HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksEssay: The continuing relevance of bell hooks’ ideas

Essay: The continuing relevance of bell hooks’ ideas

The year was 1851, 10 years before the start of the American Civil War, and the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, had an explosive surprise in store when Sojourner Truth, a spirited woman of colour, who had experienced and confronted the excesses of American slavery, took the stage to draw on her experiences and highlight the differing realities of women’s lives. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages,” she said, “and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?” That jeering four-word query, repeated several times over, emphasized the inequities faced by black women as well as her right to be treated on par with all men. Nearly 130 years later it became the title of an iconic book authored by recently-deceased revolutionary writer, activist, critic and academic bell hooks (the mystifying lower case being her way of asserting that her books mattered more than she did).

bell hooks’ first book took American feminism head-on.

Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), published when bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) was 29, took American feminism head-on. hooks argued that the American feminist movement, dominated by white middle class American women, was rooted in a racial imperialism which had misleadingly used the generic term “women” throughout American history while referring only to the experience of white women. Challenging the feminist effort to equate women’s oppression with the oppression of blacks, hooks argued that in treating women and blacks as analogous feminists showed that to them the term “woman” meant white women, and the term “blacks” meant “black men”. Critiquing black male leaders for their support of black patriarchy, hooks quoted from men like Amiri Bakara to whom women’s equality was a white value to be avoided at all costs, being the work of the “devils and the devilishly influenced”: the black “brother” would prefer women to be women and a man to be “a ma-an.” The uncomfortable parallels are all too familiar globally in today’s fundamentalisms and misconstrued nativisms. hooks warned against valorising black women for their alleged strength in the face of victimisation: to be strong in the face of oppression (which she defined as the absence of choices) was not the same as overcoming oppression, and endurance not to be confused with transformation.

On a personal level, reading bell hooks when working on Caste as Woman in the early 1990s helped tackle the skepticism of several white feminist colleagues about the need for culture-specific feminisms even though hooks had already made a powerful case for this in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), arguing that much of feminist theory lacked wholeness because it drew on the perspectives of privileged women located at the centre. She saw the ethics of Western society as informed by imperialism and capitalism, teaching one that individual good was more important than the collective good and individual change of greater significance than social change (an ethic that has unfortunately infected global consciousness over time, distorting priorities in policy making as well as in issues of self-actualisation, identity, choice, power etc). According to hooks, the emphasis on the individual perhaps accounted for the feminist tendency to equate individual successes with change even if the greater masses of women remained unaffected. She cautioned that while individual successes were an important advancement they would not end “male domination as a system” – a stand vindicated by the way things have panned out not just in the US but globally in the four decades since the book was written.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) argued that much of feminist theory lacked wholeness because it drew on the perspectives of privileged women located at the centre. (Routledge)
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) argued that much of feminist theory lacked wholeness because it drew on the perspectives of privileged women located at the centre. (Routledge)

The centre-margin divide remained central to hooks’ eclectic output, as did her conviction that unless that divide was satisfactorily breached meaningful change was elusive. In an impassioned piece titled “Marginality as a site of resistance”, hooks deplored the skewed manner in which the experience of the marginalised was used by Western postcolonial theorists, charging Western researchers with wanting to know about her experiences but not her own explanations: “No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still colonizer, the speaking subject and you are now at the center of my talk.”

hooks offered instead a “message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators.” It is heartening to see that while Western researchers may not have heeded her words, hooks gave other young women of colour the confidence to find their own voice. Not surprisingly perhaps, the most moving tribute to hooks came from Kovie Biakolo, a young Nigerian journalist who wrote how Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989) had impacted her as a young student, transforming talking back from “a personal act of necessary disobedience” into “a politic worth abiding” and giving her a language to understand the shame and triumphs of Black girlhood: “For us, Ms hooks was a lighthouse, and talking back was how we found our way.”

Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and “Family Fables & Hidden Heresies: A Memoir of Mothers and More”, and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.

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