Bell hooks | Critical Review by Natalie Alexander

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
This section contains 3,971 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Natalie Alexander

SOURCE: "Piecings from a Second Reader," in Hypatia, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 177-87.

In the following review, Alexander discusses the themes and postmodernist techniques in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics.

In Yearning (1990), her fourth book, bell hooks writes across disciplines of a variety of longings and desires: for beauty, for artistic freedom, for complexity, for spiritual awakening, for community and a home place, for renewed political partnership between black women and men, and—on a more ominous side—for a nostalgic, romanticized past, for erotic playgrounds, for support from academic institutions (at whatever cost), for commodities and material goods, for liberal individualistic success, for addictive substances—for all the postmodern ways of dying.

Yet all of these yearnings—some liberatory, others destructive—are woven together as enactments or displacements of the yearning that most concerns her:

… as I looked for common passions, sentiments shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice, I was struck by the depths of longing in many of us.

… the yearning that wells in the hearts and minds of those whom such ["master"] narratives have silenced is the longing for a critical voice.

In one of two interviews in which she, as Gloria Watkins, interviews herself, as bell hooks, she asks herself why she makes this split in her identity: "Funny to say 'split in two'—when for me these are two parts of a whole self that is composed of many parts." In the second interview, she speaks of her desire "to write in multiple voices, and not to privilege one voice over another."

She speaks/writes in this text with many different voices, acutely aware also of the different groups among her listeners/readers. Let me write briefly about the position from which I read and respond, about my own voice as reviewer. I am a white woman, a scholar and feminist, raised in a small midwestern city. Yearning is peppered with excellent warnings to readers like me. For example, hooks notes

how often contemporary white scholars writing about black people assume positions of familiarity, as though their work were not coming into being in a cultural context of white supremacy, as though it were in no way shaped and informed by that context.

Earlier, she observes that "even the most progressive" sometimes assume that "the first people we must always be addressing are privileged white readers."

Reading this text, I find it impossible to assume that I am being addressed as a "first" reader. Her "we" rarely includes me; usually, "we" means black women or black women and men or black radical women and men, occasionally radical people of many colors, including white—never black and white women. On the other hand, I read without any sense of intruding or eavesdropping; such is hooks's skill that I feel invited to read along—welcomed openly, even warmly—but always as a second reader.

In one of the pieces on aesthetics, hooks writes of her grandmother's practice of quilting and especially of the everyday quilts, crazy quilts pieced together out of worn-out clothing and other scraps:

Together we would examine this work and she would tell me about the particulars, about what my mother and her sisters were doing when they wore a particular dress…. To her mind these quilts were maps charting the course of our lives. They were history as life lived.

Her grandmother, Sarah Hooks Oldham, learned quilting from her own mother, Bell Blair Hooks, to calm her "renegade nature"; bell hooks, resolved upon the naming of these women's names, writes about quilting as a ritual, even meditative, practice of surrender, of coming back to oneself, of making space for stillness. The quilts themselves were both beautiful and warm, combining style and utility, aesthetics and practicality.

Yearning itself is a collection of twenty-three short pieces, commenting on popular films and current literature, discussing tensions between black academics, developing new black aesthetics, and critically reshaping resistance to racism. Critical discussions of relations between black women and men form one of the recurring patterns, punctuated by critique of white academic—especially white feminist—misappropriation of black people's work. She engages with insight and freshness in postmodern discourses on the nature of subjectivity, on identity politics and essentialism, on the nature and value of marginal spaces.

Like her grandmother's quilts, Yearning is made up of separate scraps, each piece a site of yearning, each potentially a site of resistance. hooks writes of the book's multiplicity that "there are so many different locations in this book, such journeying." Through this journeying among sites of yearning, she stitches together a diverse batch of short pieces to create a harmonious whole that is at once aesthetic, political, and spiritual. I look briefly at the piece with which she opens the book, then examine a pattern of opposition emerging from a sequence of four essays found near the end, and finally, give a reading of one of the many pervasive patterns that give harmony to the whole work—hooks's developing conception of postmodern black subjectivities.

hooks opens by discussing Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) as a counterhegemonic production, in which Mama pits the survival value of blacks' "oppositional ways of thinking" against Walter Lee's assimilationist desire to buy a liquor store; Hansberry prophetically suggests the linkage of "consumer capitalism with the production of a world of addiction." hooks argues that A Raisin in the Sun interrogates the desire in black communities for white-controlled commodities.

The recent film version, on the other hand, portrays Walter Lee as an "isolated black male terrorist," an image commodified to fit "with popular racist stereotypes of black masculinity." This image no longer allows an interrogation of longings for material commodities; it is itself a commodity. hooks's analysis turns on this displacement; commodification is not interrogated, but enacted.

How does this displacement alter Mama's message? hooks does not discuss it, but it seems to me that, stripped of its oppositional, anti-assimilationist character by the displacement of Walter Lee, her message becomes "reassuring" to the dominant white audience for which it was packaged. It becomes a conservative warning that blacks must stay in their own place, a warning that hooks analyzes elsewhere as conforming too neatly to—quoting Mark Miller—whites' "lunatic fantasies of containment."

Against the desire to evaluate representations of blacks simplistically in terms of good versus bad images, hooks repeatedly pits a cool, balanced, and complex vision. She evokes the active, critical, "oppositional" viewing of films and television as recalled from her childhood; she evokes also the politics of representation, "crucial for colonized groups globally in the struggle for self-determination" but as yet underdeveloped here.

This complex vision, this oppositional gaze, is nowhere more apparent than in the pattern made by the stitching together of four consecutive pieces about films. The outer pair of "movie reviews" places this gaze within a context of erotic desire, but the inner pair, which I discuss here, forms the lips of her desire for a voice linking aesthetics and politics. At the center of this pattern, she juxtaposes her discussion of Spike Lee's popular Do the Right Thing, marketed and commodified as radical, to that of Euzan Palcy's antiapartheid film A Dry White Season, often criticized for focusing on the radicalization of whites.

While recognizing Lee's courageous attempt to critique racism and his own sensitivity to class and gender as well as race issues, hooks provides a scathing indictment of Do The Right Thing:

Privileged elite white folks can be reassured that they are not "racist" since they do not espouse the crude racism expressed by Sal and his sons…. Bourgeois black folks can … be reassured that they have made it…. Underclass urban black people … may feel momentarily empowered … [blotting] out the way that experience is appropriated and used.

The stereotypic characters and the separatism (containment?) "assuages" white audiences' fears. White viewers identify with Mookie, an individualist making free, rational, considered responses, even throwing the garbage can, a gesture provoking violence. For black viewers too "this gesture sets him apart from the other black folks in the neighborhood," who are portrayed as powerless and lacking agency. Mookie's individualism conveys a simplistic notion of "freedom" based on individualistic concerns, a concept hooks analyzes in an earlier piece as feeding a "new racism" against black solidarity.

In contrast, hooks finds a complex portrayal of a spirit of militancy in A Dry White Season. It offers a "complex representation of 'whiteness,'" from the white father and son who become radicalized to the "privileged phallocentric white women," whose representations "do not allow the viewer to overlook race and class and see these characters as 'just women.'"

The calm, black militant—Stanley—is "the rational revolutionary strategist"; yet in contrast to the individualistic Mookie, he needs "collective support." Yet the blacks in this film have different understandings of their common plight: "Palcy shows radical critical consciousness to be a learned standpoint emerging from awareness of the nature of power and domination that is confirmed experientially." hooks poignantly describes a scene that "may have had little impact on viewers in this society who pay no attention to the affairs of little black girls"; a child faces the police who just shot her sister, "saying 'You killed my sister, kill me too!'" Crucial to this account is the girl's courage, her seeing, her remembering, her speaking. hooks's account of this film is juxtaposed to that of Do The Right Thing precisely in order to contrast their counterhegemonic power of representation, the power (expressed here but so lacking in the other film) to represent the spirit of militant resistance.

Let us turn to one of the many pervasive patterns that reach across the whole expanse of Yearning, stitching the diverse pieces into a harmonious whole. I refer here to the pattern of hooks's engagement with postmodern discourses, through which she envisions postmodern black subjectivities as standpoints, sources of insight, strategies, constructed grounds of struggle. She hopes that such a radical postmodernism may help other groups also to foster empathy, solidarity, and coalition.

But do such concepts—"radical," "struggle," "subjectivity," "solidarity"—belong in the postmodern lexicon? hooks plays with this tension, in various guises, gazes, sights, and sites, throughout this text. Here I will convey the harmony of this quilted pattern, interpreted through my own gaze, keeping wary for the dangers of any overly facile familiarity.

To establish a motif through which to display these patterned tensions, I re-ask a question hooks has asked herself:

GW…. I'm dying to know if you think that Yearning, despite its critique of postmodernism, is a postmodern work?

… To some extent the book could be seen as postmodern in that the very polyphonic vocality we are talking about emerges from a postmodern social context.

Not only does she place herself in that social context, but she also engages in the critiques of essentialism that have become standard postmodern fare. Three such critiques that I find particularly fascinating are her analyses of black aesthetics, black power movements, and patriarchal black social structures.

She recognizes that the Black Arts Movement "provided useful critique based on radical questioning of the place and meaning of aesthetics for black artistic production." Yet she criticizes its essentialism, which led it eventually to subordinate art to politics:

[It] was fundamentally essentialist. Characterized by an inversion of the "us" and "them" dichotomy, it inverted conventional ways of thinking about otherness…. Ironically, even though the Black Arts Movement insisted that it represented a break from white western traditions much of its philosophical underpinnings re-inscribed prevailing notions about the relationship between art and mass culture.

Specifically, this movement assumed that an art for the masses must not be "complex, abstract, or diverse"; its paradigms became "restrictive and disempowering," throwing "many Afro-American artists … into a retrogressive posture where they suggested there were no links between art and politics."

She frames this discourse in ways familiar to her readers but not common in the white postmodern academy. She tells stories about her grandmother's house and her practice of quilting. She calls neither for a dismantling of the Black Arts Movement—in many ways that has already been done—nor for an anti-aesthetic. She calls for a new "aesthetic of blackness—strange and oppositional."

Using a similar pattern, hooks discusses the black power movement of the sixties, acknowledging its accomplishments while noting how it "conformed to a modernist universalizing agenda." In particular, she critiques again and again the narrow politics of identity that would deny black diversity. Yet she never wholly repudiates the politics of identity, nor does she concur with the postmodern criticism of subjectivity that often follows such critiques. She wishes not to discard subjectivity but to multiply black subjectivities in a way that still somehow encourages unification. In this pattern, she frames her discussions with narratives—stories that she characterizes as nostalgic and even sentimental—about her segregated Southern upbringing, about the sense of black community from a circumscribed past to which she cannot and should not return.

Using a slightly altered pattern, hooks criticizes contemporary black cultures for misogyny, for essentialist acceptance of a patriarchy modeled on white America:

Let's talk about why we see the struggle to assert agency—that is, the ability to act in one's best interest—as a male thing…. Since the culture we live in continues to equate blackness with maleness, black awareness of the extent to which our survival depends on mutual partnership between women and men is undermined.

Yet the patriarchal model that harms both black women and men is supported not only by white racist mythologies but also by the very terms in which blacks have envisioned liberation.

This piece of the pattern also belongs to hooks's criticisms of white feminist racism. Many white feminists have held that male commitment to patriarchy erases racial difference. hooks carefully agrees that "oppressed black men and their white male oppressors … shared the patriarchal belief that revolutionary struggle was really about the erect phallus." Yet she argues repeatedly against the simplistic thinking that blinds many of us and insists on interrogating these interlocking systems of domination and on resisting "either/or ways of thinking that are the philosophical underpinning of systems of domination."

She gives a lucid and poignant analysis of the origins and historical permutations of the "overlapping discourses" of race and sex. "That discourse began in slavery…. Then, black women's bodies were the discursive terrain … rape was a gesture of symbolic castration." Yet that story "was long ago supplanted" by the myth, "invented by white men," of the black male rapist.

Much of the history of race in this country has been played out in the tension between these narratives:

The discourse of black resistance has almost always equated freedom with manhood, the economic and material domination of black men with castration, emasculation.

These discourses are hinged together on the pivot point of women's bodies. When black revolutionaries brag of rape, seeking to appropriate patriarchal power, they reinscribe the racist myth. In a less horrific but no less bitter example, when black men see themselves solely as victims they recognize neither their accomplishments nor their sexist dominance; both failures of vision harm them.

It happened that I was reading Yearning as the media-shaped confrontations between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were broadcast, hooks's discussions of these issues offered keys for reading these proceedings. (Note her references to prior political exploitations of race and sex.) Let me briefly explore some interlocking insights, questions, wonderings shaped by my reading of Yearning.

Reading hooks's analyses of the "either/or ways of thinking," I began to understand why media reactions focused on questions of either race or sex, rarely both. Newscasters lacked a language for discussing interlocking systems of domination, which they usually analyze "so well" separately; how could a "victim" be a "harasser?" They fell back on a more retrogressive, more simplistic pattern, asking the essentialist question of which story was "the whole truth."

I wondered about the impact of these televised images: articulate, suave, upper-middleclass, educated, conservative, and black. I wondered especially about their impact on young black viewers. Surely, here were exemplars of multiplicity within black subjectivity; here were blacks on TV who did not mirror the usual televised stereotypes. On the other hand, the very sharpness of the contrast might throw the impact back to dangerous, simplistic questions of good and bad images.

I tried to interpret Thomas's claim that Hill was evoking stereotypes about black male sexuality. Whatever the "truth" of this accusation, I found it fascinating for many reasons: it contrasted starkly with the nonstereotypic images of Thomas and Hill themselves; Thomas's own political ideology would seem to deny that such stereotypes ever hinder a black man from receiving employment; many Senators evinced such naive outrage, purporting never to have heard of such stereotypes.

hooks's interpretation of the overlapping discourses of race and sex made sense of Thomas's claim. He employed a slight shift of strategy: from representing himself as a victim who is not quite sure what all the fuss is about, a strategic blindness to sexism, to representing himself as a victim who is able to explain the fuss in terms of racism alone. Evoking racism reinforces the blindness to sexism.

I wondered too about the intersection of race and sex for Hill. Did the fact that both are black diminish or erase race as a factor? hooks's criticisms of such assumptions among white feminists point toward a different understanding. Both the context of the hearings and the "stereotype" accusation kept Thomas's blackness at the forefront. How did Hill's blackness shape the hearings?

Her accusation evoked in many a sense of betrayal. Some felt that, quite separate from the question of "truth," she shouldn't have told. If liberation is "the right to participate fully within patriarchy," then "black women who are not willing to assist black men in their efforts to become patriarchs are 'the enemy'" and "black women who succeed are taking something away from black men." Could these myths have exacerbated reactions to Hill's accusations into the claims that she must be a crass publicity hound, an insanely jealous scorned woman, or a pathological liar? Yearning reveals insight but also warns me when to stand back from assuming that I know what's at stake.

Let me return to examining one of the pervasive patterns shaping Yearning, hooks's engagement with postmodernism. I've shown how her criticisms of black modernist essentialisms—aesthetic, political, sexual—are never offered in isolation from stories of her childhood or from visionary, sometimes utopian, descriptions of new, nonessentialist black aesthetics and communities.

Her critique of the racism of white feminists has already figured in this pattern. Postmodern academic discourses have exacerbated the erasure of women of color: "White feminists could now centralize themselves by engaging in a discourse on race, 'the Other,' in a manner which further marginalized women of color." Furthermore, why do white feminists willing to overlook racism or sexism in "important" writers such as Derrida or Said, cite misogynism when they refuse to read, for example, Ismael Reed?

hooks also discusses racism "in interactions between powerful Third World elites and black Americans in predominantly white settings," in which, for example, they act as interpreters between black and white Americans:

The current popularity of post-colonial discourse that implicates solely the West often obscures the colonizing relationship of the East in relation to Africa and other parts of the Third World.

I am ashamed of the relief with which I fell upon these passages, reassured not to be the sole oppressor—let somebody else take the heat. Yet hooks teaches her readers to mistrust reassurance as reinscribing paradigms of oppression.

She criticizes any "solidly institutionalized and commodified" cultural studies, divorced from radical political strategies; postmodern buzz words like difference and the Other "are taking the place of commonly known words deemed uncool or too simplistic, words like oppression, exploitation…." What anti-essentialist, deconstructive, postmodern slippage is achieved here? None. This language serves to divorce talk of race from recognition of racism, masking the absence of Afro-American voices and allowing the reinscription of racist paradigms.

Insofar as she is addressing white readers, hooks must use a "counter-tongue" to the exclusionary voices discussing multiplicity, which erase the concern with racism when talking of race, which employ a deconstructive rhetoric, but reinscribe essentialist paradigms, old hierarchies. Those of us who have sometimes spoken with that voice are only second readers here; she is waiting for us to stop talking. She asks herself: "Dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?"

What reinscribing essentialism grips her first readers? It is not black modernism; she finds white appropriation far more frustrating. Indeed, the modernist "elements were soon rendered irrelevant as militant protest was stifled by a powerful, repressive, postmodern state." What, then, is the pervasive essentialism confronting her first readers? Hopelessness plays out everywhere: in drug and alcohol addiction; in violent crime; in erotic longings inexorably tied to despair; in feelings of apathy, indifference, and powerlessness, coming from "the real concrete circumstances of exploitation" that feel inevitable in the televised light of colonizing values; in feelings of nostalgia for inaccessible modes of experience. Privileged blacks no longer feel connected, accountable to poor and underclass blacks but are subject to a "compulsive consumerism," what West called "commodified stimulation."

"Nihilism is everywhere." Against the deadening weight of this negative essentialism, this metaphysics of absence, this reification of despair, hooks envisions a postmodern blackness, a pluralistic, historicized solidarity, epitomized by the powerful space of her aesthetics, her sense of black identity, her thoughts about community, margin, home.

The aesthetic hooks envisions and practices develops aspects of her grandmother's way of seeing: "Aesthetics is a way of inhabiting space … of looking and becoming … of a sense of history." Linked to this sense of history is the conception of art as bearing witness, as intrinsically political; her aesthetic "explores and celebrates the connection between our capacity to engage in critical resistance and our ability to experience pleasure and beauty."

This aesthetic-erotic-political space is a place of testimony, of sounds and silences: "Language is also a place of struggle." She recognizes identity politics as one stage in a process of liberation, and she uses the postmodern critique of essential identity to call forth a multiplicity of black voices:

This critique should not be made synonymous with a dismissal of the struggle of oppressed and exploited peoples to make ourselves subjects. Nor should it deny that in certain circumstances this experience affords us a privileged critical location from which to speak.

As shown in her discussion of A Dry White Season, this standpoint emerges from specific historical experiences, informed by collective struggle, historically and culturally bound.

So, her space is also a place of community. Crucial to the development of such communities is a radical reworking of relationships between diverse groups of blacks, in particular between black women and men. She envisions a spiritual sense of community moved by love and joy of struggle yet unifying diverse and polyphonic voices.

She identifies this space as the margin, a place of both deprivation and resistance. From this space, she transforms the meaning of memory, calling for

a politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia, that longing for something to be as once it was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.

She transforms the meaning of "home" to name this space as a site that makes possible new ways of seeing. The language with which she writes is quasi-religious, inspirational, perhaps madly utopian. But when set against the gravity of pervasive, essentialist nihilism, it is strangely moving.

Just as her grandmother spoke to her of the spiritual work of quilting, hooks writes to us of her work:

I choose familiar politicized language, old codes … no longer popular or "cool"—hold onto them and the political legacies they evoke and affirm, even as I work to change what they say, to give them renewed and different meaning.

From the remnants of modernist political theories and from "that lived-in segregated world of my past and present," hooks stitches together the old words she takes up like scraps for a crazy quilt, transforming this quilted space, this complex landscape, this site of erotic, spiritual, political, aesthetic yearning.

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Critical Review by Natalie Alexander from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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