This past July, I was a mentor (read old guy) at the Kopkind Colony, an educational summer residency program for independent progressive journalists and community organizers set on Tree Frog Farm, just outside of the rural mountain town of Guilford, Vermont. The camp is named for the pioneering radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, for whom Tree Frog Farm was a summer retreat.
Kopkind was one of the most talented journalists of his generation. I recommend reading The 30 Years War: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-94, a collection of some of his best writings. The 30 Years War is a great read, an inspiring way of learning a bit of history, and an incidental primer on an idea of Kopkind’s, that there is no left journalism unless it is in the service of a left movement.
The camp included some of the brightest young people I’ve encountered, ever. The fact that the other mentor at camp was historian Peter Linebaugh, about whom Robin D.G. Kelley has said, there’s “not a more important historian living today. Period.” was frosting on the cake.
Now, I think of Robin D.G. Kelley as one of the most important historians living today. His commendation was read by me as more of an order. Being prone to do as I’m told by my betters, I read Peter’s latest, a collection of essays called Stop Thief!, on the train between New York and Vermont, a relatively short trip. I read it all, it was that accessible and inspiring.
During our week at camp, feminist theorist and author, bell hooks, called Beyonce (who I’m guessing needs no introduction) a terrorist. The story popped up everywhere. The Bey-gency was mobilized.
Hearing about the kerfuffle made me smile. The first thing that came to mind was, hell hooks is back! The verbal provocateur of feminism of the 80s and 90s seemed to have disappeared from the world of public intellectuals. But with that one statement, she was back in the news.
But soon it became apparent to me that many of the 20-somethings at camp had never heard of bell hooks. Heresy! I mean, come on. Seven years before Gayatri Spivak turned the world of philosophy on its head by asking, Can the Subaltern Speak?, bell hooks had helped to define Black feminism in the 20th century by asking Ain’t I a Woman?
By evoking Black feminist pioneer, Sojourner Truth, who first raised the question in a provocative appeal for support for abolition at a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851, hooks reminded us that the feminist tradition was far from anti-racist. Feminism had, in fact, struggled over the question of abolition, and through the generations since over the relevance of the experiences of women of color to the feminist cause.
Ain’t I a Woman was published by South End, an independent press rather than an academic one. The subject matter was controversial. Even then, bell hooks was a polarizing figure.
Whether you agree with all of hooks’ conclusions or not, it is simply undeniable that Ain’t I a Woman? pushed a much needed discussion out of the margins of feminist theory and into popular discourse. In the 1980s, a time when most widely recognized feminist scholarship either completely excluded Black women’s experiences or was written about the Black experience from a white perspective, Ain’t I a Woman? was a game changer for young, feminist-leaning men and women of color.
So, all of you out there who’ve never heard of bell hooks, take note, there’s a lot more to her than her opinion about Beyonce who, I’m guessing, was perfectly happy to see her name in the news. After all, she’s got product to sell, Bey-gents to pay.
As far as I’m concerned, the world has been improved by the bold, fearless, in-your-face feminism of bell hooks. I recommend Ain’t I a Woman? and a bonus book, All About Love: New Visions, also by bell hooks. And while you’re at it, read Peter Linebaugh and Andrew Kopkind. Altogether, these books make inspiring, worthwhile reading, no matter your age or which wave of feminism you rode in on.