men—what Gayatri Spivak has called the subaltern. Subalterns are not necessarily defined by race (although their skins are usually dark), gender, sexuality, or geography (although they are concentrated in certain parts of the world), but by their relationship to global issues of class, poverty, and power.
Their problem is their lack of symbolic power and agency in the dominant discourse. The subaltern speaks but it doesn't speak to us, hooks is not the link. The subaltern doesn't write books. As for whether or not Ice Cube can speak for the subaltern, I'll leave it to you to figure that out.
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