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The revolutionary writing of the bell hooks

Before she became one of the great cultural critics and writers of the twentieth century, and before inspiring generations of readers, especially black women, to understand their own power of tilting axes, she was Gloria Jean Watkins, daughter of Rosa Bell. and Veodis Watkins. hooks, who died Wednesday, was raised in Hopkinsville, a small, remote town in Kentucky. Everything she was to become started there. She was born in 1952 and attended separate schools through college; it is in class that, eager to learn, begins to glimpse the liberating possibilities of education. She loved movies, but the way the theater sometimes captured us with narrow-mindedness and stereotypes forced her to wonder if there were ways to watch (and speak) back to moving images. of the screen. Growing up, her father was a janitor and her mother worked as a maid for white families; their work, riddled with minor indignities, highlighted the everyday power of a rude gaze or roll of eyes. A new world was born from these small gestures of resistance, of affirmation of your legitimate space.

In 1973 Watkins graduated from Stanford; as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student, she had already completed the drafting of a visionary history of black feminism and womanhood. During the 1970s, she pursued graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California at Santa Cruz. In the late 1970s, she began publishing poetry under the pen name Bell Hooks, a tribute to her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. (The lower case letters were meant to distinguish her from her great-grandmother and to suggest that what mattered was the substance of the work, not the author’s name.) Am I not a woman? Black Women and Feminism ”, a landmark book that was both a story of the legacy of slavery and the continued dehumanization of black women as well as a critique of the revolutionary politics that had arisen in response to such abuse. – and which, nevertheless, centered the male psyche. True liberation, she believed, had to take into account how class, race and gender are facets of our inextricably linked identities. We are all of these things at the same time.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hooks taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and New York City College. She was a prolific scholar and writer, publishing nearly forty books and hundreds of articles for magazines, journals and newspapers. Among his most influential ideas was that of the “oppositional gaze”. Power relations are encoded in the way we look at ourselves; slaves were once punished for simply looking at their white owners. The notion of hooks of a conflicting and rebellious gaze sought to bypass the male gaze or the white gaze, which wanted to make the black spectators passive or in some way “other”. She appreciated the power to criticize or make art from that dark, defiant perspective.

I discovered his work in the mid-90s, a fertile era of black cultural studies, when I felt like your typical alternative weekly or independent magazine was as rigorous as a college monograph. For the brackets, writing in the public sphere was just an application of her mind to a more immediate concern, whether her subject was Madonna, Spike Lee, or, in a memorably withered track, Larry Clark’s “Kids.” She was writing at a time when the serious study of culture – looking for subtext, looking for clues – was still a rambling endeavor. As an Asian American reader, I was fascinated by how critics like Hooks drew on their own backgrounds and friendships, not to flatten their lives into something relatively universal, but for us. recall how we all identify a vast array of often conflicting tastes and experiences. His review suggested a pulsating and tireless brain trying to make sense of what a work of art made it feel. She modeled an intellect: following the distant echoes of white supremacy and black resistance over time and identifying their legacies in the works of Quentin Tarantino or “Waiting to Exhale” by Forest Whitaker.

Yet her work, books such as “Reel to Real” or “Art on My Mind,” which have survived decades of proofreading and underlining, has also shown how to simply live and breathe in the world. She was zealous in her praise, especially when it came to Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” a film referenced countless times in her work – and she never lost the grasp of what l ‘one feels to be amazed in front of a moving work of art. . She couldn’t deny the excitement as the lights go down and we get ready to go to the show. But she made demands of the world. She believed that the criticism came from a place of love, from a desire for things worthy of being lost.

It touched people, and that’s what a generation of us wanted to do with our intellectual work. She wrote children’s books; she wrote essays that people read in classrooms and in prisons. Choosing “Reel to Real” made me rethink what a book could be. It was a collection of his film essays, clever dissections of “Paris Is Burning” or “Leaving Las Vegas”. But the middle part consists of interviews with filmmakers like Wayne Wang and Arthur Jafa, where you encounter a different dimension of Hooks’ critical personality: curious, empathetic, looking for comrades. “Representation matters” is a hollow phrase these days, and it’s easy to forget that even in the ’80s and’ 90s, no one believed that was enough. She was at her best to withstand the mundane and black market ready refractions or femininity that represent easy and lean progress. (One of her most famous recent works was a 2016 essay on Beyoncé’s self-commodification that angered fans of the singer. Yet if one understands it in the larger context of life and of Hooks’ intellectual project, there are probably few articles on Beyoncé filled with so much admiration and love.)

It was a particularly difficult time for critics who came of age in the ’80s and’ 90s, when giants like Hooks, Greg Tate and Dave Hickey died. hooks was a brilliant, harsh review – her death would undoubtedly inspire many revisits of works like “Ain’t IA Woman”, “Black Looks” or “Outlaw Culture”. Yet she was also a dazzling memory and poet. In 1982, she published a poem titled “About the Egyptians” in Ham bone, a diary she worked on with her then-partner Nathaniel Mackey. It reads:

ancestral bodies
buried in the sand
precious sun flowers
tap in a memory book
they go through the loss
and come to this quiet tenderness
swept by rare winds
surface in the aqueous passage
beyond death

In 2004, Hooks returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College, where she also founded the Bell Hooks Institute. Over the past two decades, the reviews posted by Hooks have shifted from film and literature to relationships, to love, to sexuality, to how members of a community remain responsible for one another. Living together has always been a theme in Hooks’ work, although now intimacy has become the subject, not the context. Much like the late Asian-American activist and organizer Grace Lee Boggs, who turned to community gardening in the following years, I saw Hooks’ 21st century writings on love as “an action. , a participatory emotion ”and the camaraderie as being prophetic, a return to the base of all that makes sense. The social and political systems around us are designed to obstruct our sense of esteem and make us feel small. However, the revolution begins in each of us, in the demands we make against the world, in the daily fight against nihilism.

“If I were really asked to define myself,” she told a Buddhist magazine in the early 1990s, “I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with darkness; I wouldn’t start with the genre; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start by stripping myself of what fundamentally informs my life, that is, that I am a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually, it is resolutely on the path of love.


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