What's Relay Happening Now: Race and Pop Culture

bell hooks is one of the few contemporary intellectual whose work is actually fun to read.

While most academics fill their books with arcane reference and convoluted lingo, hooks is fresh, direct and comprehensible; she is probably the only feminist theorist and cultural critic who quotes Marvin Aye often as Michel Foucault.

Her laid-back style is not an affectation or gimmick. It results from an ambition to speak to people in and outside of the academy and a genuine belief in the dual power of intellectual work to reflect and change "real life."

"Ideally, what I'm trying to do is bridge these two things...," she was written. "It's not like I'm going to be talking about deconstruction in the academy and then go home to basic working-class Black life and not talk all about the essay I'm writing on, say, postmodernism. And if folks ask me what postmodernism is, I'm certainly going to find a way to satisfy their curiosity."

The best essays in her new book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, achieve this bridge effectively. In the 12 essays collected here, hooks draws on a broad range of sources, from post-colonialist criticism to personal experience and discussion with friends to critique the treatment of race in popular culture. hooks argues convincingly that these issues matter, that the way we perceive Anita Hill's testimony, Madonna's videos or J. Crew's latest catalogue can shape our understanding of our own lives.


The book challenges our assumptions about how these images work. As a political Black feminist who boldly declares herself an enemy of America's "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," hooks speaks from standpoint truly oppositional to most mainstream thought. She tirelessly interrogates the institutions most people take for granted. As she writes in her introduction, these essays are "gestures of defiance...find[ing] words that express what I see, especially when I am looking in ways that move against the grain, when I seeing things that most folks want to simply believe are not there."

Early in the book, hooks sets up her views on race, showing herself a critical and careful thinker by rejecting both of the well-publicized extremes that have recently dominated and sidetracked discussions of the topic. She dismisses the essentialism of nationalists like Louis Farrakhan who think racial identities are mystically ingrained in our souls .hooks also rejects the assimilationist views of writers like Shelby Steele who say race matters so little that Blacks should stop complaining and reap the benefits of the great American society.

Black Looks: Race and Represenation

by bell hooks

The South End Press


hooks seeks a critical middle ground that takes into account both the common humanity of all American and the present inequities of society that create division. Her task is to "deconstruct the category 'race' without minimizing or ignoring the impact of racism." Her position allows her to view popular culture with a keen, incisive and measured eye.

Turning her gaze on representations of Blacks in the media, hooks voices distress at their lack of complexity. She is particularly wary of joining in muchpublicized "celebrations" of diversity such as Benetton advertisements, which invariably feature models of every skin hue placed in startling juxtaposition. To hooks, these representations are not sign of true racial understanding, but simply a commodification of difference: "ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture."

hooks maintains that these symbols lack any real depth of their own because their worth is calculated only in relation to a dominant culture. Her discussion of the ads extends into a critique of the way Blacks and whites in everyday life accept and promote these exoticized conceptions of Blacks.

Black Looks insists that these representations are harmful because the warp people's conceptions of reality. hook's anger with these images is most clearly evident in her perceptive essay on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate hearings. She dissents vehemently with those who see the hearings as heralding the "arrival" of Black Americans, the definitive demonstration that this government can work for them on a color-blind basis.

Instead, hooks remains faithful to a vigilant progressive politics, asking what price Black Americans must pay to have the system work for them. Calling the hearings a "reinscription" of the status quo, hooks sees Thomas as "fundamentally allied with...the interests of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." To hooks, Thomas' being Black does not in itself make his appointment to the Supreme Court a triumph--rather, his complicity in a racist, sexist power structure makes the appointment a setback for those interested in real social change.

Madonna falls under similar scrutiny in a later essay, perhaps the best yet on how the Material Girl toys with racial and sexual images. Unlike other writers, hooks does not let Madonna's progressive activism obscure a through evaluation of her work. hooks is able to see how Madonna's videos and movies simply reinforce familiar prejudices. In a harsh, insightful critique of Truth or Dare, hooks asks difficult questions about Madonna's declared affection for the "outsider" cultures of Blacks and homosexuals.

Many critics applauded Madonna for hiring poor gay Blacks, Latinos and Asians to work as dancers on her tour. hooks point out that these same critics usually ignored the way Madonna was portrayed as the cutely condescending mother/dictator of a troop of exotics and emotional cripples.

The essay lays bare how Madonna's supposedly taboo-breaking movie pigeon-holed these groups into lifeless stereotypes. Shedding a harsh light on the pop goddess, hooks reveals how much of Madonna's act is the "same old nonsense" in a pointy bra.

The other essays in Black Looks which address topics such as Black filmmakers and the historical relationship between Blacks and Native Americans, are distinguished by this uncompromising critical attitude and hooks' accessible and personal, voice. These essays are an indignant, passionate demand that the bounds of representation be expanded to portray members of all groups as complex human beings. As she says in her dedication Black Looks is a challenge to "live theory in a place beyond words."