PRINT January 1993


bell hooks' Black Looks

Black Looks: race and representation, by bell hooks. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

We have to change our own mind. . . . We’ve got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to come together with warmth.
—Malcolm X

Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life.
—bell hooks

A CALL TO ACTION is different in 1992: the tactic is a privately owned liberation theology, the faith Blackness, the patron saint Vision. In her latest book of essays, cultural critic bell hooks gives up the quotidian for the spooky no-man’s-land of mass-media representation, her site of excavation “images of black people that reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy.” The dig takes her across, rather than down, the broad face of American film, advertisement, and literature, in an effort to “decolonize” the mind and locate “Revolutionary Attitude.”

The argument includes a feminist reconstruction of black masculinity, a discussion of “hot pussy” in the marketplace, and a conjuring of the renegade alliance between blacks and Native Americans. In “A Feminist Challenge” (subtitle: “Must We Call Every Woman Sister?”), hooks asks not whether Anita Hill is a black feminist hero—her answer is no—but what justice Hill expected from the Senate Judiciary Committee when she brought her naive albeit poised testimony to their table. Though Hill might have lost her case faster had she enlisted an explicit feminist agenda, hooks argues that she would have gained ground as a speaking, public person, and would have given the viewing audience—the black female and every other viewer—something more to sink our teeth into than despair. Madonna, “Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?,” is hooks’ other woman, in a surprisingly dry analysis after such a fabulous title. “Though I often admire and, yes at times, even envy Madonna because she has created a cultural space where she can invent and reinvent herself and receive public affirmation and material reward, I do not consider myself a Madonna fan.” Too high to go over, too low to go under: must we all position ourselves in relation to la M?

Despite the interest of these analyses, it’s the three essays on film that moor the book, and where hooks hits stride. “Is Paris Burning?,” a very rough read of white consumption, presses the question of whether a film is de facto radical because its subject matter is. In “Micheaux’s Films,” hooks gingerly unfolds Oscar Micheaux’s celebration of a complex image of blackness in his movies of the ’20s. The tour de force is “The Oppositional Gaze,” which locates black female spectatorship beyond the pain of the offensive black images that Hollywood is so good at, to include pleasure. In perhaps the most subversive maneuver of the book, hooks looks for pleasure in every situation—for recovery of a private, personal joy that a lot of living in America can take away.

When hooks writes as film critic, working within the relative safety zone of a subject contained by the screen, her arguments stand thorough and coherent. When actual black people enter the picture, things get irksome. There is a flavor of being Saved to the writing, a degree of: “If you don’t see it this way then you are in denial.” And in this jihad for the souls of black folks, denial is tantamount to conspiring with the enemy. Hooks portrays herself as a decolonized person in a position of righteousness . . . because she is decolonized. Fine, but for those who might still be in the loop of oppression, a leap of faith needs to happen. Hooks does not explain this leap.

Something of a tender tyrant is hooks, teaching the politics of self-liberation as bound by a rather rigid authorial presence that overwhelms equally as it withholds. In “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance,” for example, she writes in the aphoristic style of the manifesto, which either speaks to those who already understand what it is to love blackness, becoming an exercise in flaunting, defiance, or else wants detail, more explanation. What it is we are talking about when we say “blackness”? Hooks utilizes the many slipping meanings of “black”—cultural/historical construct, true fact in the eyes of God, transcendent state of grace and pain—without owning the slippage.

To be sure, revolution doesn’t come with a directive (Buy bread at Muslim bakery!) anymore. Compare Malcolm X’s easily quoted call to love black, which hooks uses to introduce her essay on the subject, to hooks’ own. One is a paragon of self-containment and practicability; the other poses more questions than answers. The purpose of comparison here is not to decide “worth” but rather to acknowledge history and, well, yes, difference. Recognizing our post–civil rights, post-Modern moment—the public oratory and soapbox gone—hooks calls for the revolution to begin at home, privately, with reflection and introspection, then clangs the phone down hard in your ear. Now, is that ringing noise the sound of a specious identity politics or a strategy to disrupt?

Beth Coleman is a writer who lives in New York and contributes to Filmmaker, Out, and The Village Voice.