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“Conversations from St. Norbert College” featuring bell hooks

“Conversations from St. Norbert College” featuring bell hooks

Welcome to Conversations from Saint
Norbert College a program that encourages good
discussion in our community on today’s local and global issues Now your host for Conversations from St. Norbert College author, professor and nationally
known sports economist, Dr. Kevin Quinn Welcome to Conversations from Saint Norbert College I’m Kevin Quinn
Our special guest is author, scholar and cultural critic bell
hooks. Alongside bell hooks is the director the St. Norbert College
Cassandra Voss Center, Karlyn Crowley hooks has been honored as a leading
public intellectual by The Atlantic Monthly and has authored more than 35 books and
numerous scholarly and mainstream articles Her writing has addressed race, class,
gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media and feminism. She is a member of the faculty at Berea College, served as scholar-in-residence at the New
School and in November 2014 will present the keynote address at the National Women’s Studies
Association conference in Puerto Rico Karlyn Crowley is an associate professor of
English and director of women’s and gender studies at St. Norbert College Crowley’s scholarship focuses on gender,
religion, American literature and culture.
Welcome to the program! Thank you, I’m happy to be here at St. Norbert
Well, we’re thrilled to have you here so thank you for taking the time to do
this — and I wanna start off by asking you about your very interesting name. We talked a little bit
about this just before we went on air and you told a great story about how you
came to be little ‘b’ little ‘h’
Well, back in the day when we had little groceries on the
corner, I was walking to the grocery and mouthing-off, and the person behind the
counter said you must speak bell hooks’ granddaughter And I went home and wanted to know from my mother who is bell hooks because of course bell hooks was long dead and but she was known to be a person of
fiery speech And so when later, in my life as a writer, I decided on a
pseudonym I thought, I will take the name bell
hooks and when I wrote an essay about it that
says when the name bell hooks is called the spirited my great
grandmother rises That’s wonderful. I’m sure she’d be quite
proud of what her her maybe outspoken granddaughter has become Now you grew up in Southwest Kentucky?
Okay, and what was that like when you were there? Well, growing up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky was really growing up in the world of tobacco So when I think of my childhood, I think of fields and fields of tobacco Which is why in my book “Belonging” I tried to write a positive chapter about tobacco
because I think that many of us confuse our anti-smoking beliefs with the fact that
tobacco is bad but that tobacco in and of itself is not
a bad crop, and has meant many sacred things to different groups of people,
especially our Native American Indians in Kentucky and elsewhere It’s not native to this area, right, it was
brought in? Exactly
You wrote your first book as
an undergraduate student Yes, I was precocious, but I must tell people that it was in the top shelf of the closet for some years before I pulled it out and
sent it off to South End Press because I was telling people that I’ve
written this book and they said oh there’s this little press, this
little left press that’s looking for books on race
and gender So I sent them “Ain’t I a Woman” and that was the beginning And by then I was more in my, more toward my late twenties Do you remember when you got the letter that said that they had accepted it for publication, do you remember what that was like? No, cause’ I remember that they called me
and said we want to accept this book, but we feel that it’s very angry And I was like, angry? I don’t understand! And so that was the beginning of me realizing that that bold speech that I
had inherited from bell hooks that many people would hear that boldness
of speech as anger and not as provocative, defiant or dissent And so that was a challenge but we
worked it out, I was able to explain to them part of the pleasure of going with a small press was that we could talk things out like that, you know and that I could say, you know, I
noticed a lot of what you think as anger is when you don’t agree with me that, I think, was a crucial time for me I have been with South End Press
for forty years and I have since, you know, published
with larger presses, but I have tried to maintain the integrity of my
commitment to a small press one that can’t always pay you or you know, we are in trouble in
our culture with small presses. I was reading that
they’re only like something like ten dedicated women’s
bookstores in the entire United States and that was really quite shocking me That is, I mean, I know that that
business has suffered but I didn’t realize that that
part in the business and suffered Well, many see online book purchasing as one of
the things that has really hurt women’s bookstores, but I think it’s
deeper than that I think that we were so aware of the need to give one’s economic
support to the left, to women’s issues in a way that I feel lots of young people
are not I find that my students really don’t
want to think about economics which is a big issue for me — I’m very interested in money and how people use money And I think that there will come a time,
I believe, when we will actually teach people courses about money, because whether the things we see at Berea, and that I know my first great indebtedness came into my life in college getting those credit cards in the mail
and using them and not facing up to what those interest
rates meant, and, you know, accepting all the school loans without really fixating on, “How will I pay these back?” I remember the moment in my life where I realized, “Wow, I owe thirty thousand dollars in student loans,
and I’ve never made thirty thousand dollars!” And it was a
real sort of shake up wake up It’s amazing that somebody will
give young people that amount of money when when they haven’t shown any propensity
to pay it back, but Well, I was telling Karlyn that I started
reading money book. One my favorite is
“Money is My Friend” and to learn how to think about money because basically I grew up in the world
where people just felt like there isn’t any money and as some people would say, debt is
the American Way of life It was very hard to learn how to go
against that I was just reading Bill Clinton’s book “Giving,” which is really amazing The stories that he tells of people who give are amazing. People, you know, we know that people who don’t make a lot give a lot more than the people who are
billionaires. But of the 800-and-some billionaires in our nation, it’s fascinating to read the kinds of
organizations that people have set up for giving, what they do — and to read also
what the little people do I always tell people I do home-grown,
low-level philanthropy Like recently, I heard of a
black male student who’d been out of school, you know,
working at a low-wage job, who wanted to come back to school but he couldn’t, he didn’t have the money to pay the
debt he owed the college he’d been at, so he couldn’t
pay, he couldn’t get his transcripts So for me, that’s occasion for low-level
philanthropy I’ve never met this young man. I know
nothing about him other than that he appears to have a deep desire to finish
his education, so I’m grateful to have the
means to be supportive of that.
Well, let’s talk actually about a former philanthropy that’s related to
your being here the Cassandra Voss Center, and which Karlyn, you’re the director and its the Cassandra Voss Center that was fortunate enough to bring you onto campus. So Karlyn, tell us a
little bit about that and how it got started and what you do there The Cassandra Voss Center is a place that
thinks about identity, and we’re particularly interested in gender and how it intersects with race and
class and sexuality It’s our inaugural year, it’s a really
beautiful story It’s a story of a building built out of love
from a father for his daughter His daughter, Cassandra Voss, was my
student — a beautiful, joyful, spirited young woman who was
passionate about issues of gender-justice and thinking
about race and de-centering whiteness and how to build inclusive, beautiful community. And when she died in
a car accident her father decided in her spirit and in her
honor he would build a building. And so he raised $2.8
million dollars to do that And this is the year of bell hooks because
it’s our first year And so we thought, who else better? We could think of nobody else better. I’ve been saying all year, if there were a
feminist Mount Rushmore, bell hooks’ face would be on it. That would be my next dream.
What is amazing is that this white, male, hetero man would be called to love in such a deep
and profound way It is not easy to raise lots of money to do anything in our culture, but that
he wanted very much for people to hold in
their hearts and in their minds the memory of his daughter, a radical feminist thinker a believer in social justice And I’m just, I stand in awe. I stand in awe of the person that she must have been to evoke in him and to inspire him But I also stand in awe of him! I mean, how many white males in our society — heterosexual, white males — who are somewhat conservative in
some of their belief systems are running around
creating a women center’s? It’s just such it’s beyond a miracle, it’s an amazing call. I mean, one of the things that I
will be talking about at Chapel tomorrow is what we are called to, that if you
believe that there is a divine plan for your life then you have to believe that there is a
calling on all our lives So I thought a lot about Cassandra’s father, Kurt and how her death opened up a space of divine calling on his life that
he answered. He didn’t have to answer! I was telling Karlyn that my pastor of my
church, Light of the World, in Sarasota, Florida, where I’ve just spent
three months, says all the time: Your heart has to be
ready to handle the weight of your calling. So I
think of Cassandra’s father as here he is answering the call through his grief, and taking that grief and
transforming it into something wondrous and wonderful that few
institutions in our nation have. I mean women centers
are usually like in the ghetto, in the back of the lawn or in
some little basement area and here we have this radiant, beautiful center that I think people from all over
the nation should come to St. Norbert just to be part of this story and just to
see what one person can do in making a
different as we talk about giving It’s amazing
I was at the dedication, boy, it was a year ago
September 18th and, I mean, it was a moving experience because you know, here is man and who obviously
had gone through all these stages of grief and he was at a point where he could
take real joy in what it was that that was going to be and
the effect was going have on people’s lives for a long time. And
that’s what we’re the business of doing at institutions like this is, you know, having decades-long impact on
people’s lives But it’s also a real embodiment in biblical tradition we are told the joy
of the Lord is our strength, and so we can
see this place of incredible strength coming
from both Cassandra and from her dad I want to ask both of you something that we’ve been talking a little bit about on campus lately and that’s the idea
public intellectualism We had a meeting the other day about what that means here and I have that meeting in my head all the time What does it mean? What is the
obligation, what’s the what’s the calling there?
I have to tell you, Kevin, it’s one of the things that I don’t feel is a call on my life. I
teach people do you really think that I’ve written more
than thirty books at the tender age of 61 by being public? That’s a lot of hours spent by myself in solitude, in preparation, in contemplation. And I
think that to me, I receive that calling because people place it on me.
But I think for me, the core of it for myself, it’s a more organic sense of who am I writing for, whose lives am I hoping to transform, and because I have always wanted to reach people
beyond the academy I feel like that has really been part of
what called, catapulted me into being considered a public
intellectual You know, it’s like at one point a group
of parents contacted me and said you know, you reach our kids when they’re
twenty, but they’re already disturbed They’re already misguided How about writing books for kids? And I was like, are you kidding? I’m intellectual! I’m not even happy! There’s no way that I could be somebody who could write books for
children But because of my own devotion to my
calling, which I’ll be talking about at the
chapel, and to my belief of being part of a divine plan, I of course
took that to meditation and prayer and I was like, you know, I’m open to it
and then you know there I am lying in bed one night and the words to “Happy to Be Nappy,” which was my first children’s book, you know, “girl pie hair smells clean and sweet.” And, you know, I jump out of bed in the
middle of the night and I begin to write down these thoughts
that are in my head And I’m always stunned when people tell me they don’t believe in a higher power because part of what to me is the
essence of spirituality is mystery. I have no idea why that was in my head I have no idea where it came from. I know that in
the piece that I wrote, bits and pieces of my
childhood My mother used to make fried pies, oh gosh, the most wonderful fried pies. And to use to say we were her girl pie And so there were all those little bits
and pieces that came into the book and it was my first and successful
children’s book And so, it seems to me that that’s part
of why people think of me as a public intellectual because I write across a broad sweep of things addressing an audience of everyday
people I just have been trying — not on
the level of Kurt Voss — but I’ve been trying to start
a bell hooks center in my little town of 12,000 people And part of my hope is to bring people to Appalachia, but to talk with
like my colleague Cornel West with whom I wrote a book called “Breaking Bread” Cornel came, he paid his way, and I bring
together people from the hills, ordinary citizens, so that they can
actually be in a small group with this renowned intellectual and talk to him face-to-face and learn
from him And that’s my hope. I’m a big believer in
critical thinking And the bell hooks Center is for
contemplation, critical thinking and dreaming And so far, you know, I told Karlyn
I’m following the Mary McLeod Bethune model, which is start it in
your living room If you don’t have the kind of funds and if
you’re not — I am not a fundraiser — you know, but I believe that the essence of living a meaningful Iife is to have awareness and to be able to
engage in critical thinking And critical thinking isn’t a mystery,
it’s asking yourself who, what, when, where, why, which is one of the reasons that I say children are some of the best critical thinkers
because they ask those questions. I remember, I
will be talking to hundreds of children here, I remember
when I first wrote my favorite of my books “Be Boy Buzz,” which is all about loving
being a boy and I had my first 100 children and that
question-and-answer period came, and little blonde, blue-eyed white boy held up his hand and said “What’s the buzz?”
And I’m thinking Oh my god, what’s the answer to that? You know? And I said, “Well, do you
remember the sound the bee makes?” and then we all get to make that sound and
to talk about don’t you pay attention when you hear
that sound? But it was such a challenge and it
helped me to grow in spiritual and emotional
maturity, to realize that to try to get a message
I wanted to write a book that would emphasize boys and with the images of black boys But loving one another, learning When the book first came into being,
there was no boy reading a book. And, you know, I went to my publishers and said, You know, black males are quickly
becoming the most illiterate group in our society We need an image of a boy reading a book And, you know, we went back to the drawing board and Chris Roscoe, the incredible illustrator you know, created an image of a boy
reating a book And parents wrote to me saying, “We’re so
glad that these boys are not just running and
jumping,” cause they’re doing a lot of running and jumping in the book, as well But that he’s sitting alone, and he’s
reading all quiet and still. And that that’s the
power of language and of writing, you know,
that you can have that impact on someone’s life — or not. I was telling
Karlyn about when I write something and I think it’s
so great and nobody notices And I think Wow, I thought that was the best part One of the things about being, you know,
when you write for an academic audience Often, that’s a pretty small audience
and you know, a lot of journals you know, are
traditional journals I don’t know how it is in literary stuff, but in economics, you know, there are five people reading them You feel pretty good about it, you know it’s
great work, but, and that’s why I’m kind of curious about the public intellectualism is because you can reach a larger group of people and influence them differently, maybe not quite as profoundly, you can get to a whole lot more
people with your ideas Well, I do not use the internet. I don’t
have I never have done email or anything like
that When I recently at the New
School in New York did a conversation with a television celebrity-thinker Melissa
Harris-Perry And they asked me, are you willing if
we want to streamline? Of course, I didn’t have any idea what streamlining was, and I was like “okay.” And then later
when I heard that 300,000 people had listened to or looked at the dialogue between us, I was in
awe The average booking in our nation sells
maybe two thousand copies, and that doesn’t even tell us who reads it or what have you. And to realize that
you can reach that many people in a short frame of time just really shook me up, it shook my
world because that’s an awesome thing and somebody said to me “Oh, but people weren’t listening
to the whole thing.” And I said but you know, sometimes we’re transformed by a quote I have this ridiculous-looking sheep at my house and it’s because I’m deeply
moved by the admonition “If you love me, feed my sheep” And that’s, for me, a call to service and
sustainability and sharing but a lot of times when I meditate it’s
just on a sentence a pastor saying your heart has to be ready
to handle the weight if your calling That’s been my meditation for a month
trying to understand what he means by that as I’m reading
Richard Foster’s book “Celebration of Discipline.” So to me, a whole new world has
opened up to me The fact that, wow you can really get
people to at least hear something, maybe, that you’re
saying I’d like to ask you a little bit about
some of the work that you’ve done in both of you have been identified as working in the area of feminist studies, women’s studies,
gender studies and I’m curious about, you know, the word “feminism” is sort of, it’s a
pregnant word it means many things did many different
people And I’m curious to hear from each of you, what does feminism mean to you? Well one my best-selling books
says feminism is for everybody and in it I propose what I think is a very simple definition
of feminism, is that it’s a movement to end sexist domination and
exploitation, to challenge patriarchy. It’s not gingered,
that’s why the book is called “Feminism If For Everybody” It’s as much for males as it is for
females and I think that that’s a visionary
approach to feminism, to recognize that we all need feminism I don’t know if you know comedians, like
there was a big skit on Saturday Night Live with Louis CK, and he was doing a skit about God, and he was like, “Well, you know, God our Father…but I have a
question…where is our mother?” And it was such a funny, but it was a very kind of feminist take, questioning interrogation of the
patriarchal roots Christianity — and that a comedian can do
that in, you know, five minutes or eight
minute, it’s pretty awesome He was like, “I want my mother!”
And then he said finally that if God is, you know, our father here on Earth, perhaps it’s our mother who reigns in heaven We’re just spending a weekend here with
dad I wish I could stay up late enough to watch
Saturday Night Live Well I wish, too! I watched it on a friend’s computer in the daytime Though I stay up late reading So, if we go back forty years, and you’re at
Stanford and you’re this allegedly angry writer
at the at the time, how has your — you don’t seem angry me, by the way — how has you thinking about what feminism is, how’s that changed over that period of time? Well, what is most evident to me is that this
amazing life that I have the capacity to live within is for me so
directly tied to feminist thinking and practice and that, you know, that’s what I want to
share with males and females and with my students the way in which challenging outmoded
notions of gender can transform our lives and I think that as I have gotten older I’ve also gotten a little sadder about kind of the loss of the early fervor of feminism, the questioning. Like say just in the
area of female dress When I’m in the airport and I see all
these women teetering along on their stilettos on those very slick floors, I think what
happened to our efforts to have women have a
healthier sense of beauty? So, you know, I will go
back to the New School next month for a week-in-residence, and
really look at some of the things that’s happening with the black female body So I think that where I see our deepest
failure as feminists is with children and with girls That, you know, that capitalist-consumer
market has really targeted girls and has targeted them with a very
traditional, feminine sense of being a girl like with princesses, and its tied of course, you’ve got to have your princess dress, you’ve got to have your crown, you’ve got to have everything. And I look at that and I
think where did we go wrong? Or did we not do
enough? Because early on, I think a lot of people have forgotten there was a tremendous passion for children and for changing the way that we teach
children I remember there were books to free
children. And I can tell you, writing a book that was aimed to the pro-boy but not pro-patriarchy was really, really
hard How do you use language in such a way that you praise being a boy but you don’t elevate being a boy over being a girl? And I think that those were the deep theoretical and practical challenges But there’s hardly any addressing of
children, which is why the media has preyed upon the children so in the images we see How do you see — each of you — see America’s future with feminism, race issues, inequality? Are you optimistic? You sounded as if maybe you weren’t Well, I am optimistic that the heart of
democracy is to love justice, and that’s what I’ll be talking about some tonight That if we want to change up many of the
things that are corrupting our democracy, we have to
return to loving justice. I think that, you know,
when people do the Martin Luther King “I Have a
Dream” speech, they forget how much he wrote about the meaningfulness of justice and when
I was growing up you know, I was put in these little
contests to write about democracy and how do we become democratic and justice was a very key word to that, and
I think we have to return to emphasizing the love of justice and we see
that in things like Occupy Wall Street Those young people who had a sense of justice, that we hope they can unite with economic wisdom We hope that they can use their fervor
for dissent to think differently about economics in our world. And I think it’s telling
that, you know, bell hooks was one of the books that they
held up as well as Cornel was very involved
because I think that heart, people want to have
lives of optimal well-being And that the question we all face is how
can all of us have that right to have lives of optimal
well-being? Thats is optimistic! Karlyn, are you as optimistic? You meet with young people all the time Well, at the top of my intro to women’s
and gender studies syllabus, there is a a bell hooks’ quotation that says:
“Feminism moves us from lovelessness to loving, and there is no love without justice.”
And so I feel especially given our talk today about the bell hooks Institute, that the notion dreaming and dreaming big,
the story of the Cassandra Voss Center, these are big dreams So I feel hopeful about those dreams
Absolutely, and when we look at Nelson Mandela, when we
look at the revival passion for Dr. King’s work and writing, we see where does hope reside And I think at the heart, you know,
there’s a tremendous longing for spiritual revival. And let’s face it, you can’t get
any more radical than Jesus And so I think that there’s the hope
that lies in our religious experience, in our
religious life that I often, at one of my first lectures I gave in gender studies was is God a
feminist? And my answer was yes, and I’m really glad because nobody
else wants to be Well thank you, to both of you so much for this wonderful
conversation I’ve very much enjoyed it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed our show, too! Until next time, I’m Kevin Quinn. Best wishes for good
conversations from St. Norbert College

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3 thoughts on ““Conversations from St. Norbert College” featuring bell hooks

  1. Bell Hooks favors the killing of unborn children.  What a shame.

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