Bell hooks | Critical Review by Marlene Nourbese Philip

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
This section contains 1,073 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marlene Nourbese Philip

Critical Review by Marlene Nourbese Philip

"Rude Girls," in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 4, May, 1989, pp. 25-6.

In the following review, Philip discusses the major themes in Talking Back, stating "one of the strongest themes … is the need to talk back or come to voice, as an act of resistance for individuals and groups that have traditionally been oppressed or silenced."

Where I come from, talking back to adults meant you were rude. It was proof that you weren't well brought up; this in turn was a reflection on your parents and their ability to raise clean, quiet, tidy children. In the Caribbean (which is where I am from), this tradition was a hangover from Victorian times; it was also an essential part of the baggage our parents carried with them from the time of slavery, when the ultimate sin was talking back to massa. It could result in severe punishment, if not death. And so, if they were able to keep their children quiet, and could successfully instill in them the taboo against talking back, African parents were, in fact, carrying out that oldest and most fundamental of parental duties—keeping their offspring safe.

Talking back as a metaphor for the empowerment of the oppressed is, therefore, a powerful one, and like all good metaphors resonates with a multiplicity of meanings. Talking back means the breaking of proscriptions and taboos against coming to speech, against coming to voice, against, in many respects, coming to life. One of the strongest themes running through bell hooks's Talking Back, a collection of 25 essays, is the need to talk back, or come to voice, as an act of resistance for individuals and groups that have traditionally been oppressed or silenced.

An equally strong theme in this work, and one that is closely related to the process of coming to voice, is "education as the practice of freedom" as Paolo Freire articulates it in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a work from which hooks quotes frequently. She argues persuasively that unless and until education at all levels becomes the practice of freedom, it remains yet another system of domination.

Talking Back covers a multitude of important topics. Suffice it to mention a few: the need to dismantle all systems of domination; the need for dialogue between black and white feminists; the need for theory written by black women; racism in academe; changing class as a consequence of education; white supremacy; and homophobia in black communities. Hooks engages virtually every issue of concern to individuals interested in profound and revolutionary change within society. Talking Back ought to be read.

Of particular interest to me, in the light of a current debate among writers in Toronto, was an essay entitled "feminist scholarship: ethical questions." In this essay hooks concerns herself with what she describes as the abdication of responsibility by white women "for responding [analytically and critically] to work by 'different others.'" Hooks considers this failure to respond to such work to be a retreat to a passive position, and states that she would like to hear what white women have to say as white women.

Such a position would allow white women scholars to share their ideas about black women's writing (or any group of women's writing) without assuming that their thoughts would be seen as "definitive" or that they would be trying to be "the authority."

While I agree with hooks's position, I would add that white writers, academics, and scholars have always had the privilege of engaging with all aspects of any culture; this has certainly not been the case with their black counterparts. Often the only time a black writer has an opportunity to do reviews is on work by other black writers. While this is a welcome change from having only whites review work by blacks, this practice, of blacks writing only about blacks, could serve, as hooks points out, to shore up differences and even, in some instances, racism.

Hooks admits she had difficulty putting this work together: in her introductory essay she describes her problems in trying to bring together idea, theory, and personal experience in one essay or article. When they came together, she writes, that "was the moment when the abstract became concrete, tangible, something people could hold and carry away with them." She found that she could be open about "personal stuff" in her speeches but not in her writing; her struggle was to bring the personal into her writing, to achieve in writing what she did in orality. And herein lies the problem I have with this collection of essays: they often read like speeches, but without all that goes to enliven a talk. This impression is further borne out by the repetition of the same quotations in many of the essays. There is, however, no acknowledgement that these are speeches, beyond what hooks writes in the introduction:

Often I stopped myself from editing, from working to construct the politically correct feminist thinker with my words, so that I would just be there vulnerable, as I feel I am at times.

"Translation" from orality to the page has not, in my opinion, been completely successful in Talking Back. In talk we are "allowed" to be far more expansive and anecdotal than we can successfully be in writing. This, of course, raises the very issue hooks talks about in her introduction—that what is acceptable in one forum is inappropriate or unacceptable in another. While each essay yields some valuable nugget of information or some new idea, I found that individual essays often lacked a centre or appeared to change focus midway. The collection as a whole has a rambling quality, and while the overall usefulness of the work may not be lessened, the reader's enjoyment certainly is. The repetition of quotations, for instance, becomes somewhat irritating and encourages the reader to skip in a work that ought to be read closely.

Hooks's desire to marry form and content has been, to my mind, best fulfilled in "writing autobiography" and "to gloria, who is she: on using a pseudonym." Less rambling and more focused, these two essays deal less with theory and more with personal experience and ideas. Content and form are less at odds with each other than in many of the other pieces. If hooks intended us to think about how and why we accept information, and how important a part form or the manner of delivery plays in this process, she has, however, succeeded.

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This section contains 1,073 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marlene Nourbese Philip
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