Bell Hooks giving a talk called Love: Connecting Self And Community at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor West), Saturday (May 15), 7 pm, $5-$12 (sliding scale); no advance tickets available, but day-of tickets will be sold at the door. Also conducting a storytelling-for-children session at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor West), Saturday (May 15), 6 pm, $5-$12 (sliding scale). 416-922-8744, 1-800-861-8233. www.womensbookstore.com.
And participating in the Spirit Matters: Wisdom Traditions And The "Great Work" conference at OISE/UT's Transformative Learning Centre (252 Bloor West), May 13-16, $275-$350. www.tlcentre.org.
Somewhere in the wilds of greenwich village, in the closet of a tiny studio apartment, Bell Hooks is having a major crisis. The revered black feminist thinker has taken on tons of daunting opponents over the course of her nearly 30-year career. While still a 19-year-old undergrad, she challenged stereotypes about the role of black women throughout history and the subtle sexism of the black liberation movement in what eventually became her first book, 1981's Ain't I A Woman. She's faced off against the racist and classist undertones of mainstream white feminism and done battle with problematic black representations in Benetton ads and popular African-American film, to name just a few.
But on this Wednesday afternoon in May, the 52-year-old's dilemma has a much warmer, fuzzier bent. Welcome to Bell Hooks's pashmina paralysis.
"I have this orange scarf that I love to death, and I've now worn it to death," she sighs over the phone. "I've been moving for the past few months, and I've worn this scarf pretty much non-stop, even as my mother and everyone else have said, 'Honey, you need to find something else.' I can understand why kids latch onto objects like blankies, cuz it's somehow been stupidly comforting to me."
Hooks chuckles sheepishly in a voice that's surprisingly girlish, with traces of the gentlest, buttery Southern accent left over from her Kentucky upbringing. It makes you feel immediately at home.
Don't for a second think the fighter has ditched revolutionary work for fashion obsession. Unlike the rest of us, hooks (née Gloria Watkins - the pseudonym, a tribute to her mama and grandma, is meant to challenge authorial authority) can pull astute cultural critique out of the most banal places.
Part of her particular gift as an academic is her ability to make highfalutin, incomprehensible theory accessible to a huge range of people. She's deeply committed to challenging the elitism of academia. In town for this weekend's Spirit Matters conference at the University of Toronto, she's spending Saturday giving a public talk on behalf of the Toronto Women's Bookstore, prefaced by a free storytelling session for kids.
"I'm devoted to working to maintain independent bookstores, especially those that deal with women's issues and feminist issues," she states passionately. "Bookstores are important sites because they're democratic. They're places that can choose to do a focus on kids, cuz it's not an academic setting.
"And sometimes I think, gosh, what would I have been like if I'd been able to meet a bell hooks as a kid? I don't have a sense of 'These are the people I want to read to. These are the people that matter and over here are people who don't really matter.' I feel like my audience is truly the world."
The fact that tickets for the talk, titled Love: Connecting Self And Community, sold out almost immediately (we're talking 1,000 seats) shows the status hooks has in alternative circles. She's the intellectual equivalent of a Madonna-sized rock star.
And like Madonna, she's recently turned her hand to writing children's stories. Unlike Mrs. Guy Ritchie, however, hooks's creations for kids have a point. They're also gorgeous picture books with dynamic semi-figurative illustrations by Chris Raschka and a jazzy idiom that recalls Harlem Renaissance poets like Gwendolyn Brooks.
"I was really affected by research saying that kids' self-concepts are formed so early. And that's what a lot of parents, especially African-American parents, were saying to me. They thought my adult stuff was great, but trying to get people to change their consciousness when they're 20 is one thing - wouldn't it be better for people to change their concepts of self early on?
"But these books are not just about how African-American children see themselves. They're also about changing how they're seen in the eyes of other children. White people are so accustomed to whiteness standing for everybody, so the moment you use a coloured image in a universal way, people's racism serves to colonize that.
"It's a constant frustration for black writers, because we tend to perceive our subject matter always in a both/and way. It's for black kids and it's for everyone else. But if the writer identifies openly as black, that whole project is interpreted as a black project."
She's a phenomenally engaging speaker. In conversation, you have to remind yourself to respond, because it's so easy to be carried off on the heady stream of ideas coming out of her mouth.
Hooks riffs easily on any big issue you throw at her. On John Kerry and the upcoming presidential election, she says, "Electing Kerry will not make the kind of radical difference that we need. No matter who comes into power, we still have a government that primarily serves the ruling classes."
On human rights violations in Iraq: "People who love war actually love power that is about domination. It's an extension of that to link it with the war we wage against the body, against women's bodies. It's the very core of dominator culture."
Credit that gift of gab to her years as a lecturing professor who's taught everywhere from the City College of New York to the University of Southern California at Santa Cruz. Her newest appointment to the need-based Barea College in her home state of Kentucky is particularly gratifying. While hooks has taken issue with the politics at some of the institutions that have employed her in the past, she's thrilled about Barea's mission of educating people without money in the Appalachian region.
And while the move down to Kentucky "nearly killed" her, hooks is also excited about returning to the world she grew up in. It's in keeping with her current projects, all of which centre around love and building community.
Get her talking about those projects - the Spirit Matters conference, or recent books like Teaching Community: A Pedagogy Of Hope - and the soft-focus pop psychologist in hooks rears her smiley head. She's effusive about the transformative power of love to the point where you feel like you've been mainlining Oprah.
This softer side of the iconic intellectual may come as a surprise to anyone who's only familiar with her early work. Taken out of context, books like Killing Rage, which contains an anecdote about wanting to murder an anonymous white male, have raised hackles in both left-wing and reactionary circles.
"Remember that when I first started out writing, there weren't that many people talking about white supremacy," hooks protests. "Even just talking about it was viewed as racist by a lot of white people. I see the critique that I'm a hate-monger as a kind of silencing, and a lot of the time people who make that argument have never read anything by me - they've read some snippet taken out of context. Some people have said they wanted to bring me to their school, but dissenters wouldn't let them because I was 'too full of hatred.'
"We never hear that some man was invited to talk somewhere and criticized for being full of hatred for women and a total patriarch. We read men who push hatred all the time, and nobody says a word. In fact, we're told that a lot of literature that pushes hate is great literature we should be reading.
"Even if I were a hate-mongering person, it's very telling that that's the tool used for silencing a woman thinker. I think that misperception is one of the great sadnesses of my career."
Bell Hooks: Selected Bibliography
- 2003 Teaching Community: A Pedagogy Of Hope (Routledge)
Rock My Soul: Black People And Self-Esteem (Simon and Schuster)
We Real Cool: Black Men And Masculinity (Routledge)
The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity And Love (Simon and Schuster/Atria Books)
- 2000 Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics (South End)
- 1996 Bone Black: Memories Of Girlhood (Henry Holt)
- 1995 Killing Rage: Ending Racism (Henry Holt)
- 1993 Sisters Of The Yam: Black Women And Self-Recovery (South End)
- 1984 Feminist Theory: From Margin To Centre (South End)
- 1981 Ain't I A Woman? (South End)
- 2002 Be Boy Buzz (Hyperion)
Homemade Love (Hyperion)
- 1999 Happy To Be Nappy (Hyperion)