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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 56 gender, sometimes the same as gender, but always in conver- gence and collusion.” The interrelationship of different forms of oppression, all of which she subsumes under the label of “dominator cul- ture,” would become a thread running through hooks’ work. She would always look at racial, gender, sexual, economic, and political domination not as separate topics for seminars, but as an interwoven web of influences that affect the behavior and thinking of everyone in a culture. Although she would write feminist scholarship that, by her own admission, is difficult to understand outside of the academy, the bulk of her attention would be on reaching ordinary people and helping them see the bonds that hold them and what they can do about it. She wanted to marry theory and practice, and when they started to slide toward divorce, as they are wont to do, she would bring them back together. IN TIME, hooks’ thought flowered and matured and branched in many differ- ent directions—became multi-dimen- sional—but she began her life as a pub- lic intellectual with a focused, searing critique of current feminist theory, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, a book she first drafted when she was nineteen. In her classes, she had become exasperated with white feminists who “romanticize the black female experience rather than discuss the negative im- pact of that oppression.” Conversely, she noted that black women of the day “did not join together to fight for women’s rights be- cause we did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of our identity.” She found that black womanhood had been left out of the Venn diagram and almost all statements about women were about white women and all statements about blacks were about black men. For example, feminists frequently spoke about women needing to be empowered by entering the world of work, when in hooks’ observation, “Black women have always worked.” Ain’t I a Woman takes its name from a refrain intoned by black feminist Sojourner Truth during a speech she gave at the second annual convention of the women’s rights movement in 1852. Truth stood up to present herself as living proof that women were the work-equals of men. hooks’ first book bristles with passion, but it is not a jeremiad. In 200 pages, she carefully outlines a history of black women, first under slavery, then un- der continuing conditions of patriarchy and racism. She ends with a call to revive the black feminist movement that emerged in the nineteenth century—not only for its own sake but also to become an integral part of “a feminist movement that has as its goal the liberation of all people.” Although she penned the draft of Ain’t I a Woman in her early undergraduate years, she failed to find a publisher willing to take on such an outspoken work by an unknown. She put the manuscript in the closet in the early seventies and there it sat for a decade. The seventies were a tumultuous and formative time for hooks. She hung out with Gary Snyder and attended all kinds of poetry readings and be-ins, and began to explore alternative forms of spirituality. Her interest in Buddhism endured and blossomed into a full-fledged commitment because, she says, “Buddhism al- lows us to embrace the complexity of the shadow self, the self that is not all smiley and have-a -nice-day, that is sorrowful, an- guished, at times demonic. You get to work with that.” During her school days, she says, she also enjoyed “chasing and vamping men—men of all sizes, colors, and shapes.” In fact, she sings the praises of the vamp, in Wounds of Passion, as an intelligent woman fully in control. In a number of areas related to sexuality, in fact, she breaks company with many feminists. For example, she does not believe that women in rela- tionships with men of power are neces- sarily in a position of being dominated. For most of the seventies, she carried on a serious and at times very stormy relationship with an older black profes- sor, who also served as a colleague and a mentor. Commenting on this situation, hooks tells me that there was “enough openness and sexual liberation and men engaged in feminism who were willing to teach you how to play. One often learns to play in a bigger sphere by engaging intimately with someone with more power. But those relation- ships broke down when we started to get more power, because those guys realized, ‘Hey, I actually don’t want someone who reads Heidegger as well as I do and would rather be reading it than fucking me, or making me dinner.’” hooks and her partner spent over ten years together, dur- ing which she followed him around to various university jobs, made a home in each place, earned a master’s and a doctor- ate, and developed a writing life that mirrored his. But when she took Ain’t I a Woman down from the shelf, painstakingly polished it, and found an alternative press to publish it, their relationship seemed to deteriorate, as Gloria Watkins was giv- ing birth to bell hooks. To her great surprise, and in spite of dressing rebelliously and behaving audaciously at her interview, she received an invitation to teach at Yale University, starting in the fall of 1985. Her partner declined to join her, and hooks be- gan a pattern that would characterize many periods of her life: despite extreme attraction and desire to be in a relationship, her passion for ideas and a life of writing and teaching would leave her living by herself. As one ex-lover told her, “The next woman I’m with, I don’t want her to think.” BELL HOOKS is nothing if not a thinker. She firmly believes that well-considered and critically tested thought and theory is essential for any social movement to have real power. Beginning “We know from Buddhism,” hooks says, “that if we look for an end we will despair and not sustain our efforts. But if we see it as a continual process of awakening, we can go forward.”