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].

250792.gif

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].

hooks 2.tif

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

Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

Kara Walker: Visualizing the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Kara Walker represents a new voice and new perspective that came of age in the 1990s that offered a new visual platform to explore the complexity of race, gender, and sexual exploitation. Her fame came quickly and at a young age. She became an “art star overnight.”[i] In 1994, Walker presented Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart. The piece uses a Victorian era art medium of hand cutting paper silhouettes. While the medium is historical, her approach to the subject matter was not. Gone contains caricatures of slaves in sexual exploitative positions that highlight issues of miscegenation. In other words, these life size silhouettes (seen in the image below) show the lived and imagined realities of slavery in a size that cannot be ignored.

Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)

Kara Walker reflects the changing approach to grappling with the complexity of the legacy of slavery. Hazma Walker (no relation), argues that Kara Walker is part of the generation that is both post-Civil Rights Era—and post-Roots (the television adaptation). Young artists may no longer feel they must “address slavery in a strictly reverential way.”[ii] In other words, coming of age in the 1990s offered new ways to explore intersections of race, sex, and gender that may still be offensive or at least uncomfortable to the older generation. I would argue they are meant to make you uncomfortable. Discomfort, or even a visceral reaction, should accompany an exploration of identity and the legacy of slavery often minimized in mainstream American society.

In 1997, at the age of 27, Kara Walker won a $190,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation and became the second youngest person to ever earn the award. It came only three years after Walker had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and was met with controversy, especially within the African American artistic community.

An extreme example of the backlash can be seen from artist Betye Saar; the artist was in her early 70s at that time and began a letter-writing campaign petitioning curators to prevent her work from being shown. In the 1999 PBS documentary I’ll Make Me a World, she refers to Walker’s work as “‘revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves.’”[iii] Furthermore, Saar suggests that the younger artist’s use of racist stereotypes was betraying African-Americans “under the guise of art.”[iv] Saar admits she used caricature in her work, but argues that she was using it as a tool to reclaim and “recast” these images to give them power. The most noted example is her piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” which presents the title figure holding a broom in one hand–but a gun in the other. Therefore, Saar seems to be frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the characters. On the hand, writer Rhonda Stewart seems to emphasize that this “ambiguity” in Walker’s work is part of what makes it “thought-provoking.”[v]

front view of A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014)
side view of A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014)

Walker continues to take risks and repurpose old mediums. In this case, “elaborate medieval sugar sculptures displayed as symbols of kingly power at royal feasts.”[vi] In 2014, she built “a 35-foot-tall and 75-foot-long sphinx, [made] with 30 tons of white sugar,” entitled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (seen above).[vii] The sculpture was built at the former Domino Sugar refinery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. It was free and open to public. Writer Carol Kino described it as a “leonine body,…[and] like much of Walker’s work, built for controversy, with pendulous breasts, an Aunt Jemima–esque face and kerchief, a Kim Kardashian rump and a vulva so enormous one critic likened it to a temple entrance…[T]he installation was a monument to the slave labor that enabled sugar to become an everyday commodity.”[viii] It attracted 130,000 visitors and celebrities (including Beyoncé, Jay-Z and their daughter, Blue Ivy). The lines sometimes extended for eight blocks.[ix] Walker has now collected a body of work that can no longer be minimized due to her age or medium. Ebony Gibson

[i] Kino, Carol. “Kara Walker’s Thought-Provoking Art.” Wall Street Journal. Nov. 5 2014.

[ii] Stewart, page 50.

[iii] Stewart, Rhonda. “Still Here: Artist Kara Walker in Black And White.” Crisis 111.1 (2004): 50.

[iv] Edgar, Allen B. “On the Cutting Edge or Over the Line? Kara Walker is Gifted, Angry, and Subjected to Criticism for Exploiting Racial Stereotypes in Her Art. The Main Resident is also Soft-Spoken and Unsettled by Her Own Success.” Boston Globe: 16. Dec 30 2001.

[v] Stewart, page 50.

[vi] Kino

[vii] Kino

[viii] Kino

[ix] Kino

love jones: Showcasing Black Love

While the early 1990s offered iconic hood films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), love jones (1997) offered something rarely seen in mainstream film—black love. The film is not a comedy. Not infused with hip hop. Love is examined, revered, and resented—but it is not minimalized. Furthermore, it offers unapologetic black sexuality shown with beauty and whit.

love jones movie poster

Roger Ebert’s opening to his film review highlights the unfortunate rarity of a film showcasing educated, middle class blacks. He explains, the film is “a love story set in the world of Chicago’s middle-class black artists and professionals–which is to say, it shows a world more unfamiliar to moviegoers than the far side of the moon.”[i] Although American television watchers received a glimpse of the black middle class with The Cosby Show (1984-1992), it was a comedy.

Furthermore, Cosby could offer the loving image of the Huxtable marriage, but the limits of the medium of television and family sitcom model prevent it from exploring black sexuality. There are limits to a love story that cannot show sex. Sex is a natural part of love. The film offers tasteful love scenes. It presents images of black sexuality that not only appear normal—but beautiful.

still from love jones

While most hood films centered on stark realism and nihilism, love jones offered symbolism and romance. Writer and director Theodore Witcher did this purposefully. He wanted to give the feel of “a modern Chicago version of the Harlem Renaissance.”[ii] He even distributed books about Renaissance artists such as Romare Bearden to the cast and crew.[iii]

It’s not difficult to see the influence of romanticized visions of 1920s salons with writers and artists debating esoteric topics. But how else do you create a platform to simply discuss love? Throughout the film, characters talk about the meaning of love. It is how we are introduced to Tate’s character Darius as he sits around with his friends in the Sanctuary (a spoken word venue) debating the meaning of love; Darius paints a metaphor of hope and possibility. Soon after he offers a sensual version of love in the spoken word piece “A Blues for Nina.” We also watch Darius and his only married friend Savon discuss the struggle to stay in love.

Ironically both Nia Long and Larenz Tate had major roles in the two iconic hood films mentioned earlier. Nia Long played Brandi, the love interest of the main character in Boyz n the Hood. Moreover, Tate played the infamous killer O-Dog in Menace II Society. Tate’s performance was so convincing that Witcher had to meet Tate in person to see the difference between the gangsta character and the actor.

And love jones continues to have an impact. Tate explains, “‘I get stopped at the airport by young folks telling me how much they love the movie and the actors and the music…It’s a one-of-a-kind film. And it’s still relevant. It’s about falling in love, and we’ve all done that…It’s not about people getting killed, just about people. Love is a universal story, Black or White.”[iv]  Ebony Gibson

[i] Ebert, Roger. “Love Jones.” Rogerebert.com. March 14 1997.

[ii] Ebert

[iii] Poulson-Bryant, Scott. “Jonesing for Love Jones.” Ebony (October 2010): 100.

[iv] Poulson-Bryant, page 99.