bell hooks Is My Fairy Godmother

After our eleventh viewing of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, my four-year-old daughter announced to her brother and me that Mama Odie, the blind and toothless Voodoo witch of the swamp, is her favorite character in the movie. Not Tiana, the hardworking heroine who gets her prince in the end. I asked why, and she said, “because she’s funny and gives good advice!”

Mama Odie is Tiana’s fairy godmother, and we could get into all kinds of great adult discussions about racist and sexist stereotypes in Disney films and why Mama Odie regurgitates mammy-like figures. But I want to talk about bell hooks instead. You see, bell hooks is my fairy godmother.

My first encounter with hooks was two years ago with her book Sisters of the Yam, assigned in a graduate feminist theory seminar. I was a first-year Ph.D. student, attempting to juggle motherhood, teaching, divorce and child-custody proceedings. It was an emotionally and spiritually draining period in my life, and when I read Sisters of the Yam the first time I could not appreciate what bell hooks was trying to say to me because I was so focused on finding solutions to my non-academic problems. I was keeping so much inside–which is odd because my mother  always encouraged my sister and I to be effusive to the point where we often began sentences with, “You know what? You hurt my feelings today when you said this.” Now that I’m “head of household,” I believe that I’m supposed to “keep it together” for my children, upholding the Strong Black Woman myth rather than seeming ungrateful to my wonderful mother, who is helping me raise my kids.

But re-reading parts of Sisters of the Yam the following semester helped me understand that black women could not afford to be silent. We must tell the world, and each other, about our lives. I viewed Sisters of the Yam as a self-help book that addresses concerns not only of black women but women in general, even though hooks points out that most books in the self-help genre neglect women of color. I appreciated her discussions on alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive overeating and shopping; what resonated for me was the emphasis on the importance of talking openly and honestly about one’s life while positioning “the truth will set you free” against the negative implications of “telling it like it is.” In one particular chapter, aptly titled “Seeking after Truth,” she advises black women to speak truthfully about their experiences, painful and traumatic though they may be, so that “collective black healing can take place.”

Later that year I read hooks’ Teaching to Transgress for a graduate seminar on feminist pedagogy. When I began teaching, I was confused about my role as a graduate student-instructor, as well as having feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, humiliation and powerlessness. I wanted to encourage my students to step outside the margins of their usual discourses when discussing race, class, and gender, but I did not know how to do this. The classroom was a site of a strange kind of negotiation between empowerment and disempowerment.

hooks envisions education as a liberating and revolutionary experience, and she inspired me to practice the kind of feminist pedagogy she espouses in her book: an engaged form of teaching that empowers both teacher and student. When hooks writes that engaged pedagogy “means my voice is the not only account of what happens in the classroom,” she emphasizes the values of student expression. I have since encouraged my students to bring their own narratives to the classroom to show how experience can illuminate our understanding of academic material.

I used excerpts from Teaching to Trangress this past spring, and here’s what one student wrote in her blog response:

I really liked the idea of education as a relationship between teacher and student … Both teacher and student push each other to learn, ask questions and grow intellectually and creatively. This relationship is all about “transgressing boundaries” and going far beyond them.

For me, reading Sisters of the Yam and Teaching to Transgress helped me become a better teacher, with a renewed interest in empowering my students to speak their minds so that assumptions and beliefs could be named and confronted. And bowing further to hooks’s wisdom–which can be applied to empowering 4-year-olds to speak their minds–I decided to listen to my children’s pleas for our 12th viewing of The Princess and the Frog.

Photo from Flickr user Thomas Duchnicki :: Location Scout under Creative Commons 2.0.

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