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Black Feminist bell hooks’s Trailblazing Critique of “Imperialist White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy”

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We look at the life and legacy of trailblazing Black feminist scholar and activist bell hooks, who died at the age of 69 on Wednesday. We speak with her longtime colleague Beverly Guy-Sheftall, professor of women’s studies at Spelman College, who remembers her as “a person who would sit with young people and community people and students and help them understand this world in which we live, which is full of all kinds of domination.” Working in the tradition of intersectionality and Black radical feminism, hooks’s critiques of “imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy” called attention to the interlocking systems of oppression in hopes of eradicating them, Guy-Sheftall says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The trailblazing Black feminist scholar and activist bell hooks died Wednesday at the age of 69. She was a prolific author who wrote about how a person’s race, gender and social class are interconnected, often referred to the, quote, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks wrote more than 40 books, including the 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, which took its title from the speech by abolitionist Sojourner Truth. bell hooks was a longtime educator, most recently a distinguished professor at Berea College in her home state of Kentucky, which created the bell hooks Institute as a center for her writing and teaching. bell hooks died at her home in Kentucky surrounded by family and friends. Her family says her cause of death was end-stage renal failure.

We’ll talk more about her life and legacy with her close friend of more than 40 years, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, former president of the National Women’s Studies Association and women’s studies professor at Spelman. But first let’s hear bell in her own words, speaking in 2006 at the University of Oregon, when she gave the keynote address at the Women of Color Conference.

bell hooks: Committed to the struggle to end domination in all its forms since my teenage years, in midlife I find myself constantly seeking to understand why we have heightened awareness about the suffering caused by exploitation and oppression, both in our nation and in the world, yet this awareness has not inspired us all to move towards the collective action needed to bring peace, love and healing.

In my twenties and early thirties, I was most obsessed with finding words to explain systems of domination, to critique and to find a voice to express militant resistance. My voice was at times shrill and piercing, full of the pain, feelings of powerlessness in gender, coupled with awareness of the chokehold dominator culture had on my consciousness.

In those days, that voice was often interpreted by the status quo as angry — and, more often than not, too angry to be worthy of being listened to or heard. Allies in struggle, liberal and progressive, were often eager, and still are, to portray people of color coming to voice as always and only angry. For radical white folks who had not fully unlearned their racialized sexism, their projected image of an angry Black woman letting it all hang out was often superimposed over the reality of voices that were simply boldly speaking truth to power.

Ellen Herman, who teaches here in the History Department, was the editor of my very first book, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. And I remember the day that she called me and said, “You know, we really want to publish your book, but we feel that it’s so angry.” And I said, “Well, Ellen, you know, I can’t accept that.” It wasn’t anger that I was feeling when I wrote this book. It was the keenness of insight. It was the clarity of truth telling. It was the power of breaking out of the bondage of oppression and exploitation. We have to think about why, when people of color find our voice, white people so often can only hear that voice as an angry voice.

AMY GOODMAN: The acclaimed feminist scholar and activist bell hooks, speaking in 2006 at the University of Oregon, when she gave the keynote address at the Women of Color Conference and read from some of her recent writing.

bell hooks died Wednesday. She was the author of more than 40 books, ranging from essays and poetry to children’s books, such Skin Again. In 2000, she published the book All About Love: New Visions and wrote, “It is essential to our struggle for self-determination that we speak of love. For love is the necessary foundation enabling us to survive the wars, the hardships, the sickness, and the dying with our spirits intact. It is love that allows us to survive whole.”

For more, we’re joined by her dear friend Beverly Guy-Sheftall. She is the former president of the National Women’s Studies Association, professor of women’s studies at Spelman College. First of all, Professor Guy-Sheftall, our condolences on the loss of your close friend bell hooks.

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: Thank you very much, Amy. And I am really happy to be here, and I loved that particular speech that you all quoted from.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your friend and the icon, the African feminist, African American feminist trailblazer bell hooks. First, her name. Talk about how she kept it in lowercase and why she chose to take that name, bell hooks.

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: So, bell hooks chose the name of her great-grandmother Bell Hooks, because she learned from family and other members of the small rural Hopkinsville community in Kentucky that her great-grandmother was fierce and always talking back. And so, rather than attach her name to her books, she wanted to create some distance between me, the author, and the words. And the choice of bell hooks, her great-grandmother, which she put in lowercase letters, said to us that it is not me, Gloria Watkins, who is the most important; it’s what these words are and the model of my great-grandmother Bell Hooks, who stays in my consciousness. And the small letters also captured, I think, bell hooks’s always transgressive oppositional self. So, I’m not going to even use capital letters. I’m not going to use my name. I’m going to use my transgressive great-grandmother’s name on those books.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about bell hooks’ life and the message she felt which was so important to understand?

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: The first thing I’ll say about bell hooks is that she was always the teacher. I mean, we know she was a professor at many, many places — Oberlin College, Berea, where she spent her last 20 years as a teacher — as a professor. She had a Ph.D. in English, where she wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison. But fundamentally, she was a teacher. And by “teacher,” I meant she believed that her audience was broader than the academy or broader than higher education, and she wanted to reach the largest number of people, regular people, young boys, children, that she could. And she wanted to have the broadest impact on the broadest amount of people. And so, when I think of bell hooks, I think about her primarily as a teacher.

And she was very much impacted by teachers. She was very much impacted, for example, by the Buddhist person Thich Nhat Hanh. And I think that she saw herself in some ways as a person who would sit with — sit with — young people and community people and students and help them understand this world in which we live, which is full of all kinds of domination. So I see her as a teacher.

She was hard-hitting. She was sometimes merciless in her critiques. She was unrelenting. She was courageous. She was in your face. But she was also gentle. And I was just listening to that sort of soft voice, gentle spirit, passionate and always, always trying to tell the truth, from her perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I got a chance to interview her and asked her — it was to remember Paulo Freire, the great educator who wrote the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where she also laid out her philosophy of education. This is bell hooks.

bell hooks: In our culture, so often, people teach beliefs, values, ideas, that have no relationship to how they live their lives. And each of the many times that I saw Paulo, I saw him exemplify again and again a unity between theory and praxis. And that has inspired me both as an intellectual and as a teacher to want to have that kind of unity, to believe and to know that it’s not a dream or a fantasy, but that you can teach by being in the world as much as you can by the books you write.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to turn to an excerpt from bell hooks’ 1999 speech at the Los Angeles Public Library. Here she talks about her conception of love and her book Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics.

bell hooks: When I go and I talk a little bit about the question of love, people will start saying to me, “Oh, I hope you’re not going to lose that, you know, critical edge, that daring, you know, like, angry voice that we had in all the other writings.” And I say to them that that’s exactly what I think about the question of love, that to talk about love and to talk about the big question of why choose love and why our nation has to choose love again as one of the ethical values driving our daily lives is, in fact, to be doing that which is courageous and daring and enormously difficult to do, precisely because of the profound trivialization of love in our culture.

We might do well to not just problematize our difficulties around race, gender and other things, but to also then talk about what brings us together. You know, what kinds of yearnings do we share cross all of those things? And it seems to me that the desire to love and be loved is one of those yearnings people share irrespective of class, race, sexual preference, practice, and that it might be interesting for us to theorize in terms of our struggles to end all forms of domination from that place of love.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s bell hooks talking about her book Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. If you can talk about that and also her talking about white capitalist — white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Professor Guy-Sheftall?

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: You know, it might be good to remind all of us that to have Black people love themselves, that is a radical act in the U.S. context. And it’s not just Black women. She wanted little Black boys to love themselves. She wanted little Black girls with so-called nappy hair to love themselves, which is why she wrote that book about — of being nappy. So we might think about love as a sort of innocuous, trivial, nonpolitical project, but she knew that loving ourselves, all people, but particularly people of color and Black people in the U.S., to love ourselves is a radical political act. And that’s one of the people’s favorite books, All About Love, because I think we understood that, that if you don’t love yourself, if you don’t engage in self-love, you cannot possibly change the world. And so, that was an extremely important intervention in terms of her writings.

Her constant naming of imperial white supremacist patriarchy, which can also be framed if we borrow Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term “intersectionality” — bell didn’t use the term “intersectionality.” She wanted us to hear “imperial white supremacist patriarchy” — and later she added “heteropatriarchy” — because she wanted to name what that was. But it is essentially the concept of intersectionality, which goes back to the 19th century Black women, such as Maria Stewart and Ida B. Wells. And so she never stopped saying it, “imperial white supremacist heteropatriarchy,” because she wanted us to hear it over and over and over again so that we could eradicate it.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you talked about children loving themselves, particularly Black children, she wrote that acclaimed children’s book, Skin Again, beautifully illustrated by Chris Raschka. The book reads, in part, “The skin I’m in is just a covering. It cannot tell my story. If you want to know who I am, you have got to come inside and open your heart way wide.” Professor?

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: Yes. She also — her favorite children’s book was Be Boy Buzz, which she talked about a lot. And you have a little boy protagonist. And she talked about the fact that the publishers were sort of reluctant to have a little Black boy protagonist. But of course she insisted, in the same way as she described earlier, insisting to those publishers of that very first book that she was not angry, she was committed. And she always, again, insisted, lived the life that she wanted to live, lived it on her own terms. And that was with book publishers, her employers, her family, her partners and her friends.

AMY GOODMAN: Beverly Guy-Sheftall, I want to thank you so much for remembering bell hooks. It’s hard to say “remembering.” She died just this week at the age of 69. Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall is a professor of women’s studies at Spelman College, former president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

Next up, we hear from Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Stay with us.

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