"In Praise of bell hooks"
The New York Times, February 2019
In 1987, I was a sophomore at Yale. I’d been in the United States for 11 years, and although I was a history major, I wanted to read novels again. I signed up for “Introduction to African-American Literature,” which was taught by Gloria Watkins, an assistant professor in the English department, and she was such a wonderful teacher that I signed up for her other class, “Black Women and Their Fiction.”
Gloria — as we were allowed to address her in the classroom — had a slight figure with elegant wrists that peeked out of her tunic sweater sleeves. She was soft-spoken with a faint Southern accent, which I attributed to her birthplace, Hopkinsville, Ky. She was in her mid-30s then but looked much younger. Large, horn-rimmed glasses framed the open gaze of her genuinely curious mind. You knew her classes were special. The temperature in the room seemed to change in her presence because everything felt so intense and crackling like the way the air can feel heavy before a long-awaited rain. It wasn’t just school then. No, I think, we were falling in love with thinking and imagining again.
She didn’t assign her own writing, but of course my friends and I went to the bookstore to find it. Gloria Watkins published her first book, “Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” under her pen name, bell hooks, in honor of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Watkins wanted her pen name to be spelled in lowercase to shift the attention from her identity to her ideas.
Gloria Watkins was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Stanford University when she wrote her first draft of “Ain’t I A Woman,” and she published the book when she was 29 years old, after she received her doctorate in English from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Since then she has published three dozen books and teaches in her home state of Kentucky at Berea College, a liberal arts college that does not charge tuition to any of its students. She is the founder of the bell hooks Institute and is recognized globally as a feminist activist and cultural critic. For nearly four decades, hooks has written and published with clarity, novel insight and extraordinary precision about art, media, race, gender and class.
For this now canonical text, hooks took her title from a line in the 1863 published version of Sojourner Truth’s speech in favor of women’s suffrage, which she gave in 1851 in Akron, Ohio. As in Truth’s political activism, hooks asserts that one cannot separate race from gender, history and class when considering a person’s freedom.
Now, 38 years after its publication in 1981, “Ain’t I A Woman” remains a radical and relevant work of political theory. hooks lays the groundwork of her feminist theory by giving historical evidence of the specific sexism that black female slaves endured and how that legacy affects black womanhood today. She writes, “A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.” The economics of slavery, which commodified human lives and the breeding of more enslaved people, encouraged the systematic practice of rape against black women, and this system established an enduring “social hierarchy based on race and sex.”
hooks’s writing broke ground by recognizing that a woman’s race, political history, social position and economic worth to her society are just some of the factors, which comprise her value, but none of these can ever be left out in considering the totality of her life and her freedom.
For me, reading “Ain’t I A Woman” was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind. I am neither white nor black, but through her theories, I was able to understand that my body contained historical multitudes and any analysis without such a measured consideration was limited and deeply flawed.
I was 19 when I took hooks’s classes, and I was just becoming a young feminist myself. I had begun my study of feminism with Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, among other white women, and perhaps, because I was foreign-born — rightly or wrongly — I had not expected that people like me would be included in their vision of feminist liberation. Women and men of Asian ethnicities are so often neglected, excluded and marginalized in the Western academy, so as a college student I’d no doubt internalized my alleged insignificance. bell hooks changed my limited perception.
Her book of theory taught me to ask for more from art, literature, media, politics and history — and for me, a Korean girl who had been born in a divided nation once led by kings, colonizers, then a succession of presidents who were more or less dictators, and for millenniums, that had enforced rigid class systems with slaves and serfs until the early 20th century, and where women of all classes were deeply oppressed and brutalized, I needed to see that the movement had a space for me.
In fostering a feminist movement, which can include and empower women from all different races and classes, hooks calls for an honest reckoning of its history. She indicts the origins of the white feminist movement for its racist and classist treatment of African-American women and repudiates its goals of imitating the power structure of white patriarchy. That said, she does not support a separate black women’s movement, and in fact, sees that as counterproductive to the greater power a well-organized collective women’s movement can have. hooks wrote in “Ain’t I A Woman”: “Without a doubt, the false sense of power black women are encouraged to feel allows us to think that we are not in need of social movements like a women’s movement that would liberate us from sexist oppression. The sad irony is of course that black women are often most victimized by the very sexism we refuse to collectively identify as an oppressive force.”
I am 50 years old now, and I worry when I hear that feminism is anything a woman chooses, because I don’t think that’s true. If a woman chooses to hurt another person or herself in the guise of feminism, surely that cannot eradicate sexism. bell hooks asserts that freedom “as positive social equality that grants all humans the opportunity to shape their destinies in the most healthy and communally productive way can only be a complete reality when our world is no longer racist and sexist.” This is very true, I think, and I wonder if today we are considering what is “most healthy and communally productive” for all of us, not just for some of us.
In college, I did not imagine that I could be a fiction writer. The wish to make art seemed like some incredibly expensive store I could never enter. Nevertheless, no matter what I would do with my life after graduation, “Ain’t I A Woman” allowed me to recognize the dignity and power of living privately and publicly as an immigrant feminist of color. At the time, I did not yet know of Kimberle Crenshaw’s brilliant term “intersectionality,” or Claudia Rankine’s vital concept “racial imaginary” — complementary and significant theories for understanding present day lives, but as a young woman, through hooks’s work, I was just beginning to see that everyone needs theory, and we need it like water.
bell hooks: A Starter Kit
‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’ (1984) Considered a follow-up to “Ain’t I A Woman.” A smart analysis of the future of the women’s movement.
‘Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black’ (1989) Anthology of essays about feminism and finding her material and voice as a writer, including “to Gloria, who is she: on using a pseudonym” and “Ain’t I A Woman: looking back.”
‘Black Looks: Race and Representation’ (1992) Anthology of essays, including the knockout, “Eating the Other,” and film-studies canon essay, “The Oppositional Gaze.”
‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom’ (1994) An exciting and liberating work of practical pedagogy for teachers and students.
‘Outlaw Culture’ (1994) Anthology of cultural criticism, including film, music and books. A terrific essay on rap music, “Gangsta Culture — Sexism and Misogyny,” which my friend Dionne Bennett, another former student of bell hooks and an anthropologist at City Tech, teaches because “There is no better essay on this topic,” says Dionne.
‘We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity’ (2004) Anthology of insightful cultural criticism of how white culture marginalizes and represses black men.