While we were sifting through 28 years of BOMB interviews, we found a spate of interviews with African-American artists and thinkers conducted in the early to mid-1990s. Published in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the Rodney King beating trial and subsequent L.A. riots, and just prior to the O.J. Simpson trial, the interviews offer us invaluable insight into what was a period of enormous racial tension and cultural upheaval.
In this 1994 interview published shortly before the debut of her book Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, the always soft-spoken but never complaisant feminist scholar bell hooks discusses rap, racism and language, and her belief that academics should break away from the ivory tower and interact directly with the general public. Hooks speaks candidly about the travails of putting her outlaw theory into practice, saying that she would rather subject herself to humiliation on the Ricki Lake show than reverence at Harvard or Yale.
bell hooks: While it’s crucial to critique the sexism and the misogyny of rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog, it is essential for everyone to remember that they are not only more complex than the way they represent themselves, they’re more complex than the way white society represents them as well. This notion that Snoop Doggy Dog defines himself “as he really is” is something I reject. He clearly defines himself with a persona that works in cultural production in this society. The most discouraging aspect of that conference for me was this insistence on liberal individualism, as though people’s acts are disconnected from larger structures and larger forces of representation. Even Stanley Crouch wasn’t responding to my points. He was actually playing to those larger, mainstream cultural forces that reward him for saying really negative things about rap. I don’t believe it when people like Stanley Crouch say they are really concerned about misogyny. One can certainly read his essay on Toni Morrison and see incredible examples of virulent sexism and misogyny. I saw a continuum between the violence of a Snoop Doggy Dog and the violence of a Stanley Crouch, and I didn’t really see them as being separate and distinct entities. At the conference, I confessed that I have really violent impulses that sometimes listening to some panels I had wanted to come out and shoot people. The audience laughed, but I wasn’t being funny, and I wasn’t saying it to be cute or exhibitionist. I was acknowledging that the violent impulses don’t just exist out there in black youth or in the underclass, but that they reside in people like myself as well—people who have our PhDs and our good jobs. But that doesn’t mean that my life is not tormented by rageful or irrational, violent impulses. It does mean that instead of shooting people, I go home and write a critique. My irrational impulse to want to kill people who bore me or whose ideas are not very complex clearly has to do with an exaggerated response to situations where I feel powerless. I think black people, across class, have many moments in our lives when we feel utterly powerless to change the direction of situations. And we don’t deal with this collectively because we’re so in denial about it. It is significant that the urge to exterminate was aroused by a moral standpoint wherein vulgarity must be dissed. This has a lot to do with censorship. I’m not talking about mainstream censorship. I’m talking about groups that claim to have progressive agendas, but also have practices of censorship, that involve their wanting to check people around crossing boundaries that “don’t make our movement look good.” There is a whole way of structuring conferences so that they end up being these celebratory events where a certain censorship takes place in the interest of maintaining unity. I see that as part of the colonizing mentality that says, “In case white people are looking, we need to present ourselves as this unified nation so we can’t have these all-out dialectical exchanges where we show our differences.” We need multiple voices that mirror our multiple subjectivities. There’s a cognitive dissonance between what is really being said by cultural critics—we’re into border crossing, and cultural hybridity—and yet, when we come together, we still mirror the model of a unitary voice.
LC: How is your own work challenging those boundaries? When we had lunch a few months ago, you were about to go on a TV talk show. You said you were doing this because you weren’t reaching the audience you needed to start reaching.
bh: I went on the Ricki Lake show and it was a disaster. But it was a great experience. There are academics who do work on popular culture, but who really just do a lot of theoretical talking about popular culture and don’t actually enter those spaces that are much more full of contradictions, hostilities, and tensions. I heard those black folks in the audience at the Ricki Lake show saying, “We don’t agree with Doctor hooks. We’re not even going to call her Doctor. She doesn’t even know what she’s talking about.” I felt seriously assaulted, but at the same time, this was a different rage experience than sitting at home writing my cool article on the discourse of talk shows. To actually go there, and to participate, and see, and walk off the TV set because the politics of what was happening there were very disturbing to me… They had told us that there would be a “special guest” but they hadn’t said that it would be this Nazi woman. But I wanted to go on that show because Ricki Lake has an incredible number of black viewers between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, and those are exactly the people who are not in women’s studies classes, or in cool cultural studies classes where they’re learning about a Cornel West or a bell hooks. I used a quote by Snoop Doggy Dog at the NYU conference on black cinema, that really meant a lot to me. He said, “I don’t rap. I just talk. I want to be able to relax and conversate with my people.” Are we, cultural workers situated in the academy, developing a jargon about cultural production that does not allow us to “conversate and cross” these very borders that we’re talking about how cool it would be to cross? If we don’t find a way to “conversate,” all we’re ever talking about is that those of us who have certain forms of class privilege can enter the low-down and dirty spaces and take what we want to get out of those spaces, and take our asses right back home. That is really crucial for the future of cultural criticism in the United States, for the future of magazines like BOMB, and the other kinds of magazines that many of us enjoy: Vibe, Details. How much are we conversating?
Used with permission. All rights reserved. ã BOMB Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.
bell hooks on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, February 15, 2000