Originally created 02/21/99

Author targets the black feminism mystique



WASHINGTON -- On a recent night the crowd at Vertigo Books lined up early, spilling out the front door into the dusk. They were mainly under 30, black and white, male and female -- but mostly female, waiting to hear bell hooks read from her new book.

Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work includes Ms. hooks' reflections on famous writers, her own work and "women who write too much."

This commanding writer with the attention-getting name draws a devoted public that responds to her themes about the exclusion of minority women from mainstream feminism, how black women should think more about loving and celebrating themselves instead of merely surviving, how men dominate all women's lives.

And yet, even as she is greeted by overflow crowds nationwide, she seems to spend much of her time explaining her enviable output of 17 books in less than 20 years.

"No one said to John Coltrane, `Why do you play the saxophone so much?"' says Ms. hooks. "They accepted he had a passion for this." Wrapped in black and red wool, as dramatic in person as she is on the page, Ms. hooks says that writing is as easy for her as breathing -- and as necessary. "There is a lushness to how my mind works."

She notes, as well, that many people still think an African-American woman's role is servitude.

"I can be standing in Barneys with my coat and purse and my selections, and some white woman will say, `Can you get this in my size?"' she says sharply. "What she sees is a black woman and her service button goes off."

At 46, Ms. hooks has become the best-known voice of contemporary black feminism. Her books are taught in colleges, including Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the "20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years." A former instructor at Yale University and Oberlin College, and currently teaching at City College in New York, Ms. hooks is often the only female presence on panels with scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West.

She's unsurprised at the criticism of her ideas because this is "not a pro-feminist moment in our culture." Nor does she expect a warm reception to radical feminism from many African-Americans. But she is deeply annoyed about the slam that she writes too much.

"It saddens me, because I think of it as a form of censorship," says Ms. hooks. "Part of it is (the critics) saying if it is a black woman you already know what she thinks. If it is Gore Vidal, you need to read the book to know what he thinks, but if you have read one bell hooks book you know what she thinks."

At 46, she lives alone in New York's Greenwich Village, leading a spare existence rooted in her daily writing schedule. When she emerges from her solitary life, she sees two worlds: those who applaud her right to say what she wants, and those who wish she would pick one cause instead of two. Straddling the often-separate battles for civil rights for black people and equality for women has not been easy.

Of her latest book, Kirkus Reviews noted that "hooks in her usual, forthright and engaging style makes plain her opinions: on the dearth of nonfiction by black women authors, the role of race in the critical reception of new work, and the cynicism of the publishing industry. What could have been a caustic, scathing collection of essays, however, proves to be just the opposite: generous, open and inspiring."

But critic Thulani Davis said she faltered in Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. "The writing lacks the ease and energy of Ms. hooks's other prose, the exuberance of her engagement with rich texts and conversation and solitude." And when reviewer Jewelle Gomez labeled her "the Joyce Carol Oates of black feminist writing," that hurt.

So here is a woman who's attacked not just for what she says but for saying it too much. She says race and class should be in the forefront of the discussion of feminism. Gender and class, which she says are not discussed openly enough, should be front and center in the analysis of civil rights. She complains that literary shoguns, reaping unjustified credit for publishing minority writers, still are "not confident we are serious thinkers and writers."

She says African-Americans and whites alike should "decolonize" what an acceptable black thought or person is: "We are a box of chocolates. A white editor will say in a meeting, `I don't like your flavor but do you know so-and-so, we like her flavor. Why don't you try that?"'

And there is a widespread reluctance to see bright black women as multidimensional, she says. White author "Naomi Wolfe is allowed to be both intellectual and sexy. Whenever a black woman is attractive and sexy, she must be a [filtered word]. It makes it difficult for black women to be fully complex. I'm playful -- anybody who hangs out with me knows that -- but I am also a dead-serious intellectual woman who is on the job."

As a child, Ms. hooks used writing as a refuge from criticism. The young Gloria Jean Watkins was the daughter of a janitor and a domestic worker in Hopkinsville, Ky., who didn't understand her need for an inner life, or her compulsion to write in her journal. She was, Ms. hooks wrote, "the girl who was always wrong, always punished ... This death in writing was to be liberatory."

She found political and literary freedom in California, where she earned her BA from Stanford University and a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She borrowed her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother, choosing the lowercase as a symbolic critique of contemporary personality worship.

It was while she lived in the Bay Area that feminists discovered her work, which was deeply influenced by Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, by the beats and Buddhism, by Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. She emerged as what she calls "a cultural worker on the left."

But despite the long years of obstacles and frustrations, there are small bright spots. Like Cheerios.

One of Ms. hooks' friends is an actress, and "we talk about how often black women are shot by photographers in ways we look monstrous. We are often shot from down under -- it is like we are all visualized into would-be mammies," Ms. hooks says.

But her friend's current commercial for Cheerios depicts a normal black family with the little boy doing his homework, memorizing state capitals. When he stumbles on Vermont, his sister, from her highchair, says softly, "Montpelier."

"It's a very affirming image of blackness," she says. And a moment of comfort to a feminist.