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Interview by bell hooks with Lisa Jones
SOURCE: "Rebel Without a Pause," in VLS, No. 109, October 1992, p. 10.
In the following interview, Jones and hooks discuss how contemporary media portray black men and women.
It began, as it often does, with a photograph. Cultural critic/feminist poobah bell hooks received a postcard of a 19th century black Indian woman. The photograph bewitched hooks: how direct the woman's gaze was, how contemporary she looked. Every detail of her visual persona challenged simplistic constructions of black identity. To hooks, the photo underscores how representations of race in mass media, though très chic, still fail to envelop the complexity of black lives and viewpoints. When we see black images, on screen, in advertising, and in fashion magazines, what are we looking at, hooks asks, and what's missing from the frame? This meditation hatched Black Looks, hooks's latest, and what may be her most slyly provocative, collection of essays. Gracing the book's cover is the black Indian woman of the photograph—gilded, silent, but many moons from complacent.
A sought-after lecturer and popular professor (at Oberlin, her courses on black women's fiction and the politics of sexuality are booked solid), hooks has journeyed in the last 10 years from unsung women's-studies scholar to internationally known critical thinker. Her six books include Yearning, 1990, which solidified her reputation as an interrogator of postmodernism and cinema, and last year's Breaking Bread, a compilation of spirited dialogues with Cornel West. Publishers Weekly called hooks "one of the foremost black intellectuals in America today." She even made a recent roundup of "who's hot" in Essence magazine, sharing company with Wesley Snipes, George Wolfe, and Ice Cube. Media junkies, academics, diversity mavens, and 9-to-5 sisters looking for womanist affirmation—hooks groupies are a varied bunch.
Black Looks is cultural criticism at its sexiest for the essay titles alone. "Eating the Other" picks the bone of mass media's appetite for racial difference. The long-awaited manifesto on Madonna comes with the subtitle "Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?" An exploration of black female sexuality in the marketplace of images is packaged as "Selling Hot Pussy."
The new collection further installs hooks as an important American film critic. "Ivory-tower film criticism," she says, is not her design; she's after your white supremacist, patriarchal jugular, and is not stopping to observe any parlor games of this trade. There's no such pretense as entertainment in the hooks camp; film is just fodder for a larger ideological work horse. So, bring your 3-D glasses, and be warned: if you don't have those critical lenses on, you're likely to become what you consume.
[Jones]: In "Eating the Other," the anchor essay of Black Looks, you argue that fashionable tropes of cultural difference in popular culture do little to challenge racism. But still you see hope.
[hooks]: I hold on to the idea of pleasure as a site of resistance. Not just pleasure (in exploring cultural difference) as an end in itself, but that pleasure might be the beginning of something else: of real subversion.
In writing the essay, I was trying to break through a sense of despair about it all. We just have so much commodification of blackness right now. Take a film like White Men Can't Jump. To me it's the quintessential expression of commodification that doesn't seek to change things, but to reestablish black people as territory for white people to invade. I saw an old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die, about a lone white man who defeats black people in every country in the world. I thought White Men Can't Jump was the 1990s version of that. Look what it did with Rosie Perez's character. What a plantation sexual relationship between Rosie's character and the white leading man! It was as if she was confined to this shack and the white man visited her.
There's a suggestion that white supremacist imperialism is more elastic these days, that it can actually open up to multiculturalism. But in many ways that's a power move. There's a little change, enough to appear like a progression, but not enough to institutionalize systems of liberatory racial and sexual justice.
I continue to be fascinated, though, and I feel that the jury is still out about whether these types of images can lead to changes in how people think about race. Many of the consumers of black commodification are young people. I'm acquainted with little white boys whose model for selfhood and identity is black masculinity in popular culture. Does this mean that there will be a new generation of white men who will respect the dignity and lives of black males? Or will they be positioned to become Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon—a generation of white folks who aren't afraid of black folks, and who can use them more effectively to serve their ends?
Why is film so crucial to representations of race right now?
When we talk about the commodification of blackness, we aren't just talking about how white people consume these images, but how black people and other people of color consume them, and how these images become our way of knowing ourselves. Black kids aren't going to see a film like White Men Can't Jump and consume it passively. They're also learning their ideas about how to be black.
A recent film that absolutely bugs me in its use of black people is Fried Green Tomatoes. Films that try to transgress one boundary often pacify us by reinforcing other status quos. I feel this about Spike Lee's movies. In Fried Green Tomatoes, we may be transgressing a boundary about how lesbianism is pictured, but the images of black people in that film fit every sort of stereotype. It was sad to see Cicely Tyson, a distinguished actor, assigned once again to the role of darkie on the plantation; the film was simply a modern plantation story with a white-lesbian twist.
You argue that black female spectators often experience the pleasure of cinema through denial, given the scarcity and one-dimensionality of representations of black women. How did you emerge as a critic through this wasteland of images?
Growing up in the Jim Crow period, one was always positioned as a critic, because without a critique of what you saw, you had no possibility of a redeeming image. No matter how educated black folks were, there was this recognition that one had to have some kind of critical gaze.
Watching TV shows like Amos 'n' Andy, my older siblings and I were very conscious of how representations of black people were being manipulated. My youngest sister, who grew up in the age of integration, is less able to accept that there are manipulative forces behind what she sees. It occurred to me how black people at this point in history are more deeply American than ever before. We're much more collectively taken in. That's why, to some extent, integration was necessary for the continuation of white supremacy.
So, in a sense, representations of black people work to pacify us?
Absolutely. I ask myself, what does it mean that 20 years ago black people could not have imagined sitting in movie theaters and laughing at the kinds of degrading images of blackness that we see in the mass media today? And it's important to note that these representations aren't just made by white people. Many assume that if a film is made by a black person, the representations will automatically have integrity beyond anything a white person can produce. But what we're seeing is black people reproducing the prevailing "exploitative" images to create work that sells. And because these films are solely judged by their representation of narrow ideas of blackness, they can get away with having anything-goes standards of production.
Many of us are counting on black female filmmakers to provide more complex visions of African American life. But judging from your critique of contemporary fiction by black women and its failure to imagine new identities, should we have any reason to be hopeful?
It's disturbing me that practically every black woman I know, from every social class, from all walks of life, can talk about the stereotypes of black womanhood. But when I ask these same women to name what types of images they'd like to see, they can't answer that question. That's scary.
I had a sad feeling after reading Terry McMillan's new book, Waiting To Exhale, and Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy. Sometimes it seems we are offered only two messages around black female representation. One says: become the "expected" image, but work it, like the bitchified, take-no-prisoners black women we see in Waiting To Exhale. Or the other option is to be the tragic black women we see so much of in contemporary fiction. The prototype for this is Toni Morrison's character Sula, and Tashi in Possessing the Secret of Joy follows suit. How can we move away from casting ourselves as trapped in those two images—the tragic figure, or the tough, sexualized survivor? What disturbs me about the Walker book is that she has the resisting black woman character, who follows the same path as Sophia in The Color Purple. But once again, this resisting woman, who tries to define herself completely outside the realm of fixed roles, is punished. Part of what I want to turn my life into is a testimony to the fact that we don't have to be punished. That we don't have to sacrifice our lives when we invent and realize our complex selves.
As I approach 40, sometimes I ask myself, will I see in my lifetime diversified representations of black womanness?
Do you see these coming from any quarters?
Camille Billops's latest film, Finding Christa, has many provocative images. We meet, in the film, the woman who becomes Christa's adoptive mother. When I say there are subversive images, I felt this is one. This is a black woman—heavy-set, dark-skinned—who never enters Hollywood except as mammy, except as someone who is subjugated. Billops shot that image with the kind of beauty and power it's rarely shot with.
Some of the most arresting images of black women I've ever seen were gathered in the film Julie Dash did for PBS's Alive From Off-Center of the dance group Urban Bushwomen. These images are about black women struggling to find space to exercise creativity, and that's what made them so powerful for me.
In my bedroom I have that famous photograph that I mention in Black Looks of Billie Holiday taken by Monetta Sleet. It was given to me by the curator Deborah Willis, who does much of the work on black photographers. I am always thankful that there was significant visual documentation done of Holiday's generation of black artists and thinkers. It's been crucial to my generation to see pictures of those black artists and thinkers in their studies and their spaces. The posture Holiday has in that photo is like that of Rodin's The Thinker. Every morning when I wake up and see this picture, I feel an affirmation from her of the space that I have claimed in my life, as a black female, to be a contemplative person.
I believe much is going to come from the world of theory-making, as more black cultural critics enter the dialogue. As theory and criticism call for artists and audiences to shift their paradigms of how they see, we'll see the freeing up of possibilities. It's my hope. That's one of the reasons so much of my new work is focusing on looking relations—in a sense, on seeing. I think it's the main source of intervention right now.
This section contains 1,915 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)