WHAT BELL HOOKS TAUGHT ME

“I am not a writer who happens to be black.  I am a writer who is black and female. These aspects of my identity strengthen my creative gifts. They are neither burdens nor limitations…” bell hooks from remembered rapture

bell hooks’ feminist scholarship has informed and sharpened both my creative work, as well as my scholarship. She has influenced and shaped many Caribbean women scholars, who have been paying homage on social media and in other formats since her death on December 15 at the age of 69. While I cannot claim bell as a friend we were more than acquaintances and during our time together she taught me a valuable lesson as a sister-feminist, for which I am eternally grateful.

In 1994 the University of Kentucky hosted the Kentucky Women’s Writers’ Conference. Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks and I were the featured writers and presenters for the 3-day conference. Gloria  and I were both coming from the Bay Area, California, and  were friends having met and read at several venues over the years. I  knew of bell hooks’ work well and, in fact, had been challenged and chastised by at least two professors at UC Berkeley when I was pursuing my doctorate in the late 80s for citing her Ain’t I A Woman. They said she was not a serious scholar and her work lacked academic merit as she did not follow the standard footnote/endnote citation. I argued the point, but the professors did not relent, and I often wondered what they thought when bell hooks became more famous than they. I make this point because many young scholars are not aware of some of the struggles bell hooks faced, not just by white academics, but also by a few prominent black feminist and male scholars who did not accept or respect her work.

 I was thrilled when I was informed that I would be sharing the stage with bell, and we each were scheduled to do a reading, participate in a panel discussion and lead a creative writing workshop. We all were scheduled to arrive the evening before the start of the conference and were invited for dinner. Less than 15 minutes upon checking into my room, the phone rang and  the voice on the other end said, “Hello Opal, this is bell can I come to your room?” I was tired and was planning to rest before the scheduled dinner, so agreed to her coming in half an hour.

In exactly 30 minutes bell knocked on my door. We exchange pleasantries and talked a little about each other’s work and what we planned to do at the conference. Then bell switched and asked directly, “How much are they paying you?” I was thrown off because no one ever asked me what I was getting paid, so I muttered unsure if I should reveal my fee. However, since bell was forthright and unrelenting,  I told her. She shook her head, said umum. “I’m getting almost twice what you’re getting; that’s not right because we’re doing the same number of sessions.  I bet you didn’t negotiate.” And she was right.  Until that time whenever I was invited by a university I accepted what they offered. All the other arrangements for us including airfare,  accommodation and per diem were the same, and bell told me that she had negotiated her honorarium.

bell then  looked me directly in the eye and said, “I’m going to tell you something that you need to do from now on.” She leaned forward in the chair on which she sat while I sat at the foot of the bed. “Whenever a university or any place invites you to read or conduct a workshop don’t accept what they offer you at first. Always ask for at least 20% more than what you want so that you can bargain. I learned that the hard way.” I was so grateful because I had asked several writers before about what they were paid and they generally beat around the bush without disclosing. But not bell hooks. She took me under her wings, and added,  “get yourself an agent who will do all the negotiating and do at least 4 engagements monthly.” I told her that was impossible. She frowned and objected.

I explained that  I had three young children, ages 3, 5 and 10 respectively, was recently divorced , I headed the department at my university that was under-funded, and in order to be there it took a tremendous amount of negotiating and support with family, friends, students and faculty. In short it was a miracle that I was able to be there. She embraced me and said, “Sister Opal, I understand, you are wading through a river, but you are moving.” This thoughtful action illuminated a passage from hooks’ Ain’t I a woman that I had underlined and quoted years earlier.

“By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and the victims of those crimes.”

That was such a moment of light and assurance, and those 4 days in Kentucky were awesome as I got to hang out with bell, which also included going with her to buy shoes.  She had a fetish for shoes and bought 4 pairs, and admonished me for not even buying one pair.

By that single generous act of schooling me about the college circuit, bell hooks demonstrated the true meaning of feminism, which promoted me to secure an agent six months later even though I was not able to be on the road as frequently as bell suggested because of my family and academic life.

Nikky Finney is another sister/writer friend (featured in the photo) who has also been supportive, and who had recommended me for the conference. Although that was bell’s and my first meeting, we had communicated a few years before when she was writing Sisters of the Yam: Black women and self-recovery, 1993. I had been performing with devorah major as Daughter of Yam, and bell wanted to use a quote from our performance. Several years later when that collection was being republished she reached out to me again for a blurb.

bell was forthright, generous and had bottled energy.  I remember one of our late night conversations, when my eyes were blurry with sleep and she was energetic, and me asking her  how she managed to write and published so much. She laughed and said, “I don’t have three young children.” Touché I nodded.  Then in a more serious tone she added, “ I have serious insomnia so I write to try and find asleep. Also, I am driven to comment on all aspect of black life, to shed light.”

What impressed me about bell hooks at the conference, as well as other times seeing and hearing her, is her analytical ability. Her penchant for bringing many thoughts together through her wide-range and vast reading, and her unapologetic stance about  being black and woman and all the things that she felt black writers and artists worldwide needed to do.

“The black aesthetic movement was a self-conscious articulation by many of a deep fear that the power of art reside in its potential to transgress the boundaries…” she pronounced in Yearning, one of her many books that I taught over the years.  And that was indeed her charge and the work that she demanded that women feminist writers do continuously— bulldoze boundaries, deconstruct discourses and create new paradigms.

A few years after the conference when bell was coming to the Bay Area to present she reached out and asked me to introduce her at the event. I wrote a poem as way of introduction, which I am unable to locate now. bell was someone whose work I respected and taught, and she likewise respected and taught my work. We communicated over the years, briefly. We saw each other a few times. In New York at one conference, we talked over tea about home and wanting to return.  She was fed up with being in New York and wanted to return to Kentucky and I was similarly wanting to return to Jamaican from California.  When she finally moved back to teach at Berea College, Kentucky, in 2004 I sent her a congratulatory email for being able to make that move and wished her wellness as she had been having health challenges.

bell hooks knew all too well domination and had managed to find a way out of its grasp.

“A culture of domination demands of all its citizens self-negation.

The more marginalized, the more intense the demand. Since black people, especially the underclass, are bombarded by messages that we have no value, are worthless it is no wonder that we fall prey to nihilistic despair…”  (from Black Looks)

The above quote by hooks is relevant to the conditions that many Jamaicans and other Caribbean people are currently facing given the crime rate, the cost of living, the gender-based violence and the horrendous physical and sexual crimes against our children. The nihilism is evident in the acceptability of the present reality and the general belief that there is nothing we can do beyond trying to survive. hooks’ work, although focuses on black life in the USA, offer us many parallels in the Caribbean. It provides us with a framework to engaged in critical feminist discourse that incorporates culture, the patriarchal and colonial  modules that still govern/define our lives. Her books, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 1984; Talking Back: Thinking feminist, thinking Black. Between the Lines, 1989; Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics,1990; Black Looks: Race and representation, 1992 are lucid and straight-forward readings that connect the dots about how the historical antecedents continue to move us further away from who are, and our goal to resist the domination in every form.

For all educators and those wishing to truly create a liberating pedagogy, studying Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom, 1994 and  Outlaw culture: resisting representation, 1994  are prerequisite readings. For those writers or those who desire to write or who teach creative writing,  I recommend these of hooks’ books: Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996); Wounds of passion: a writing life (1997); Remembered rapture: the writer at work (1999). I have required these readings when I taught in the MFA in Creative writing program at California College of the Arts.

bell hooks constantly moved through fear to unbarring the door and she kept the door open not just so that she could enter, but that other writers and feminists of colour could enter too. She blended scholarship with creativity, inserting her voice as Primary source, worthy to stand alone and tell her truth.  A true trail blazer she took Audre Lorde’s intersectional concept a step further thus by creating more space for other voices.

I am honoured that I knew her and got to share the stage with her a few times. Most importantly, I thank her for setting me on the path to ask for what I am worth and deserve.

Sleep now my sister. You have gifted us with a formidable body of work to feed our minds and guide our path.  Asé

This article was published in Bookend, The Observer, Jamaica, Dec 25-26, 2021.


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