bell hooks’ tough love 

Of all the people I’ve had the opportunity to interview, bell hooks is one of the most fascinating and provocative. If you are familiar with hooks’ progressive ideas on issues relating to race, sex and class in America, then you know that her credentials as a controversial intellectual are well-earned.

You may have read the interview with hooks in last week’s Metro Times, which offered at least a taste of how impressive she is — and why she is so controversial. Unfortunately, there was no way to run the interview in its 11-page entirety; a fair amount had to be whittled down for sake of space. I’d like to give you a chance to read at least a bit more of what she had to say about the importance of love in the healing process of African-American people and other topics. Most of what’s included below expands on, and perhaps clarifies, answers printed in last week’s interview.

I figure when anyone with a mind like the one occupying the space between hooks’ ears has dedicated the better portion of her life to thinking about how to make the world a better place, each of us might wind up a little better if we take the time to at least listen to and consider some of those thoughts — no matter how difficult that might be, or how much we may disagree with her conclusions.

bell hooks: I definitely think that the message I’m trying to get out is that it does begin at home, that home is our original school of love. And you know, it’s interesting, yesterday I was in Chicago and I did a thing with 75 young teenage girls and, you know, it was dialoguing with them about being a writer and the love book they read, All About Love, and all of the black girls were wanting to insist that you have to be hit. And it was so sad.

Metro Times: They were really saying that you literally had to be hit?

hooks: Yes. And, you know, I kept saying to them that there are a lot of ways to discipline a child without hitting them. They could not conceive of any discipline in life that did not include punishment. I said to them: “You know, a girl who’s really hit a lot in her family of origin is likely to enter a relationship with a man who hits her.” They were like, “No way! That’s not going to happen to me!” But it was very sad. Of course, when my talk ended, and a lot of the girls came up, they are being hit. And so they want to say that’s OK; there’s nothing unloving about physically hitting.

MT: They want to legitimize it.

hooks: Yes!

MT: Are they being hit by parents, or boyfriends, or all of the above?

hooks: Yes. But, you know, what we know is that there has been an upsurge of teenage boys disciplining their girlfriends through hitting. It was so sad. And as much as I tried to say to them ... and I felt bad, because I wanted to say to them that our prisons are full of men who were hit repeatedly as children. So that, you know, being hit doesn’t mean that you’re going to turn out OK.

Later on in the interview, hooks criticized some of her colleagues for being more concerned with fame and fortune than with using their considerable talents to help those who could most benefit from what they have to offer. She also rightly criticized those of us in the African-American community who continue to live in a perpetual state of denial about the condition we find ourselves in and how much of that condition we ourselves are responsible for. And she had a few things to say about black America’s two leading intellectuals.

hooks: I have this new book on class that just came out (Where We Stand: Class Matters), and I have this whole chapter on the black elite because sometimes I think we deceive ourselves about the degree to which we are split along class lines. I came from a poor, working-class background. People don’t want to talk about the fact that when you’re dealing with — Skip [Henry Louis] Gates, and Cornel West, and all those people, they come from a kind of bourgeois middle class. I say that because I think that one of the major differences from my work is that my life is solidly rooted in a working-class black culture that I am loyal to. You know what I mean? That I’m not separate from. And so I think that it speaks to people. It speaks to the everyday folk.

And you know, again, I think “deep is our hunger,” and I think folks are hungering for “I want to know what to do here!” I think that’s what intellectuals who want fame and the recognition in the white world don’t see. That there are basic people who want answers.

And you know, I will say this: If you don’t live your life with integrity, then you cannot provide answers for other people. And I think there is an envy that the other folk have for me, that regular people come out, and that they give me their love and support. I don’t have the money, and the TV shows aren’t calling me, and I have to fight to get my little message out there. What sustains me is this body of readers from all classes.

It’s interesting because I feel that what I try to do that many people are uncomfortable with is bring the social and the political into the realm of our self-help and our self-recovery. I think that that mix is hard for a lot of people. ... I found a lot of resistance in black people not wanting to ... you know, a lot of people beating me down trying to say “You’re misguided in what you’re thinking. We’re not lacking in love.” And I’m saying, hey, there’s a brutality in black life, cross-class, that should be telling us that we have changed. Black folks are killing their kids, and people don’t want to face that.

I suspect at least some of what bell hooks said will tick off more than a few folks. That’s OK. Sometimes a little well-placed anger can be a good thing.

Don’t kill the messenger before you understand the message.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. Send comments to

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