November 2012

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice by bell hooks

While reading Writing Beyond Race, I realized that bell hooks talks better than she writes. As a talker, here in transcribed conversations with filmmaker Gilda L. Sheppard about the movies Crash (2005) and Precious (2009) and in long-ranging interviews elsewhere, hooks engages. She gets specific, gives examples to bolster her arguments, clarifies finer points, allows for nuances and gray shadings, and offers her own experiences as teaching tools and counterbalancing forces. In short, when talking, she does everything a good essayist should do.

For instance, when chatting with Sheppard about Crash, in "Talking Trash," hooks makes a useful point that's valid for all sorts of Hollywood movies about race:

[Crash] seems on the surface to be transgressive just by openly talking about race and racism, but ultimately it's a conservative discourse the public hears from the conservative right. The message is that racism is not real -- prejudice is real and everyone has these feelings or that it is natural for people who differ based on race or nationality to be in conflict. All of these conservative messages are reinscribed in the film Crash.

Then hooks and Sheppard go about proving their points, citing and explicating specific scenes, character backstories (or lack thereof, regarding the movie's nonwhites), and plot deficiencies. In "A Pornography of Violence," another conversation with Sheppard included in Writing Beyond Race, hooks nimbly points out how the film -- and, I confess, I gave up on both Crash and Precious an hour into them -- reinforces the (untrue) ideas that poverty is so ugly and monstrous as to lack redeeming qualities, and therefore poor people are portrayed as equally irredeemable; that blackness, monstrosity, and poverty are conflated in the mass media; and that black self-hatred is natural because black folks either lack full humanity or are in constant danger of being dehumanized. Here, hooks and Sheppard compare the book, in which literacy is seen as a path out of black self-hatred and economic trauma, and the film, in which the worship of white celebrity is seen as a gateway to salvation. As with "Talking Trash," hooks and Sheppard get to the concrete nitty-gritty, highlighting specific scenes instead of high-flown abstractions. In these conversations, hooks lives up to her book's subtitle by showing how theories of race and class are active and are practiced in American popular culture, and how acute criticism can act as practiced, intelligent struggle against the racist, classist, sexist theories that get inscribed on us every day.

Unfortunately, Writing Beyond Race is mostly prose and not conversations, and hooks's prose is flaccid and unconvincing. This "motley collection" (her words) includes a hodgepodge of recent pieces: short tributes, tirades, the aforementioned dialogues, memoir reflections, and longer critical essays. The assembly is loosely wrapped around dissolving what hooks calls the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" -- a term that is as tiresomely clunky and problematic to read as it must be for hooks to write and say, and one that doesn't get any clearer as the collection moves forward.

She relies on that grab-bag phrase -- I'm calling it "IWSCP" from now on -- throughout Writing Beyond Race, to mobilize her readers toward critiquing and acting against IWSCP by showing how those five words are endlessly intertwined in American cultural discourse, and act as a network of hateful stereotyping and branding that harms us all -- black and white, gay and straight, male and female, and all the points in-between those simple words. That's a noble goal. To accomplish it, though, requires thoughtful clarity and rigorous focus that Writing Beyond Race mostly lacks.

There's a lot of lack here: the lack of concrete, tactile diction and imagery in hooks's writing; the lack of focus in her theoretical terms and critical frameworks; the lack of nuance in her sweeping statements, which often brush aside the specifics that might complicate, and sometimes bolster, hooks's arguments; a lack of close line-editing that might have prevented hooks's repeating key phrases and ideas, often inside a single essay. There's especially a lack of clarity about this book's intended audience, which leads to an unwieldy prose style -- part strident activist, part sober academic, part down-home sister telling you how it is, part remedial-school teacher -- that never jells into a compelling voice. There's no clear sense of who this is written for: high school students just beginning to think about racism and patriarchy? Seasoned humanities scholars? People working on their GEDs who feel the thumb of American culture pressing down on them? Who, exactly, is her reader, the reader for whom hooks feels she has to explain simplistically in encyclopedic fashion what "patriarchy" and "white privilege" and "white supremacy" are? Are these the same readers who are then expected to grasp -- and fight against -- the many contours of the clunky and problematic term IWSCP?

Because the collection's sense of audience is unclear, because hooks too often falls into sweeping statements and abstractions, because her language is lazy, Writing Beyond Race often makes broad claims that are easy to dispute. Also, this fuzziness forces hooks to make causal leaps that don't make sense. Here's one, from "Moving Past Blame": "Since patriarchal thinking creates psychological distress, new models of partnership offer the promise of well-being and therefore undermine the capitalist consumer culture, which exploits psychological pain." I agree that patriarchy harms us but there's no reason for that "since" or for the mostly unfounded, unproven idea that alternate systems -- which hooks doesn't provide in any depth or detail, anyway -- will necessarily lead to well-being.

Another broad swath, from "Solidarity": "The contemporary feminist movement pushed the discourse of race and racism in the United States in far more progressive directions than any other liberation struggle." This might be news to thousands of activists in civil rights, education, and immigration. About feminism, hooks might be right -- I have my doubts, and even she often points out how the movement's aims have been stymied -- but she doesn't argue it. Such statements, and there are plenty throughout Writing Beyond Race, are taken for granted, without elaboration or concrete thought or even plans for action.

Throughout this collection, bon mots such as this occur, and they make Writing Beyond Race a frustrating read. Let me be plain: I am a leftist black man who largely agrees with hooks, and largely likes that she's more interested in evaluating the overarching system that causes inequality than she is in blaming our problems on individual circumstances. I like that she's interested in solidarity, in making us see the connections between white privilege, class, and gender. But she's a shitty writer, at least here. As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." In Writing Beyond Race, hooks often can't be bothered to make the arguments, much less bad ones.

When she focuses and engages with concrete items, she begins to shine. In "Help Imagined: Re-Imagining the Past," for instance, hooks examines Kathryn Stockett's The Help (a terrible novel) and its equally terrible -- though in different ways -- film adaptation. In thirteen pages, hooks critiques and finds wanting the pseudo-feminism of "wanting it all" (see: Eat, Pray, Love), Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, and the idea that black domestics loved their white employers and their children. It's an essay that challenges, in part because it argues well that The Help is much more about criticizing "uppity" white women and the idea of female solidarity than it is about black folks at all, especially as its representations of blackness are so juvenile and stereotypical. The Help wants to divide black and white women, despite its sentimental overtures to the opposites. It is, consciously or not, part of the patriarchal backlash against feminism and against social justice.

Oddly, hooks's engagement with concrete cultural artifacts -- books, movies -- allow her to flex her rhetorical muscles, to argue best for her abstract theories. Most of Writing Beyond Race, unfortunately, begins with the abstractions and only gets more diffuse from there. Without being grounded by a person to respond to, or a book or movie to talk back into, hooks floats too much on her own hot air, fueled by specious notions and vague notions of "The Struggle." The Struggle deserves better, and hooks has offered it -- in interviews and thought-provoking roundtables. But not here.

Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice by bell hooks
Routledge
ISBN: 978-0415539159
208 pages