Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Who Is THE Black Feminist? A Personal Reflection on bell hooks and Beyoncé

When I first heard about bell hooks calling Beyoncé a terrorist, I was confused.

I was knee deep in writing one of the seemingly million papers I had due during finals week (I think it's true that the last semester of college is the worst semester of college). I was only marginally using social media and in a very disengaged sort of way so I totally missed everything. And all I could say is: What? What are you talking about? I thought there was a mis-quote or a typo or something. But that was actually what was said.

I didn't want to weigh in on anything until I watched the two hour video discussion myself. I don't like to make judgments based on secondary sources. But I didn't make time to watch the video until yesterday. However, I did read many, many think pieces about the discussion. And I mean MANY.

I just have so many complex feelings about this situation that I HAD to write about it.

Yesterday, after I finally completed the video I had an absolute reflexive reaction which was very different from many of the think pieces I've read. My immediate thought was: Why is everybody getting on bell hooks? What she said wasn't even that bad. In fact, it was pretty accurate except for the poor word choice of "terrorist." 

But now I am taking a step back... maybe half a step back and one around kinda in a circle.

I still don't think that bell hooks' general argument was wrong. It is true that there are aspects of Beyoncé's image that can be said to collude with white patriarchy. It is true that she has created content that can be called anti-feminist. What is perhaps unfair is highlighting Beyoncé and not the music industry or the media in general. Or focusing on one individual Black woman instead of the many non-Black women who do the exact same thing and maybe to an even greater degree. But nevertheless, hooks wasn't wrong although "terrorist" was definitely not the word to use. 

For me, there is NO getting around the fact that I'm a bell hooks stan. Absolutely NO getting around it. That's just me being honest with where I am and my position. I'd argue that there's quite a few Beyoncé stans who have taken to writing about this without acknowledging their ideological position. 

A common fallacy I've read is that this is a generational fight. It is the "old Black feminists" versus the young ones. The internet savvy versus the non-internet savvy. But I find myself being more sympathetic to the so-called "old Black feminists" than many of the new ones on this particular issue. 

But again, that's because I've never been a Beyoncé stan (although I did really appreciate ***Flawless and her new album in general). I have been a bell hooks stan and a self-identified Black feminist since I was 17 years old.

I am a pretty voracious reader and yet there's only 3 books that I can say have changed my life: (1) The Holy Bible, (2) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and (3) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks.

Maybe it was timing. At 17 years old, I was in the position to be introduced to Black feminism. I was a freshman in college. My racial consciousness was mature and so the next step was gender consciousness.

Although I ended up becoming a Gender Studies minor, I was not one at that point. I knew a little something about white feminism which had 100% turned me off feminism entirely and I had no inkling of who bell hooks was. I didn't even know Black feminism was a thing. I thought Black women only cared about race.

But I found and read Ain't I a Woman, bell hooks' first published book. And my life perspective forever changed. I felt like I had been given the tools to fully understand my own identities and existence. I had the tools to articulate the upset and fear I felt due to sexist oppression. I had the knowledge to better navigate my own reality.

And I think all of this (the self-empowerment and revolution) can be found in an entertainer. In fact, my words about bell hooks' importance in my life mirror what Janet Mock said about Destiny's Child and Beyoncé after bell hooks challenged Bey's Time Magazine cover.

Fast forward to February of this year: my friend and I decided to co-facilitate a workshop for (predominantly Black) high school girls about healthy self-esteem. What did we use? Beyoncé: The Visual Album.

Our rationale was that Bey would make it easier for us to connect with our audience. Bey would be exciting and familiar to the girls. And we were correct! We used "Flawless," "Pretty Hurts," and "Grown Woman" to highlight different aspects of girls' self esteem.

And here's the real funny part to me now... we handed out a chapter from Feminism is For Everybody (by bell hooks) at the end. We gave the girls the chapter called "Sisterhood is Still Powerful." I thought it was a good and short introduction to Black feminism through talking about the importance of political and social solidarity among women.

So clearly, my friend and I made Beyoncé and bell hooks coexist that day for a workshop geared towards self esteem for young Black girls.

But yesterday, when I watched that video conversation I felt like I had to choose. I felt like it was now bell hooks versus Beyoncé. And with that mindset I was prepared to choose bell hooks just as others have chosen Beyoncé. 

My first reaction is not always the best reaction. And now that I've done some more thinking and I've spoken to other Black feminists I realize that it's not a battle. The contenders aren't bell hooks and Beyoncé and one person has to knock out the other. It's not an either or situation. 

I think while bell hooks herself may have framed it as an either or situation (you either support Beyoncé/anti-feminism or you're a Black feminist/ bell hooks supporter) the reality is that it's not and never has been this false dichotomy. It's not that simple.

We can talk about anti-feminism manifesting itself in negative visual images. That's a real issue and the main point of what bell hooks was discussing. However, what troubled me and gave me a muddle of emotions is the equivalency that if you defend A then you are anti-feminist. If you defend B then you're a feminist. I'm so into bell hooks that I said "okay" well I'm gonna side with you and pretend like I wasn't bopping to "Partition" under 24 hours ago.

The actual content of bell's argument aside... this is a posturing that makes me uncomfortable. And not only bell hooks is guilty of it. So are some uncritical Beyoncé supporters: you must love Beyoncé and recognize her as a revolutionary Black feminist figure or you are anti-Black feminist. 

It is imposing a hierarchy. Either academia is going to win or pop culture. But in the end Black feminism itself, as a revolutionary vehicle for Black women's revolution, loses.

I have to be careful because I'm on the academia track. And so I'm somewhat disposed to put academia on a pedestal when it comes to Black feminist theory. I wrote about this earlier in my article "Black Feminism and Everyday Living."

But I know that's not what Black feminism is all about.

Within Black feminism there is room for a multiplicity of Black women's voices. There's room for the tenured professors. There's room for the undergrads just beginning to learn feminist theory. There's room for those who have never been to college but care a whole lot about gender equity. There's room for the internet users and the folks who get confused by the internet. There's room for the bloggers and the published authors and the musicians and the actors and the sex workers and the casual social media users. That's Black feminism.

And for a second I forgot that. And maybe bell hooks did too.

I think the debate about whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist is vacuous and tired. And at the end of the day it's not the important question to be asking. And so I don't offer any insight into that portion of the discussion.

What interests me is how we decide who is an authority on Black feminism and how certain standpoints are validated or invalidated. 

bell hooks has written more books than I've had the chance to read (I've probably read about 11 so far) but even I have to admit that her presence and her prolific nature doesn't make her infallible. And that I have to ask myself why my first reaction was to invalidate everybody who disagreed with bell hooks. And I think a similar self-analysis is warranted of those who can't tolerate any critique of Beyoncé or the image she projects and maintains. 

As I continue to mature in my Black feminist journey I have to become more critical of how I decide who is worthy to be listened to and what perspective is valid. 

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  1. Beyonce hasn’t identified as a feminist for very long. She’s a “baby” feminist. Bell hooks could have had a positive influence on Bey if she hadn’t thrown words like knives at her. I would expect an older feminist like bell, that writes so much about love, to offer someone like Bey advice and criticism that do not alienate or wound. I didn’t hear “love” in bell’s words. Bell’s words felt like a continuation of the ugly slander sprayed over the heads of black women/girls every day; b$tch, hoe, jump off, etc. Criticism laced with love and compassion doesn’t cause this much confusion, hurt, and division among feminists. I will always love bell’s writing but her harsh comments about Bey showed a serious lack of wisdom and were divisive. I'm not a Bey stan. We should save words like "terrorist" for Boko Haram in Nigeria.

    1. I really agree with your comment! In fact, I'm currently reading "Salvation: Black People and Love" and she talks all through the book about the importance of love... Black self-love, Black people loving each other, Black women loving each other (she cites Audre Lorde... Eye to Eye)... and the way she spoke about Bey just seemed to contradict what she's written about being empathetic and kind. In "Sisters of the Yam" (one of my fav hooks books) she talks about the difference between speaking the truth vs. being caustic and rude. And yet, she seemed to blur that line during The New School talk. And it's not even that I disagree with what she said... it's more than she shouldn't have said in the way that she said it. As if Bey is not a person but just a corporation or an image. And yes, she's rich and famous and will not be materially harmed by hooks' words but I think we should perhaps have higher standards for how we speak to and about Black women as Black feminists.

      But nobody is perfect. And for me... it's realizing that indeed nobody (including bell hooks) is perfect. And that there's always room for criticism... but hopefully in love.

    2. bell's own previous writings can be used to construct and argument against her rhetoric. I know for me bell's words stung. There were other black feminists that were very hurt by her words because they contradict her writings. The words "terrorist" and "anti-femininst" did not resonate in my body (here I go sounding all new agey) as words rooted in love.
      White rad fems have really gone after Bey. She has been accused of promoting child sex trafficking, teen pregnancy and now terrorism. The rhetoric is really flying. Too many people are using Bey's body and image as the terrain on which to work out their own anxieties and concerns. People feel entitled to project so much onto our bodies. Emancipation did not end the entitlement that everyone feels to use the black female body.
      Thankfully, I had already started reading the work of womanist theologian and ethicists Emilie M. Townes before bell decided to sling words like hot glass shards. I wasn't as "dependent" on bell's work as I once was.There are no pedestals in womanism.