People may be surprised to know how much bell hooks loves men–especially black men–but she does.
I say surprised, because the general tendency–especially among men–is to confuse feminist politics and political activism with being anti-men.
So if you couple this tendency (to conflate feminist politics with being anti-men) with the undeniably harsh realities that confront black men in America, then it is easy to see how decades of political activism to teach and educate about patriarchy and sexism in the lives of black folks could cause some people to view bell hooks as being anti-black men.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, a very important part of bell hooks’ intellectual and political project over the years has been to create spaces for men–especially men of color–to do the critical work of examining masculinities and sexualities.
On the one hand, black feminist scholars and activists have always had to point out the systematic advantages that black men have in relation to black women. On the other hand, not many have taken the time to dedicate an entire book to exploring the complex issues that black men face in America.
Yet, this is precisely what bell does in her book We Real Cool: Black Men & Masculinity.
That’s where bell turns her critical and compassionate eye to areas we might expect–such as black men’s violence, gangsta culture, sex and sexuality–but also to issues of black men’s emotions, trauma and healing. She talks personally about how patriarchy and sexism have affected the men in her family, like her father and her brother. She also takes time to identify the redemptive and transformative love of other black men in her family, like the uncle she refers to as Daddy Gus.
Given the time and attention she dedicates to exploring these powerful issues, it was understandable to hear the disappointment in her voice when we she told me that this very important book, a book dedicated to exploring the lives of black men, was probably the least recognized and least reviewed of all the books she had written. That’s a sad and unfortunate reality which belies a more basic question/contradiction: How do you convince black men of the necessity for them to examine certain aspects of their lives when no one seems interested in hearing their stories?
Thankfully, bell hooks is interested in telling these stories.
Whether it’s the chapter “Reconstructing Black Masculinity” in Black Looks; her chapter “Challenging Sexism” in Killing Rage; her co-authored piece with Cornel West; or the central voice she had in the gender debate sparked by Orlando Patterson’s piece “Backlash,” you always get the sense that bell is not just interested in talking about black men’s lives, but in truly engaging black men.
In other words, you always get the sense that bell is committed to treating black men as subjects and not just the objects of feminist analysis.
But she does expect men to be part of the movement. In her essay, “Men in Feminist Struggle–The Necessary Movement” she points out the limitations of traditional feminist theory in it’s inability to engage and re-conceptualize masculinity, and she talks passionately about her “deeply felt conviction” that men must play an active role in feminist struggle.
Even if her academic record and political legacy were not proof enough, there is another reason why I know that bell hooks loves men–especially black men.
You see, back in the day, I was a student at Oberlin College when people like bell hooks and Chandra Mohanty were teaching there. In fact, I was the student leader of the “brotherhood”–an organization for black men students–when bell hooks was the advisor to the black women’s student organization, Sisters of the Yam.
I remember the “epic” conversations we had about gender and power in the black community. I used to sit outside of Gloria’s office (we all called her Gloria, her given name, and not bell hooks) and on the days when I had enough courage I would walk down to her house to have her answer all the questions I had about feminism and men.
bell hooks was the first person to encourage me to write about my experiences as a black man, and she has been a tremendous influence in my life.
Today, I write a lot about the intersection–some would say collision– of race, class, and gender. By far, the most controversial piece that I have written is “The Black Male Privileges Checklist .” I wrote it for two personal reasons: 1) I love and care about black men and boys, and 2) I am unashamedly and unapologetically committed to the safety and welfare of black women and girls.
I also wanted to create a tool that every black man could use to open up areas of his life that are often hidden or concealed. A tool that could be used in a variety of spaces–from the classroom to the barbershop–that would encourage anyone that interacts with black men and boys to engage in critical conversations about their lives, and the lives of black women and girls.
I wrote the Black Male Privileges Checklist because bell hooks was correct when she said that one of the fundamental genocidal threats to black men’s lives is being “plantation patriarch,” or what I refer to as Black Male Privileges.
Even a cursory review of bell hook’s life and legacy demonstrates her profound love for black men, and I want it to be apart of the public record that we love bell hooks too!
Photo of Cornel West courtesy of Flickr user happygreentea under Creative Commons 2.0.