Take a Class with bell hooks

Reading bell hooks has practically become a feminist rite of passage. Having published dozens of books and papers, including Feminism is for Everybody, the distinguished professor at Berea College has made brilliant contributions to feminism. She’s also become an icon for budding feminists, and many of us may find ourselves wishing that we could take a class with her or eavesdrop as she talks with amazing academic, activist and pop-culture figures. And guess what? Now we can!

hooks’ residency at The New School in New York coincided with the 20th anniversary of her book Teaching to Transgress, which deeply influenced the public dialogues of her residency. The dialogues included everyone from Gloria Steinem to Cornell West and covered a range of topics in which the audiences were excited to be involved. hook’s residency gave New School students—and now the rest of us—the opportunity to “participate in a series of intimate conversations and public dialogues on subjects ranging from politics to love, race to spirituality, gender to lived bodies.”

For those who weren’t lucky enough to be in New York to see hooks live, five videos of the dialogues are available on the New School website. So if you want to watch bell hooks debate Gloria Steinem on whether or not feminism encourages transgression, or discuss sexuality with author Marci Blackman, science fiction master Samuel R. Delaney and video artist M. Lamar (hooks opens the discussion with, “Welcome, welcome, all of you sex fiends!”), then the world is your oyster.

The conversations available are:

Forever Young: A Public Dialogue Between bell hooks and Gloria Steinem 

A Public Dialogue Between bell hooks and Laverne Cox

A Public Dialogue Between bell hooks and Cornel West

 Man Enough: Theory and Practice In and Outside of the Classroom (bell hooks, Oman Frame, Darnell Moore, Ron Scapp and Kurt Voss)

 Transgressive Sexual Practice (bell hooks, Marci Blackman and Samuel Delany)

Sadly, the brilliantly titled Transgression: Whose Booty Is This? is not available for livestream, even though it seems to be the most buzzworthy of all the discussions, with bell hooks making eyebrow-raising comments left and right, such as calling Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda music video “boring.”

However, one of the most surprising dialogues was the one between bell hooks and Orange is the New Black actor and trans activist Laverne Cox. Given hooks’ unabashed comments on celebrity figures, one might wonder what a high-heel wearing actor and radical academic writer have in common? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Cox described how reading bell hooks has helped her navigate Hollywood, openly discuss issues of racism on national television and come to terms with how aspects of her identity and background connect to larger systems of oppression—such as the violence she experienced when she first identified as gender non-conforming. She said to hooks:

I love that you talked about pop culture and that you did critical analysis of pop culture, that space that I longed to be in—but not uncritically … so when I read a script now, so much of your work has influenced the way I read scripts and the way I read images, and now as a producer, the way I create images. … The work of liberating ourselves has to go out into spaces beyond the academy.

hooks praised Cox as a “goddess for justice,” but didn’t let the dialogue become an all-out love fest. She critiqued Cox’s decision to present herself as “traditionally feminine,” and questioned Cox’s decision to wear high heels and have long, straight blonde hair, which she associates with representations of patriarchy and idealized whiteness. hooks went on to say that sometimes she, too, wants to straighten her hair because it could be a nice thing to switch up, but stops herself because, even though she feels confident with or without straightened hair, she’s worried that straightening her hair may send the wrong message of “self-hate” to a younger Black person.

But Cox wasn’t going to have her identity put into a box. “This is where I feel empowered, ironically, and comfortable,” she told hooks. People with certain bodies and identities have had to fight against being erased, and Cox feels that her current presentation gives her the most visibility. “I have not ever been interested in being invisible and being erased,” she said.

The dialogue between Cox and bell hooks is a testament to the importance of social activists and critical thinkers being allowed to disagree with one another. Being able to challenge other activists and have their vastly different and personal experiences acknowledged help to foster more critical discussions on issues that cannot be solved with simple answers—and hooks is very aware of that. Viewers streaming the Teaching to Transgress dialogues will quickly realize that they’re not the only ones learning; bell hooks and everyone from Cornell West to Laverne Cox are learning along with them.


Corinne Gaston is currently an editorial intern at Ms. and is working toward a B.A. in Creative Writing at USC. When not in the Ms. office, she is the Associate Opinion Editor at Neon Tommy. Follow her on Twitter @elysehamsa or go to her personal blog.