American feminist icon bell hooks talks to Sian Griffiths about race, gender and her rise from humble Kentucky roots. I have borne five children and I seen 'em mos all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus hear and ain't I a woman?"
Thus Sojourner Truth, an emancipated former slave, in 1852, at the convention of the women's rights movement in Akron, Ohio. Truth was answering a white man who argued that women's physical inferiority would always prevent them from enjoying the same opportunities as men. "Look at me, look at my arm . . ." railed Truth. "I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns . . . and ain't I a woman? I could work as much as any man (when I could get it) and bear de lash as well and ain't I a woman?" Truth's passionate vernacular gave the black American academic, bell hooks, the title to her first book, written when she was just 19 and still an undergraduate at Stanford though it took eight years to be published. A controversial polemic, Ain't I a woman? attacked the racism of the predominantly white, middle-class, feminist movement of the mid 1970s and demanded that the very different interests of black, often working-class, women be aired and represented in the struggle for equal rights with men.
Instead of the simplistic binary divide "blacks" and "women" (the former usually meaning black men, the latter white women) hooks, now a professor of English at City University New York, examined power play across a far more complicated framework, one fractured by race and class as well as by sex. Women complained of being discriminated against by men, but black American men were often in more vulnerable positions than their white female counterparts. So who was the oppressor and who the oppressed ?
"When a baby is born," says hooks, "the feminists argued that the first thing you notice is what gender it is. When a black baby is born, the first thing the parents notice is what colour it is; because that's going to have an impact on its class mobility."
hooks herself was born Gloria Watkins, one of seven children, father a post office janitor, mother, later, a maid "in white folks homes", in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
In Britain to speak at a conference, staying in a musty hired room in the heart of Bloomsbury, she looks exhausted as she fleshes out the bones of a childhood to which she often and deliberately makes reference in her work.
She has written joyously of the sense of security she acquired from attending the black schools Booker and Washington and Crispus Attucks before the de-segregation of American education and of her unhappiness when they were closed and she bussed to a mixed school, "where there was mostly contempt for us, a long tradition of hating". She has told how her father occasionally hit her mother, of the family's poverty and of being punished by her parents for her childish curiosity and forthrightness. But she has written too, more positively, of her great grandmother's gift for quilting, of her Kentucky clan-like family and its communal critiquing of early television's crass black stereotyped characters, of a mother who also wanted to be a writer and who provided a sense of "homeplace" for her rebellious daughter.
Her raw and painful autobiographical asides, together with the use of vernacular black speech ("dissed", "folks", "say **** like") have drawn criticism from academic peers, but hooks believes that they provide a means both of keeping in touch with her roots and of reaching a wider public, an aim she, as a "revolutionary", holds close to her heart.
She took her great-grandmother's name as a pen name because she "wanted to show that women could trace their lineage through the matrilineal line". She lower-cased it because, at the outset of American feminism, activists wanted to "move away from the notion of iconic figures"; the message, they thought, should be more important than the person espousing it. "Unfortunately," she remarks drily, "bell hooks has become an iconic figure in her own right but the lower case still makes people question how we name. I see it as a useful intervention even now."
Even in accounts of her childhood the germ of her later demons, sexism and racism, is visible. In a family of five sisters and one brother hooks started early to question the dominance of her father's word. In Ain't I a woman? she argued that both sexism and racism had to be confronted; both were spawned of a "white supremacist patriarchal system" (a favourite hooks phrase) which must be overturned. So black American women no longer had to choose between two liberation movements; between supporting either feminism (and white women) or black activism (and their often sexist black menfolk). The two activist movements were indissolubly entwined.
"Since black liberation struggle is so often framed in terms that affirm and support sexism, it is not surprising that white women are uncertain about whether the women's rights struggle will be diminished if there is too much focus on resisting racism, or that many black women continue to fear that they will be betraying black men if they support the feminist movement." (An argument which derives some topicality from the position the nine black women jurors at the O. J. Simpson trial found themselves in last week), she writes, in the essay "Race and Sex".
Women's studies classes across America have by now accepted hooks's central idea that women's social status is not determined solely by gender but by an interplay of factors including class, race and, (a more recent addition), sexual preference. Working-class women, straight women, Hispanic women have different preoccupations to those of middle-class women, lesbians, WASPS. But in 1982 when Ain't I a Woman? was published, such notions were seen as a betrayal of feminist solidarity. "I remember", hooks says in Outlaw Culture, "people being enraged because the book challenged the whole construction of white woman as victim . . ."
A corpus of books well into double figures has by now propelled hooks to iconic status in America. As a "black public intellectual", the only woman in that category alongside outspoken male academics such as professor of religion at Princeton, Cornel West and head of the Afro American studies department at Harvard, Henry Louis Gates Jnr, hooks's opinion is sought by the media on issues ranging from the representation of black women in Spike Lee's films to recent court cases involving fallen black stars such as O. J. Simpson, acquitted last week of murdering his wife, and the boxer Mike Tyson, who was convicted of rape. She has also written a self-help book, Sisters of the Yam, for black American women dissatisfied with their tight curls, size, and the colour of their skins.(hooks counsels against chemical processing and wigs and urges them to "love their bodies".)
An America fractured by ethnic differences, where in 1994 African-Americans accounted for nearly a third of Aids cases, nearly half of all murder victims were black and 43 per cent of African-American children lived in poverty, is likely to pay heed to people like hooks. But one of the most powerful elements in her revolutionary message comes, not from the present, but the past. It is her sense of what she calls "the holocaust of slavery".
Ain't I a Woman? contains stories of terrifying brutality such as that in which a nine-month-old child was flogged on a slave ship for refusing to eat. "When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water . . ." Or the memory of Solomon Bradley, an ex-slave, who recalled seeing a female slave punished for burning the breakfast waffles by being staked out, face down, on the ground, and whipped with a leather belt. "Sometimes when the poor thing cried out too loud from the pain Farrarby would kick her in the mouth".
hooks believes that "the suffering many black people experience today" is linked to the suffering of the past, to "historical memory", and that black people's attempts to "understand that suffering" have created a hunger for literature which tackles the emotional, what hooks calls the "psycho-social" reality of slavery. Hence, she argues, the acclaim and attention accorded Toni Morrison's Beloved, a nightmarish novel from the Nobel prize-winning academic about Sethe, a black female slave who kills her own baby daughter Beloved rather than have her taken into servitude.
"Politicised mental care is the next revolutionary frontier," she writes in one of her essays, arguing that psychoanalysis holds out a promise of redemption from the horrors of history, but, as ever, its practice needs to be re-thought and its theoretical assumptions altered to take in the different experiences of African Americans. "There have yet," she says in an essay on black women intellectuals, "to be extensive psychoanalytic studies discussing the fate of gifted black children raised in homes where their brilliance of mind was not valued but made them 'freaks' who were persecuted and punished."
A scholarship to Stanford took hooks away from her own "dysfunctional" family. She completed her doctoral thesis at the University of California Santa Cruz, but not without difficulty. She has written of being told she was not "really graduate school material" by one white male professor and of her own fantasies of entering his office with a loaded gun and making him "experience the fear, the humiliation". But she got her doctorate, subsequently gaining the post of assistant professor of African American studies and English at Yale, followed by that of professor of women's studies at Oberlin college. In 1994 CUNY offered her her current position.
Despite such a successful academic career she is ambivalent about academe. From childhood she wanted to be a writer indeed she was single-minded about her ambition, developing a 15-year relationship with Nate, a black intellectual older than herself in which both saw writing as their life's project. She imagines herself in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Simone de Beauvoir childless women with partners who are their intellectual equals engaged in a common struggle for expression. Nate and bell had their work spaces, they went to them daily for a set number of hours. She still reads a book a day. As she points out, publishing the amount she has requires time "part of that is not having children". Yet she admits wanting a child, wanting too a partner who is her age and her intellectual equal instead of the younger men who are attracted to her, she thinks, partly becauseof her fame.
There are criticisms of her work and its style. One Village Voice article described it as a mixture of "bombast, cliches, psychobabble and lame guilt tripping". One American historian has said that she would not want her graduate students to think they could do work without footnotes, as hooks does to which hooks retorts rather bitterly that such comments are not made "about white men like Roland Barthes, who has written all sorts of books which are not footnoted according to the Modern Languages Association style sheet".
It is not, she adds, as though she has not done that kind of scholarly, meticulously referenced work. Check out her thesis. But then she made a choice to write for the largest possible audience, to change the greatest number of lives.
It is an idiosyncratic solution to a widespread dilemma in America. If you are successful as a black American, do you "assimilate", accept the culture and customs of the mainly white middle-class banding in which you find yourself? Or do you find ways to stay close to your roots, to keep in touch with the different problems and aspirations of the majority of black Americans, who remain lower class? For an intellectual working in the field of African American studies the dilemma is even more acute; for how can you speak and interpret the culture of this other black America if your own life has diverged from their daily reality?
hooks seems to belong to an older, more radical America. Her emphasis on class politics and her denigration of black capitalism, which has been part of the conservative agenda from the 1970s onwards, have a distinctly 1960s flavour. The Black Panthers, Malcolm X yes, she criticises them for sexism. But there is a sense too of revelling in their power, in the revolutionary action they proposed. A forthcoming book, Killing Rage, takes issue with the sense of hopelessness rampant in black America. "A lot of the new books by men cross race/cross class are all cynical, all say racism is never going to end. I was struck by the difference between that and the writings of revolutionary feminism, which is more optimistic. I felt really distressed by the message that racism is here to stay and there is nothing we can do about it. That is a disempowering message."