bell hooks, Living to Transgress

bell hooks is a feminist author and activist from the United States. Her name by birth is Gloria Jean Watkins, but she took the name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother. hooks was born, one of seven children, to Veodis Watkins, a custodian, and Rosa Bell Watkins, a homemaker. She was raised in Hopkinsville, a segregated town in rural Kentucky, where she experienced firsthand both the hardships of segregated schools and, later, the process of integration.

Upon graduating high school, hooks attended Stanford University graduating with a BA in English in 1973 then continued on University of Madison, receiving her MA in English in 1976. Afterward, she split her focus between teaching Ethnic Studies at the University of South California and writing—publishing her first work, “And There We Wept,” a chapbook of poetry in 1978 and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism in 1981—while, also, working towards a doctorate in literature at the University of California, which she achieved in 1983[1].

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hooks spent her academic career as a scholar of African-American literature, writing her PhD dissertation on Toni Morrison, but her influences include a wide array thinkers including, amongst others: playwright Lorraine Hansberry, pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire, theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, historian Walter Rodney as well as peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn and civil rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.[2].

As such, hooks quickly became one of the foremost theorists of intersectionality, a framework which has recently gained great popularity in the analysis of systems of power within society and has combined her analysis of power relations with her academic career, writing texts dedicated to the topic of pedagogy. In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks advocates for “a way of teaching in which anyone can learn.” One in which educators help students “transgress” boundaries of race, class, and sexuality to achieve intellectual and, so too, personal, social, and cultural freedom[3].

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Implementing her own theories into practice, hooks, as a professor teaching at a variety of institutions from University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and Oberlin College in Ohio, often found herself referencing pop culture in efforts to help students connect to theories of intersectionality. In doing so, she found herself grappling with new material in an entirely different field, media studies that would become the basis for her 1994 book Outlaw Culture.

In bell hooks’ own words: “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. So I think that partially people like me who started off doing feminist theory or more traditional literary criticism or what have you begin to write about popular culture, largely because of the impact it was having as the primary pedagogical medium for masses of people globally who want to, in some way, understand the politics of difference. I mean it’s been really exciting for someone like me, both in terms of the personal desires I have to remain bonded with the working-class culture and experience that I came from as well as the sort of southern black aspect of that and at the same time to be a part of a diasporic world culture of ideas and to see how there can be a kind of interplay between all of those different forces. Popular culture is one of the sites where there can be an interplay[4].”

Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Notable Biographies – bell hooks

[2] Notes on IAPL 2001 Keynote Speaker, bell hooks

[3] Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom by bell hooks

[4] bell hooks – cultural criticism and transformation

Representations of Black Gay Men in “Paris is Burning” & “Tongues Untied”

Both “Paris is Burning” (1990), a documentary film by Jennie Livingston, and “Tongues Untied” (1989), a semi-autobiographical docufilm by Marlon Riggs explore the communities of transgender and gay people of color and its members’ efforts to reconcile racial and sexual identities.

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Both films are groundbreaking in their portrayal of the difficulty of exploring various identities while living under the scrutiny of white, patriarchal society. Via the pageantry and pomp of the drag and ballroom scene in New York in the 80s and 90s, “Paris is Burning” explores gay Black, Latino, and transgender communities, as its members confront issues of race, gender, and sexuality. In interviews, often melancholic, the documentary participants (i.e. Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey, & Angie Xtravaganza) often profoundly muse on lives plagued by familial, romantic, and societal rejection based on their sexuality.

Each speaks candidly about homelessness and ostracization, and how ballroom scenes offered places of refuge, kinship, and security. They too admit how
such arenas allowed them to escape realities and act out desires to attain a more affluent, Eurocentric standard of living. “Paris is Burning” has been legitimately critiqued for being more exploitative than politically challenging. Albeit a valid point, the film retains some cultural value.

“Tongues Untied” melds Tongues-untiednarrative accounts via its director, Marlon Riggs, with fictional vignettes and interpretive poetry that represent a collective yet varied and mutable black, gay identity. The docufilm focuses primarily on gay black men (e.g. Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Craig Harris and Riggs himself) , who also openly and unapologetically confront the ugly heads of racism and homophobia. Scenes of clips from homophobic stand up routines (e.g. by Eddie Murphy) and of the Civil Rights Movements serve to combat negative stereotypes and link the struggles of black, gay men with an historical legacy of resistance. Undoubtedly, “Tongues Untied” is focused and political in its thrust, arguably more so than “Paris is Burning.” Unlike Livingston, Riggs chooses not only to depict men stymied under the weight of white supremacy, but also takes the system to task, illustrating instances of fierce opposition. One such oppositional method is the refutation of silence preluded by the film’s title. Riggs directly challenges this inclination towards silence, not in a way that begets shame (he focuses his critique on a society that promotes and demands speechlessness), but rather one that privileges the power of black, gay men’s voices. Undoubtedly, herein lies the revolutionary mark of “Tongues Untied.”

Many comparisons have and continue to be drawn between the two films, with respect to representation of gay and transgender communities. bell hooks’ commentaries on the “gaze” and “subjectivity” are good entry points to discuss this issue. Interestingly, hooks discusses “Paris is Burning” in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation. She writes,

“(…) Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as a white/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” from Paris Is Burning, it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives” and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a standpoint and perspective specific to Livingston.”

Livingston, albeit a lesbian woman, operates from a place of privilege as a white woman. And, her racial and social status, though it should not discredit her or deem her incapable of exploring a culture outside her own, should call into question intent and the adequacy of her representation. Yes, Livingston sought to give voice to a particular community. However, her method becomes problematic considering it does not allow “subjects” to negotiate the terms of their own representation. They speak on their experiences and struggles, joys and pains, yes. However, they relinquish substantial ownership over the telling of their stories. Thus, they do not even retain any centrality in the work as it were. That these men and trans women fell back into relative obscurity post-film further elucidates the reality of their marginalization.

On the other hand, Riggs intentionally positions black, gay men centrally in “Tongues Untied.” Worthy of consideration is the holistic picture presented by Riggs and his cohort. Inherent in the film is a clear beginning, a journey that ebbs-and-flows, and an ending that is not altogether complete, but unmistakably hopeful. In the end, Riggs, having reflected on intense pain and internal conflict, remarks, “Whatever awaits me, this much I know: I was blind to my brother’s beauty, and now I see my own.” Unlike “Tongues Untied”, “Paris is Burning” is more fragmented, and the totality of experiences of gay men of color goes unaddressed. That TU is both created for and composed by black men undergirds and reaffirms its closing remark, “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” —Keith Freeman

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Works Cited

hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York, NY: South End Press, 1992. 145-156. Print.

Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990. Film.

 Tongues Untied. Dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989. Film.

Gang Wars and Peace Truces in Early 90s Media: From NY and LA to Little Rock

“What’s crackin cuz?”

“What’s poppin blood?”

Depending on your location, situation, and ability to understand gang-related terminology, your answer to these questions could determine if you lived or died on certain streets in the 1990s. During that decade, a language that many outsiders interpreted as young urban slang came to signify real insider knowledge, especially at a time when urban youth increasingly defined themselves by street cred, street cred by street violence, and street violence by gang violence, which in turn, became mass mediated gang wars.

From Los Angeles to Little Rock, gang activity experienced a surge across the United States in the early 1990s. This is particularly true of the Southern region. According to a 2010 government History of Street Gangs in the United States, “the southern region led the nation in the number of new gang cities, a 32 percent increase” from the 1970s through the 1990s. By 1998, the South had more states reporting gang problems than any other region in the nation. In fact at the time, this made the South look like it was catching up with the West, Midwest, and Northeast in terms of gang activity.

 

 

One HBO documentary from 1994 attempted to capture this spike in southern gang activity as it was felt in Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places. Director Mark Levin’s footage of Hoover Folk, Crip, and Blood gang member initiation rituals, ceremonies, and their groups’ deadly impact on children in a small city shocked the nation. Levin tracked this impact by following Steve Nawojczyk, the Pulaski County coroner at the time (and still-active community leader for inner city youth), to portray a sad state of affairs for Little Rock, and by extension, a narrative of decline for small cities in the South that were similarly affected by gang violence.

What’s interesting about this documentary is how it leads with a largely white, racially and sexually integrated set of Chicago’s Hoover Folk, showing its teenage members sitting in public parks around Little Rock, listening and singing along to Tupac, while later “beating in” a young woman who wants to be initiated. The priorities laid out in this sequence of events are clear: young white kids are being influenced by rap music, and they’re doing violence to one of their white female peers.

This sequence follows a familiar pattern, one well-known among the American black community—a pattern where young white kids are portrayed in the media as being corrupted by the influence of black American communities where “all the trouble started.” The documentary participates in this narrative by telling the story of a slightly older black men who came up in the Crip and Blood scene of Los Angeles, but later moved to Little Rock in the 1980s, where the documentary suggests the man becomes a major kingpin of that city’s 1990s gang scene.

Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock is unique in its mass mediated portrayal of gang violence affecting white urban youth in a small city, but its subtle portrayal of the American black community as the root of such violence is all-too-familiar. Throughout the early 1990s, movies, television, music and documentaries engaged in a systemic pattern of portraying gang-related crime, gang violence, and gang wars in ways that made that violence look peculiar to American black communities, especially black youth in the inner cities of Los Angeles and New York City. We can see such depictions most readily in movies like Boyz in the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991), which show young black men struggling to survive gang violence within their predominantly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively.

Then on television and again in 1991, national and international audiences witnessed the initial filming and eventual fallout from the Rodney King beatings in the form of the LA Uprising, whose television news coverage repeated the same systemic pattern of negatively portraying black communities as hotbeds of criminal and gang-related activity. Filtered through an implicit bias about violence on the West Coast—which we also see iterated in the Little Rock documentary when Levin focuses on the city’s supposed kingpin from LA—this event took place in Los Angeles, where the violent video images of white LAPD officers viciously beating the young black King within an inch of his life were broadcast and looped on national news networks for over a year between 1991 and 1992.

Perhaps one day, we will regard this “beat-in” as the horrific act of gang violence it actually was.

But what isn’t often remembered in mainstream accounts of the LA Uprising (an event formerly called the “LA Riots”), which directly followed the acquittal of the white LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, is that it was directly preceded by the Watts Truce between Crip and Blood gangs in 1992. Gangs such as the Crips and Bloods had been around for your years before the decision to call the 1992 truce, and issues of police brutality and racism was not the only thing that led to the truce. Active and non-active gang members on both side had realized how much destruction they had caused on their own neighborhoods. For a short period of time, there seemed to be some end to the madness that was brewing between two rival gangs. Entertainers such as Snoop Dogg and football legend Jim Brown were both vocal about keeping the peace. Here, we see black entertainers (mostly rappers and activists), highlight the possibilities of representing black people in a more positive light.

And yet just days after this small armistice and positive media coverage, the LA Riots, or what many now consider the LA Uprising, began after the white police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of their crimes. From television news coverage of looting to beatings in the street, the Uprising had people around the nation tuned into the their TVs to see what was going on in LA. And although Watts Truce was still fresh, there was resurgence of violence between the groups because of the LA Riots. Both gangs used the time of chaos to attack each other which ultimately destroyed what many had hoped would end the violence between the two.

However, while short-lived and a little too early, the Watts Truce sent a powerful message, not only to white Americans, but also to black Americans, that change was possible if mortal enemies united against much larger common enemies, such as police brutality and racist media coverage. In Black Looks (1994), bell hooks explains why such racially biased mediations exist by calling attention to their (mostly white) American mainstream audience, which has an implicit, complicit, perverse, and voyeuristic desire to observe representations of black men’s bodies being assaulted by “white racist violence, black on black violence, the violence of overwork, and the violence of addiction and disease” (34). Indeed, it should come as little surprise that both movies and television—two forms of media that are most often made with that mainstream, mostly white audience at the time—reinforce these stereotypes.

So from New York to LA to Little Rock, the 90s were a unique period in the history of representation of black culture in the United States. Indeed, the LA gang peace treaty and the LA Uprising were critical events in that history: one that, if we listen only to 90s media, is simply a story of gang wars and occasional peace treaties that largely affected African American communities. However, if we listen more closely, particularly to the voices of those communities, we might, sometime in the future, begin to hear how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

One of those voices comes from West Coast rapper Kam, who might have said it best in his 1993 song “Peace Treaty.”

— Andy Reid and Joshua Ryan Jackson

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.