Feminist theorist and literary superstar bell hooks has built her career challenging sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. In recent years, her work has been reaching a wider, more general reading audience. She was in town recently to promote her latest book, Salvation: Black People and Love.
Metro Times:When you speak about love and its importance in the black community, who should be most responsible for getting this message out?
bell hooks:The message I’m trying to get out is that it does begin at home, that home is our original school of love. Yesterday I was in Chicago and I did a thing with 75 young teenage girls, and it was dialoguing with them about being a writer and [my previous book] All About Love — and all of the black girls were wanting to insist that you have to be hit. It was so sad.
MT: How best to get that message through to them? Obviously it’s not coming from their parents.
hooks: Well, dialogues like that one where we talk about it. But what I feel, even going around the nation talking about black people and love, is that it’s so clear we don’t have enough dialogue about these issues. Period. Zilch.
MT: How do we improve on that?
hooks: Churches. We need to think about what our ancestors did, because one thing that has really affected African-Americans is when we begin to rely on predominantly white institutional structures to convey the meaningful values that we need for our lives. We need to go back to thinking of our homes as sites of resistance where we can, instead of coming over to play cards or things, we could think of having people regularly to discuss issues of love.
MT: A review in the New York Times was interesting because it seemed like it was trying to belittle you.
hooks: What’s been interesting to me is people want to belittle. A lot of people love my other work, but [they don’t think] this is that relevant. But it’s because intellectuals in our society don’t try to address people in the spaces in which they live. One of the things I fault us on as radical intellectuals is that, if we’re only writing wonderful books that can be read by people who have college educations, then ... it’s like, you have a resource, but you’re not sharing it with the people who may need that resource the most.
MT: Do you think perhaps some writers and intellectuals may be missing the boat on that?
hooks: But I don’t think they missed the boat — they’re disdainful of it. They don’t care.
MT: It seems like love can be deceptively simple. Like you said, when you get overly complex with all of the theoretical and high-falutin’ stuff, they can get with that. But then when you just say, well, “Love can heal ...”
hooks: I’m gonna be honest with you, Keith. When I was writing this, I thought, “Oh, goddamn, I sound like a Hallmark card!”
MT: In your book, you mention about how none of our leaders, going back to the ’60s and maybe further, included love as a solution. Why do you think they missed that? Is it they thought it wasn’t important, or we didn’t have time for it, or it wasn’t safe?
hooks: Black folks are having to confront how deeply Western, how deeply American we are. And the heart of that is every immigrant group in this nation has believed that the key to the good life is material advancement. Part of what America promises is that if you just get money and goods, people won’t look behind that to see what’s really going on. … We want to be able to say that as black people that a lot of this self-worth stuff is too connected to racism. But a lot of it is also connected to what is going on in our families. I found a lot of resistance in black people not wanting to ... you know, a lot of people beating me down trying to say, “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.
MT: It’s interesting how you say in your book that in small rural black communities homosexuality was just dealt with, but then all of a sudden we get to the city and bam!
hooks: But also we get into whiteness, and we get into patriarchy in a different way and bam! We can’t have no tolerance. You know, I went to several all-black university settings, and the first thing I was told was, “Don’t read from that chapter on gayness.” And when you consider all the articles coming out saying 30 percent of [young, gay] black men have HIV, all the things that are going on that should tell us that we’ve got to come to grips with a more open dialogue about sexuality. I mean, I don’t think people want to deal with the fact that people like Huey P. Newton were coming from very bourgeois upbringings, that a lot of this Black Panther stuff wasn’t being led by boys from the hood.
MT: Right, it’s like a lot of false rappers now.
hooks: Exactly. And the kind of hatred that they fostered, like the hatred of gay men? That was new! We can’t find Martin Luther King saying anything hateful about homosexuality. But when we come to that whole Black Panther crew, from Eldridge [Cleaver] on down, Eldridge starts pushing it in his book Soul On Ice.
MT: Perhaps the whole thing about being a man back then was so strong that it just went over the top?
hooks: But again, we have to look at these people that it was coming from. And it wasn’t coming from people who had come from regular, poor, working-class black communities. We deceive ourselves about the degree to which we are split along class lines. That’s just like for me, because I came from a poor, working-class background. I say that because 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, and I think that it speaks to the everyday folk.
MT: How did your belief in Buddhism impact your beliefs and prompt you to talk more about love?
hooks: What the Buddhism has done that is interesting is a lot of Buddhism emphasizes practice. If Jesse Jackson was a Buddhist, the teacher would be saying, “Why weren’t you wearing a condom? Why weren’t you being responsible? Were you being truthful to every party in this situation?” As opposed to this 18th century, 19th-century nonsense of “I’ve sinned, and forgive me.”
But I mix Christianity and Buddhism because I can’t give up on reading my Bible. My mother laughed at me because I get up and I meditate every day, but I have to do my little prayer stuff too.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based musician and writer. Send comments to [email protected]