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There can’t be a women’s studies syllabus anywhere in reconstructed America without at least one book by bell hooks. Her first, the 1981 Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism is among America’s most influential works. Prolific, outspoken, and fearless, hooks is that rare black woman intellectual thought of in the same breath with Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates. Given her importance to my two favorite identity-politics groups (blacks and women), I knew eventually I’d tackle the former Yale and Oberlin professor (she’s now at Harlem’s City College of New York) and blithely assumed I’d incorporate her thought into my own work. I understood hooks to be that feminist who made the race men talk gender and that race woman who made the feminists talk black. Given that hooks and I have everything in common— race, class, large families, Southern roots, feminism, outlaw politics and writing— I had every intention of admiring her 16th book, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. But all my assumptions about hooks imploded. It is precisely her centrality to black and feminist thought that makes this undisciplined and featherweight offering unacceptable.
hooks is publishing these essays “to share the dimensions of my writing life that take place behind the scenes . . . [for] readers who wanted to know more about how the work came to be what it is and other less gentle interrogators who found my engagement with writing suspect.” In these Springer-Starr days of full disclosure and abdicated privacy, these are sentiments bound to gladden hearts. Unfortunately, her objectives get lost in a much more mundane agenda. hooks speaks endlessly, convincingly even, of her passion for writing rather than employing that passion to actually write about something. Most unforgivably, hooks uses Rapture to reduce the abundant criticism she receives to racism, sexism, petty personal disputes, and jealousy.
What disappoints as nonfiction, however, succeeds as fiction. Or bio-mythography or whatever it is we’re supposed to call hooks’s first two genre-shattering memoirs (more are planned). The 1996 Bone Black and the 1997 Wounds of Passion are good. Abstract, nonlinear, and sometimes third person, the same lack of self-control that weighs down her academic prose is enchanting in hooks’s literary and experimentalist “autobiographies.” So incredibly self-revelatory, such complete invasions of her family’s and her lovers’ privacy, so simultaneously daring and foolhardy, so sacrilegious— they compel. They are melodramatic, punishing of others, whitewashing of herself. They’re shameless. Here’s a typical passage, proffered throughout both Rapture and the memoirs: “Every year of my childhood I can remember them telling me I am crazy, that I will end up in a mental institution, that no one will visit me there.” It’s the mental image of the doomed, innocent bell dressed in her finest straitjacket, sighing all alone in the Happy Dale visiting room while all about doting families dab drool from their loved one’s babbling chins that makes the passage such a treat.
Imagine Thanksgiving dinner at the hooks’s (she likens them to terrorists). hooks sighs,
I do not know how old I must have been when they decided it was important to break me, the way horses are broken. We lived in horse country. I did not want to be broken. The breaking-in begins with isolation. The forced removal of me from the group, until I learn. . . . Everything bad and painful is me. When I look in the mirror, I see pain.
The freedoms of fiction, however — one-sidedness, art over substance— simply cannot be applied to nonfiction. hooks is right that both are creative activities and that academics should not try to police a rigid chasm between the two. She’s wrong, however, to employ the same rules of engagement to both enterprises. Nonfiction needn’t weigh a ton and jangle along in passive voice, but it does need to be intellectually and stylistically rigorous, however transgressive the language, construct, or subject matter. Too stubborn to acknowledge her mistakes, though, hooks just turns up the volume when she’s criticized.
The heart of the book is a defense of the frequency with which hooks publishes, often twice in the same year, regularly republishing. Never does hooks acknowledge that she’s being criticized for rehashing the same ideas incessantly. hooks writes, “A book of mine might include ten new essays . . . and four or five pieces that were published elsewhere and a reviewer might insist that there is no new work in the collection.” A valid point if true. I suspect exaggeration and rationalization (hence the self-conscious, ambivalent mights) have led her to finger only a few specific critics. Indeed, Courtney Leatherman, Thulani Davis, and, indirectly, Michele Wallace are the only critics named, but even then she does not address or acknowledge the substance of their critiques.
But it gets much worse than denial: “The harshest critics of my work have been less well-known black women writers and/or individuals who have had difficulty producing new work.” And they’re fat, too, the player-hating bitches. “[P]eriodicals . . . seek out individuals known to harbor competitive feelings or antipathy. . . .” Who needs the antifeminist backlash she bemoans when “feminists” are producing this kind of meow material posing as thought. This, perhaps, is hooks’s worst disservice to her followers. She’s encouraging them to interpret criticism through the prism of conspiracy and to respond with a l950s white-shoes-after Labor Day sistercide. Talk feminist, act bitchy.
hooks’s writing here (though never in her memoirs) is creaky, her ideas simplistic. Rapture may be in the title, but it’s not on the page. The work abounds with banalities (“A really great conversation can be such a stimulus to any writer who works with ideas.”) But its worst stylistic fault is its numbing repetition. hooks warns that the 20-year span of the essays necessarily “leads to some repetition”— but within individual essays? “Even though black women and women of color are publishing more than ever before there is still a dearth of material. . . . There is still not enough writing by and about black women.” Two pages later: “that the majority of [feminist] books are by and about white women reminds us also that there is still a dearth of writing by and about black women/women of color.” The eyes jounce along like the tin cup dragged across those old-time prison bars.
It is to hooks’s discredit that she squandered this opportunity to provide her faithful audience with a thoughtful, well-written analysis of the obstacles, strategies, and sources of inspiration facing minority intellectuals. Unlike the work of such underappreciated black women thinkers as Kimberly Crenshaw and Regina Austin, Rapture is too often a pity party of one.