bell hooks in October 2014
Gloria Jean Watkins
September 25, 1952
Hopkinsville, Kentucky, U.S.
|Occupation||Author, academic, feminist and social activist|
|Known for||Oppositional gaze|
Gloria Jean Watkins (born September 25, 1952), better known by her pen name bell hooks, is an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist. The name "bell hooks" is borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.
The focus of hooks' writing has been the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published more than 30 books and numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures. She has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism. In 2014, she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.
Watkins was born in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in Kentucky, to a working-class family. Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a custodian and her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, was a homemaker. She had five sisters and one brother. An avid reader, she was educated in racially segregated public schools, and wrote of great adversities when making the transition to an integrated school, where teachers and students were predominantly white. She later graduated from Hopkinsville High School in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She obtained her BA in English from Stanford University in 1973, and her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976.
Her teaching career began in 1976 as an English professor and senior lecturer in Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California. During her three years there, Golemics, a Los Angeles publisher, released her first published work, a chapbook of poems titled And There We Wept (1978), written under the name "bell hooks". She adopted her maternal great-grandmother's name as a pen name because her great-grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired". She put the name in lowercase letters "to distinguish [herself from] her great-grandmother." She said that her unconventional lowercasing of her name signifies what is most important is her works: the "substance of books, not who I am."
She taught at several post-secondary institutions in the early 1980s and 1990s, including the University of California, Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, Yale, Oberlin College and City College of New York. In 1981 South End Press published her first major work, Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, though it was written years earlier while she was an undergraduate student. In the decades since its publication, Ain't I a Woman? has gained widespread recognition as an influential contribution to feminist thought.
Ain't I a Woman? examines several recurring themes in her later work: the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, devaluation of black womanhood, media roles and portrayal, the education system, the idea of a white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, the marginalization of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism. Since the publication of Ain't I a Woman?, she has become eminent as a leftist and postmodern political thinker and cultural critic. She targets and appeals to a broad audience by presenting her work in a variety of media using various writing and speaking styles. As well as having written books, she has published in numerous scholarly and mainstream magazines, lectures at widely accessible venues, and appears in various documentaries.
She is frequently cited by feminists as having provided the best solution to the difficulty of defining something as diverse as "feminism", addressing the problem that if feminism can mean everything, it means nothing. She asserts an answer to the question "what is feminism?" that she says is "rooted in neither fear nor fantasy... 'Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression'".
She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help, engaged pedagogy to personal memoirs, and sexuality (in regards to feminism and politics of aesthetic/visual culture). A prevalent theme in her most recent writing is the community and communion, the ability of loving communities to overcome race, class, and gender inequalities. In three conventional books and four children's books, she suggests that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are crucial to developing healthy communities and relationships that are not marred by race, class, or gender inequalities.
She has held positions as Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and as Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York.
In 2002, hooks gave a commencement speech at Southwestern University. Eschewing the congratulatory mode of traditional commencement speeches, she spoke against what she saw as government-sanctioned violence and oppression, and admonished students who she believed went along with such practices. This was followed by a controversy described in the Austin Chronicle after an "irate Arizonian" had criticized the speech in a letter to the editor. The newspaper reported that many in the audience booed the speech, though "several graduates passed over the provost to shake her hand or give her a hug".
In 2004, she joined Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, as Distinguished Professor in Residence, where she participated in a weekly feminist discussion group, "Monday Night Feminism"; a luncheon lecture series, "Peanut Butter and Gender"; and a seminar, "Building Beloved Community: The Practice of Impartial Love". Her 2008 book, belonging: a culture of place, includes a candid interview with author Wendell Berry as well as a discussion of her move back to Kentucky. She has undertaken three scholar-in-residences at The New School. Mostly recently she did one for a week in October 2014. She engaged in public dialogues with Gloria Steinem,Laverne Cox, and Cornel West.
Those who have influenced hooks include African-American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (whose speech Ain't I a Woman? inspired her first major work), Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose perspectives on education she embraces in her theory of engaged pedagogy), Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, African-American writer James Baldwin, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, African-American black nationalist leader Malcolm X, and African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (who addresses how the strength of love unites communities). Hooks says of Martin Luther King Jr.'s notion of a beloved community, "He had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way."
In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks writes about a transgressive approach in education where educators can teach students to "transgress" against racial, sexual, and class boundaries in order to achieve the gift of freedom. To educate as the practice of freedom, bell hooks describes it as "a way of teaching that anyone can learn." Hooks combines her practical knowledge and personal experiences of the classroom with feminist thinking and critical pedagogy. Hooks investigates the classroom as a source of constraint but also a potential source of liberation. She argues that teachers' use of control and power over students dulls the students' enthusiasm and teaches obedience to authority, "confin[ing] each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning." She advocates that universities should encourage students and teachers to transgress, and seeks ways to use collaboration to make learning more relaxing and exciting. She describes teaching as a performative act and teachers as catalysts that invite everyone to become more engaged and activated. Performative aspect of learning "offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom." Hooks also dedicated a chapter of the book to Paulo Freire, written in a form of a playful dialogue between herself, Gloria Watkins and her writing voice, bell hooks. In the last chapter of the book, hooks raised the critical question of eros or the erotic in classrooms environment. According to hooks, eros and the erotics do not need to be denied for learning to take place. She argues that one of the central tenets of feminist pedagogy has been to subvert the mind-body dualism and allow oneself as a teacher to be whole in the classroom, and as a consequence wholehearted.
In 2004, 10 years after the success of Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks published Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. In this book, hooks offers advice about how to continue to make the classroom a place that is life-sustaining and mind expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership. She writes that education as a practice of freedom enable us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connections and consequently teaches us how to create community. She locates hope in places of struggle where she witnessed individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. For hooks, educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness.
Noting a lack of diverse voices in popular feminist theory, hooks published Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 1984. In this book, she argues that those voices have been marginalized, and states: "To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body." She argues that if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because in Western society, not all men are equal. She claims, "Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women's liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status."
She used the work as a platform to offer a new, more inclusive feminist theory. Her theory encouraged the long-standing idea of sisterhood but advocated for women to acknowledge their differences while still accepting each other. She challenged feminists to consider gender's relation to race, class, and sex, a concept which came to be known as intersectionality. She also argues for the importance of male involvement in the equality movement, stating that for change to occur, men must do their part. She also calls for a restructuring of the cultural framework of power, one that does not find oppression of others necessary.
Part of this restructuring involves allowing men into the feminist movement, so that there is not a separationist ideology, so much as an incorporating camaraderie. Additionally, she shows great appreciation for the movement away from feminist thought as led by bourgeois white women, and towards a multidimensional gathering of both genders to fight for the raising up of women. This shifts the original focus of feminism away from victimization, towards harboring understanding, appreciation, and tolerance for all genders and sexes so that all are in control of their own destinies, uncontrolled by patriarchal, capitalist tyrants.
Another part of restructuring the movement comes from education: hooks points out that there is an anti-intellectual stigma among the masses. Poor people do not want to hear from intellectuals because they are different and have different ideas. As she points out, this stigma against intellectuals leads to the shunning of poor people who have risen up to graduation from post-secondary education, because they are no longer like the rest of the masses. In order for us to achieve equality, people must be able to learn from those who have been able to smash these stereotypes. This separation leads to further inequality and in order for the feminist movement to succeed, they must be able to bridge the education gap and relate to those in the lower end of the economic sphere. If they are able to do this, then there will be more success and less inequality.
In "Rethinking The Nature of Work", hooks goes beyond discussing work and raises a pertinent question that feminists may need to ask themselves. "Many Women active in feminist movement do not have radical political perspectives and are unwilling to face these realities, especially when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure." In "All About Love," hooks discusses how a culture of lovelessness feeds the patriarchal system.
In her book Reel to Real, hooks discusses the effect that movies have on any given individual, with specific emphasis on the black female spectator. She argues that, although we know that movies are not real life, "no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention, [we] are usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen. They have power over us, and we have no power over them."
She focuses on problematic racial representations. She has written a number of essays and articles, and in Reel to Real she describes her experiences growing up watching mainstream movies as well as engaging in the media. Her belief is that to engage in film is to engage in the negation of black female representation in the media. She states, "Representation is the 'hot' issue right now because it's a major realm of power for any system of domination. We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation".
In her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, in the chapter "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators", hooks discusses what she calls an "oppositional gaze". She discusses it as a position and strategy for black people, especially black women, to develop a critical spectatorship in relation to mass media. Describing how for her, the "gaze" had always been political, hooks explains how she began to grow curious of the results of black slaves being punished for looking at their white owners. She wondered how much had been absorbed and carried on through the generations to affect not only black parenting, but black spectatorship as well. hooks writes that because she remembered how she had dared to look at adults as a child, even though she was forbidden, she knew that slaves had looked too. Drawing on Foucault's thoughts about power always coexisting with the possibility of resistance, hooks discusses this looking as a form of resistance, as a way of finding agency, and declaring: "Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality."
She writes that when black people started watching films and television in the United States, they knew that mass media was part of the system that was maintaining white supremacy. Because of this, watching television became a space for black people to develop a critical spectatorship; an oppositional gaze. Prior to racial integration, black viewers "[...] experienced visual pleasure in a context where looking was also about contestation and confrontation." She further discusses how this spectatorship looked different for black women compared to black men. Black men could renounce the racism of the images, while simultaneously engaging in the phallocentric nature of Hollywood films as a way of contesting white supremacy and experiencing imaginative phallocentric power. Participating in the phallocentric gaze, and objectifying the white female who was cast as the desired object, black men could rebel against the racist reality where black men was constantly interpreted as looking at white womanhood and punished for it.
For black women, however, the spectatorship looked different. Since bodies of black females were mostly absent in early films, the development of black women's spectatorship was complicated. If black females were present, their bodies were there to: "[...] enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze." According to hooks, the conventional representations of black females have been an assault to black womanhood. In response to this, many black women rejected looking at the images altogether. Another response of some black women, were to turn off their criticism and identify with the white woman on the screen, through this victimization being able to experience cinematic pleasure. A third option, is to look through the lens of the oppositional gaze. This is a critical gaze that, according to hooks, goes beyond Laura Mulvey's analysis of how the Hollywood film constructs the man as the subject, and the woman as the object. This "woman" is in fact, a white woman. She criticizes mainstream feminist film theory for ignoring the subject of race, and by that also ignoring the role of black female spectatorship.
She asserts that there is a pleasure to be found in the oppositional gaze, in looking against the grain. However, some black females are unable to resist dominant ways of looking, because their perception of reality is still colonized. She discusses that the amount of feelings of dehumanization and objectification that a black woman experiences in this society is determinant for her looking relations. The more she is able to construct herself as a subject in daily life, the more inclined she is to develop an oppositional gaze. And this is in turn affected by the realm of representation in mass media. This is one of the reasons why hooks stresses the importance of black female film makers, mentioning Julie Dash, Camille Billops, Kathleen Collins, Ayoka Chenzira and Zeinabu Davis. This sector of filmmaking and spectatorship is creating new ways of recognition, identification and subjectification.
But the Chicago Manual says it is not all right to capitalize the name of the writer bell hooks because she insists that it be lower case.
hooks, bell, Talking Back, Routledge, 2014 , p. 161.
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