BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bell Hooks, what's the name "Killing Rage" about?
BELL HOOKS, AUTHOR, "KILLING RAGE:" "Killing Rage" really came out of this experience I was having. I've always seen myself as a very non violent person. I was on an airplane with a friend - we were both in first class and we both had seats. And then a white man wanted to come on another stop and wanted a seat and had the right boarding pass, which my friend didn't have. And we ended up in this enormous misunderstanding that became quickly very racialized. And in the midst of it, after it all happened, my friend had been very humiliated in front of everyone and sent to coach and what have you. And he sat down on her belongings and he said to me, `You know, I'm sorry. It wasn't my fault.' And I felt such a sense of rage and powerlessness, but I really felt like I could murder him and I was so stunned. It was as if all the pain of racism and white supremacy had just descended on me in that moment. And I was struck by just how rage can also empower you. I felt very empowered and began to write the lead essay in the book. And one of the things I keep saying in the book is that rage is healthy. None of us imagine that we can have a love relationship where we're never angry. The question becomes: What do you do with your anger? How do you utilize it?
LAMB: Which book is this? What numbered book for you?
HOOKS: This is my 11th book.
LAMB: And what's special about this one?
HOOKS: "Killing Rage: Ending Racism" what's special about it is that it really has the profound belief at the core of it; that it isn't that difficult to end racism, that we can divest of white supremacy. And in this particular time in our history, I mean, let's remember that I wrote this book way before the O.J. Simpson case, the Million Man March, so it's not trying to capitalize on those events. And way before those events, like Andrew Hacker and other writers, I was trying to say: This country is still seething with racial tension. White supremacy is widespread. We've got polls telling us that many white people believe black people are genetically inferior, etc., etc. And I thought this is a time of crisis that we, as a nation, need to be facing. And, of course, as an individual, you can't force a collectivity to face it in the way that recent events have forced the issue of race and racism back onto the national agenda.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
HOOKS: I live in New York City. I live in The Village.
LAMB: What do you do?
HOOKS: I'm a professor at City College. I'm a distinguished professor of English. I teach at 137th Street in Harlem. And I came there from being an assistant professor at Yale and then a professor at Oberlin College. So I've really switched gears from being at predominantly white, privileged class institutions to being at a public institution that is, you know, 90- some percent non white. Many of our students are immigrants or the children of immigrants. So it's a wonderful new teaching experience.
LAMB: What's the difference in getting up in New Haven and going into your classroom at Yale and getting up in New York in The Village and going to your classroom on 137th Street?
HOOKS: Well, I am not a subway taker, so a big difference for me is riding that subway. I was saying that part of something that's still magical about a city like New York is that people do meet cross race and class; that, you know, somebody who might be quite rich who's taking the subway may sit down next to a homeless person or vice versa. And so there is that sense of there being locations in New York where people mingle whether they want to or not with diverse groups of people, with people from all classes. So many of our cities are car driven places so you don't see people who are different from you. I mean, one of the things that I've been thinking a lot about is so many Americans really don't realize that most of us live in racial apartheid; that we live with people that are just like ourselves and that, in fact, there isn't the kind of social mingling of the races that we often see in television and mass media.
LAMB: Go back to that question when you go into a classroom in New Haven, was it mostly white?
HOOKS: Absolutely. Predominantly white.
LAMB: Now what does it feel like, as an African American, standing in front of an all white class and a mostly mixed, racial, non white class?
HOOKS: Well, one of the things that I keep saying in the book, particularly in the beloved community, is I have always been deeply moved by all of the activists around racism who have centered on love as the antidote to fear. So whenever I'm in a situation of difference, I feel like I try to call on that will to love as something to invite people to enter the space of difference and not feel afraid; feel that something magical can happen. So the years that I taught at Yale were incredibly magical teaching years for me. Part of the hope I feel about ending racism is I see many of the students I taught there, many of whom are from privileged classes, really most of whom, be they black, white, you know, Asian, what have you, now choosing to take the kind of jobs that allow them to work at ending domination and ending racism. And it's exciting it was exciting to be in that classroom. It's totally different to be in a classroom where many of my students are mothers. A couple of my students are older than I am. I'm 43 years old, and it's awesome. It's an awesome teaching challenge for me after being at institutions where, you know, your students don't have reading and writing problems. They don't usually have a first language that's not English. And it's just a different experience, but I find the caring for students and wanting them to be self actualized in their lives makes both of those experiences similar in some ways.
LAMB: You say in your book that most black writers write for white audiences.
HOOKS: Well, I think that we live in a culture that is not full of literacy. I think that one of the great myths of our culture is that everybody can read and write and that, in fact, when it comes to selling books and writing books, I mean, most people have a sense of an audience out there that is a book buying audience. And even though we've proven in the last few years that black people constitute a big book buying audience, simply by shared numbers, we can never be the book buying audience that white consumers constitute. And I think as more people know that, it's easier to pitch a book towards a white audience in your thinking and how you write and the language that you use.
LAMB: If you were to come across somebody reading your book, propped up somewhere, sitting there, what kind of a person did you envision when you sat and wrote these essays? What kind of person do you want to read this book?
HOOKS: Well, I think that I was always fond of that commercial that said VD is for everybody. I wrote this book for everybody. What I think is odd about it is that a lot of the essays are very different, and there are some repetitions in them because, in fact, different essays might engage different people. I used four essays in the book that had been published elsewhere, and they were the essays that I had gotten the most mail back from white people, black people, other people of color, saying, `Oh, I didn't understand. 'For example, you notice in the book that I use the term white supremacy. I prefer that term to racism because it implies that all of us, no matter our color, can hold white supremacist attitudes. And for people who don't understand that, I try to explain white supremacist attitudes can be just the belief all black people are lazy. I mean, there are a lot of black people out there saying, `Well, black people are lazy. 'So the notions of inferior superior thinking around race isn't just something white people hold. All of us are socialized into white supremacist attitudes. And so when I wrote this book, I was thinking about all of us as being accountable for racism and white supremacy, not simply white people, not simply black people, but all of us who live in this nation and who are socialized into certain belief systems around race.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
HOOKS: I grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where I just was last week. It was fabulous to be home with my parents. I had a book signing there, and so in keeping with the kind of community I grew up in, I saw my grade school teachers, those that haven't died and passed away, and my high schoolteachers. And it was exciting because I grew up at an enormous time of turmoil in the '50s, where we were so racially segregated. I mean, we had the real hard core South African apartheid, and I think that many people who don't live in the South forget that that history is still so recent. And I could sit there at this book signing with my high school white drama teacher, whom I fondly remember as one of the few white teachers that didn't look upon us as genetically inferior, who was caring towards us and who was very concerned with ending racial injustice. I mean, I remember those years, and this is another thing that's a source of my tremendous hope about ending racism. I think those of us who really lived in apartheid know how far we've come as a nation. We know that things have changed, and we also know what hasn't changed. So partially I wanted to evoke some of that in this book. I mean, I haven't given up on white people and their capacity to divest of racism and white supremacy because I lived in that world where to have a white friend come to your house or invite you to theirs, people were really risking their lives. They were risking their jobs on both sides. So I saw the kind of courage people can have in the interest of ending racism. And that courage has sustained my belief and my hope, despite the fact that I think, as a nation, we have become very despairing and very cynical.
LAMB: What do your parents do?
HOOKS: My mother worked often as a maid when her children were older, but for the most part, she stayed home. My father was a janitor at the post office, and he's retired. They're both over 60 and enjoying being at home and puttering around.
LAMB: How many kids in the family?
HOOKS: I have six sisters well, no, five sisters. I'm the sixth girl, and one brother. I'm the middle child.
LAMB: What do they think of what you're doing?
HOOKS: Well, I've been a lucky person because I think, like many homes in America, that I would identify my home as dysfunctional in some ways, and I now think of myself as a gifted child in a family that often didn't understand that. But I've always had the support of my parents to be a reader and a thinker. It's interesting because it was something that was not mentioned the Million Man March, for example. The role of education in racial uplift. I mean, I grew up in that grand era of civil rights where people really emphasized if you want to fight for freedom, you're going to have to learn how to read and write. I mean, I was saying to somebody that one of the things that disturbed me about the march was all this notion of men being responsible and having jobs. But, first, what if there are no jobs out there, and what if you don't read or write? I mean, there are some hard core issues that we have to face, that we can't talk about, you know, resisting certain politics of domination if people don't have basic skills. I'm where I am today because of reading and writing and learning how to think critically, and that positive affirmation was given to me by my family, my church. I was just home and talking about the meaning of my church in the sense that I went to the kind of black church that really focused on education. If you had a particular gift the church really encouraged you to use it and develop it. So that church was very central to my sense of myself as a thinker and my sense of entitlement to be a thinker and to feel that we're all called to a purpose in this world and that we have to figure out what that purpose is and do it. And so those combinations of factors, but really the focus on reading and writing. I'm very keen with my students on really encouraging them to see reading as a place of change and cultural transformation.
LAMB: You say in your book that your grandmother used to be critical. I mean, I'm not sure what the language is you can explain it of dark black people. What was that all about?
HOOKS: Well, one of the things that many white people in our society seems to be becoming aware of is that black people have always had color castes in their society, where the lighter you were, the more valued you were. And my grandmother, who was very light, who could pass for white even, who lived in a white neighborhood I mean, think about the fact that, on one hand, we lived in this very racially divided world, but occasionally there was the rare black person, usually one who looked white, that lived in an all white community. And my grandmother was one of those people who had always worked for whites and who had acquired this land, who had purchased it from white people she had worked for and lived there for a great many years. And in our domestic arrangements, we all learned that the darker you were, the more you would be devalued not just by white people but by black people as a whole. I mean, I think that partially again, if we think about white supremacy as something that teaches us that dark is bad and the light is good, it's not surprising that a lot of black people feel darker skinned black people are not as good. And I think darker skinned black people suffer racism in a particularly unique way different from that of other black people because there's such a great fear of the darker skinned black person. Often, when we turn on TV, the criminal is someone who's darker skinned. The whole notion of a major magazine darkening O.J. Simpson's face; I mean, the whole idea of the dark as a sight of danger and threat. And black people have absorbed that kind of thinking in our society as well as white people.
LAMB: Well, what's the skin color of your other five sisters?
HOOKS: We are totally diverse in skin color, and I think that it's partially seeing the difference in how my darker skinned sisters were treated in the world as opposed to how I was treated as someone who was lighter and who had straighter hair all of those things. I mean, every black person who's lived in a traditional black community understands that these forms of white supremacy, what we often call internalized racism, are part of our lives, and that we haven't ended those things in our own communities. So that's why I keep coming back to the fact that racism and white supremacy is something we're all accountable to ending right now, not just white people or not just black people, but all of us.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to your sisters about this?
HOOKS: Absolutely. I mean, we talk about it all the time, especially my sister Gwenda, who's now raising children girls that are darker skinned. You know, people used to say dark children were evil or the darker you were, the more demonic you were. And when she began to raise very bright, beautiful, darker skinned girls, she could see how the culture lays on them a particular burden. Or a few weeks ago I was with a five year old girl, incredibly gorgeous darker skinned girl, and she was telling me that she could not be the princess. And I kept saying, `Well, what do you mean you can't be the princess?' And she explained to me that the princess would have to be someone who was light. And I just thought this was so sad. I mean, the message that kids get through who gets to be on the kids' show or in the kid book is that the lighter you are, the better you are; the darker you are, the badder you are.
LAMB: Well, when did you leave Hopkinsville?
HOOKS: I left Hopkinsville when I was 17 to go to Stanford University where I went as an undergraduate.
LAMB: And why did you choose Stanford?
HOOKS: I chose Stanford because a woman teacher had gone there –a white woman teacher and felt that I should go to a place that was more open and more intellectual and that would widen my horizons which, of course, it did.
LAMB: When did you know that you had a writing talent?
HOOKS: Well, again, this goes back to my church. My church used to encourage us to write, and I started to write.
LAMB: By the way, what denomination are you?
HOOKS: Southern black Baptist. And I used to write and I used to say to my parents, `You know, I'm going to write when I grow up.' And, in fact, I just was reading an essay at this conference in Kentucky where I said that my mother has said she'd written poems when she was little. I started off writing poetry and knew that I wanted to be a writer. And I've been thinking lately a lot, especially when I teach students, that there seems to be a fundamental difference between somebody who knows what they want to do early in life. I mean, my whole life has been directed towards this goal. I remember 12 years old, you know, saying, `I'm going to be a writer,' and writing my little things and reading them to my sisters and brothers. I now see in life that there is such a difference between people who know what they feel called to do and people who feel like they're still searching. It amazing to me when I think about self development and self esteem, how different it is. I feel incredibly blessed in my life, and part of that blessing is fulfilling the dreams that I had around being a writer.
LAMB: You know, on the cover of the book here is your name, and wherever you see your name, it's small `B,' small `H.' Is that the way you write it?
HOOKS: Well, the name Bell Hooks is a pseudonym. It's my great grandmother's name, and I came to my writing through feminist movement. And at that time, we were very concerned to critique the idea of stardom, and the idea was that it was more important what was being said than who said it. And many of us chose, in the early '70s, to use pseudonyms to write because we were trying to get away from the focus on the personality and the ego. Because I was involved with Eastern religion and Buddhism and other things, I was also trying to get away from that ego attachment that we have to a name. So the use of the small letters was a way to sort of say, first, it's not really me because I'm not just the book that I've written. I'm a holistic self. Also, it really does work to make people think about a name. What makes a name important? Those small letters that are kind of equal, that don't have that kind of hierarchical look, has an effect on people.
LAMB: What was your original name?
HOOKS: My original name that I still use in daily life is Gloria Watkins.
LAMB: So if I wanted to find you out there in the world, I'd look for Gloria Watkins.
HOOKS: This is true.
LAMB: Does that cause a problem when you're trying to become known?
HOOKS: Well, it's so funny because I guess one of my early figures that affected me was Emily Dickinson. I love her poems, and I often think of her as my Emily D. I think that I thought my writing life would be like hers, that I'd be always reclusive somewhere writing. And, you know, it's sort of like the idea was you'd send these books away, and someone would accept them and they'd publish them. You know, we've become so much more sophisticated now around having authors go out and come on television, and all of those things were not a part of how I imagined a writer's life when I was choosing this name when I was 17 years old, so that has been interesting. It's interesting because just in terms of racism or sexism, often people develop an idea of you based on a name, or people will tell me that reading my books and the name, they have this idea that they're going to meet this like harsh or, you know, powerful kind of person. And then a lot of times people meet me, as one reporter from The New York Times said two days ago, he was shocked to find that I was so playful having read my books. I think there are so many ways in our culture that we develop a stereotyped image of someone, and we hold to that image, even though we have no basis for it. I think that takes us right back to assumptions we make about people based on skin color or sex or how they're dressed. We're just a culture obsessed with judgments, and I think that's been part of the difficulty of ending racism.
LAMB: You went to Stanford. How long were you there?
HOOKS: I finished my BA there.
LAMB: In what?
HOOKS: In English. And I went on to the University of California where I got my PhD.
LAMB: At Berkeley? Ms.
HOOKS: University of California Santa Cruz. I wrote my dissertation on Toni Morrison long before the world was celebrating her as the incredible writer she is. And that was really wonderful to be able to do that.
LAMB: From there?
HOOKS: From there, I went to my first full time job, which was being an assistant professor at Yale in English and African American studies.
LAMB: What was your first book about?
HOOKS: My first book was "Ain't I A Woman? Black Women & Feminism. "I mean, from early on, I think two movements have shaped my thinking: the movement for black self determination and the movement for gender justice, feminist movement, women's liberation whatever you choose to call it. But those two yearnings have informed my vision and my work.
LAMB: As I read your book, I underlined long sentences.
HOOKS: Yes, I'm known for writing long sentences.
LAMB: Well, I want to read them, and I want you to tell me what they mean or expand on it. Here's one. First of all, this essay is "Moving From Pain To Power." What's the title all about?
HOOKS: I was thinking a lot about the danger of any of us assuming a victim identity, and I was also thinking about the psychological wounding of racism and that people really cannot begin to work for justice for others if they are personally wounded. I think we've seen so many movements certainly the black power movement of the'60s undermined by the egos of individuals, by the dysfunctionalities that individuals haven't dealt with. So "Moving From Pain To Power" is an essay where I'm trying to suggest that black people have to deal with those psychological wounds if we are to go forward in healing ourselves so that we are not continually internalizing racism.
LAMB: Let me read this. `Revolutionary black liberation's struggle in the United States was undermined by outmoded patriarchal emphasis on nationhood and masculine rule. The absence of a strategy for coalition building that would keep a place for non black allies in struggle, and the lack of sustained programs for education for critical consciousness that would continually engage black folks of all classes in a process of radical politicization.' What's that mean?
HOOKS: Well, you know, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, Malcolm X said that you cannot legislate goodwill. I think that one of the things that happened with civil rights is that a lot of people felt, `We've made it, we've legislated an end to racism.' And so people thought, `You can stop,' in the same way that a lot of people think sexism is now over; we can stop. What happens is people stop doing the work of change, and they stop trying to change people's attitudes. So I was saying in that particular piece that once you stop the work, attitudes begin to fall back into place in the old ways, and that's kind of why we are, as a nation, still trying to solve a problem that was so evident to us 20, 30 years ago.
LAMB: Go back to that plane ride. What year?
HOOKS: Well, that plane ride was just What? 12 months ago.
LAMB: And what did you say to the man? Did he sit next to you then?
HOOKS: You know, he sat next to me, and I was feeling that explosive rage. It turned into overwhelming grief, and I just began to weep.
LAMB: With him sitting there.
HOOKS: With him sitting there. No one said a word to me. Everyone in first class was white. All the stewardesses were white. They completely treated me as though I was invisible. No one acknowledged my grief.
LAMB: Did they know what was wrong?
HOOKS: Oh, I think everyone knew what was wrong because afterwards I didn't put this in the book, but afterwards the friend was actually a lawyer. And afterwards we met with people from the airlines, and several of the stewardesses admitted that there had been a racial bias in forming the way things were done. So there was a lot of comfort. This I say, too: the white people who dare to courageously name racism when they see it create a healthier space for all of us to live in because just having one white person say, `This really was racialized. This is not something that these two women have made up in their minds.' But, actually, I felt overwhelming grief, and I was thinking last Sunday, I was flying back from Kentucky. And there was a white woman sitting, weeping, next to me. I kept thinking about racial boundaries and all the ways that we don't reach out. And, you know, I turned to her and I said, `What's going wrong for you right now?' And she said, `Oh, I'm just on standby, but I really need to get on this plane.' And I said, `Well, I think we can figure it out. I think there's always a way to do things, so why don't we pause for a minute and work together?' And it struck me and she was so sweet in receiving that offer because I think that we're made to feel right now as a culture that anybody who's different from you is a potential enemy, a potential threat. I think there's a rise in xenophobia you know, fear of difference that is leading people to not even be able to offer the sort of basic kindness to each other that is so necessary for any kind of domination to end.
LAMB: Go back to that plane ride again. Did you sit next to this man for the whole trip?
HOOKS: I did.
LAMB: How long was it?
HOOKS: I wept for most of the trip. It was about an hour and a half. I wept and I wrote. I wrote that essay. I wrote the entire essay.
LAMB: Right on the plane.
HOOKS: ...on the plane.
LAMB: Did you ever have a conversation with him?
LAMB: Did he have any idea what was wrong?
HOOKS: Oh, yes, because he could see what I was writing. I wrote that `killing rage' in big letters.
LAMB: How old was he?
HOOKS: He was between the age of 30 and 40. And that's what also made it sad. I think if he'd been an elderly white man, I would have felt like, `OK, maybe he's from an old world,' but he seemed to be your classic white liberal.
LAMB: Did he have a tie and a white shirt on?
HOOKS: Yes, he definitely was in a suit with his tie.
LAMB: What did he say? Do you remember the language he used?
HOOKS: He didn't say anything.
LAMB: I mean, before.
HOOKS: Before, he didn't say anything. That was the interesting thing. He simply went up and was negotiating with the stewardesses, and they were the heavies. He said nothing, which is why I think he saw himself and this goes back to the dilemma of ending racism he saw himself as not accountable because he didn't make any gestures. What they did that was so bad, I thought, was they called her to the front of the plane. It was crowded. Everybody was looking. And they began to accuse her of lying.
LAMB: Lying about what?
HOOKS: About the seat, that she'd never had a boarding pass, and the fact that people couldn't see that there had been a misunderstanding, that it quickly went to, you know, `you're lying,' the idea of black people as dishonest, which has been so fundamental to racism in our society; the notion that black women particularly as these scammers, whether we're talking about welfare mothers. I mean, there's just an image in our culture often of black women as liars, whether we're talking about Anita Hill all of these kind of sexist, racist stereotypes, and they were all in play at that moment.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the reverse. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were absolutely sure it was racism and it turned out not to be anything close to that?
HOOKS: Well, I don't think so, but I have moments when I make assumptions about people based on skin color. I love to tell this story that I was in the hospital in New York, which was my big fear in moving to New York from the small town of Oberlin you know, from 8,000 people to a big city was, `What if I get sick and I actually had to go to an emergency room?’ I had an ER room doctor blond, blue eyed guy who was just a wonderful doctor. You know I'd made certain assumptions about him around class privilege, and as I was leaving the hospital, I said to him, `By the way, I write these books under another name. You should read them,' implication being, `Your type of guy doesn't read these books.' And I said, `But I write them under another name, Bell Hooks.' He said, `Small B, small H,' and right there that was one of those moments where you see that you make certain assumptions about a person based on race, based on gender, that may have nothing to do with who that person genuinely is. And it's moments like these that I check my own embedded racial assumptions or what have you. I tell my students all the time that, you know, part of the frustration of race is that we often fixate on it in ways that don't allow us to look at each other holistically so that part of ending racism is to check that kind of, you know, pre-judgment thinking at the door, which most of us are not doing right now.
LAMB: You have a chapter called Black Intellectuals. Who are your favorites?
HOOKS: Well, of course, one of my most favorite black intellectuals is Cornel West, and it's exciting to me right now because Cornel and I really don't have the same opinion on the march. I can't wait to have lengthy discussions with him to talk about his views and mine. He's one of my favorite black intellectuals. Patricia Williams, a law professor at Columbia. I could name lots of people whose work excites me DerrickBell. I think that I hate to sort of name people because there are so many people you leave out.
LAMB: What do you think the difference is for a black intellectual and a white intellectual in our society?
HOOKS: I don't believe that there is a difference between the choice to be an intellectual, and I make a distinction between an intellectual and an academic. A lot of academic people write because they have to for their jobs. They're not necessarily passionate about thinking and contemplation. I think one of the differences is that black people are clearly suffering in this culture collectively. So, there is a responsibility and a sense of accountability that particularly black intellectuals who are progressive, who are on the left, feel that I think white intellectuals don't. The ones I know don't tend to feel that they have to address a sort of mass white world or a collective white community by their work, where I feel that my work is very much aimed at racial uplift, at opening and widening the spaces for black self determination.
LAMB: What kind of an environment do you write in physical?
HOOKS: Physical environment I like to write in really tiny, enclosed spaces, and I don't know why this is. I like them to have a window, but I like them to be very small. I just bought an apartment in New York, and I have the teeniest little work space. It makes me laugh every time I enter it because it's so small.
LAMB: And how do you write? On longhand or...
HOOKS: I hand write everything, and then I put it on computer. I think, for me, there's something about handwriting still that slows down the idea process in a way that when you're working at the computer, I find you can just zoom ahead, and you don't have those moments of pause. I mean, one thing the physical experience of handwriting is your hand gets tired. There are things that will make you pause in a way. You can stay at the computer forever.
LAMB: What time of day?
HOOKS: I primarily write in the morning. I'm a meditator so I get up to mediate and to have time for quiet, spiritual contemplation. And then I like to begin I like to write with fierce intensity for a few hours, and then I like to play for the rest of the day.
LAMB: And of all 11 books, which one did the best?
HOOKS: Gee, that's hard to say because they've all been doing so well, particularly the last few books, "Teaching To Transgress," which is on teaching my books are very eclectic. They're very different. Like the book on teaching is very different from the feminist theory books. All the feminist theory books are used in classrooms all around the country, so "Ain't I A Woman?" has done the best of those books, I think "Ain't I A Woman? Black Women & Feminism," the first book. And then I wrote a self help book because I love self help books, and so I have this book, "Sisters of the Deeam: Black Women In Self Recovery," and that book has been doing really, really well.
LAMB: Let me read you paragraph in your Black Intellectuals essay. `Unlike insurgent black critical thinker, philosopher Cornel West, who cites his experience as an undergraduate at Harvard as a time when he understood or underwent an intellectual conversion because studying there opened, quote, "a whole new world of ideas," I made my commitment to intellectual life in the segregated black world of my childhood.'
HOOKS: As a person, I think, from a working class background, I have felt and this cuts across race. In our culture, we have such stereotypes about people from working class backgrounds, and I think one of the things that we tend to do is stereotype them as not being thinkers and readers. So, partially, I was trying to offer a broader vision that says you know, I really think that people can empower themselves where they are; that no matter where you are, you can begin the process of change and transformation. It struck me deeply that my parents, who worked so hard, still found the time to struggle to buy books for me and my siblings because we liked to read, and they valued that even though my mother had married very young, as was often the tradition in the South, and had not, you know, gone to high school fully and all of those things. My father had gone to a trade college, but they were very concerned with ideas and with reading and thinking. And I want to say to people, I think there's so much emphasis in our culture right now. And I think this is tied to racism on materiality as the only source of power; that if you have things, you have power; if you're rich, you have power. And I, of course, as an intellectual, as a professor, believe that the mind is a source of power for us and that people, no matter what their circumstance, can utilize the mind in ways that liberate them. So I feel like it was important for me to say that because I don't want people to think that you can only become an intellectual by going to college. A lot of people will not have the opportunity to go to college in our culture, but I feel like if people can read and write and think, there's all kind of possibilities that can open up for them. So that was part of why I was sharing that story, not in any way to diminish Cornel's experience but to say, in the most unlikely of places, you can find a source of empowerment as I did as a kid, being told by black people at my church, by everyone that, you know, `You're going to be somebody some day. We're expecting great things of you.' And it was tied to my obsession and passion for reading and writing. And I just wanted to celebrate that because I also think so much of what mass media focuses on about black culture is about what's happening in the urban environments. And the whole specter of the dangerous black youth is almost always about what's going on with black Americans in urban worlds. Whenever I taught in Holland at the University of Utrecht for a little while. I go to London to work a lot, and I'm constantly saying to people, `You know, you cannot really judge the United States solely by coming to American cities in the North; that there is a whole America out there.' I was joking with my community in Kentucky that, you know, when I went to Stanford, people used to say, `Where are you from?' And I'd say, `Hopkinsville, Kentucky.' And they'd say,`Kentucky where is that?' Kentucky is one of those states that has always had to bear the brunt of mass media presenting it as a kind of backwards place, as a place where nothing's going on. And yet there are so many writers and thinkers that have come out of that region, and I've really been interested both in terms of class and region. I think our culture often still devalues the South and devalues the sense of the diversity in regions as something that produces different kind of thinkers. I think the unusual perspective that I bring to my writing comes out of that Kentucky almost futile culture that I came out of, where your word was your bond, the sort of sense of the Appalachia and the backwoods that many people have. When I was growing up and we evoked the backwoods and Appalachia, we talked about people who were free spirits. So I see myself a kind of Bohemian thinker and that I am today as not a function of, you know, knowing about the bead generation and knowing about what was happening in northern cities but of coming out of a world where there were always these people who felt that they had to create their own values, create their own rules. And I never saw that world mocked while I lived there as much as it was mocked when I left it.
LAMB: How many white people that you come in contact with do you feel are racist? And define what racist means to you.
HOOKS: Well, I think racism is, first of all, an institutionalized system of domination based on skin color that privileges white people. Now the attitudes that allow that system to function in people are attitudes like believing that all black people are inferior intellectually; that black people smell, for example, or differently; that we dance better all of the kind of stereotypes that we're more sexual. A lot of white people who don't hold those thoughts, even though they may want to hang out with us so I think part of our dilemma as a culture is, for so long, we've thought of racism solely as overt discrimination: lynching, separate toilets, and we don't think of it as you can actually be married to a black woman, and if you thought she was somehow more sexual than white women because of her race, you would still be holding a racist attitude, a white supremacist thought, you know.
LAMB: What would be the first tip off have you I mean, this is the first time we've ever met that I had oh, I don't know whether I want to use the word racist, but had looked at you because you're a black woman differently than I would a white woman?
HOOKS: Well, I think most people usually convey looking differently by things they say. I tell the story often of being with a black male friend both of us, you know, thinkers, writers with a white male friend, and we're having a kind of picnic and we're in a park. We were talking something about blackness, and the friend says to us, `You're not black. You're intellectuals.' We were so appalled. We said to him, `Did you hear what you said?' Now this is someone we'd known for years. He obviously wasn't somebody who didn't want to hang out and love black people, and yet somewhere he still had it in his mind that black people aren't really the smart thinkers; you know, that when you start being a smart thinker, you've transcended race or transcended blackness.
LAMB: Let me ask you if maybe you asked him this. Maybe it wasn't a direct correlation, that there's no white or black or yellow or green...
HOOKS: But …
LAMB: ...that you're just an intellectual.
HOOKS: But even that buys into a notion that intellectuals are the superior group of people. The rest of the world, race matters, to use Cornel's phrase, you know. But once we reach that superior place of the mind, we've left race behind. But Western metaphysical dualism, which is all about that mind body split in saying the mind is better than the body, is so much at the core of racial thinking.
LAMB: Wait a minute, go back. I've got to interrupt. What do you mean by Western metaphysical dualism?
HOOKS: I me...
LAMB: What is metaphysical?
HOOKS: Well, metaphysical is of the spirit, so it's the notion that for example, of good and bad, where everything is seen along these polarities of some things are inferior, some things are superior, right, wrong, good, bad. All of those things are part of the dualism that comes to us through the Judeo Christian tradition. And even people who have never gone to church, you know, are socialized to think that everything follows along the line of good, bad, right, wrong. And those are core foundational ideas in white supremacist thinking.
LAMB: On a day to day basis, where do you, more often than not say, `Oh, there's another one. There's another example'? I mean, what do you come up against every day that white people don't?
HOOKS: Well, everyday racism often takes the form, like sexism, of—for example, you're standing in a line. I've gotten there before you. You're standing behind me; maybe two other white people have come up behind you. I'm standing there. No one behind the counter makes eye contact with me, but they turn to you and they say, `Can I help you?'
LAMB: Does that happen very often?
HOOKS: That happens to black people practically everyday, wherever they go. Just as women of all races find often that people will jump over a woman to assist a man, as though she's invisible. I mean, this is how domination works.
LAMB: Give me another example.
HOOKS: Oh, another example of racism has to do with shopping. I mean, shopping is something Americans do, and a lot of us find that the moment we enter a store, no matter what we're doing, we are perceived as the potential criminal element treated differently, treated harshly.
LAMB: How do you know that?
HOOKS: Well, you know it because people come rushing up to you—one. You know it because you know when you shop with a white friend you're treated totally differently. People don't rush up to you to try to see what you want, to make contact, to let you know they're watching you in the same way that they do when you're by yourself. Black men talk about knowing it through being stopped, being questioned, being the object of fear. I know it when I go to get an apartment in New York and I have to be interviewed, and the white woman Realtor who's assisting me this was when I was renting a place said to me, `Don't tell them about your black boyfriend,' because, you know, young black males are feared in this culture. She felt it might jeopardize my chance of getting an apartment in this building. When looking for an apartment to buy in New York City, I was stunned by the amount of racism that I encountered, all couched under the notion of safety. `We want a safe building. We have to be careful who we let into our building.' And people communicated often, `Well, we think you might be safe because you're a professional black woman who makes a high income, but what about those other black people that might come to visit you?' And no matter how much we're told in this culture that we are all most likely to be assaulted by people who are just like us, people continue to have this fear that the danger is deposited in some other. In white people, it's usually a black other, and usually a young black male.
LAMB: If you were able to scrape away all the veneer in everybody and get to the heart of why people think this way, what would you suspect you'd find?
HOOKS: Well, I think I would find fear. I think domination depends on fear. Any system of domination in the world perpetuates itself by cultivating fear in people: fear of difference, fear of the other, fear of what you don't know. I mean, think about it. When we're children and if we're all made to feel like, you know, when we encounter something different, it's going to be exciting, it's going to be wonderful, it's going to be interesting, we can handle it, as opposed to if you take a child and every time they reach out for something new and different, you smack their hands or you communicate, `That which is new and different from you is dangerous, threatening, etc.' Many of us were raised with that kind of thinking about different.
LAMB: Let me ask you about another individual you write about, because he's sat where you are sitting now and we talked about this same issue, but from a whole different perspective: Nathan McCall "Makes Me Wanna Holler." What'd you think of his book?
HOOKS: His book really troubled me, largely because I felt that, one, I'm troubled deeply and profoundly by black men who behave as though the ways that they are cruel to women are a direct consequence of the degree to which they are racially victimized. And a lot of his book seeks to explain cruelties, like the rape that he describes in the book, as though `I'm victimized by racism and this makes me angry, and I take it out on women. 'You know, black women are victimized by racism, and other women of color, and we are not out there raping black men because of our feeling of pain and sorrow about racism. I didn't leave that plane and go shoot some black man because of the enormous rage that I feel. And yet we know that there's a sort of collapsing of those two categories, of sexism and racism, whereby black men want to let themselves off the hook for the violence that they do to women in the name of racism.
LAMB: Have you ever told anybody off that you thought had been racist to you?
HOOKS: Oh, absolutely. I had an encounter recently.
HOOKS: ...a little bit of racism. Well, I was in a movie theater. I had gone with one of my best friends, who's white, and I was sitting in the aisle seat. A white woman came and she wanted to get in the row, but she didn't speak. Julie jumped up my friend and I didn't. And I said, `Julie, I know this woman has a voice, and until she finds it, I'm not moving.' And the woman went off in typical New York style; you know, she's like, `You're being ridiculous!' I mean, she spent many more words telling me how ridiculous I was being than if she'd just said,` Excuse me,' you know? Two words. And I said, `I may be being ridiculous, but I'm not getting out of this seat because too long white people have expected black people to mammy them, to serve them, to anticipate their need, just as men have tended to expect that of women. And until you find your voice, you're not getting into this row.'
LAMB: What'd she say?
HOOKS: Well, what was so funny is she excused herself and was let in. But then a friend came to join her, apparently a biracial or a black woman, and when the friend sat down, she said, `You won't believe what just happened to me. That woman just went off' and my friend, the white woman I was with, said she couldn't believe that not once did this woman critically reflect on her own behavior. Like so many white people who are uninformed, she only saw me as the problem. She did not see her behavior as in any way problematic, which is often the case. Often, when a person of color or a black person is saying a racist incident happened, the white person will say, `But it wasn't racist. I was just having fun,' or `I was just doing what I always do' or there's always some attempt to explain away. We won't end racism in our nation until we stop trying to explain away and until we're willing to allow for the possibility that the racism did happen rather than always wanting to insist that it didn't happen.
LAMB: Did you come to the Million Man March?
HOOKS: Not only did I not come to the Million Man March, I deeply opposed it. I am not one of the people who is convinced that you can separate the message from the messenger. I don't think there was one messenger in relationship to this march; there were many. But all of the messengers, to me, had an underlying value system that I felt I had to oppose. One, both in the mission statement Farrakhan wrote and in many things people said at the march, there was a kind of collapsing again of gender and racism, as though black men have been wounded and hurt by racism, and the way they're going to heal themselves is by embracing patriarchy. My own feeling is that everywhere in the globe patriarchy is screwing up the planet. White men and women have written tons of books telling us that the patriarchal family is not a safe place, necessarily; is not a place where people are rearing happy, healthy children. We know white men are making lots of money and not paying child support. So all of the sort of anti welfare rhetoric, the pro militarism, pro imperialism rhetoric of that underlay the march, I felt that I had to oppose. I thought it was conservative. I felt like Washington is not the seat of power, in the sense of if we're really serious about black self determination, the seats of power are the communities we live in. So if I had been fashioning a march, I would have encouraged black men to come out into the communities they live in, and make connection with one another and do one useful thing for that community that day. I think that I have no trouble, as a woman who advocates feminist politics, with men marching without me. They can march every single day of the week. It's what they march for that matters, and had these men been marching for black self determination from a standpoint that included gender justice, I would really believe that we were going to see a tremendous change in race relations in America. I don't believe, as you know from reading my book, that you can separate the interlocking systems of domination, of patriarchy. I said to young black men last night I was speaking at Dartmouth and I talked to a group of young black men who were very disturbed. I'm the first person to say that you could obviously see the good feeling that was at the march, but it doesn't mean that there weren't underlying political principles in forming the march that I object to. I object to fascism. I think that any group of people, whether it's a female or male, that is pro a kind of narrow nationalism that encourages separation I think people who encourage the use of force to control other people all of those things are things that I oppose, and I felt that they were some of the underlying foundational principles of the march. And the fact that the march did good things doesn't change that for me. We're not just the outcome of our actions; we're the process. And I was disturbed by the process. And frankly, people didn't clean it up. I was really disturbed to see my good friend and comrade, Cornel West, saying in The New York Times, in his Op Ed piece, that we would deal with white supremacy first, and then we'd look at sort of patriarchy and anti Semitism and other things. And I think history has shown us again and again that this one dimensional way of approaching domination does not work.
LAMB: We have a minute. What is white supremacy?
HOOKS: White supremacy is believing not only that white people are superior based on their skin color, but that they have the right to rule over other people that they're better, they're smarter, all of those things—and that they have the right to rule by any means necessary.
LAMB: How many whites feel that way, in your opinion?
HOOKS: The vast majority of whites in our society feel that they are better than people of color and that they should rule over them.
LAMB: What is your next book?
HOOKS: My next book is a memoir of my girlhood, called "Bone Black."
LAMB: And who is this picture here on the cover of?
HOOKS: That picture was taken in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It's a group of kids. It was taken by a relative of the artist, Emma Amos. She inherited these photographs when her uncle died, and she's been trying to use them in the artwork she's doing. I said in an interview with Interview magazine that the children are where the stars and stripes would be, that they're our hope and our promise of a different future.
LAMB: Bell Hooks, thank you.
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