Dear Mom: on bell hooks and self love
Sara Adam

Dear Sara,

I have read with interest bell hooks’ (sic), Understanding Patriarchy article and watched her youtube video with Beverly Guy-Sheftall “This Ain’t No Pussy Shit” and I look forward to the beginning of exploring important ideas about women, power, violence, and injustice. I understand your dilemma in choosing a vocabulary since I agree with your assessment that “the framework of feminism overlaps and in some ways mirrors a Christian framework.” So I will try to be careful to define my terms and where appropriate use the parallel vocabulary. Since you and I share a value of the richness of language and the importance of semantic meaning using a parallel structure regarding the vocabulary may help us tease out both similarities and unique assumptions of the feminist perspective, a religious perspective, and the gospel. I purposefully use the word gospel-“the good news”- because reducing Christianity to a propositional understanding would be to turn it into a “religious tradition” and not a dynamic relationship with the living God. For me this is a very important perspective especially when addressing topics of power, violence, oppression, and in particular violence against women, as well as violence women do to themselves.

Violence has been done in the “name of Christianity” and “white male imperialists” have often claimed to be “Christian” so the distinction is important[1]. When John the Baptist asked his followers to find out about who Jesus really was, Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”(Matt 11). Freedom from oppression is at the heart of the gospel. Something many who claim to be Christians forget.

For bell hooks in Understanding Patriarchy, that important distinction seems blurred, and understandably so. “Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence. When my older brother and I were born with a year separating us in age, patriarchy determined how we would each be regarded by our parents. Both our parents believed in patriarchy; they had been taught patriarchal thinking through religion. At church they had learned that God created man to rule the world and everything in it and that it was the work of women to help men perform these tasks, to obey, and to always assume a subordinate role in relation to a powerful man. They were taught that God was male…”

I too would struggle with such a religion.

You helped me with your definition of love, “to represent a recognition and respect for the humanness of another person.” I might offer the term human dignity to reflect what you describe as “a recognition and respect for the humanness of another.” So with that long preamble I want to transition from definitions to the primary topic of your letter, violence in relationships with self and others. Whenever bell hooks talks of violence she is also referring directly or indirectly to a corollary of power dynamics, where power is used to oppress or subjugate one (or more) other persons. I completely agree with bell hooks that this can happen to men from men, as well as to women from men, and she also rightly points out that women can be oppressors or dominators. In this, her views are empirically verifiable and accurately represent the reality of life.

And you are totally correct. Women disproportionately suffer the effects of violence in relationships. I see this daily in my work in low income populations here in Kenya and you have seen it here too, in your own work with vulnerable populations. This is something we have talked about together and wondered and dreamed a little about “how we might change the world” so for the present I would like to focus on what you said about interpersonal violence; “this violence in my relationship with myself.” I liken it to an “eternal inner murmur of self-reproach[2]”. bell hooks talks about it in the video as “ a compulsive search for love-made it harder for me to leave settings of terrorism in our emotional lives”(mom paraphrase).

This arena of self-destructive violence, you point out, is linked to our understanding of our worth, something I might also term identity formation. In contemporary culture identity formation is primarily self actualized and tied to achievement of power. That power can be derived in different ways; through good looks, molding our bodies to some “societal” standard, or some other definition of success-usually in some form of power or money. For women, good looks are often a power proxy, attracting the attention of men, filling that “love void” with some semblance of desirability[3]. I think this conceptualization of identity formation; a process that is tied to power is INDEED a form of self-violence. AND I think that operates in men as well as women. The difference is that in men it manifests in a different set of power proxies or at least a different rank ordering of the power proxies[4]. In this I think bells hooks and I are in full agreement.

As you aptly point out, I too have struggled with feeling not good enough. Tragic, since obviously I have the looks and the brains, just a bit deficient in the sense of style (haha). Yet, in spite of my bad joke, it is not a joking matter. You recognize that, I recognize that, and bell hooks recognizes that.

Where I think I might disagree with bell hooks is on the solution to the problem. bell hooks seems to say that the way to solve the problem is to have the freedom to determine yourself. Yet she points out an important truth when she acknowledges that there are limits to the “freedom to determine yourself the way you want.” For example she asks, “Can you violate your beliefs and still say that is freedom to determine yourself the way you want?” and “If you live in the political frame of feminism you may not be able to do whatever you want in your daily life and maintain your integrity.” But I would go farther and ask bell hooks if there is ever freedom from that “eternal inner murmur of self reproach” when your identity is self derived?

bell hooks has certainly taken the freedom to determine ones self very literally. This is demonstrated in her name change. At some point she chose to assume her pen name, derived from her grandmother. Interesting. Notice that this self-determinism confuses her co-interviewer Beverly Guy-Sheftal as she has trouble remembering to call bell bell and not her given name, Gloria. Unfortunately this freedom to determine herself did not deliver bell from the relationship violence she experienced. She describes it this way, her “longing for love” made it difficult to leave a relationship that became destructive. This freedom to determine herself appears to have left her feeling more alone at present, as fewer women heed the call to reclaim feminism. She appeals to other women and men to join her in the struggle, to live lives in active of defiance of the existing power structures and exercise resistance against these destructive oppressive political systems-white male imperialist patriarchy specifically.

However, there seems to be a gap in her logic.

If the highest value is that one should be free to be self determined, than certainly those white imperialist patriarchal male supremacists should be equally free to choose their path.

Odd, how self-determinism is self-defeating. I, of course totally agree with bell in that a white imperialist patriarchal political system is wrong and that those who ascribe to that view are wrong. I just can’t logically infer that from a vantage point that places self-determinism at the pinnacle of life.

This is where the gospel comes in. And face it, in a world where women are often oppressed both internally and externally, we are definitely in need of good news.

The good news is that when the God of creation made the world, destructive domination did not exist. And when this evil entered, the story of Genesis shows how both men and women suffered, and the results of the CURSE (to use theological language) and the pain it would cause were described and we still see daily the effects. Yet, before the creation of the world there was a plan, a plan for acceptance that would be able to still the “eternal inner murmur of self reproach”- Jesus-the good news in the flesh. God comes down from HIS power position, willingly putting it aside, and making certain that justice was done by taking what I deserved upon himself (Phil 2:5–8).

In light of that reality, I have difficulty in assuming a power position. Without a power position, it is impossible to be an oppressor. It is hard to say I am better than you because I am so obviously imperfect, yet I am forgiven, valued, and loved. AND it is so NOT because of anything I did, therefore suddenly it becomes ridiculous and unnecessary to be self-determined or self-judged. The “eternal inner murmur of self reproach” is powerless in the face of this truth. That is true freedom. In the freedom of ultimate acceptance I am able to live out what bell hooks calls a primary act of resistance; to love and love rightly, ourselves and others” (video about 1:39.00).

You were more right than you realized when you said, “truly respecting and honoring the image of God uniquely reflected in me begins to sound more and more subversive.”

Here’s to being more subversive and living lives of active resistance.

Love Mom

[1] I live here in Africa and I can easily take issue with bell’s much too limited perspective of WHITE patriarchy since I see male domination in a different color. That said, I do appreciate her experiential reality.)

[2] Judith Schulavist uses this outstanding turn of phrase in another context in a NY Times op ed piece (wish I could write such superb prose but since I was borrowing her excellent turn of phrase I thought it was better to footnote.)

[3] Joke:

Question: Why would women rather be good looking than smart?

Answer: Because men can see better than they can think.

[4] Think the movie Rocky 1 where Rocky says “if I can go 10 rounds with Applo Creed, I can prove I am not a bum”-moms paraphrase and I realize that movie came out before you were born and you may need to watch it to get the metaphor)