“Speaking Freely” show recorded Jan. 25, 2002, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. bell hooks is a noted author, scholar, and social critic. She’s written 22 books, all of which are in print, including this thoughtful and thought-provoking Communion: The Female Search for Love. I’d like to read to you from your own book a line that says, “This book is testimony, a celebration of the joy women find when we restore the search for love to its rightful, heroic place at the center of our lives.” Tell me about that.
bell hooks: We’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war, and, you know, when we think of Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of the heroic journey, it’s rarely a journey that’s about love. It’s about, you know, deeds that have to do with conquering, domination, what have you, and so part of what I wanted to say to people is that, living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic, to work at love, to really let yourself, you know, understand the art of loving.
Paulson: You say in the book there are revelations for you after the age of 40 about love, that there were insights you gained that you wished you’d had earlier?
hooks: Well, absolutely, ’cause I think that, like so many other people in our culture, I had very, very confused ideas about love, and, you know, in the first book, All About Love, one of the ideas that was really hard for people to accept was that if somebody is abusing you, they’re not loving you. I mean, you would think that would be a basic understanding most of us would have, but in fact, so many of us have been wounded in some way in our childhoods that we really need to cling to the idea that if someone hurts you, they can also be loving you. And I tried to make a big distinction in that book between care and love, that my — like, saying that my parents cared for me deeply, and care is important — a lot of children don’t receive any care — but it’s, it’s only one ingredient of love. It is not love.
Paulson: Now, love is a topic that many people have written about, and now recently you’ve written three very well-received books about it. What is your take on love that’s different from others?
hooks: I always think that part of the genius of bell hooks, such as it is, is that I bring together standpoints that are often not brought together in our nation, you know? I bring together thoughtfulness about race, gender, class when I’m writing about love. I, you know, am one of these fanatic readers. I read a book a day — a nonfiction book a day — and I’m a fanatical mystery reader, and I may read two mysteries a day, so I’m always bringing together, not unlike “Speaking Freely,” diverse ways of knowing, and I think that that has been kind of the, the mark of bell hooks’ books, is that you may be reading all about, you know, Buddhism. Then you may read about gangsta rap. There may be a whole combination of ideas, and I believe that, that in our deeply anti-intellectual society, most people read along very narrow lines and think along very narrow lines, so I think that the excitement many people feel when they come to a Bell hooks’ book is, “God, she’s brought together these things that just seem like they — you would never put them together.”
Paulson: You know, I mentioned that you’ve had 22 books in print. That’s extraordinary. That just doesn’t happen. That, that suggests a shelf life that most authors don’t enjoy, but do you ever sit down and say, “You know, I really want a best-seller; I want, I want this one made into a movie?”
hooks: I want all of my books made into movies. You know? Because, you know what? I think that — I believe that I am, Ken, the embodiment of that sort of, of classical idea of the intellectual as someone who really wants to be whole, and to me, a part of wholeness is, I really do like the people, the mass. I really, you know, want to be able to write books that, that are touching the pulse of a diverse audience. So to me, the only exciting aspect of having a best-seller is that, you know — that you have that capability, that you’re spread across a, a wide body of people — cross class, cross race — and I think that’s incredibly exciting, the idea of that, you know?
Paulson: And it’s not a temptation to kind of water down your message to broaden it in a way that everyone will find it appealing, sort of like Who Moved the Cheese?
hooks: Well, you know what I think is, in, in these real deep and profound times, and I don’t want to make light in any way, because for the past few years, I have just been so concerned about the question of censorship and a censorship of the imagination that, that begins even before people are censoring what we write. I think that when I look at my career as a thinker and a writer, that what is so amazing is that I have a dissenting voice and that I was able to come into corporate publishing and bring that dissenting voice with me. I mean, the fact is that there — it may seem to people that the love books, which are easier to read, unlike all the other bell hooks’ books, I did write them with a mass audience in mind, mindful of my language, mindful of the — a lot of things, but in them, there are ideas that drive people wild, because they feel that they’re so dissenting, like that idea I mentioned to you earlier, that care isn’t love. I mean, I can’t tell you how many talks I went on where people were up yelling, “How dare you say, you know, that mom and dad didn’t love me because, you know, they, they gave me that beating every week that I needed.”
Paulson: I’m curious about your take about the marketplace of ideas. “Speaking Freely” is about, about all those ideas floating around and the need to hear all of them and to share viewpoints, and yet, it seems that in recent years, especially on college campuses, we’ve seen a different take on freedom of speech. I know that you teach. You see college students up close. Do they have the same feel for freedom of speech that you may have had when you were going to school?
hooks: Well, I think that the key word that you used, Ken, was “the marketplace,” and I, I think what’s really tragic about education particularly at a higher level in our nation right now is that it has become to be something that is about the marketplace so that there’s a lot of repression that students begin to do because they want to prepare themselves for the marketplace, for, you know, getting the money and getting the power and getting the status and getting the fame. And, you know, that means that, you know, you can’t always say you know, what you want to say.
Paulson: You know, you have not hesitated to question projects, programs, or individuals that frankly, a lot of the African-American community embrace with pride. You’ve raised questions about Kwanzaa, the Million Man March, and not least of all, Oprah. What, what is, is it difficult to speak out on those topics?
Hooks: I think, you know, it’s difficult when you’re misunderstood, you know? It’s difficult when people stand up and say, you know, “Why do you hate Spike Lee so much?” And I say, “You know, actually, there are, there are, there are moments in Spike Lee’s films that I think are incredible, that I love, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a real critical commentary about his work.” And I know that as a teacher, I’m constantly encouraging my students to recognize the difference between a critical commentary about something that can illuminate it for you, that can help you to see it in a different way, and something that’s just trashing, ’cause I, I think that part of the danger for free speech in our society is the deep longing people have, both in our personal and public lives, to avoid conflict, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, to, to not — you know, be polite and I think that, you know, if you think about all the work that’s been done by Sissela Bok, and others about how, as a nation, we’re lying more and more, I think we have to connect that to an absence of free speech, because when you live in a country that makes truth something that is associated with the painful — that should not be spoken, it becomes hard to get people to value speaking freely, because, you know, there are things that we have to say that will be wounding, like, for example, in, in, in my latest book that I’m talking to you about, about black people and self-esteem, there are things that I have to say about black children and how they’re parented, um, that are — that would sound harsh to a lot of people. But those things have to be said if we’re going to address in any way what is happening overall, collectively, with black children and self-esteem. So to me, you know, a lot of what I do in the classroom is to try to teach that kind of courage that allows you to speak freely. I mean, recently, I — you know, I’m a big Martin Luther King fan, especially of the later sermons, and when I go back, you know — in Strength to Love, he talks about standing in the shadows of fascism, and he talks so much about the importance of protecting free speech, our, our democracy, and yet, you know, I think that people don’t realize how radical much of what he was saying — I mean, he was talking about, “We’re going to see a day of terrorism. We’re going to see all of these things.” And I think that that’s a really amazing — I mean, here is this man, for example, that most people remember by, you know, what is, what is a very poetic, you know, “I Have a Dream” speech but not by the deep, penetrating social and political analysis he had about imperialism. And why? Because, in a sense, we censor that Martin Luther King. Even, like, a Martin Luther King holiday is constructed to make him more palatable, to make him be this guy who was just about peace and love, but not about the fact that he was an incredibly sophisticated thinker about peace and love, and to me, the dangers of censorship in our nation and the forms it takes, the very subtle forms it takes, is that people don’t get to that Martin Luther King, that, that Martin Luther King disappears. I think that about a bell hooks, that, you know, I notice that as — I was telling you when we talked last about how, as a, as a dissident intellectual — you know, there was a time when black intellectuals got a lot of press, and, you know, but now, you hardly ever hear about bell hooks in the press. You know, newspapers don’t call me anymore to say, “Well, what do you think about —” because I was seen as the bad, the bad girl, the girl who says the things that people don’t want to hear. And again, I have such a subculture of readers that I certainly can’t complain, but I am ever cognizant of the fact that a lot of things like the New York Times, a lot of places, never review bell hooks’ books, you know? Last year, I came out with a book on class, Where We Stand: Class Matters, and luckily, these books sell, but they don’t get reviewed. And I, I think, again, things that are not seen as topical, clever wit — you know, witty in a shallow sense — we often don’t hear it, and I don’t want to just talk about bell hooks. I think dissident speech is not valued in our nation, whether it comes from white men — you know, rich white men or poor white men — I think the real issue is: we are in danger as a nation of silencing any form of speech that goes against what is perceived to be the status quo.
Paulson: If, in your classroom, your students came to you and said, “You know, there’s a Nazi coming to campus to speak. He’s clearly a racist. There’s no question about it. And, um, and a local organization decided to recruit them to — recruit this individual to stir things up, and they want to enlist you to, to fight the appearance,” what’s your take on that? How do you respond?
hooks: You know, my response is always on behalf of free speech, because basically, I always tell my students, if you look at the history of, you know, silencing, ultimately, the people that get silenced are the dissident, radical voices, that any time we try to shut down people, it in fact ends up being something that causes us to suffer more. I think that people need to know how to hear information and think critically about it, not to — and that’s usually my whole, whole thing, is just to say, “What does it mean for us to hear something that we have to think critically about and that we can make a choice about as opposed to the idea that we should eliminate people saying certain things; people thinking certain things; take certain books out of the library? Well, let’s talk about those books. Let’s talk about those ideas.”
Paulson: If you listen to conservative talk radio, and — well, two of the phrases you hear most often are “liberal elites” and “political correctness.” And I, I have to tell you, initially, I thought political correctness was a pretty good concept, just in terms of, it’s about showing respect for other people, and, and, and that’s a good place to be, and yet, there seems to be — there seems to have been an evolution where political correctness has become more of a code, and, ah, and —
hooks: Well, it’s become more of a tool of censorship, of silencing, that all you have to do to silence someone is to say they’re politically incorrect, and frequently, it’s a tool that conservatives use to silence or belittle the voices of liberal and radical people. I mean, I like the fact that gangsta rappers used to have this phrase “Come correct,” and, you know, that’s exactly what it meant. To come correct was to be mindful, to be respectful, to be aware of who you’re speaking to, and that was the initial positive thrust of political correctness, which was to be mindful of who you’re talking to. And I talk about this in, in Communion: The Female Search for Love, that women often will talk about men in an extraordinarily hateful way that, that is considered quite normal, but in fact, if men talk about women in that extraordinarily hateful way we often get up in arms, and I think that all of those issues — to me, political correctness simply said, “Be mindful of how you’re talking about groups. Be mindful of what you do and say.” And what is really tragic is the way conservatives and right-wing forces have made political correctness something so negative that there’s the kind of backlash now where people feel like, “Well, I shouldn’t have to be mindful.” You know, “I shouldn’t have to think about what I’m saying.” And that’s too, too bad, because, I think, you know, the real freedom of democracy requires of all of us that kind of civility and courtesy where we are mindful, where we think about what we say, because we live in a nation that is incredibly diverse, and yet, our language is incredibly binary, incredibly either-or, so that we really have to work to be inclusive, you know? When I’m talking about white people who are racist, I have to work to make sure that my language isn’t bringing all white people into that, because I know that’s not so. When I’m talking about men who are misogynist and patriarchal, I have to work to use a language that doesn’t just make it seem like this is who all men are.
Paulson: You mentioned gangsta rap, and I know that you received phone calls, especially when it was the stuff of headlines. They expected you to denounce gangsta rap, ah, to be a voice that says, “This is hurtful to women and hurtful to the culture.” And yet, you, in a way, defended gangsta rap. Can you talk about that?
hooks: Well, again, I think that, you know, one of the ways that censorship takes in our culture is a censorship of manners, where we assume that we’re — we know who Ken Paulson is. We know his opinions that he’s going to take. People assume, “Oh, bell hooks is a feminist. These are the opinions that she’s going to have.” And to me, that kind of compartmentalization and labeling is very, very anti — not just free speech but the whole sense of recognizing that, as individuals, we can hold very different opinions about things, you know? That I can — like, for example, I, I grew up in Kentucky. I learned how to shoot. Guns are not something that scare me, and, you know, I went to — the university where I teach most frequently now is in Texas, and they have a, a gun exhibit in, in a building, and all the feminist people thought I was going to look at it and say, “How horrible.” And I said, “Well, you know, actually, because I like guns, I don’t find this horrible, but there are people here who — whose families maybe have been wounded by guns or who come from countries where they’ve been wiped out by guns. Maybe they don’t want to see guns every day, so I personally would put this kind of exhibit in a gallery so people could choose to see it or not.” But I wasn’t saying what people thought that, as a feminist who is very much anti-violence, I would say. So I think that part of what I hope for us as a nation and particularly in our educational institutions is that we will teach what — I, I use a phrase in my books — “radical openness.” Radical openness allows for the fact that you and I might totally disagree about some things, but there may be other things that we have a resonance and a harmony about, and when we compartmentalize each other in such a way that — you know, it’s like when someone says, “Oh, he’s really sexist.” Or, you know, then, it’s like the shutting down of the idea that the person might be really sexist but have some other thought, idea, that might be useful to hear. How do we hold those differing senses of who we are? And, you know, I — that’s one of the reasons I like writing about love, because when people love people, they never think they’re gonna just think the same. They never — you know, I say to — people will say to me, “Well, you know, when we try to get our group together to talk about race, there’s going to be conflict.” And I said, “Well, have you ever had a love relationship with someone where there’s no conflict?” Why do we expect that we’re going to get together and talk about race and racism and not have, perhaps, anger, conflict, you know, when we don’t expect that in the deepest areas of our lives, our intimate lives? We recognize conflict will be a part of trying to have a relationship with somebody who is not you, and we don’t recognize that when it comes to difficult issues, and often, that’s where we start censoring and shutting down.
Paulson: You know, I’ve — I thought I’d read a great deal about bell hooks. The phrase “I like guns” never came up in any of those interviews. Where is that from? How do you have an appreciation of guns?
hooks: Well, just because I think of growing up in rural areas, you know, where — I mean, I do think that when we talk about gun violence that we do have to look at areas of our nation where people have always had guns but use them wisely, courteously, and not where just the fact of having a gun meant that you will be violent. And so it’s — I like the artistry of guns, and all of that I learned as a child, you know, starting with having a B.B. gun and those kind of things, but, you know, as I — when I was introduced to guns, I was also introduced to the reality of guns and how you should deal with them, and, and — so that you don’t endanger yourself or others.
Paulson: You know, you’re a tough social critic, and one of the — one of the observations that, that struck me was your sense that a majority — I don’t want to misquote you — a majority of white Americans believe themselves to be superior.
hooks: Oh, absolutely, but I think the worst part of that is that there are lots of black people who believe ourselves to be inferior. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff that I’m talking about in this black people and self-esteem book, that — which is called Soul to Soul — but I think that that’s how deep white supremacy is in our nation that — and often — you know, you know this, Ken — that often white people will meet a black person who completely challenges every racial stereotype that they’ve ever had. Rather than giving up the stereotype, they create a special category for that person and say, “Well, you’re, you’re not like other black people are,” instead of saying, “My ideas of black people were too narrow or too — ” and, and I think that’s the tragedy of any kind of prejudicial thinking, that when we confront any — the circumstance that tells us it’s not so, we frequently don’t enlarge our sense of things. We, we actually come up with new ways to protect and defend that way of thinking.
Paulson: Is language part of the problem? You use the word “white supremacy,” and I know there was an incident in which you were on a panel with two black men who sort of mocked you for using that phrase.
hooks: And I find it’s such a helpful phrase because I, I — what I like about white supremacy is I think it does encompass black self-hate. You know, it encompasses — how, how do you talk — how do you call a little kid who’s dark-skinned who’s, you know, washing themselves with bleach? You can’t say, “This kid is a racist,” in the classical sense of prejudicial views against people of color or black people, and yet, somewhere, that child has learned that there is something wrong about themselves, and they should correct it. And to me, white supremacy is a useful term because it, it encompasses the fact that we can have a five-year-old who’s looked at enough television in our nation to, to, to have an understanding that white is better.
Paulson: I have one final question for you, probably an unfairly broad question. You’ve written for years about the challenges we face as a society in terms of gender and race and class. In that period, have you seen encouraging signs?
hooks: Well, I think that the fact that a bell hooks can have the incredible readership I have tells us — I, I want to tell — say to you, Ken, I think people are hungry for dissent. I think people are hungry for provocative voices that go to the heart of the matter, because people want to have answers to the things that they are in crisis about. So, I, I mean, there’s an irony that on one hand, we have a mass media, and a publishing industry particularly, that tells us, “Keep it mellow. Don’t say anything.” But what I find is, people are really hungry for truth. And, and that hunger — as I said in my book Yearning, I think it’s something that unites us cross class, race, sexual preference and practice, religion, and I, and I see the hope. The hope that I feel within my own self and with other people is, is that hunger for truth and for ways to live our lives more fully, in a manner that’s more fulfilling. And it’s that hunger that keeps a place for the dissenting voice, that keeps the place for “Speaking Freely,” ’cause that is both an endangered space and a space, on the other hand, where we have more people than ever before who are hungering to hear that dissenting voice. And I, I think that that’s the paradox, that on one hand, there were moments in our recent history as a nation where I felt truly frightened. You know, for the first time in my life, my mother called me and said, “You must be really careful, what you say when you get up on stages, because you, you know, could be assassinated.” And I think that certainly, if nothing else, the September 11th events around the World Trade Center brought into focus that we are a nation where many people are afraid of free speech and want to silence people, and if we cannot acknowledge that that will to silence is growing — that’s what King meant when he talked about standing in the shadows of fascism. So, on one hand, I experienced for the first time ever as a citizen of this nation feeling that I had — I was taking grave risk in standing before audiences and saying the things that I believed, and at the same time, you know, I had audiences that were eager to hear, “Well, what do you think about this?” Audiences of people who may or may not have agreed with me. So that’s the paradox that we live within, a, a society that is full of promise and possibility and a society that, on the other hand, will close things down if people feel they need to, to protect the lifestyles or the belief systems that they think are the only important belief systems. And that’s, that’s the difficulty. But I’m one who believes in the outrageous pursuit of hope.
Paulson: Your entire career has been about free speech, and we thank you for joining us today on “Speaking Freely.” bell hooks.
hooks: And I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak freely.
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