Remembering bell hooks

One of things I’ve been doing lately is thinking about my legacy as a writer, as a person. It feels a little abstract to think about what your influence will be when you’re gone. And then someone you love dies. And it doesn’t feel so abstract.

My heart is still heavy thinking about bell hooks’ transition. I was honored, as someone who was profoundly shaped by her passion, her courage, her clear-sighted articulation of the things that keep Black women from soaring — and how to overcome them — were balm for me. She was really an iconic trailblazer. I tried to do her work and life and impact some justice for Oprah Daily. An excerpt is below. You can read it here, or here. I hope she is resting well.

Mourning bell hooks—who died on December 15, 2021, at age 69 after giving us four decades of trailblazing feminist scholarship—means celebrating everything she taught us about what it means to be a Black woman in love with herself and the world, and with the life of the mind. With her passing, there will be one fewer pair of hands holding up Black women—all women—as inherently valuable. For decades she has helped me in my journey to become myself; her legacy will live in my bones, and in the minds and hearts of all she awakened and inspired.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952, hooks honored her matrilineal line by taking her maternal great-grandmother’s name as her nom de plume in a lowercase version to emphasize “the substance of books, not who I am.” She influenced several well-known luminaries and writers to adopt the same practice. Let us defer to the work of our hands and pay tribute to our elders instead of bowing to tradition and capitalizing ourselves.

Maybe honoring her elders and ancestors played a role in enabling her to speak and write her fame into existence, to hear her family tell it. Like most Southern towns, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was stratified by race and class; hooks’s father was a janitor, and her mother a maid. “Gloria learned to read and write at an early age and even proclaimed she would be famous one day,” her family said in a statement. “Growing up, the girls shared an upstairs bedroom, and she would always keep the light on well into the night. Every night we would try to sleep, but the sounds of her writing or page turning caused us to yell down to Mom to make her turn the light off.”

Her family went on to say that Gloria always had at least 10 serious books she was reading simultaneously, whether Shakespeare, Little Women, or other classics, which quenched her “great thirst for knowledge, which she incorporated into her life’s work.” Against the backdrop of the great civil rights struggles, she graduated from a newly integrated high school. Her intellectual acumen and writer’s gifts were apparent early, and she majored in English literature at Stanford University, then earned her MA from the University of Wisconsin and her PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison.

bell hooks
Karjean Levine, Getty Images

She thrived in the classroom, and her criticism and charisma quickly acquired a following both in and beyond academic circles. I first encountered her during one of my many trips to my local New York library at age 13 and was instantly in awe. Hooks wrote with confident wisdom and ease about topics I had never read from a Black woman’s perspective; she seemed so like me, even if she was from a different part of the country and a different generation. We were kindred spirits.

My dog-eared copy of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery was the gateway to reprogramming myself. The microaggressions, the confusing pauses and rudeness that came my way because of my dark skin and natural hair—bell hooks helped me understand that these were the manifestations of social constructs she interrogated, not figments of my imagination. Her writing about writing, the way she mined the role of self-love and self-care: All these things and more marked her as a visionary. Radical, yes, for her positions on racism and patriarchy and capitalism. Radical, too, for attending to the hearts of Black women. For saying that we were not just our work, but we deserved, as much as anyone, our own affection and tenderness. The world would not give it to us, not without a fight.

Notes on Failure

I’m wondering these days if everything about writing and publishing is about failure. If you’re any good, anyway. This is why it has both surprised me, and not, to pick up a non-book related hobby — sewing — in recent weeks. I wanted to build something with my hands that required a different use of my brain. And it helped me view my writing life a little differently in the process, which is always cool.

A common misconception non-writers and aspiring writers have about writing is that when you write a first draft, you are done. I don’t know where this concept comes from. It might be that we live in a society that metabolizes everything very fast, from news cycles to video clips, so it makes sense that we share a common expectation that even things that should be slow can happen more quickly (says the lady who has all but abandoned my Crockpot in favor of my Instant Pot). 

But actually, the longer and more complex your writing, the more revision it probably requires of you. And that’s as it should be. A solid draft isn’t really excellent or even good until it’s gone through a few rounds of revision, probably many rounds. 

One way that writing weeds people out of the profession or vocation (can you get discouraged out of a calling?) comes down to whether you have the capacity for the rigor of revision. Some of it is ego. Some of it is pure determination. You have to outlast the many versions of the thing. 

A marathon, not a sprint. Only a cliche because it’s true.

When I was starting out, I wish someone would have told me to listen a little less to the people who fed my ego and maybe had decent points about my talent as a writer and my attentiveness to the craft and a little more to the physically and spiritually demanding aspects of writing. That I would sit alone with myself and my memories and thoughts for long periods of time, waiting for what I imagined would be on the page to be fully realized as the story, essay or poem that is actually on the page. 

Another cliche is appropriate here: You can’t really push the river. There is something that the work is teaching you when it is janky and uneven and not working. All that you learn on your way to the draft that is as good as you can make it (not perfect, maybe not ever) is part of the writing, too. 

So it is with learning a new craft. The story about me and sewing begins with my grandmother, Edna, who showed up in an 1940 Census report as someone who cooked and sewed as a profession for something called the National Youth Administration down in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This is the most information I have about my mother’s mother and it made me feel closer to her to know that cooking is one of my great joys, but I have also always been fascinated by fashion design — specifically fashion illustration. An old dream of mine was to be a fashion designer one day, mainly because I grew up without the luxury of clothes that were made to fit me. They were always from someone else’s closet, their old things, re-sold at discount in thrift stores. One day, I would make my own things, just for me. 

I gifted myself a sewing machine and some virtual classes at a local sewing center. The center sent a toolkit with all the things — a tomato-shaped pin cushion, a tape measure, fabric, shears (just very sharp, large scissors) and more. The machine was/is deeply intimidating, with little compartments for bobbins and other knickknacks. I watched a YouTube video on how to thread the thing maybe three or four times, and still, when it was time for the first three-hour class, I did it wrong, and my beautiful, intimidating machine made this constipated noise. The instructor tried to see through my less than sharp computer camera where things had gone wrong (I figured out later that I had done something strange with the thread and the presser foot, and it would not be the first time) and ultimately said, “Hmm, this seems like a mechanical thing.” 

I wonder what I was thinking about when I was stitching — but not really stitching — the top…

Not that helpful, but we are not meant to learn everything on Zoom. Probably especially not something tactile like sewing. I had a very acute understanding of what my students had experienced throughout my Zoom teaching experiences over the past year and some months. Noted.

And when it came to sewing, I was frustrated and blissfully happy to be failing at it. Failing meant that I was trying something totally new. I fudged the measurements, and ruined the stitches. The thread kept coming out of the machine.

I couldn’t really figure myself out except to say that I must enjoy being humbled. This is what is at the core of the writing life. You cannot know the perfect way for you until you have written a lot of bad shit. Corny, underdeveloped, obsessed dreck. Maybe there are some salvageable lines in there. But maybe not.

One way to look at rejections of your work — for contests, for fellowships, for whatever — is to say, “They’re wrong.” But another way to look at them, especially as they begin to get sweeter and more concrete about what doesn’t work is to say, “Hmm, I wonder if they have a point.” 

The relief of making a lopsided tote bag, to which I affixed straps that hang oddly, like banana peels over the top of the unfinished lips of this bag that I can never take outside, is that I tried. And for my first try, it wasn’t bad, even though it didn’t yield the beautiful bragging rights that I had hoped for. Who likes somebody who is always winning at everything all the time anyway? Not me. Probably not you. 

I won’t lie: It was a relief to go back to my works in progress after botching not just the bag, but also a skirt, which I imagined would look one way but turned out to be the wrong size pattern for my body, or really, the body of anyone I know. So. That sucked. It’s a lot of fabric. I suppose I will use it now for something else, something different. Or maybe I’ll start again with another piece of fabric. There’s some kind of metaphor in there about writing, I think.

Review for Oprah Daily: Of Women and Salt

I am beside myself with joy over sharing with you that I am contributing to book coverage for Oprah Magazine online, now the Oprah Daily. I wrote about the gorgeous Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia for the Oprah Daily launch today.

The novel opens in 2018 with Carmen lamenting her daughter Jeannette’s opioid addiction, desperately hoping she will get sober, survive. This is not the American dream Carmen had envisioned for her family when she migrated from Cuba to Miami. Carmen writes: Maybe if I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, maybe I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way?

Readers are then whisked back to 1866 and introduced to Carmen’s great-grandmother, Maria Isabel, who was the only female employee in an all-male cigar factory in Camagüey, Cuba. Antonio, Carmen’s great-grandfather, enchanted Maria Isabel by reading aloud to her and other workers to help pass the time. He reads from novels by Alexander Dumas, from Shakespeare’s plays, from news stories—his aim to help distract them from their toil, and from the encroachment of guerrilla fighting in their town. Maria Isabel herself cannot read, but in listening to Antonio she wonders: “Can one learn to fall in love with a mind?”

Considering Toni Morrison at 90

A photograph of author Toni Morrison by Michael Lionstar
Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar

I had the somewhat frightening (intimidating?) experience of receiving Toni Morrison’s collection of essays and lectures, The Source of Self-Regard before its publication in 2019. [Here is the review I wrote for the smart folks at Bitch Media].

Unlike Ms. Morrison’s fiction, which I sometimes just did not understand (A Mercy, Paradise) or which I loved without really being able to explain why (Song of Solomon, Beloved) or which humored me the way a good friend does (Sula !), her nonfiction was a true education. It educated me by her example, in terms of her biography, and it educated me the way all reading does — through its structure, the way it had been nurtured and considered and through what was not there. 

February 18th would have been Toni Morrison’s 90th birthday, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot, celebrating and commemorating her gifts to me and to all of us through her rigorous writing and creativity. For many Black writers, it is not only her discipline and vision that we admire, it is how she earned the nickname Mother Toni, which is a nod to her guidance to each of us as we have sought to make our way on the perilous journey that is writing and editing and revising and publishing.

Her wisdom is so much a part of my practice that I don’t even remember when I started telling others. Whenever I speak to young writers, I use her example. I remind them that Mother Toni had a day job into her 40s, that she woke up at 4 a.m. before said day job to write while her babies were asleep. I have admired this level of discipline all my life, and while I have different reasons for engaging it, it has been essential to my writing practice all the same. And at the same time, she let us know that we are the people that we are, we are not the work we do, which is essential.

She is also known for giving entire generations of Black writers permission to write the stories that do not yet exist, saying if there is a book you want to read that does not yet exist, you must be the one to write it (this is a paraphrase). I can’t imagine how many books we would not have were it not for this advice, for her presence, for her work and her inspiration.

I rarely have occasion to do such deep research when I plan to write about a writer anymore, but I sensed that Ms. Morrison would not be with us much longer. So, in the before times, I took the liberty of luxuriating in the reference room at the Schomburg. I’ve aggregated below my notes on Ms. Morrison’s life, because these were the thoughts I had that didn’t make it into publication anywhere, and didn’t really fit in any kind of linear place; they also sum up why, aside from her talent, discipline and brilliance, I never felt anything I wrote about Ms. Morrison could really do her justice. I think it was important for me to put this here in celebration of her birthday in part because of how valuable looking at the contours of her life has been for my confidence as a writer. In a collection of her quotes, The Measure of Our Lives, she is quoted as having said: “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” One of her many talents was showing us all that writing could do and be if we were brave and persistent enough to meet it.

Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and About Women of Color, Toni Morrison entry, pages 636 – 640

Born 1931 in Lorain, Ohio

Chloe Anthony Wofford

Shortened her name to an abbreviation of her middle name purportedly (and with regret) because no one could pronounce Chloe. The theme of claiming one’s name emerged –noted in entry – in her fiction – from third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) to Tar Baby, her fourth ( 1981)

Graduated from Howard in 1953, English Major, classics minor

Master’s from Cornell in 1955 – her thesis was on suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

She taught for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, then returned to Howard as a faculty member.

She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958

They had two sons together, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. They divorced in 1964.

She moved w/sons to Syracuse where she worked as Random House textbook editor. Began writing at night as therapy for her loneliness when her sons were in bed.

Transferred to NYC in 1967 to headquarters for Random House editing acclaimed black women writers like Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.

She kept teaching – at SUNY Purchase 1971-72, Yale, 1976-77. She left Random House in 1983; Appointed Albert Schweitzer chair at SUNY Albany in 1984. Stayed until 1989, when Princeton appointed her Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.  (Note from me: That means 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of Toni Morrison becoming the first Black woman to hold a chair at an ivy league university.)

She’s taught at a number of  prestigious colleges and universities including Bard, Rutgers & Princeton, she delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard University. She’s also received a number of honorary degrees including from Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale. “Although Morrison is perhaps best known for her fiction, she has written successfully in several other genres as well, including drama, children’s and YA, short stories and criticism.”

Won the Pulitzer in 1988, the Nobel in 1993 – the first African American and only the 8th woman to ever receive the prize. Her body of work began with the short story that grew into the novel that became The Bluest Eye, work that “established her recurrent concern with the meaning and place of black female identity.”

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination (1992)

Two collections of critical essays (this would now be three, with the Origins of others, I think)

Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)

Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (1997)

Icons of African American Literature

266-298

“The search for love and identity runs through almost everything I write,” (Taylor-Guthrie 96) Page 269

Page 273

“For Morrison, narrative is necessary. It is a psychic process that enables humanity to conceive and satisfy its fundamental need for coherence and understanding. The model of psychoanalysis throws light on the progress of characters looking for themselves as well as on the peculiar link the narrative creates between them. Such a relationship, reflected in the reciprocal link between narrator and reader, finds its model in the relationship shared by the analyst and its patient. The narrative of the one is stimulated by the patient listening of the other. Wisdom, if it emerges from such relation, is the work of the past, thanks to the traces left by memory or dream. In both cases, the aim is to discover the power of the desire that fuels the story, its origins, in order to master the process that, by elucidating the past, will lead to maturity. For the American black community, whose past is more easily read on the mutilated bodies or in the unfathomable eyes than in libraries, whose present is most often synonymous with alienation, telling stories is above all the way to refigure and to understand, to accept and to master a dismembered history made of holes and omissions.”

Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography, David L. Middleton, 1987

From “Good, Bad, Neutral Black,” NYT Mag, 2 May, 1971, Vol. 7, p. 3 ff

“TM assesses books designed for black children…That which is truly good becomes universal: “Like so much that is meant for black folks, like so much that black people do for themselves, it ends up in the marrow of the culture at large.”

Page 26

“In time, writing became a way to ‘order my experience.’

“It’s always seemed to me that black people’s grace has been with what they do with language.”

From the Dodo: Me and Bendito on the podcast An Animal Saved My Life

Yes, he is *this* cute every single day.

I wrote about Bendito arriving in my life around the time that it seemed a number of people discovered a 2014 Bark article I wrote about Cleo and the fraught relationship some Black folks have with dogs. The folks at the podcast An Animal Saved My Life over at The Dodo were kind enough to interview me about my sweet Bendito, who very soon will be 1 year old. I hope you enjoy it, especially if podcasts are your jam.

Black Book Stacks on Substack

Before I was a journalist, my favorite non-fiction writing and non-journaling activity was to attend readings or lectures featuring Black authors and take copious notes. So it is a kind of coming full circle that I’ve started a Substack newsletter focused on book reviews related to books for and by Black people, Black Book Stacks. (About a year ago, I started a YouTube channel of the same name, which you can view here and if I have a Bookshop store you can find here.)

I always had the innate sense that being a writer was not just about putting words to paper and hoping that others would read those words. I was always searching to put the words I wrote into a tradition. Writing was another way of trying to belong and to solidify a place for myself in a world that seemed bent on my erasure or destruction.

I have vivid memories of a small royal blue Mead notebook that was thick as a brick. I carried it with me to the old Barnes & Noble on Astor Place, through Washington Square Park, up to Emma Willard and Vassar. I had the privilege of listening and trying to absorb the wisdom of Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, Janet McDonald, Elaine Brown and so many others. I was a careful collector of Black women writers’ quotes, usually because I couldn’t afford to purchase books of my own and I didn’t not want to vandalize library books. Quotes were the happy compromise; they were short enough for me to carry wherever I went. These were the breadcrumbs and manna they left for me in a trail to who-knew-where but I gobbled them up. Every nugget was a jewel in my crown.

As I made my way in journalism, it became harder and harder for me to give myself permission to keep up this witnessing practice in the same way. Mostly because of time, but also because I realized that such forums and opportunities to hear Black writers and share space with them were fewer in other states and cities. It just so happened that reading the work of Black women in particular was my self-paced MFA program. Sometimes, I had the opportunity to profile, interview and write about them, as was the case with Octavia Butler in 2004 and Alice Walker around the same time. But mostly, I was just glad to have their work to sit with and revel in.

Over the years, I’ve continued to focus my attention on the work of Black writers because, as more of the world knows now, we live in a world where white supremacist capitalism means that what is considered valuable is everything but Blackness or real intimate discussions of all its flourishing contours in spite of and beyond the gaze of the consumption of white people. What I mean to say, I think, is that Black literature has always been a miracle to behold. In part because it comes from a people who have a shorter lineage in the Americas of thriving in literature because of the legal restrictions that forbade them to read and write. Our resilience and perseverance and faith, all bound up in the Word, continued both in an oral tradition and on paper.

The overcorrection here, I’ve found, is that when it comes to fair critique or evaluation of the work of Black writers, is that our books are either ignored, as if they never happened, especially beyond the date or week of their publication, or they are elevated as neutral objects for sale without a real analysis of them and their context. That’s what my new newsletter is aiming to help create in the world. I hope that if that sounds of interest to you, that you’ll subscribe. Looking forward to seeing you on the list.

On Belonging

I appreciate being in a period of national relief. There is something so calming, even when the world is still in a shambles, about humane leadership. It allows my creative mind, anyway, room to react to events without trying to problem solve or anticipate the next horrific thing.

One result of that has been more space in my mind to reflect and create. One aspect of my life I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year has been my connection to The Bronx and why I am so attached to it as a site of my fiction and creative nonfiction, why it is a place that, when I lived far from New York City, pulled me back to it. I think I understand better having written this piece on Medium, but I’m not sure. It may be constantly changing like everything else.

Here’s an excerpt:

It feels like the least a Black woman can expect in the way of belonging and safety in 2021 is to not stand out from the crowd in an era of white nationalist fervor and anger. I want that sentence to mean less in the wake of this historic week but I fear it means more.The safest option, even when the world is quarantining during a pandemic, is to not make oneself more of a target for surveillance or harassment.

In the before times, I found subtle ways of trying to take up less space knowing I would be in a situation, or traveling to a place, where I would be The Only One or One of The Onlies. The stress of living in a cauldron of constant chaos and upheaval is offset by the relief of not having to navigate multiple reactions to my Blackness and my womanhood and their intersection, which seems to be the most intimidating and off-putting fact of my existence of all.

Staying in my lane, or my neighborhood, has become my safety, my insurance. My safety is that I am surrounded by others who more or less expect me to be here. That expectation is reassuring, because when white people are surprised by Black people, the Black people end up dead or in prison. It probably helps that I don’t move that quickly, since there’s a lot of me to move around. Even if I were to be one of those sudden movement types, there is, after all, a police precinct up the street. That said, I am not often made to feel like a suspect in my neighborhood, though I wonder if the Black men in my neighborhood would say the same. I bet even the famous ones would tell a different story.

I wonder: Do you feel like you belong to the place where you live? Why or why not?

On Medium: White Supremacy is an Emergency

Like much of the nation, I am still processing and trying to be productive in the wake of last week’s domestic terrorism. Increasingly, it feels like when there is nothing new to add, there is no reason to post anything here. But I did have thoughts about the urgent threat of white supremacy — that it is, in fact, an emergency — in the same way that I have been pondering how traumatic racism is for all of us. My thoughts are up on Medium today:

Trauma is defined by Merriam-Webster as a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury. It is possible that we cannot reorder the psyches or behaviors of angry, fearful white men who believe their inheritance has been stolen. This is one of the biggest reasons I worry that the rhetoric of hope is not a cure and it will never be. If anything, our insistence on hopefulness only deepens the wound and adds insult to injury. The hope for an equal world displaces white male privilege, which obviously is at the core of preserving white supremacy as a way of life. Hope for equity banishes white men from control and power; it upends the world, because it means imagining a world where white men are not at the center.

Book Review: The Office of Historical Corrections

Danielle Evans’ sophomore collection of short stories with a timely, prescient eponymous novella is a delightful follow up to Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, whose title alone you have to love.

In The Office of Historical Corrections, we meet Black women who are sexy, dispassionate, cerebral and astute. They come from money and status; the Jack and Jill set, if they wanted to join, but generally, they’re not that interested in what you think of them. From Alcatraz to Wisconsin to the D.C./Maryland/Virginia trinity, these characters traverse the physical landscape while tromping on the generally limited and boundary-laden universes into which they are typically crammed or altogether absent.

One of my favorites in this collection is “Boys Go to Jupiter,” told from the perspective of the clueless white girl Claire who becomes a lightning rod for controversy when she dons a Confederate-flag printed bikini and posts carelessly about it online. In less skilled hands, the story would veer towards tropes that don’t truly vindicate the Black women who are often unheard in these narratives. In Evans’ hands, though, we understand Claire’s indignation clearly, and we know that it is her right to do what she wants as a kind of blind participation in white privilege that of course has come to the fore in public life more recently.

Pub date is November 10th 2020

The eponymous novella, however, featuring two frenemies united in their noble profession or recovering or literally re-membering aspects of Black history that are often intentionally lost, is beautiful, timely and thought-provoking. Novellas are still unfortunately rare, but I really love the form and Evans showcases its best features here, underscoring how convenient forgetting can be even for the most conscientious among us. I hope you’ll pre-order the book from my affiliate page on Bookshop.org. I also made a short video review on Black Book Stacks, which you can see here.

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Happy summer, as happy as it can be, I suppose. I wanted to drop by to rave a little about Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, Caste, publishing soon and definitely one for you to pick up. Here’s my full review from the Sunday Boston Globe and an excerpt:

“With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “America is an old house.” It is a simple analogy that is classic Wilkerson, whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” chronicled the Great Migration through the masterful weaving of thousands of narratives within the United States. In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s.

A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, “Caste” removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson explains, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry.” Using examples from around the world, she goes on to demonstrate how the codification of caste throughout the world has hardened economic and political inequality into seemingly permanent markers of difference.