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For Whom The bell Tolls

Here's the bell hooks homepage, the first chapter of this book, and hooks' critique of Spike Lee's Crooklyn.

    Killing Rage: Ending Racism, her most current volume, doesn't exactly lay claim to new territory, only to a new perspective. In the past, hooks has scrutinized race through the prism of culture, both "high" and "low." The new collection attempts to redefine and broaden her discussion through the lens of feminism.

    What is refreshing about Killing Rage is that, for the most part, it eschews the usual reductivist misanthropy that all too often characterizes feminist tracts. At the same time, although vigorously insisting on the primacy of women's role in the politics of liberation, hooks is particularly unsparing in her critique of what she sees as white women's continuing allegiance to white supremacy, a blunt term that hooks prefers to racism.

    In the title chapter, hooks is critical of contemporary African male "leadership," which she accuses (rightly, in my opinion) of deserting the revolutionary legacies of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, electing instead to play the victim. Yet, as hooks goes on to suggest in the chapter "Refusing to Be a Victim," blackfolk aren't the only beggar/victims out there, merely the least successful.

    According to hooks' analysis, white women, riding the crest of the '60s African liberation movement, began organizing themselves to get a piece of the action. Though white women, hooks writes, could claim no martyred heroines, no brutal assaults by the police, no imprisoned activists, "their collective endeavor to redress wrongs enacted by a system of gender discrimination" was far more rewarding. "The rhetoric of victimhood worked for white women"; indeed, they were the "primary recipients of rewards from affirmative action," according to hooks.

    Not content with merely naming the problem, hooks offers possible alternatives. She asserts that Africans everywhere must find ways to underscore issues of accountability that speak to both the nature of white domination and blackfolks' own complicity. Declares hooks, "White folks who want all black Americans to repudiate a victim-focused identity must be prepared to engage in a subject-to-subject encounter with blackfolks who are self-determining," thus opening the way for genuine racial equity.

    Hence, though she repeatedly assails the sexism of black and white males, she concedes that going toe-to-toe with white supremacy is of primary significance. As she and many other black progressives have discovered, it is a daunting, even dangerous, task. "These days," hooks writes, "white racism can let it all hang out. The anti-black backlash is so fierce it astounds."

    On a personal note, she adds that "[being] close to white folks, I am forced to witness first-hand their willful ignorance about the impact of race ... [t]he harsh absolutism of their denial. Their refusal to acknowledge accountability for racist conditions past and present."

    Complicating matters further is racism's slick, contemporary veneer. According to the City College of New York professor, "[o]vert racist discrimination is not as fashionable as it once was, and that is why everyone can pretend racism does not exist." Thus, she finds the term "racism" inadequate, opting instead for "white supremacy," a more comprehensive designation in her view.

    In the chapter "Overcoming White Supremacy," hooks elaborates on her usage of "white supremacy" vis-à-vis "racism"; it is, for her, not merely a matter of semantics. She traces her preference for the former term to contradictions she discovered when she and other American-born African women first entered the ranks of modern white feminism.

    White women, she observes, "often requested and longed for the presence of black women. Yet when present, what we saw was that they wished to exercise control over our thoughts as did their racist [suffragette] ancestors." On the professional level, hooks shares with us her experiences in academia where she perceived herself as being objectified by white peers who desired to have "a" black face in "their" department "as long as that person thinks and acts like them, shares their values and beliefs, is in no way different."

    hooks asserts that blackfolk who openly embrace their heritage in their work environment are taking a real risk. While hooks specifically targets Africans in academia as being especially vulnerable to "being fired or not receiving the desired promotion," one could easily argue that all de-colonized blackfolk toiling in the hostile realm of knowledge production and dissemination, whether they be writers, musicians or library science workers, are "at risk. "

    While she openly acknowledges the importance of individual whites struggling to be antiracist, the larger battle to defeat white supremacy, hooks writes, "is a struggle to change a system, a structure." She ends by citing a passage from a fellow cultural critic John Hodge: "The problem of racism is not about prejudice but domination."

    In hooks' view, much of this domination seeps into our consciousness via the educational system and the mass media. Television and film, in particular, hooks argues, project a world in which race is either a nonissue, with black people acting in collusion to maintain the status quo, or presents Africans as potential disrupters of the existing social order. To counter these misleading images, hooks contends that blacks and whites must demand an end to the use of these media as "the biggest propaganda machine[s] for white supremacy."

    She calls for public discourse that explores the systems of belief underlying the function of the media. In this way, she reasons, the insidious contradictions "wherein a white person may have a black friend or lover yet still believe black folks are intellectually and morally inferior" may be exposed and honestly addressed.

    Finally, hooks calls on "progressive black critical thinkers" to reject a strictly "academic" approach to issues affecting African people--to drop the insular jargon and rid themselves of bourgeois notions that to talk straight from the shoulder implies a lack of intellectual sophistication.

    She urges all black progressives to embrace terms such as "black self-determination," a phrase she does not link to "separatism." Citing the assault on rap music led by some black women as narrow, hooks suggests that they broaden their critique to include "the role mass media play in blacklife--particularly television."

    Delores C. Tucker and her supporters could, for example, use their access to public forums to promote the need to "create literacy programs and promote education for critical consciousness" while encouraging blackfolk and their antiracist supporters to demand responsible television programming, simultaneously "resist[ing] representations that undermine [the African community's] capacity to be self-determining." For hooks, black self-determination can only occur through the process of mental de-colonization and a fierce repudiation of sexism, materialism and class elitism.

    hooks' diagnosis may not sit well with some, and her prescriptions may be considered even more difficult to swallow, but America's apparent affinity for the placebo syndrome can't cure what's ailing us. To paraphrase John Lennon, all we need is some truth; it may not set us free, but it just might set us on the right path.

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From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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