Sapphire Unbound: The Radical Imagination of bell hooks

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By Sikivu Hutchinson

Excerpt From an An Injustice Magazine

Extending her global classroom to us, hooks made radical space possible for all the transgressive Black girls who are reading, writing, speaking and blowing up the margins

WLP alumni Imani Moses at #Standing4BlackGirls L.A. 2021 rally against rape culture and sexual violence (photo credit: BlueGreen)

“It is time for Sapphire to testify on her own behalf, in writing, complete with footnotes.” Regina Austin, “Sapphire Bound,” 1989.

Driving L.A.’s cesspit 405 freeway one afternoon in the late eighties, a voice on the radio punched out at me like a bolt from the blue. It was high-pitched and commanding, testifying to “dirty laundry” truths on sexism, victim-shaming, and Black patriarchy that Black women weren’t “supposed” to speak in public. It was a voice that calmly gave no quarter, straight up, with the lilt of a schoolroom griot.

Discovering bell hooks’ work and voice in the twilight of the terrorist Reagan-Bush regime was a revelation. She trafficked in irreverent, daring, give no fucks language that was alternately tender and nurturing, swaggering and pugilistic. Her devotion to writing as radical resistance rocked my then twentysomething self, scribbling half-aborted stories in grubby journals; always insecure about their worth, always weathering rejection after rejection by white (and, sometimes, Black) gatekeepers, always pissing deep into the void of self-doubt and debt.

hooks’ dogged championing of Black women’s writerly self-determination in the midst of caregiving and self-sacrifice was one of many unapologetically Black feminist middle fingers she gave to respectability politics. The first pages of her 1989 book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black explore her ambivalence about being raised in a working class Southern Black family where her voracious literary interests, skepticism, and poker in the eye questioning were a source of pride and tension. Coming to voice, she reflects on how young Black girls were not recognized as rightful heirs to Black charismatic oral traditions dominated by men. As a child growing up in rural Kentucky, she reveled in women’s talk, for, it was in “this world of loud talk, angry words, women with tongues quick and sharp…touching our world with their words, that I made speech my birthright — and the right to voice, to authorship, a privilege I would not be denied. It was in that world and because of it that I came to dream of writing.” In these highly gendered spaces of Black verbal performance, “punishments for (certain) acts of speech seemed endless. They were intended to silence me — the child — and more particularly, the girl child. Had I been a boy, they might have encouraged me to speak believing that I might be called to preach…Madness, not just physical abuse, was the punishment for too much talk if you were female.”

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