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Critical Review by Delores S. Williams
SOURCE: A review of Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, in Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 49, No. 14, October 9, 1989, pp. 317-18.
In the following review, Williams praises Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black for putting forth a new model for the relationship between black women and feminism.
With her usual polemicism and honesty, Bell Hooks peppers her latest book [Talking Back] with observations that are sure to unsettle just about everybody. Take her characterization of the academy: "The academic setting … is not a known site for truthtelling." Or her thoughts on a "revolutionary feminist pedagogy":
My classroom style is very confrontational…. Unlike the stereotypical feminist model that suggests women best come to voice in an atmosphere of safety (one in which we are all going to be kind and nurturing), I encourage students to work at coming to voice in an atmosphere where they may be afraid or see themselves at risk. The goal is to enable all students, not just an assertive few, to feel empowered in a rigorous critical discussion. Many students find this pedagogy difficult, frightening and very demanding….
Herself a feminist, Hooks is careful to indicate why such a pedagogy is needed: "… to overcome the estrangement and alienation that have become so much the norm in the contemporary university."
Talking Back contains 25 essays on a variety of subjects—from Hooks' experience as a black female graduate student, to homophobia in black communities, to Spike Lee's exploitation of black female sexuality in She's Gotta Have It. Along the way Hooks reflects on violence in intimate relationships, militarism, men, scholarship, black women and feminism, and feminism as a transformational political practice.
One of the most interesting efforts in this assortment is Hooks' essay on the links between her black working-class background in small-town Kentucky, her experiences in a white college and graduate school (Stanford University), and her professional life as a teacher at Yale. Hooks' ability to think about her suffering in a way that leads to new insight gives profound meaning to her journey.
One of the jokes we used to have about the "got everything" white people is how they just tell all their business, just put their stuff right out there. One point of blackness then became—like how you keep your stuff to yourself, how private you could be about your business. That's been a place where I've been hurt by family, by black folks outside family, by friends who say, "Girl, you shouldn't even be talking about that!" And then it seemed all through graduate school, and when my first book was published, white folks were saying the same thing: "Do we want to hear what you are saying?"… It has been a political struggle for me to hold to the belief that there is much which we—black people—must speak about, much that is private that must be openly shared, if we are to heal our wounds (hurts caused by domination and exploitation and oppression), if we are to recover and realize ourselves.
As Hooks sees it, healing for black people (especially black women) involves an openness—but an openness related more to survival than to "the luxury of 'will I choose to share this or tell that?'" Openness is about how to be well. It is about truth telling that has to do with putting "… the broken bits and pieces of the heart back together again. It is about being whole—being wholehearted."
While she points to some limitations in feminism as far as black women are concerned, Hooks believes adamantly that gender analysis is one of the best tools black women have for assessing the forces of domination in their lives—both within and beyond the black community. In discussing blacks' reaction to Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple ("Black Women and Feminism"), Hooks is especially critical of folks who argued "that sexism in black communities has not promoted the abuse and subjugation of black women by black men." She advises black women that they "must separate feminism as a political agenda from white women or we will never be able to focus on the issue of sexism as it affects black communities."
Hooks is also critical of the tendency among some black women to use the term "womanist" as against "feminist." She reminds us that Alice Walker, who coined the word womanist, did not mean to "… deflect from feminist commitment." Rather, Walker defined a womanist as also a feminist. Hooks' reservation about womanist is that it is not connected with a tradition of "radical political commitment to struggle and change." Her final advice to black women: "… the most basic task confronting black feminists (irrespective of the terms we use to identify ourselves) is to educate one another and black people about sexism, about the ways resisting sexism can empower black women, a process which makes sharing feminist vision more difficult."
Talking Back (like Hooks' two earlier works, Ain't I a Woman and [Feminist Theory:] From Margin to Center) is an effort to resist the forces that have historically dominated black women's lives. Feminist insights inform her method; she uses them to show her intended audience (apparently women—especially black women) instances of the domination of black women in North America. At the same time she insists that feminists cannot separate racism and sexism. She criticizes the tendency among some black women to identify racism as the major force oppressing them while ignoring or subordinating sexism; and she also faults white feminists for subordinating racism in their analysis of sexism.
Hooks' essay on "Keeping Close to Home" is especially meaningful to many black women who have, like Hooks, journeyed from black southern working-class roots through graduate school into teaching positions. Here Hooks shows clearly the tensions and anxieties that emerge for both black parents and their college-bound woman-child. The parents fear "… what college education might do to their children's minds even as they [parents] unenthusiastically acknowledge its importance." Alluding to her own experience, she says: "They [her parents] did not understand why I could not attend a college nearby, an all-black college. To them, any college would do. I would graduate, become a school teacher, make a decent living and a good marriage."
Even greater tensions and anxieties emerged as she tried to make sense of her working-class values in an upper-class white environment:
I was profoundly shocked and disturbed when peers would talk about their parents without respect or would say … they hated their parents. This was especially troubling to me when it seemed that these parents were caring and concerned. To my white, middle-class California roommate, I explained the way we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care. She would always shake her head, laughing all the while and say, "Missy, you will learn it's different here, that we think differently."
By the time Hooks landed her position at Yale, she saw the class hiatus between professional blacks and black workers. "When I first came to Yale," she says, "I was truly surprised by the marked class divisions between black folks—students and professors—who identify with Yale and those black folks who work at Yale or in surrounding communities." "I soon learned that the black folks who spoke on the street were likely to be part of the black community and those who carefully shifted their glance were likely to be associated with Yale." In order for educated black people to deal with this class division. Hooks advises, they must fully understand and appreciate the "richness, beauty, and primacy of [their] familial and community backgrounds." She defines education as "the practice of freedom" to suggest that the function of education is not to fragment or separate. Rather, education as the practice of freedom "… brings us closer, expanding our definitions of home and community."
Talking Back combines personal experience with theory and analysis to demonstrate that feminist insights are indeed useful for assessing black women's predicament in North America. Obviously Hooks' goal is to foster the kind of transformation that leads to new models for thought, action, and relationship. I can only hope that women take her efforts seriously.
This section contains 1,358 words
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