A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
George Yancy: Over the years you have used the expression “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe the power structure underlying the social order. Why tie those terms together as opposed to stressing any one of them in isolation?
bell hooks: We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. Significantly, this phrase has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another. For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters, that domination only came into the world because of rape. Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, “Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.” So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.
G.Y.: I’ve heard you speak many times and I noticed that you do so with a very keen sense of humor. What is the role of humor in your work?
b.h.: We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community. For example, I love to be in conversation with Cornel West. We always go high and we go low, and we always bring the joyful humor in. The last talk he and I gave together, many people were upset because we were silly together. But I consider it a high holy calling that we can be humorous together. How many times do we see an African-American man and an African-American woman talking together, critiquing one another, and yet having delicious, humorous delight? It’s a miracle.
G.Y.: What is your view of the feminist movement today, and how has your relationship to it changed over time?
b.h.: My militant commitment to feminism remains strong, and the main reason is that feminism has been the contemporary social movement that has most embraced self-interrogation. When we, women of color, began to tell white women that females were not a homogenous group, that we had to face the reality of racial difference, many white women stepped up to the plate. I’m a feminist in solidarity with white women today for that reason, because I saw these women grow in their willingness to open their minds and change the whole direction of feminist thought, writing and action. This continues to be one of the most remarkable, awesome aspects of the contemporary feminist movement. The left has not done this, radical black men have not done this, where someone comes in and says, “Look, what you’re pushing, the ideology, is all messed up. You’ve got to shift your perspective.” Feminism made that paradigm shift, though not without hostility, not without some women feeling we were forcing race on them. This change still amazes me.
G.Y.: What should we do in our daily lives to combat, in that phrase of yours, the power and influence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? What can be done on the proverbial ground?
b.h.: I live in a small, predominantly white town in the Bible Belt. Rather than saying, “What would Jesus do?” I always think, “What does Martin Luther King want me to do today?” Then I decide what Martin Luther King wants me to do today is to go out into the world and in every way that I can, small and large, build a beloved community. As a Buddhist Christian, I also think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying, “Let’s throw this pebble into the water, it may not go far in the beginning, but it will ripple out.” So, every day, I’m challenging myself, “What are you doing, bell, for the creation of the beloved community?” Because that’s the underground, local, insistence that I be a fundamental part of the world that I’m in. I’ve been to the Farmer’s Market, I’ve been to the church bazaar this morning. I really push myself to relate to people, that is, people that I might not feel as comfortable relating to. There are many Kentucky hillbilly white persons who look at me with contempt. They cannot turn me around. I am doing the same thing as those civil rights activists, those black folk and those white folk who sat in at those diners and who marched.
It’s about humanization. And I can’t think of another way to imagine how we’re going to get out of the crisis of racial hatred if it’s not through the will to humanize. Personally, I draw incredible strength from the images of black people and white people in social movements. I personally did not think “Selma” was a great film, but the strength that I gained from the film was thinking about all of those people, those white folks who see “Selma” and say, “My God, this is unjust! Let’s go do our part.” And it’s awesome when we’re called. There are many times in this life of mine when I ask myself, “What are you willing to give your life for, bell? When are you willing to get out in the streets knowing that you’re risking your health?” And if those older black women who were there in Selma, Ala., can do this stuff, it just reminds you how incredibly vital this history of struggle has been towards allowing you and I to be in the state of privilege that we live within today.
G.Y.: That point hits home, especially as I think about my own intellectual identity and yet often fail to think about the privilege that comes with it.
b.h.: I am a total intellectual. I tell people that intellectual work is the laboratory that I go into every day. Without all of those people engaged in civil rights struggles, I would not be here in this laboratory. I mean, how many black women have had the good fortune to write more than 30 books? When I wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, I do my prayers and meditations, and then I have what I call my “study hours.” I try to read a book a day, a nonfiction book, and then I get to read total trash for the rest of the day. That’s luxury, that’s privilege of a high order – the privilege to think critically, and then the privilege to be able to act on what you know.
G.Y.: Absolutely. You’ve talked about how theory can function as a place of healing. Can you say more about that?
b.h.: I always start with children. Most children are amazing critical thinkers before we silence them. I think that theory is essentially a way to make sense of the world; as a gifted child growing up in a dysfunctional family where giftedness was not appreciated, what held me above water was the idea of thinking through, “Why are Mom and Dad the way they are?” And those are questions that are at the heart of critical thinking. And that’s why I think critical thinking and theory can be such a source of healing. It moves us forward. And, of course, I don’t know about other thinkers and writers, but I have the good fortune every day of my life to have somebody contacting me, either on the streets or by mail, telling me about how my work has changed their life, how it has enabled them to go forward. And what greater gift to be had as a thinker-theorist, than that? (continue reading)
Copyright 2015 George Yancy. First published in The Opinionator, an imprint of The New York Times. Re-published in Vox Populi by permission of George Yancy.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.bell hooks is currently the distinguished professor in residence of Appalachian studies at Berea College. She is the author of many books, including “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice.”
bell hooks is currently the distinguished professor in residence of Appalachian studies at Berea College. She is the author of many books, including “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice.”
— bell hooks