An evening with bell hooks

Last week both Reed and Lewis and Clark colleges played host to bell hooks, a prominent cultural critic, feminist theorist and author of over two dozen books. (Author’s note: bell hooks does not capitalize her name in order to place emphasis on her work, not her name.) As a student at “Oregon’s largest university,” I often wonder why the smaller colleges around town get the best speakers, but then I remind myself that quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

Hooks writes about a lot of issues affecting women, and people of color in particular, politically and in their emotional lives. Her work is accessible and interesting for a wide audience and thus was a perfect choice for celebrating Black History Month.

The tickets went fast, but luckily my job and a very generous classmate enabled me to attend hooks’ lecture at Reed on Thursday night. Her appearance at Reed was the second event in its extensive Black History Month lineup.

Hooks stated that she was there to give us the “state of the subculture union” address, and this was very much the case. She stood beside, not behind, the podium for most of her lecture, a small act that created a different lecture environment than most are used to. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision stemming from a feminist pedagogy (if you have a class after a women’s studies course you may notice that the desks are rearranged into a circle) or if it was an unconscious act. Either way, it created a casual, friendly atmosphere from which the audience tried to soak up as much of her knowledge as possible.

The lecture was titled “Talking Intersections: Class, Race, Gender, Nationality and Religion,” which is a mouthful to say let alone speak about clearly, but hooks has a keen sense of how to connect issues in very concise but powerful statements. She stressed that she was just giving us “appetizers” and her ideas were no substitute for thinking matters through on one’s own. Throughout the night she consistently dished up food for thought.

The way hooks’ trademark phrase – “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” – rolled off her tongue was impressive, but it was the substance of the talk that was most inspiring. She pointed out that one of the most crucial issues in education is literacy, especially for people of color. Perhaps this understanding of the issue is part of what inspired her to begin to write children’s books. Her first children’s book, “Happy to be Nappy,” was published in 1999 and she has published three others since.

She spoke out against binary thinking, and warned against the simplistic distinction between “good” and “bad” people as well as other ways of seeing the world as clearly divided. “Anger is damaging to us; [it is] rooted to our hearts,” hooks said. “Our hearts are suffering. Heart disease is the number one killer of black women.” She went on to encourage women of color to take care of themselves, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Hooks encouraged a politics of accountability, not blame, which “would emphasize that all white people benefit from and therefore are accountable for changing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” She jokingly reversed a cliche, stating that some of her best friends are white, and emphasized that white women can be allies in the struggle against racism when they have done their own homework about white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

If you look at her books, you will see that she has written about everything from education to love, and her vast array of knowledge was on the plate for us last Thursday. She touched on all of the above and more, including child rearing, mutuality in love and conversations with Thich Nhat Hanh.

It is quite a feat when you can speak to an audience of men and women, young and old, college educated and not, those with various racial, ethnic and sexual identities and at some point speak directly to every single one. Not many speakers are able to accomplish this in their lifetimes, let alone a couple of hours.

We left the hooks lecture feeling inspired, not bored; challenged, not attacked; held accountable, not blamed; hopeful, not doomed; and amused, but called to action. I cannot think of a more inspiring way in which to celebrate, and gain a framework to think about, Black History Month. If only we had bell hooks around to give us a framework for living on a daily basis! I guess that is what her more than two dozen books are for.

Throughout the night, hooks read from some of her new work, stating that of late she is working on the idea of agency. Her recent visit to Portland was a great reminder of her newest book about to be published on Feb. 15 by South End Press, “Home Grown: Conversations on Race and Culture,” with Amalia Mesa-Bains.