bell hooks, academia, and the reassurance of uncertainty

This afternoon I went to a panel discussion at The New School which included bell hooks, a well-known black scholar and educator who explores race, class, gender, sexuality, language, representation, and other topics in her poetry, essays, books, and speaking engagements around the world. She’s currently the scholar-in-residence at The New School, and, having read some of her work (including “Teaching New Worlds/New Words,” a chapter from her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom), I jumped at the chance to hear her speak.

I am not a feminist scholar (yet) in that I haven’t read much feminist theory (though today I jotted down in my notebook: “I am getting backed into feminism by society,” a point I will likely come back to in the future), and I am not a race scholar (yet) for similar reasons. Coming into a dialogue with the likes of bell hooks and three of her knowledgeable colleagues alongside her, I planned simply to listen and hope to bring home some ideas to chew on. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a talk entitled, “Transgression: Whose Booty Is This?” (gotta love hooks), we discussed topics such as:

– The conversation shift around the black female body over the last several decades and the question, “Who owns the female body [as a social object]?” and “Whose gaze defines it?”
– Decentering Whiteness on a white Catholic campus (one of the panelists is from the Midwest)
– The movement of Whiteness into Queer space, Black space, Otherness
– Products and representation in the white capitalist structure
– The body as a “location of delight” in capitalist supremacist patriarchy

And so on. If you’re eating this up, awesome. I was, but I also felt incredibly limited in my ability to engage with what seemed to be loaded, academic in-crowd terms that most of the rest of the audience was nodding along to. I got it, to a point…but boy was I glad nobody asked me for my two cents.

My one takeaway that felt great – ironically, considering that we were all academics in the room, to some extent – was the commentary by Lynnee Denise, a DJ from New York’s golden era of hip-hop who has crossed over into activism and academia. Lynnee did what seemed miraculous at the moment: she broke our worship at the altars of academia and calmly interrogated the assumption that such a conversation about race, the female body, sexuality, queer vs. straight identity, and so on should valid only in such a specialized framework. “What is queer culture outside of the academy? I don’t even know,” she thoughtfully told the room. “What is feminism outside the academy?”

Thank goodness for people who don’t have any need to seem like more than they are, or be authoritative about abstract academic topics that in reality, many people live every day and know plenty about as just plain “life.” We sell ourselves – and each other – as prophets, and yet the smartest starting place (and maybe even finishing point) can simply be one of thoughtful uncertainty and questions. Thank goodness some of us can remind the rest of us posturing, anxious fools to take it easy and just reflect. Thanks, Lynnee.

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