Bell Hooks, a cultural critic, feminist, theorist, and political activist, is recognized as one of America’s leading intellectuals. She is a distinguished professor at the City College of New York. She takes her name from her great-grandmother in recognition of her female legacy and uses lowercase lettering to reflect her awareness of ego and fame. Her previous books, “Ain’t I a Woman” and “Black Looks,” provide new scholarship mixing academic writing with personal testimony. “Killing Rage: Ending Racism” is her latest book, and I’m pleased to have her back here. Welcome back.
The last time you were here, we conversed, and I had a bunch of letters.
This is true.
Was I saying, why did you allow those men? These were African-American men, in this case, to beat up on Bell, and I said Bell Hooks could take care of herself. Thank you very much.
Absolutely. I thought I took care of myself that evening, even though I felt they tried to silence me, which is interesting. It wasn’t to silence you, but they wanted to meet you. You came down with different signs, I think. The exciting thing was that that night’s issue was white supremacy. And one of the things they were doing was saying it’s not that important, and it’s interesting that shortly after that, we had the tragedy in Oklahoma. And then after that, there was the OJ Simpson case, coming to this forefront of racial tension, drawing out the tension that’s been in our culture for such a long time.
What do you say about white supremacy today?
Partisan is that white supremacy, first of all, is no white thing. It’s part of this culture. It’s part of how all of us have been taught to think about different who’s better, inferior, and superior. So I prefer white supremacy to racism precisely because it says we’re all being socialized to think along specific dualistic laws. And that the notion of light or white being better and that which is dark or black being worse, inadequate, or inferior is something that everyone in the culture is socialized to think.
Bell speaks about some political events and recent events. But first, I want to talk about three things. The first is the Million Man March. What do you think? Well, the Million Man March…
Was some guy deeply and profoundly opposed? I opposed it because you cannot separate messages from messengers. At the same time, the idea of Black male solidarity and unity is fine, just like I, who could not be moved by the images of all of those men; underlying those images is a political ideology, a way of thinking about family. The other night, I was lecturing at Dartmouth, and some young Black men were saying, “But how can it be wrong for Black men to oppose welfare?” And I said, “Well, it’s one thing to say that Black men should assume responsibility for families, and another thing to look realistically at our job and employment situation and to say what would happen to many single-parent households that women head if there was no aid to assist women as in the process of change and transition, many of whom are hoping for jobs that don’t exist.”
What ideology, back to what you were saying regarding the message and the messenger? What ideology, or do you believe, was being promulgated? Was it the Nation of Islam? No, was it some other ideology? I would say that, first and foremost, it was patriarchy. I mean, when someone tells me in their mission statement that no nation sends its women to war while the men sit in the kitchen. You know, the race situation in America right now is like war. The men are going to Washington, to me, is an honest gender dialogue about conventional masculinity, which denies a history of race relations where the engagement of Black women in resistance struggle has been so meaningful and so crucial. What would have been less effective or, as practical, more effective if women had been part of it?
Let me go on record as saying, Charlie, I have no trouble if men want to march alone. Yeah, I feel like men could march for days by themselves, and I sit at home and cook and clean if they were marching for principles, values, and politics that would aid Black self-determination. I think patriarchy has been deadly for the planet and Black men. Okay, perhaps it has, but who says they were marching for patriarchy? I mean, that’s not sure that I don’t know. I’m not sure that was the case. If you talk to all those people there, which I didn’t, but I’ve talked to people who did talk to them, wandered through the crowd without television cameras, and had lots of conversations, and it didn’t seem to be a paper. It seemed to be about responsibility, and it seemed to be about some sense of self-esteem. It seemed to be about Fathers and Sons and fathers and daughters, but that’s into responsibility was connected to particular notions about the family.
Not about self-responsibility first, but it was the idea that, in fact, the old idea that men acquire self-esteem by the degree to which they can be providers and protectors is what patriarchy says to us. And we know that many men provide and protect, and they still struggle with self-esteem. And black women, in your judgment, endorsed feminism and responded to it.
In Killing Rage, I try to talk about how black women have questioned their recognition that race is always a factor. So there’s been calling attention to racism within the women’s movement, particularly the racism of privileged class women who were saying, “You know, we’re victimized because of certain issues” that black women did not see as an occasion for victimization. So did it put black women against white women, then?
Yes, I think the black-and-white reformist-based feminist movement pitted black women against white women because the discourses of women of color and black women were left out. For example, early on, a central thesis of feminism was “women need to get out into the workforce.” Masses of black women were already out of the workforce and weren’t liberated. That’s poor women already out of the workforce and that kind of work. Who is it liberating for? So there was a fundamental distinction between those women Betty Friedan was describing as sitting at home, many of whom were well-educated, had been educated in the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters, and weren’t doing anything, and those masses of women who were in factories, who were cleaning people’s homes, who did not see work as central to liberation and who were fantasizing about the days of their lives when they wouldn’t have to work.
So there’s a chapter in Killing Rage about black and white female relations where I say, until our relationships improve, until black women and white women understand each other better, there will not be an inter-racism in this society.
OJ Simpson, what do you think? I mean, not so much, obviously; I’m fascinated by whether people thought he was guilty. But beyond that, are you surprised by the reaction to it?
I was shocked and troubled by the reaction to it because I felt like I was one of the people who religiously tried not to watch the case precisely because I felt, concerning the fact, that this was a case rooted in domestic violence. Here again, I don’t think that people can pretend that, somehow, domestic violence doesn’t matter. This tragedy would not have happened if male violence against women was not so acceptable in our culture because there is a line leading up to the tragedy. Whether we know who murdered this woman or not, we know that a whole life structured around acceptance of violence was a part of how this couple related to one another. And that to me made me feel like once this becomes “entertainment,” once the camera is focused on OJ Simpson, people will forget that at the heart of this is both male violence and male violence against women because we’ve not heard anybody speculate that a group of women were outside that house chopping up anybody.
So clearly, we cannot get away from the dilemma of male violence in our culture and male violence against women, and I try to hold to that as a way of not deflecting attention away from the fact that this was not an issue of race. I mean, the case itself was not an issue of race. How we interpreted how we witnessed it as a culture it was racialized. But the heart of it still, for me, remains male violence against women. And what about those, including Johnny Cochran, I guess, who would say, “No, no, it was about race because it was about race, and it’s because of the attitude of the LAPD”? Well, I think one, even before we knew anything about the attitude of the LAPD, we know that whenever sexuality is involved and gender in our culture, people often prefer to talk about race. Race is more accessible for people to—it’s easier to racialize something because if we make it a case of gender, we have to see a man like OJ Simpson empowered by class and patriarchy. If we make it a case of race, we can see him as always and only a victim. And so, of course, it was essential for men in general and Cochran, in particular, himself, according to his wife, who is no stranger to domestic violence, to act as though the only issue here is racial injustice.
Bell Hooks’ Killing Rage: Ending Racism is a collection of essays about a range of subject matter concerning men and women, gender and violence and rage, and many other things. Unlike most black intellectuals, my friend Cornell West says she writes with a sense of urgency about the existential and psycho-cultural dimensions of African-American life, especially those spiritual and intimate issues of love, hurt, pain, envy, and desire usually produced by artists or books. So help us not only to decolonize our minds, souls, and bodies, but on a deeper level, they touch our lives. It is challenging to read a bell hooks essay without enacting some form of self-examination or self-inventory, precisely what she would like you to do. Thank you.
We thank you for joining us. I look forward to seeing you next time.