MADE OF SHADE: Dr. bell hooks on Zimmerman Effect
Not every day do you get to sit with intellectual, feminist, educator and social activist bell hooks.
If you do, it’s wise to fall silent and listen.
bell hooks has written and published over thirty books, including Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism; Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics; Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-recovery; Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom; Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-esteem; We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity and many more works to date. bell hooks was a Professor of African and African-American Studies and English at Yale University. hooks was the Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at City College of New York. She was also Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College.
hooks has been ranked as one of the most influential American thinkers and writers of all time by Publisher’s Weekly and The Atlantic monthly. In this week’s Made of Shade column, hooks joins me to discuss Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman, B37 Juror, the bell hooks Institute and the new Rolling Stone cover featuring the marathon bomber.
Quassan: I was sick to my stomach when I watched Zimmerman become a free man. We’ve had this sort of injustice take place in the past, yet on that particular day, from the pit of my stomach, I felt terribly ill. How did we arrive to this point where something so unjust could take place over and over again?
bell hooks: White supremacy has not only not changed its direction, it’s intensified as black people and other people of color have gained rights and have proved ourselves to be equal. In many ways the Zimmerman case is really a modern day lynching, it’s about racist white people reinforcing racialized power. The outcome sends a message to the world that global white supremacy is alive and well.
Quassan: What are some of the solutions to these injustices that keep arising in our community and around the world?
bell hooks: We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice. That’s why Dr. King was so vital because he used the transformative power of love as a force for justice.
Quassan: Wow! African American parents are mortified for the safety of their children as they leave the house into a world that has shown it devalues blackness but also a system exists that does not protect our beloved children. What should these parents say to their children?
bell hooks: First of all black children in this country have never been safe. I think it’s really important that we remember the four little black girls killed in Birmingham and realize that’s where the type of white supremacist, terrorist assault began. That killing sent a message to black people that our children are not safe. I think we have to be careful not to act like this is some kind of new world that’s been created but that this is the world we already existed in. I think we should honor the fact that people do amazing parenting of black children in the midst of white supremacist culture. Partially, it is by creating awareness and creating an activist mentally in children at a very early age. When we lived in the time of separate but [not] equal or coloreds only, black parents had to explain the reality to children who did not understand what was taking place. The work of parenting for justice, black parents have always done. Many white people have much to learn from progressive black people about how to parent for justice. I was just talking with a friend about a little black boy in Kentucky who was being told that the other kids didn’t want to play with him or touch him because he was black. When parents parent for justice, a child knows how to respond. The boy knew how to deal with the situation; he knew they were being ridiculous. That is what conscious parenting is all about.
Quassan: What would you say to Zimmerman if you were able to speak to him face to face?
bell hooks: That’s a difficult question because I believe that he’s such a hater that it’s impossible to speak to him through the wall of hate. Just think, if Zimmerman had never gotten out the car, Trayvon would be alive today. Trayvon was no threat to Zimmerman. A lot of hate had to be inside of Zimmerman, to get him out of the car, stalk Trayvon and execute him. It’s impossible to answer that. Really we can only be similar to the Amish and ask for forgiveness of his sins. Some black people might feel the urge to stalk Zimmerman and execute him. I think that’s a real shift in many people’s response to racialized aggression, it has to do with the feeling of powerlessness in the face of justice not prevailing.
Quassan: Why should Stand your ground NOT exist?
bell hooks: Let’s go back to the co-murderers of Trayvon Martin because they are the white people in Tallahassee who are so obsessively supportive of stand your ground. It is that law that gives the license to kill and that encourages white people to become predators of people of color. We have to look even before stand your ground, white people have always used private property signs and trespassing signs as a way to kill people who are not like themselves. Florida has been the site of this madness, like the Asian who was just looking for directions and was blown away by the white man who answered his door. It was a no trespassing sign, so he was not seen as a murderer. Everybody is saying the decision for Zimmerman was all about the law and we are a country of the law. Well the laws in this country have always been anti-black people and people of color. It’s yet another white supremacist attempt at mind distortion like suddenly we have a pure law on behalf of justice when everyone knows that’s not so.
Quassan; Juror B37 said that Travon Martin played a role in his death to Anderson Cooper during an exclusive interview. How do you respond to her statement?
bell hooks: You know what’s amazing about Trayvon Martin is that he was behaving like any teenager in our society would behave in a normal teenage way. To say that he played a role in his death, is to not acknowledge the amazing fact that despite imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, Trayvon was just being a regular teenager causing harm to no-one. People who want to believe that he played a role in his death are the same people that want to believe that black children are mini-adults. As if they are threats to the power of whiteness.
Quassan: What is the bell hooks Institute all about?
bell hooks: It’s all about bringing education for critical consciousness into the lives of ordinary people. The institute first hosted Gloria Steinem. Gloria traveled to Kentucky and spent the afternoon with women of Kentucky who would never have the chance to talk with her. The Institute mixes academic intellectual people with people who are also critical thinkers and live ordinary lives. We had Cornel West visit the Institute and it was just amazing and fabulous to have a mixture of class and race of people, able to talk to him openly. Our last guest was Rick Lowe from Texas who is responsible for project row houses. The institute is an amazing attempt to have education for critical consciousness be something that touches race, class and gender. It’s about sharing knowledge outside of institutions, for everyday people that might not attend universities.
Quassan: What direction will the bell hooks Institute go in the future?
bell hooks: Right now it’s kind of a center that hosts events. But I will house bell hooks papers and people who want to do work with my writing, primary text or my work that is not published, will come and do that work. They will be able to see bell hooks development as a critical thinker and intellectual. I had a hard time coming to think about a bell hooks Institute because I’ve mostly been pretty modest in my career. The forming of the Institute has so much to do with the way in which critical thinkers and writers are being forgotten. Some students come into my class and they don’t know who Audre Lorde is or Toni Cade Bambara. The only black writer they know is Alice Walker. It’s important for us to do the work of keeping our legacies and work alive in the public imagination.
Quassan: Some people are outraged about the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine where the marathon bomber is presented as this sort of cool young guy in a rock star type of presentation. The title reads, “Jahar’s World.” His long hair is blowing and appears fashionably tweaked. He literally looks like some type of pop icon. Thoughts on the cover?
bell hooks: This type of cover is meant to create a recognition that makes so many criminalized people into celebrities. So he’s already being celebritized so that he can become a fashion statement or style person. It’s what happens in our culture then the victims become invisible. After, we cannot call up the victims’ looks or identity, that’s part of this insanity in our culture of violence. We perpetuate and normalize violence.
Quassan Castro is a news and entertainment journalist. Follow him on Twitter @Quassan.