This is the last in this series of 2015 interviews with philosophers on race. This week’s conversation is with the scholar, critic and public intellectual bell hooks, who is currently the distinguished professor in residence of Appalachian studies at Berea College. She is the author of many books, including “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice” — George Yancy
George Yancy: Over the years you have used the expression “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe the power structure underlying the social order. Why tie those terms together as opposed to stressing any one of them in isolation?
bell hooks: We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. Significantly, this phrase has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another. For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters, that domination only came into the world because of rape. Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, “Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.” So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.
G.Y.: I’ve heard you speak many times and I noticed that you do so with a very keen sense of humor. What is the role of humor in your work?
b.h.: We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community. For example, I love to be in conversation with Cornel West. We always go high and we go low, and we always bring the joyful humor in. The last talk he and I gave together, many people were upset because we were silly together. But I consider it a high holy calling that we can be humorous together. How many times do we see an African-American man and an African-American woman talking together, critiquing one another, and yet having delicious, humorous delight? It’s a miracle.
G.Y.: What is your view of the feminist movement today, and how has your relationship to it changed over time?
I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love.
b.h.: My militant commitment to feminism remains strong, and the main reason is that feminism has been the contemporary social movement that has most embraced self-interrogation. When we, women of color, began to tell white women that females were not a homogenous group, that we had to face the reality of racial difference, many white women stepped up to the plate. I’m a feminist in solidarity with white women today for that reason, because I saw these women grow in their willingness to open their minds and change the whole direction of feminist thought, writing and action. This continues to be one of the most remarkable, awesome aspects of the contemporary feminist movement. The left has not done this, radical black men have not done this, where someone comes in and says, “Look, what you’re pushing, the ideology, is all messed up. You’ve got to shift your perspective.” Feminism made that paradigm shift, though not without hostility, not without some women feeling we were forcing race on them. This change still amazes me.
G.Y.: What should we do in our daily lives to combat, in that phrase of yours, the power and influence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? What can be done on the proverbial ground?
b.h.: I live in a small, predominantly white town in the Bible Belt. Rather than saying, “What would Jesus do?” I always think, “What does Martin Luther King want me to do today?” Then I decide what Martin Luther King wants me to do today is to go out into the world and in every way that I can, small and large, build a beloved community. As a Buddhist Christian, I also think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying, “Let’s throw this pebble into the water, it may not go far in the beginning, but it will ripple out.” So, every day, I’m challenging myself, “What are you doing, bell, for the creation of the beloved community?” Because that’s the underground, local, insistence that I be a fundamental part of the world that I’m in. I’ve been to the Farmer’s Market, I’ve been to the church bazaar this morning. I really push myself to relate to people, that is, people that I might not feel as comfortable relating to. There are many Kentucky hillbilly white persons who look at me with contempt. They cannot turn me around. I am doing the same thing as those civil rights activists, those black folk and those white folk who sat in at those diners and who marched.
It’s about humanization. And I can’t think of another way to imagine how we’re going to get out of the crisis of racial hatred if it’s not through the will to humanize. Personally, I draw incredible strength from the images of black people and white people in social movements. I personally did not think “Selma” was a great film, but the strength that I gained from the film was thinking about all of those people, those white folks who see “Selma” and say, “My God, this is unjust! Let’s go do our part.” And it’s awesome when we’re called. There are many times in this life of mine when I ask myself, “What are you willing to give your life for, bell? When are you willing to get out in the streets knowing that you’re risking your health?” And if those older black women who were there in Selma, Ala., can do this stuff, it just reminds you how incredibly vital this history of struggle has been towards allowing you and I to be in the state of privilege that we live within today.
G.Y.: That point hits home, especially as I think about my own intellectual identity and yet often fail to think about the privilege that comes with it.
The connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people is the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.
b.h.: I am a total intellectual. I tell people that intellectual work is the laboratory that I go into every day. Without all of those people engaged in civil rights struggles, I would not be here in this laboratory. I mean, how many black women have had the good fortune to write more than 30 books? When I wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, I do my prayers and meditations, and then I have what I call my “study hours.” I try to read a book a day, a nonfiction book, and then I get to read total trash for the rest of the day. That’s luxury, that’s privilege of a high order – the privilege to think critically, and then the privilege to be able to act on what you know.
G.Y.: Absolutely. You’ve talked about how theory can function as a place of healing. Can you say more about that?
b.h.: I always start with children. Most children are amazing critical thinkers before we silence them. I think that theory is essentially a way to make sense of the world; as a gifted child growing up in a dysfunctional family where giftedness was not appreciated, what held me above water was the idea of thinking through, “Why are Mom and Dad the way they are?” And those are questions that are at the heart of critical thinking. And that’s why I think critical thinking and theory can be such a source of healing. It moves us forward. And, of course, I don’t know about other thinkers and writers, but I have the good fortune every day of my life to have somebody contacting me, either on the streets or by mail, telling me about how my work has changed their life, how it has enabled them to go forward. And what greater gift to be had as a thinker-theorist, than that?
G.Y.: How do you prevent yourself from being seduced by that? I think that there is that temptation by intellectuals/scholars, who are well known, to be seduced into a state of narcissism. How do you resist that?
b.h.: First of all, I live in a city of 12,000 people where most of them don’t have a clue about who bell hooks is for the most part, or where someone asks “Is bell hooks a person?” There is humility in the life that I lead, because one thing about having my given name, Gloria Jean, which is such a great Appalachian hillbilly name, is that I’m not walking around in my daily life usually as bell hooks. I’m walking around in the dailiness of my life as just the ordinary Gloria Jean. That’s changing a bit in the little town that I live in because more of me as a thinker, writer and artist is coming out into the world of the town that I live in.
I think that I’ve been coming out more and more in the fact that the work that I’m writing is about spirituality, because one of the central aspects that has kept me grounded in my life has been spirituality. Growing up, when my mom used to tell me, “You’re really smart, but you’re not better than anyone else,” I used to think, “Why does she go on about that?” And, of course, now I see why. It was to keep me grounded and to keep me respecting the different ways of knowing and the knowledges of other people, and not thinking “Oh, I am so smart,” which I think can happen to many well-known intellectuals.
I always kind of chuckle at people labeling me a public intellectual. I chuckle because people used to say, “How have you written so much?” and I’d say, “By not having a life.” There is nothing public about the energy, the discipline and solitude it takes to produce so much writing. I think of public intellectuals as very different, because I think that they’re airing their work for that public engagement. Really, in all the years of my writing that was not my intention. It was to produce theory that people could use. I have this phrase that I use, “working with the work.” So if somebody comes up to me, and they have one of those bell hooks books that’s abused and battered, and every page is underlined, I know they’ve been working with the work. And that’s where it is for me.
G.Y.: Is there a connection between teaching as a space of healing and your understanding of love?
b.h.: Well, I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching. I don’t do a lot of teaching these days. I am semi-retired. Because, like any act of love, it takes a lot of your energy.
I was just talking with a neighbor about what it feels like to be working at a need-based college like Berea, where none of our students pay tuition, and many of them come from the hills of Appalachia. We often get discouraged anytime we feel that our college isn’t living up to its history of integration and of racial inclusion. But then we’d see we have students who are doing such amazing things, from the hills of Virginia, or Tennessee. You just know, I am right where I am meant to be, doing what I should be doing, and giving and receiving the love that comes anytime we do that work well.
Poverty has become infinitely more violent than it ever was when I was a girl. You lived next door to very poor black people, but who had very joyful lives. That’s not the poverty of today.
G.Y.: You’ve conceptualized love as the opposite of estrangement. Can you say something about that?
b.h.: When we engage love as action, you can’t act without connecting. I often think of that phrase, only connect. In terms of white supremacy right now for instance, the police stopped me a few weeks ago here in Berea, because I was doing something wrong. I initially felt fear, and I was thinking about the fact that in all of my 60-some years of my life in this country, I have never felt afraid of policemen before, but I feel afraid now. He was just total sweetness. And yet I thought, what a horrible change in our society that that level of estrangement has taken place that was not there before.
I know that the essential experience of black men and women has always been different, but from the time I was a girl to now, I never thought the police were my enemy. Yet, what black woman witnessing the incredible abuse of Sandra Bland can’t shake in her boots if she’s being stopped by the police? When I was watching that video, I was amazed the police didn’t shoot her on the spot! White supremacist white people are crazy.
I used to talk about patriarchy as a mental illness of disordered desire, but white supremacy is equally a serious and profound mental illness, and it leads people to do completely and utterly insane things. I think one of the things that is going on in our society is the normalization of mental illness, and the normalization of white supremacy, and the evocation and the spreading of this is part of that mental illness. So remember that we are a culture in crisis. Our crisis is as much a spiritual crisis as it is a political crisis, and that’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. was so profoundly prescient in describing how the work of love would be necessary to have a transformative impact.
G.Y.: And of course, that doesn’t mean that you don’t find an important place in your work for rage, as in your book “Killing Rage”?
b.h.: Oh, absolutely. The first time that I got to be with Thich Nhat Hanh, I had just been longing to meet him. I was like, I’m going to meet this incredibly holy man. On the day that I was going to him, every step of the way I felt that I was encountering some kind of racism or sexism. When I got to him, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I am so angry!” And he, of course, Mr. Calm himself, Mr. Peace, said, “Well, you know, hold on to your anger, and use it as compost for your garden.” And I thought, “Yes, yes, I can do that!” I tell that story to people all the time. I was telling him about the struggles I was having with my male partner at the time and he said, “It is O.K. to say I want to kill you, but then you need to step back from that, and remember what brought you to this person in the first place.” And I think that if we think of anger as compost, we think of it as energy that can be recycled in the direction of our good. It is an empowering force. If we don’t think about it that way, it becomes a debilitating and destructive force.
One of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption.
G.Y.: Since you mentioned Sandra Bland, and there are so many other cases that we can mention, how can we use the trauma that black people are experiencing, or reconfigure that trauma into compost? How can black people do that? What does that look like therapeutically, or collectively?
b.h.: We have to be willing to be truthful. And to be truthful, we have to say, the problem that black people face, the trauma of white supremacy in our lives, is not limited to police brutality. That’s just one aspect. I often say that the issue for young black males is the street. If you only have the streets, you encounter violence on all sides: black on black violence, the violence of addiction, and the violence of police brutality. So the question is why at this stage of our history, with so many wealthy black people, and so many gifted black people, how do we provide a place other than the streets for black males? And it is so gendered, because the street, in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is male, especially when it is dark. There is so much feeling of being lost that it is beyond the trauma of racism. It is the trauma of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, because poverty has become infinitely more violent than it ever was when I was a girl. You lived next door to very poor black people, but who had very joyful lives. That’s not the poverty of today.
G.Y.: How is the poverty of today different?
b.h.: Let’s face it, one of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption. So part of the difference of poverty today is this sort of world of fantasy — fantasizing that you’ll win the lottery, fantasizing that money will come. I always cling to Lorraine Hansberry’s mama saying in “A in Raisin in the Sun,” “Since when did money become life?” I think that with the poverty of my growing up that I lived with and among, we were always made to feel like money is not what life is all about. That’s the total difference for everyone living right now, because most people in our culture believe money is everything. That is the big tie, the connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people — the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.
G.Y.: When you make that claim, I can see some readers saying that bell is pathologizing black spaces.
b.h.: As I said, we have normalized mental illness in this society. So it’s not the pathologizing of black spaces; it’s saying that the majority of cultural spaces in our society are infused with pathology. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of it, because it has become the culture that is being fed to us every day. None of us can escape it unless we do so by conscious living and conscious loving, and that’s become harder for everybody. I don’t have a problem stating the fact that trauma creates wounds, and most of our wounds are not healed as African-Americans. We’re not really different in that way from all the others who are wounded. Let’s face it — wounded white people frequently can cover up their wounds, because they have greater access to material power.
I find it fascinating that every day you go to the supermarket, and you look at the people, and you look at us, and you look at all of this media that is parading the sorrows and the mental illnesses of the white rich in our society. And it’s like everybody just skips over that. Nobody would raise the question, “why don’t we pathologize the rich?” We actually believe that they suffer mental illness, and that they deserve healing. The issue for us as black people is that very few people feel that we deserve healing. Which is why we have very few systems that promote healing in our lives. The primary system that ever promoted healing in black people is the church, and we see what is going on in most churches today. They’ve become an extension of that material greed.
One of the reasons for why so much black rebel anti-racist movements failed is because they didn’t take care of the home as a site of resistance.
G.Y.: As you shared being stopped by police, I thought of your book “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” where you describe whiteness as a site of terror. Has that changed for you?
b.h.: I don’t think that has changed for most black people. That particular essay, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” talks about whiteness, the black imagination, and how many of us live in fear of whiteness. And I emphasize the story about the policeman because for many of us that fear of whiteness has intensified. I think that white people, for the most part, never think about black people wanting to be in black only spaces, because we do not feel safe.
In my last book, “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice,” I really wanted to raise and problematize the question: Where do we feel safe as black people? I definitely return to the home as a place of spiritual possibility, home as a holy place.
I bought my current house from a conservative white male capitalist who lives across the street from me, and I’m so happy in my little home. I tell people, when I open the doors of my house it’s like these arms come out, and they’re just embracing me. I think that is part of our radical resistance to the culture of domination. I know that I’m not who he imagined in this little house. He imagined a nice white family with two kids, and I think on some level it was very hard for him to sell his house to a radical black woman, a radical black feminist woman. I think all of us, in terms of houses, have our idea, when we love our home, of who we want to be in it. But I think black folks in general across class have to restore that sense of resistance in the home.
When we look at the history of anti-racist rebels among black people, so much organizing happened in people’s homes. I always think about Mary McLeod Bethune: “Let’s just start the college in your living room.” Self-determination really does begin at home. We’re finding out that one of the reasons for why so much black rebel anti-racist movements failed is because they didn’t take care of the home as a site of resistance. So, you have very wounded people trying to lead movements in a world beyond the home, but they were simply not psychologically fit to lead.
G.Y.: That’s an important segue to the question about your concept of “soul healing” with respect to black men. What does soul healing among black men look like? And what role do you think black women play in helping to help nurture that soul healing?
b.h.: Every now and then, George, I write a book that hardly anyone pays any attention to. One such book in my life is my book on black masculinity, “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity.” An aspect of that book that I found deeply moving is when I use the metaphor of Isis and Osiris. Osiris is attacked, and his body parts are spread all over. Isis, the stern mother, sister and lover, goes and fetches those parts and puts him back together again. That sort of metaphor of harmony and friction that can be soul-healing for black people is so real to me. Often I feel sad, because I think we are in a culture that keeps black men and women further apart from one another, rather than meeting us in that place of shared history, shared story.
I am so grateful for the black male friends in my life. Like so many professional black women, I don’t have a partner. I would like to have one, but I’ve been grateful for having conscious, caring, black male comrades and friends, who keep me from any kind of integration of black masculinity, who just keep me in this space of loving blackness.
To have that kind of bonding is precious. These are the constructive moments of our time, and they’re not televised. When Malcolm X said we have to see each other with new eyes, I think that’s where self-determination begins and how we are with one another. Let’s face it, so many black males and females have suffered mental abandonment, and more than police brutality, that’s the core for many of us of our trauma. Betrayal is always about abandonment. And many of us have been emotionally abandoned. These are the wounds we have yet to correctly attend to so both black children and biracial children can have the opportunity to truly care for themselves in a way that’s optimal for all.
G.Y.: How are your Buddhist practices and your feminist practices mutually reinforcing?
b.h.: Well, I would have to say my Buddhist Christian practice challenges me, as does feminism. Buddhism continues to inspire me because there is such an emphasis on practice. What are you doing? Right livelihood, right action. We are back to that self-interrogation that is so crucial. It’s funny that you would link Buddhism and feminism, because I think one of the things that I’m grappling with at this stage of my life is how much of the core grounding in ethical-spiritual values has been the solid ground on which I stood. That ground is from both Buddhism and Christianity, and then feminism that helped me as a young woman to find and appreciate that ground. The spirituality piece came up for me in my love of Beat poetry. I came to Buddhism through the Beats, through Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac — they all sort of gave me this other space of groundedness.
I talk about spirituality more now than ever before, because I see my students suffering more than ever before, especially women students who feel like so much is expected of them. They’ve got to be the equals of men, but then they’ve got to be submissive if they are heteronormative, they have to find a partner. It’s just so much demand that has led them to depression, to addiction, or suicide. And it’s amazing how spirituality grounds them.
Feminism does not ground me. It is the discipline that comes from spiritual practice that is the foundation of my life. If we talk about what a disciplined writer I have been and hope to continue to be, that discipline starts with a spiritual practice. It’s just every day, every day, every day.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth and others) can be found here.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.