By Kevin Powell
In my humble opinion, Dr. bell hooks is one of the most important writers and thinkers America has ever produced. I first met Dr. bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins) back in the mid-1990s when I was a senior writer for Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine. Needing a break from all the interviews I was doing at the time with hip-hop figures such as Tupac Shakur, I sought bell out. I knew she wrote and thought a great deal about America, about race, gender, and pop culture, and would have much to say. Indeed, my introduction to her work had come a few years before Vibe from female friends who were serious feminists who had attended colleges like Spelman and Sarah Lawrence. Like many men I was reluctant to read anything by a feminist. Hell, I was afraid, to be mad honest. But read I did, eventually, and bell hooks’ writings transformed my life and thinking forever. The Vibe interview was provocative, funny, and deadly serious. bell and I would go on to become friends, her a mentor to me in so many ways for quite a few years, and definitely a great influence on my own writings and work around gender issues. With that in mind I thought it especially appropriate to interview her again, nearly 20 years later, as we at BK Nation launch our Women’s History Month series this March of 2014, “If Women and Girls Ruled the World.” Here as candid and as real as ever bell hooks discusses President Obama’s presidency, the relationship dynamic between Jay Z and Beyonce, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, what has happened to feminism, the state of Black America, love, peace, and why she left New York City. Today she spends time at her homes in both Kentucky and Florida. This interview was conducted via phone on an early morning in February 2014 as she was preparing for her day in Florida. It is Dr. hooks’ words exactly as spoken. Ideas, by the way, that she plans to transform into the bell hooks Center for Critical Thinking, Contemplation, and Dreaming. For this is bell’s life dream, to bring people together, in community spaces, not on college campuses, to share and work together, to love and think together.
BKN: How many books do you have published now?
bh: I do not know. I should probably count them but I don’t.
(Interviewer note: Dr. bell hooks has actually published 39 books since 1978. She published her first book at age 26).
BKN: A lot of folks have asked where have you been.
bh: What amazes me about those questions is that I know those people are not reading. They would know I am writing and publishing. My focus has always been on the work— that work being critical thinking and writing. I am always doing that. That’s where I am, wherever I am. Critical thinking and writing as my heartbeat.
So perhaps what they really mean is “We have not seen you in social media, or in the celebrity social milieu.” Perhaps they mean “We have not seen you in New York City.” When you are not in New York you are just not as visible. I often find when I am in New York it is astounding the number of people you run into. New York is so different as an American city because you walk everywhere and just run into so many people.
I also do not speak a lot like I used to. I now only do about four lectures a year as compared to when I used to do 20 per year. I like to do workshops instead, because it is smaller and you really can talk to people. One of the things I find most exciting is talking with people who are working with my work. Who are using it in some way with their life to address everyday politics of meaning.
BKN: Why did you leave New York City?
bh: Partially I left New York City because I felt it to be overwhelming in all ways. Overwhelming and a materialistic excess. Overwhelming and people not having time for one another. Everything scheduled. Of course poor health on my part and wanting to live closer to my parents, who were getting older there in Kentucky. I would not take anything for the time I got to spend with my parents before they died. Living just a few hours from them, I was able to see them regularly.
BKN: When did you leave?
bh: In the beginning I still had my condo in the West Village. Even I was not sure if I could make the adjustment from living in Manhattan to living in a small Kentucky town of 12,000 people. I came to New York a lot because I still had the apartment. It was a strange adjustment. When you get out of New York you realize there is light on all the time in New York City, and lots of noise. Then you come to a small place and things like quiet became very important to you.
BKN: Are you able to say how old you are now?
bh: I am 61. I will be 62 on September 25th. I think one big thing about my life now is I’ve made a re-commitment to spirituality and God. Which means really putting that first in the traditional sense that the Bible says “seek ye first the kingdom of God.” Well, I say that I am a Buddhist Christian. I encourage people to read The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness by Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh.
BKN: What would people get from that book?
bh: That what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe. In that book Thich Nhat Hanhis is talking about peace. The issue is not sustaining Buddhism; it is sustaining peace in our lives.
BKN: What does peace mean to you now?
bh: It is not about peace that has changed. It is writing about love and being a witness to the extreme lovelessness in this society. Working with people to understand what it is to be loved in this society. Sometimes it means going out into the world and being engaged in acts of love and kindness, especially to people you do not want to be kind to.
BKN: Many suggest we need to be kinder to President Barack Obama, given the weight he carries. What are your thoughts about his presidency now, and what were they in 2008 during that historic campaign?
bh: Very recently I had a conversation with Cornel West in my house. I shared with him that people kept asking me when Obama first ran did I think it would make a difference in lives of Black males. I said yes, symbolically. On issues of illiteracy, poverty, the sense of meaning of Black males, no. I saw Obama having great ties to the wealthy and the sustaining of the wealthy. His militarism alone puts him at odds with Black males or any of us sustaining our lives. I think a lot of the things Obama did were evident of who he was before he took office. If anything we have learned from both the civil rights and feminist movements is that we have people in power who look like us but do not represent us. Too often we focus on image over the action.
Things that have happened, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis. We have seen the incredible rise of fascism in America with President Obama in office. These kinds of lynchings of Black people, says we are a group not capable of keeping ourselves alive, that we are at risk. Being here in Florida right now a lot of Black people feel at risk, especially Black men and Black boys. It is not just Florida. Such a repetition of state-supported violence all over America. Look at the movie Fruitvale Station about the police murder of Oscar Grant in California. We have to go back to Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” A lot of people, he said, would rather see an end to democracy than have racial equality. We are living that reality, a state-supported White supremacy. It is about stopping Black people, because Black people have advanced a great deal. You stop that with drug addiction, with health issues, with racial attacks. If you are a Black woman with money the illnesses that kill a poor Black woman also kill you. The common factor in both is stress.
BKN: How do you define stress?
bh: I think stress is anything going on in our lives that impinges on our capacity to have optimum well being. Let’s say you have a job as a woman of any race, or you are being hunted by someone who is sexist. That creates a lot of tension that is debilitating. I know a Black woman friend with a high position at a college. She suddenly found herself in a space with a lot of criticisms and gossip. The job became a minefield of tension and stress. A lot of that was brought on by other Black people. And other women of all races. We will look back on these times when we fought for greater representation. We struggled for representation and saw as Du Bois said many years ago that these people do not truly represent. And if they did try to continue to represent they were attacked on all sides.
BKN: You’ve made a conscious decision to be an active agent in your own life. What I am finding is a lot of folks simply do not know how, and they become stuck.
bh: I call it living consciously. The most basic activism we can have in our lives is to live consciously in a nation living in fantasies. Living consciously is living with a core of healthy self-esteem. You will face reality, you will not delude yourself.
There is a book called The Tools, a book by two White male psychotherapists (Phil Stutz, Barry Michels). It suggests 5 things people can do to live more consciously. One of those things is to be grateful, having an attitude of thanksgiving. Another thing is being self-responsible.
The population we need to be looking to teach a lot of things to are the children. If we do not learn these things by eight or nine or 10 they become very hard to find and utilize in one’s life.
BKN: I think back on the first interview we did in the mid-1990s when I was at Vibe. You talked a lot about the state of hip-hop, of pop culture then, from your perspective as a woman, as a feminist. How do you see things now given all that has happened?
bh: We are witnessing now the larger society taking the elements of pop culture that began as radical resistance and has turned it in on itself. Jay Z and Beyoncé embody that. It is all about wealth. I look at them along with Oprah and other people: They could be creating think tanks and schools that promote critical thinking and how to manage our money. Part of why so many Black people see Jay Z as a hero is because he is never talking education. It is the myth of economic success without having to be an educated person. I am saying Jay Z promotes this kind of fantasy of You can be super-wealthy without being educated. It is not the reality for the masses of people. If you are poor and you have no chance of entering into a situation for economic advancement, you can still have meaning from education and learning. Part of having that kind of richness is being a life-long learner. You and I, Kevin Powell, are great examples of that.
BKN: So what are you really saying, then, about the state of Black America in 2014?
bh: There is no Black America in that sense any more. That collective sense of identity has been destroyed by our extreme materialism. Wealthy Black people think more like wealthy White people. There is no static Black consciousness. There is such a complacency of Black identity. We have not yet formulated an adequate language for it.
BKN: What about the constant attacks on Black women and girls via all forms of media and popular culture?
bh: I was just with a White feminist scholar. We were having a major disagreement about 12 Years A Slave. Nothing in that movie is about the representation of Black women. Same old rape and sexualized body. Even the scene of the Black woman wanting to have sex with Solomon, that invented scene of sex being solace for her. I need never see another scene where a Black female body is raped or is a negatively eroticized body. I do not see how 12 Years challenged that. That scene was created. We never heard from the wife. What was she doing in those 12 years Solomon was gone? Where was her voice?
BKN: Your points make me think of the phenomenon that is Nicki Minaj, the most popular female rapper in hip-hop today.
bh: My thoughts are not very different. In talking with Cornel West I kept saying to him that so many of us are seduced by greed. You have to work against the seduction of greed. Everything in our pop culture whether it is Black people or White people imitating Black people is hedonistic wealth and hedonistic living. I think that greed is so central to so many of the issues we are facing, environmentally. What is killing the Black body, all those things related to eating. Everything that encourages us to be out of control. Nicki Minaj is just a symbol of that.
How is Nicki Minaj not a continuity between the Malcolm X image controversy and those that like 12 Years A Slave? Both are basically to be provocative to stimulate imagination but nothing radical about either. Or look at the conversations about Beyoncé being a feminist. Just listen closely to the lyrics to “Drunk in Love.” On the one hand it is a Black woman pushing boundaries of Black female sexuality but on the other hand it is same old same old.
I thought about subliminal suggestions. Let’s look at the difference between the actual video for “Drunk in Love” and that mess that went on at the Grammys with Beyoncé and Jay Z. In the actual video she is on a beach and walking by herself. She is not looking like a ho in a strip club. At the Grammys when Jay Z come out fully clothed it is such an instance of primal patriarchal domination. I think it is self-evident that she is practically naked and here is the man in a suit. It is very much about power. Those symbols are symbols of power.
Like the movie The Wolf of Wall Street where we saw more tits and ass then we would see in the average porno film. So what we have again is that for men of any race the acquisition of wealth corresponds to the ability to possess the woman, the most desired woman. So that representation at the Grammys with Jay Z and Beyoncé is very much about that. We would do well to go back to the Shahrazad Ali book Are You Still a Slave? Because she raises those types of questions.
I raise this because I see in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead connections between Sheryl and Beyoncé. On one level female power is projected. But another level abject subservience to the man in your life is the reality. Sandberg is partners with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. But Zuckerberg really has the real power.
BKN: Your thoughts about Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé beg the question: Where is the feminist movement today?
bh: I think feminism has gone the way of all our movements for social justice: Stuck on a pause. Same as we have seen for Black radical movements for justice. I was talking about Occupy Wall Street, which kind of gave us elements of activism. But we are not in a 99 percent world. We are in world with serious class complexes. It is one thing to be a college student with loan debts and another thing to be just dirt poor for your entire life. The challenge is to come up with more complex understandings of where we are, more global awareness of what connects Americans with what is happening with suffering and oppressed people all around the world. The future is not looking bright for any of us, be it women or people or color. We have to rethink how we live our lives.
I also think how feminism really pushed for jobs and money but we still have women caught up in patriarchy and sexism. A woman in an oppressive marriage with a job will leave. No. So many complexities keep women with jobs and careers in their terrible marriages. So much of civil rights and feminism have been challenged by reality. I think necessity requires us to rethink so much. That is the challenge of this whole Obama time. That sense of promise of Obama has not come true. Not Obama personally but he is a symbol of what we are talking about: What is success? What is a good life? What is our responsibility and accountability to others?