Posted on June 29, 2005

Profile of Distinguished Professor of English bell hooks

Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York

  • “It is difficult not to hear in standard English always the sound of slaughter and conquest.”

  • “My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism.”

  • Used commencement address to call for “resistance” to America’s “terrorist regime”

Gloria Watkins, better known by her revolutionary nom de guerre, “bell hooks,” is a Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York. Although she prefers to see herself as an “insurgent Black intellectual voice” committed to “renewed liberation struggle,” hooks is in fact a tenured member of the academic elite, with teaching credits that include Yale University, Oberlin College in Ohio, where she was a professor of English and Women’s Studies, and Southwestern University in Texas.

hooks’ views on education, advanced in her 1994 polemic, Teaching to Transgress, run from the prosaically radical to the forthrightly revolutionary. The book—really an extended fusillade against “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—mounts the tendentious claim that an educator has a “right as a subject in resistance to define reality.”

Teaching, hooks contends, “is a performative act . . . that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom.” hooks does not attempt to hide the kind of change she favors: Calling for an “engaged pedagogy,” she exhorts educators “to teach in a manner that empowers students” by converting their classrooms into incubators of “progressive” politics. That this is indeed her aim is made clear by hooks when she writes, “My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism.” Readers are afforded a telling illustration of this distinctly radical approach. Of English, a subject she has long taught, hooks claims that the language projects the tones of brutal colonialism: “It is difficult not to hear in standard English always the sound of slaughter and conquest,” hooks explains.

With apparent satisfaction, hooks writes of the effect this “engaged pedagogy” has had on her students: “I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: ‘We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.’” hooks took this response to speak to the success of her strategy. hooks also devoted some of her book’s most pungent passages to criticizing those professors who use the “classroom to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power,” and who seemed to her “enthralled by the exercise of power and authority within their mini-kingdom, the classroom.” To these gross abuses of academic authority, hooks volunteered herself as an “enlightened” alternative.

hooks’ courses aim to radicalize a new generation of black activists—a fact she has never troubled to deny. “My concern is to enlarge that audience, particularly to reach young Black people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are the reading population but who are least likely, maybe, to hear of a bell hooks,” hooks once told Z magazine. hooks’ ongoing campaign to indoctrinate young blacks in radical theory is not always successful, as she revealed in the course of a 1990 essay called “Postmodern Blackness,” wherein she despaired of the challenge of “resistance on the part of most black folks to hearing about real connections between postmodernism and black experience.” hooks proposed a solution for winning over students unreceptive to radical theorizing: prescribe more radical theory. Should they come into contact with theory-averse students, hooks urged professors to direct them to the feminist tract Yours In Struggle: “When such conflicts arise, it is always useful to send students to read Yours In Struggle,” hooks explained.

hooks deems it essential to teach students that the problems faced by blacks in American society are largely due to a lingering “white supremacy,” wherein “white folks have colonized black Americans.” “When we embrace victimization, we surrender our rage,” hooks wrote.

hooks’ radical politics, a mainstay of her courses, also surface in the commencement speeches she invited to deliver. Perhaps the most notorious was hooks’ 2002 commencement address at Southwestern University in Texas, where hooks was then working as a visiting scholar-in-residence of “Feminist Studies.” The address was a militant call to arms to campus radicals: “The radical, dissident voices among you have learned here at Southwestern how to form communities of resistance that have helped you find your way in the midst of life-threatening conservatism, loneliness, and the powerful forces of everyday fascism which use the politics of exclusion and ostracism to maintain the status quo,” hooks intoned. In an unmistakable reference to the U.S. government, hooks added, “Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.”

In the same breath, hooks invoked the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and condemned America’s concern with the atrocities, explaining that “our nation’s call for violence in the aftermath of 9/11 was an expression of widespread hopelessness, the cynicism that has been at the heart of our nation’s ongoing fascination with death.” Inveighing against the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks, hooks invented her own explanation for that response. As hooks told it, Americans had initially decided that “we must stand against violence, we must choose peace,” but this “moment of collective clarity was soon obscured by the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal hunger to show the planet our nation’s force, to show that this nation would commit absolute acts of violence that will wipe out whole nations and worlds.” Even as she studiously avoided passing judgment on the terrorists who carried out the attack, hooks was effusive in decrying “our government’s declaration of its commitment to violence, to death.”

In recent years, hooks has struggled to reconcile her self-proclaimed role as an uncompromising black revolutionary with her status as a member of the tenured academic elite. The inner conflict even inspired a 1996 essay, “The Rebel’s Dilemma.” Paying lip service to her obvious success, hooks nevertheless strained to cast herself as a lifelong revolutionary locked in a pitched ideological battle with the university:

“Years ago, when I did not have tenure, I naively imagined that after tenure, after job security, it would be possible to just be myself, do my thing, play the game the way it suits me. I know better now. I know that outside pressure to conform never stops, that there are myriad ways those in power who don’t like what you do can make coming to work hard and stressful. Now that I am a Distinguished Professor at the very top of the corporate academic mountain, the pressures intensify, as does the sense of isolation. How wrong I was to imagine that there would be freedom at the top. There is definitely more money at the top, more perks, but this rarely translates into greater freedom.”

In hooks’ self-serving script, “the academy has always been so similar to the dysfunctional patriarchal family hierarchy that hemmed me in as a child that I feel that I can never be truly healthy, well and whole in the deepest sense, without leaving it.” She insisted that, far from the establishment figure she appeared, she was still busily at work writing cultural criticism that confronted the “structures of domination.” Concluded hooks: “The work then is always part of our struggle for liberation.”