A Note To Some Feminist Black Men: Though bell hooks Is Exquisite, There’s More To Black Feminism Than bell hooks
bell hooks is one of the most exquisite, thoughtful, complex, intellectual, and compassionate Black feminist scholars of our time. She’s often the doorway to Black feminist thought for Black feminists, whether women or men, and even White feminists who seek to move beyond the writing of “mainstream” feminists and begin to commit to intersectional feminist scholarship. Her writing is probing and thoughtful and while like all writing, not above critique, it really helped to form part of the foundation of a lot of modern feminist scholarship. I’ve read quite a few of her books, essays, papers and have seen videos of her talks. I quote her often as well. She’s brilliant.
I also know that there is more to Black feminist thought than bell hooks alone. I sometimes wonder if some feminist Black men do.
I know that look that they get—that moment when they first start to realize that patriarchy and patriarchal masculinity are constructs and not fixed or “natural” ways of being. Some start to embrace the concept of anti-sexism and anti-homophobia and not just anti-racism. This is good. They read The Will To Change - Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks. They read We Real Cool - Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks. They start to listen to Black women and consider Black women as truly human even beyond the idea of their connection to men as mom/sister/daughter/GF/wife. This is also good. But this only scratches the surface.
I know that “entry into Black feminism” look and vigor too. My pathway to womanist thought was via The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which I first read when I was 12. My mind was blown. Here was a complex portrait of Black girlhood/womanhood beyond the White gaze and shaped by a Black woman. Here was multiple depictions of Black womanhood with depth and complexity and challenging INTRARACIAL oppression of Black women in addition to interracial oppression. (At such a young age I was already force-fed the idea that intraracial oppression was non-existent—that racism was evil but that intraracial sexism, homophobia, misogynoir and colourism, for example, were “right” or “natural.”) This was new to me on paper though at this age, I was already experiencing street harassment by Black men yet faced racist and sexist oppression at school and intraracial sexist and misongyoirist oppression at church. I lived intersectionality long before I knew of it ideologically. My life changed forever after reading more of her writing. Another pivotal moment for me was when I first heard Queen Latifah’s song “U.N.I.T.Y.” as a freshman in high school. That song is a true womanist epistle. (I didn’t get into Toni Morrison until high school and bell hooks until undergrad for example, where her writing was like an adult doorway into more feminist thought; even so, I embraced Alice Walker first.)
Thus, I don’t dismiss that initial entrance or that book, concepts and/or person that causes an internal paradigm shift for a womanist/feminist. But even at 12 I knew (though I couldn’t articulate it at this level yet) that no one person should be treated as a mascot for Black feminist thought or have Black feminist thought affected by essentialism where any one person becomes what the theory and praxis is about. Even bell hooks would not want that and alludes to this in her writing.
When Black men reduce Black feminist thought to one author and need that to be their go to author, there’s a problem. Sure, we can all have authors/writers that we love (such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Sikivu Hutchinson and yep, bell hooks are for me) but Black feminist thought is not solely about famous names. Feminist praxis is not solely about pasting quotes from bell hooks on Twitter. Feminist writing is not only what is on Amazon from a formal publisher by the few who even get to that level of platform.
Anytime I challenge Black men who are interested in feminist scholarship to READ MORE and LEARN MORE than just bell hooks or even primarily bell hooks, I receive pushback. They go full into male privilege or bust mode. Some suggest that since she specifically addresses men at times, she’s “better.” Um…doesn’t this sound like Whites who need a White character (and even worse, a “hero”) in a Black novel before they can care or “relate” to the story? Privilege much? If they need a man on the cover of a book or masculinity and nothing else addressed in feminist scholarship, their feminism is not intersectional; they’re basically engaging in a reductionist approach, viewing feminist scholarship in print as elaborate self-help books and little more. Feminism cannot solely be about them proving how they’re “good” men. While I do believe that how we embody the oppressor within is where all feminist work begins, I also know that feminism is not about me “proving” how “good” of a woman I am.
The reality is if a feminist Black man cannot care about feminist scholarship unless they feel the writing is specifically for men only, or centered on masculinity from how they perform it versus how it impacts Black women, children, families and themselves, there’s a problem. This is not progressive. There is more to intersectional feminism than solely considerations of gender. Their feminism needs to be intersectional. While critiques about patriarchy are critical, where is their understanding of White supremacy, racism, sexism, colorism, misogynoir, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, and more? It’s one thing to be new on the path and journey of feminism and simply not have embraced these topics…yet (though oppression is intersectional, so to only study patriarchy and masculinity without other axes of oppression is missing something huge). It’s another to assume that they have all of the answers to Black feminist thought because they are men who sometimes challenge patriarchal thinking and found a favorite author.
A commitment to justice is MORE than about how they can personally be less patriarchal in their personal lives. It’s more than them reading and citing her books daily and then retreating to male privilege to either heavily critique women who haven’t embraced feminism at all yet (I loathe this; it’s like White atheists telling Black theists to reject theism because of slavery) or ignoring calls for them to check their male privilege by feminist Black women. Black men who engage in essentialism with bell hooks run the risk of doing what Whites do with anti-racism study by reading/quoting MLK and little to no one else. (This holds a special irony since Black women’s contributions to Civil Rights work is heavily marginalized/ignored by Whites and Black men quite often.) Doing this makes their profound work caricatures and gimmicks instead of tools to deconstruct and fight oppression.
The worst of all is the attitude that I’ve received from some feminist Black men—as if I should be “desperately” thankful for their existence and endlessly and daily applaud them for not being misogynist. Excuse me for not creating thrones—I could’ve sworn that’s something that occurs amidst patriarchal thinking, not anti-oppression, intersectional feminist thinking. The thing is, I do talk to feminist Black men, read their writing, share important dialogue and more. I recognize when they’re doing something interesting. I won’t worship them, however, any more than I will Whites engaged in anti-racism work. I won’t praise anything they do over those with the lived experience of the form of oppression they’re against. If an ally requires worship to be an ally, they aren’t an ally. Ally work needs to be noble without the incessant need for the praise of its nobility, otherwise it becomes about oppressed people applauding their oppressors, which is not revolutionary.
In the same way that I expect White feminists not to engage in essentialist thinking of Gloria Steinem, I expect feminist Black men not to engage in essentialist thinking of bell hooks. While the journey into Black feminist thought by Black men matters deeply, intellectual laziness, essentialism, a lack of commitment to intersectional thinking/complete commitment to justice and male privilege will not be ignored, at least by me.