Straight Talk & Sass

Photo: Barbara Ries

Stopping in mid-sentence, writer bell hooks welcomed a hesitant student into the crowded lounge. "Come on in, sweetheart. There's a place on the couch, and we're just having an informal conversation."

A widely read feminist theorist, poet and cultural critic, hooks draws adoring crowds on college campuses. They come to meet the author who has dished out straight talk and sass in 20 books, and they linger after her lectures for intimate one-on-one chats.

On a recent visit to her alma mater, hooks, '73, was on a roll. The target of her uncompromising ire was the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his public acknowledgment that he had fathered a child with a single woman.

"Before I started on my book tour, my mother called me and said, 'Now don't you go out there talking about Jesse,'" hooks said, slipping into the Kentucky dialect of her childhood. "That's how deep the patriarchy goes--that my mother would urge me to keep silent and be supportive, when all I could think was, 'Boyfriend wasn't using condoms.'"

Students sitting on the rug exploded with laughter and those on surrounding chairs and sofas stomped their appreciation, as good times began to rock the Women's Community Center in the Old Firetruck House on a January afternoon. A racially diverse audience of 80--male and female, students, faculty and staff--was lapping up hooks's provocative one-liners, which she delivered with practiced punch. Whenever the giggles subsided, she took another shot at the reverend.

"Jesse got to invoke the patriarchy of Christianity that says, 'All you have to do is say you've sinned and you're sorry,'" hooks asserted. "But what is that about? You're 60-some years old, and you don't know what you're doing? Ethically and morally, that sets a very bad example for poor young people.

"Wouldn't it have been better for him to invoke the Christian emphasis on truth-telling? And wouldn't it be more interesting for us, as feminist thinkers, as people who want a more progressive vision of marriage, if people like Jesse came out and talked about the place of honesty in marriage?"

It was clear from the heads nodding in agreement that hooks was winning devotees--like those who had filled Kresge Auditorium several months earlier to hear her talk about her undergraduate years on the Farm and to ask her burning questions and declare their ardent affection.

"I love you, I love you," swooned Venus Opal Reese, the first in line at the microphone. "I've read you forever--on feminism, black feminism, womanism, everything."

"Thank you for the accolades, darling," hooks responded. "I deserve them all."

Reese, a doctoral candidate in directing and dramatic criticism, probably speaks for many in hooks's campus following when she describes her as "articulate without being academic." Reese picked up a copy of hooks's Sisters of the Yam (1993) when she was starting to write her dissertation and decided she'd found her literary mentor. "In order to be considered smart, you usually have to have all the trappings, from footnotes to Foucault," Reese says. "But bell hooks is a woman who knows what she's talking about, and she showed me how to write for a public audience, which is what I'm interested in."

hooks likes to remind Stanford audiences that she began writing her first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), in the stacks at Green Library. She went over the hill to earn her doctorate in literature at UC-Santa Cruz, and she has taught English, women's studies and African-American studies at Yale University, Oberlin College and City College of New York. Never shy in print or in person, hooks describes herself as an iconoclastic feminist, leading African-American intellectual, progressive Buddhist, committed homebody and fanatical reader of fashion magazines.

Then there's that intriguing name. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks borrowed and lowercased her great-grandmother's name as a nom de plume. It adds a melodic note to her often lyrical titles--Remembered Rapture, Wounds of Passion, Breaking Bread, Bone Black--most of which she has written for and about black women, delivering forthright opinions on racism, rage and relationships. As she puts it: "I have written on the subject of ending discrimination in whatever form it appears."

In 1993, hooks appeared, unsmiling, on the cover of Ms. magazine with Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and Urvashi Vaid, to address the dominant issue in her life and work--feminism. In a discussion headlined "Let's Get Real About Feminism: The Backlash, the Myths, the Movement," hooks said one of her sisters had expressed the frustrations of many women of color who had not embraced the movement because it seemed far removed from their daily concerns: "This is what my husband does to me in front of the kids. He tells me to shut up. He puts me down. You're the feminist. Tell me what I can do to change this."

hooks traces her first academic study of searing questions like those to the early 1970s, when she took several courses in the emerging field of women's studies [see article on the program in feminist studies]. In those classrooms, she says, she learned that no theory is of practical use unless people can talk about it in everyday conversation, at the kitchen table. Since then, she has salted her own writing with personal stories, recalling the segregated schoolrooms of her hometown or the shame she felt at Stanford when she couldn't afford to join dormmates on expensive ski trips.

It's a style that wins readers but has drawn fire from critics who fault hooks for not having enough intellectual heft. Sara Suleri Goodyear, a professor of English at Yale and a former colleague of hooks, wrote in the journal Critical Inquiry (Summer 1992) that "the unmediated quality of a local voice serves as a substitute for any theoretical agenda" in hooks's book Talking Back. hooks's discourse, Goodyear added, "keeps returning to the banality of easy dichotomies."

Author Maya Angelou has a different take on hooks's popularity and her popularized approach. "I think what alienated some people from you and your work was [that] you were country when country wasn't cool," the black cultural icon suggested when hooks interviewed her in 1998 for Shambhala magazine. "But I thought it was just the most wonderful thing in the world that you had such pizzazz. Even when you weren't certain, you were confident."

Those who teach hooks's work say she brings a distinctive voice to the classroom. "I don't use a hooks text the way I would use an academic article that has footnotes and purports to back up its arguments with evidence," says Leslie Townsend, director of service learning at Mills College, who teaches a capstone senior seminar for feminist studies majors at Stanford. "I use a text by bell hooks as I would a piece of fiction that is expressing a point of view, framing a position and giving us a perspective on a chosen topic. hooks is writing essays in a way that is almost a lost art--in the tradition of those who used to spend a long time working out their ideas."

Many consider hooks a member of a vanishing species--"in the tradition of public intellectuals," says Stanford English professor Andrea Lunsford. hooks appeals to so many students because "she talks about her own youthfulness as a writer, coming into the profession," Lunsford says. "She is very accessible and writing in a very inclusive way."

When hooks writes about popular culture, art and movies, she often stakes out controversial positions--defending gangsta rap, for example, as "a form of testimony for the underclass." And as a woman who came of age in what she describes as "that intense ecstatic moment when sexual liberation and the feminist movement converged," hooks also is known for her enthusiastic reveries on sex--as evidenced in an essay entitled "Penis Passion." In public speaking engagements, she can get down and earthy, "and she can dish it out, too," says Lunsford, who has heard hooks speak on several campuses. "I've seen her be really aggressive toward students who ask silly questions."

hooks can also turn diva with little warning. After arriving late for a scheduled photo shoot on her recent book tour, she fussed when the photographer asked if she'd be willing to sit in a particular position. hooks's mini-entourage of friends jollied her into cooperating for a few minutes, but then she announced, abruptly, that she'd had enough. "I'm not enjoying working with you," she told the startled woman. "We're done here."

Yes, hooks agrees, she has her impatient moments, which can be difficult to reconcile with her Buddhist faith. "I have to go inward and try to exercise a more critical vigilance of my voice." A follower of the exiled Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, she has taken vows as a bodhisattva and often meditates for days at a time. At age 48 and still single, hooks says she is "thinking really differently about life"--and about the power of love.

"This leading feminist scholar focuses . . . on a love ethic that, she maintains, has the potential to undo the long-term effects of neglect, poverty and despair," Publishers Weekly says about Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), the second in a trilogy of books about love. Noting hooks's "stinging arguments against the scapegoating of black single mothers," the reviewer concludes that she handily "refutes the myth stemming from the time of slavery that black people haven't attempted to normalize their lives, citing documentation of familial love and strong community ties." But the critic also mentions "recent criticism that hooks may have lost some of her bite."

hooks sighs. "I know--a lot of people are saying 'Oh, bell is getting soft, she's turning to love,'" she says in a high-pitched, almost fragile voice that is curiously at odds with the force of her words on a printed page. "But I say, no, go back through all my books, and you'll find that I've always been writing about love--about the yearning to have love in their lives that is the one thing people share, the one thing that cuts across class, race and sexual preferences and practices."

hooks has taken that conviction into publishing boardrooms and onto college campuses, where she is in demand as a visiting writer. "In this past year, I found students deeply and profoundly cynical about love," she says about her recent lecture tour. "I think this generation has seen so much emotional devastation at the hands of their parents' generation, and that seems to tell them to be afraid to love. For many, it's like, 'Gee, I'd rather not feel anything than feel such enormous pain.'"

hooks has spoken at Stanford twice this year, but she says returning to the Farm is never easy. In Where We Stand: Class Matters, published last year, she writes that Stanford, as envisioned by its founders, "was to have been a place where students of all classes would come, women and men, to work together and learn." Indeed, she found, "living among folks from more privileged classes, I learned more about class than I had ever learned in a small segregated neighborhood."

Her first trip to Stanford was one of her first ventures out of Hopkinsville, Ky., where she grew up as the oldest of six girls and one boy. On her journey to Palo Alto, she flew in a plane, rode an escalator and took a city bus--all for the first time. On the Farm, she had her first encounter with a black diaspora of professors from Africa and the Caribbean, and she began to read the works of Fanon, Gramsci, Freire and Malcolm X. Gradually, the mistrust and fear of white people that she had learned as a child "living in apartheid" changed into anger. And as she studied the craft of writing with such teachers as Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich and Diane Middlebrook, hooks says she began to put on paper the rage that she had kept choked inside for so long.

When hooks recounts that transformation for Stanford students--particularly for students of color--there are rippling waves of "that's right" and "uh-huh." When she adds, "It is always traumatic for me to be back here," heads bob emphatically.

"Leaving an all-black, working-class Southern Baptist world to come to upper-class, secular Palo Alto . . . you couldn't have come up with a greater contrast," she says. "It was a big time of struggle and transition, and each time I come back, I remember some new fragment that was either very difficult or very wonderful."

hooks remembers going home with one of the cleaning women when her dorm closed for a vacation and having to talk with a psychiatrist to get permission to live off campus. But in Where We Stand (2000) she also records the beauty of Stanford's grounds and how that inspired her future work:

"Everything in the landscape of my new world fascinated me, the plants brought from a rich man's travels all over the world back to this place of water and clay. At Stanford University, adobe buildings blend with Japanese plum trees and leaves of kumquat. On my way to study medieval literature, I ate my first kumquat. Surrounded by flowering cactus and a South American shrub bougainvillea of such trailing beauty it took my breath away, I was in a landscape of dreams, full of hope and possibility. If nothing else would hold me, I would not remain a stranger to the earth. The ground I stood on would know me."

If hooks is writing in a softer voice today, it may be that she is finding new ways to think about cleavages of the past. In Communion, a book in progress that looks at women and aging, she recalls the days when women in many communities met in living rooms, often bringing their kids with them, to talk about their daily, even hourly struggles. She suggests that feminism needs a revival today--that it must reach out to include those who have felt estranged in the past, and that it must bring those already committed to the movement closer together. "I think this is something that feminism hasn't honored--that if we're going to make brave transitions and changes in our lives, we really need avenues to process those changes," hooks says.

She also calls for a new strategy in other political arenas. Arguing that the activist's struggle has always involved a concept of an enemy over which to triumph, hooks says a "conversion-based notion of politics" is now in order.

"By conversion I mean that I believe in your essential goodness as an individual person," she tells a white reporter. "I believe that if you harm me in some way and I perceive that harm to be racially based, I can still appeal to your goodness. And I can seek to convert you, rather than to conquer you."