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bell hooks at the New School discussing transgressive sexual practice, 10 October 2014 Alex Lozupone (Tduk), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carolyn Noble, PhD
Professor of Social Work, ACAP, Sydney, Australia

bell hooks - bio of black feminist's contribution to critical pedagogy

Abstract

In this article I summarise key educational ideas of a black woman feminist activist - bell hooks. Her influence on black feminist educational politics remains a significant contribution to empowering the education of black students, especially women students facing dual discrimination based on gender and race. Her scholarly works on educational practices capsulate her ideas of anti- racist, anti-colonial, multi-cultural and critical and feminist pedagogies; ideas that are extremely relevant to social works' desire to teach critical thinking and to foster transformational learning for current and future social workers.

Early life

From her early career hooks wanted to become a critical thinker and writer. The seeds were sown in her primary school years growing up in the American south where she recalls the empowering experience of being educated in an all-black school. Her black women teachers were committed to nurturing intellect so that the students would become scholars, thinkers and cultural workers. She learned early that her devotion to learning, to find an authentic voice to a life of the mind was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of racist colonialization that existed at the time (hooks, 1994, 2003). The teachers were there to guide the students and show them the way to freedom. For her, experiencing the classroom as a place of ecstasy and pleasure was a revolutionary pedagogy that was anti-colonial in practice because it was rooted in antiracist struggle. It was where she first learnt to experience learning as revolution (hooks, 1989, 1994).

Despite the positive experience of her early education hooks was confronted by the constraints of her race, gender and class in what she calls the 'apartheid South'. In the quest for a writer's life she quickly realised that this path required her to enter academe, to become a teacher herself. Moving from an all-black educational setting to a de-segregated, predominately white College and Graduate school she found that her teachers merely exultated the upper-middle class values and social norms of the white supremist patriarchy (hooks, 1994, p.49). De-segregation school meant responding and reacting to white folks. Education, she found was reinforcing domination rather than the empowering experience of her early school years. She quickly learnt that attending College, rather than a 'paradise of learning' was a place where students were to learn obedience to authority; where teachers viewed black students as inferior and incapable of learning (hooks, 1994, p.2). In particular, she writes that graduate college was experienced as a prison, a place of punishment and confinement rather than a place of promise and authority. As a Black American woman in prestigious (white) colleges (she attended four) she was made to feel that she was not there to learn but to prove she was of equal value to the white teachers. Furthermore, she found that knowledge was not contextualised within the framework of black student lives but that lectures, textbooks, curricula and personal experience only reinforced negative stereotypes about Black Americans.

During her studies she encountered bored teachers and bored students contrasting with her desire for knowledge, engagement, with learning as a place of wonderment and imagination. Gone was the messianic zeal to transform student minds and selves she experienced as a young student. Knowledge was sharing of information without a critical lens. She was to learn obedience, that too much eagerness from her and her Black students could easily be regarded as a 'threat to white authority'; while their non-conformity was viewed as a way of hiding their inferiority or incompetence (hooks, 1994, p.3). The curricula, she argued, had no relation to the way people lived, especially those who were marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against. Conformity to the status quo of 'white, mostly male authority and privilege' was the norm; to her utter dismay she found that education was not about the practice of freedom but merely to reinforce domination (op cit, p.4). Being constantly confronted by biases which hid undercurrents of discrimination and exclusion meant that her adult learning experiences were undermined. Not defeated by her experiences and the feeling of stress coupled with the ever-present boredom and apathy she used these emotions and experiences as her inspiration that learning could be different!!

Academic endeavours

While the1960s and 1970s were heralding a climate of radical change proclaiming the rise of equality and democratic education hooks found that in reality and in the classroom old hierarchies of class, gender, race were untouched by the radical politics of the time especially for Black students who had to traverse the ambiguity of aspiration and reality. While she wanted to become a teacher to help students become self-directed learners, she found that the abuses of power were still in place and the challenge for her was how to address it.

Against the odds she gained be BA in English Literature at Stanford (1973), MA at University of Wisconsin (1976) and PhD at UCLA (1983) and a teaching position at Yale. These academic achievements did not eliminate the racist, elitist culture of education endemic at the time or her experiences of discrimination nor did it damper her love of learning nor undermine her love of teaching which she continues to do today (Wisnesky, 2013).

Teaching career

It was serendipitous that her first teaching job was in a feminist classroom and on black women's writers from a feminist perspective which enable her to begin her exploration of pedagogical paradigms to critique the boundaries of current academic practices and expectations. Thanks to women studies programs that emerged across the college campuses in the 1980s and 1990s feminist classrooms were the only place where pedagogical practice was 'allowed' to be interrogated. Students could raise critical questions about pedagogical processes where it was 'safe' and almost expected.

In this teaching space she began to explore a blueprint for her own pedagogical practice. Encountering Paulo Freire, she found a mentor, a guide, 'someone who understood that learning could be liberatory, (Freire, 1972, 1974, 1994). Black feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Civil rights leader and community activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh were influential in helping weave her ideas to formulate a blend of critical pedagogies. From Freire she adopted his critical thinking and reflection (conscientisation), and his concept of banking (memorising and regurgitating information for later recall). From Truth and King Jr. she incorporated community and politics of hope and Hanh a sense of spiritualism and teaching as healing practice to develop classroom communities that 'cultivate engagement in authentic learning whose purpose is to transgress the class, sexism and racist boundaries' imbued in the education system (Brosi & hooks, 2012).

It was not a smooth journey. hooks' initial attempt to create and sustain a learning community met with strong resistance. Students did not want to learn new pedagogical practices, did not want to be in a classroom that differed from the norm; transgressing boundaries was frightening. Introducing the notion of pleasure and excitement, making room for spontaneous eruptions of thought, to challenge the current student teacher hierarchical arrangements, to challenge their reliance on expert knowledge, to challenge white privilege and to make this critique fun was considered, by her students a transgression beyond accepted boundaries (hooks, 1989, 1994, 2003, 2010). Erstwhile her non-conformity and scepticism of the educational machine was viewed with suspicion. A smart, black woman academic was an anomaly in a mainly white college (hooks, 2003, p.97). For hooks uniting feminist and anti-racist theory with practical application has been a challenge. Much of the academic theorising about feminism and anti-racist discourse is complex and exhibits a class bias since the ideas and critiques have little relationship to the lived experiences with most women and 'black folks', particularly those who come from marginalised groups, many of whom are illiterate and lack access to higher education. Similar to Freire's literacy campaign in Brazil in the 1960s before the Junta came to power, hooks was a fierce advocate for literacy classes in her community which she regarded as the biggest impediment to education for most black students. This lack of access excludes many from contributing to political, academic, scientific and intellectual life. To address this lack hooks adopted a non-conventional scholarly format in her writing style motivated by the desire to be as inclusive as possible; to as many readers as possible (hooks, 2010).

Her use of the vernacular speech, languages other than standard English was a key pedagogical tool and valued for its diversity and inclusiveness. To be inclusive and non-elitist her scholarship includes essays, stories, interviews and conversations, self-dialogues, testimonials, class lessons and anecdotes, eschewing formal academic avenues of scholarship. In these texts she discusses and presents her ideas, always finding a link with her experiences and that of her audience. She is not fazed by the criticism that her work is not scholarly enough but insists her desire to be accessible outweighs any criticism from the academy.

Things began to change when she stepped from the formal role of teacher to engage with the students as intellectuals and foster interaction in the classroom as one of mutual engagement. For the educational experience to be authentic, she argues it should help students become 'whole' human beings, striving not only for knowledge but knowledge of how to live in the world; to enable them to 'come to voice' and have their views acknowledged and affirmed (Bauer, 2000, p.270). Quite a lot more effort is needed to get students to willingly make themselves vulnerable to challenges, questions and scrutiny especially with students who come from privileged white backgrounds. While oppressed or colonised students can find a new sense of power and identity in freeing themselves from the colonised mind, privileged white students are (often) resistant to acknowledging their role in the domination of others to their advantage (hooks, 1989, 1994).

Here hooks makes the argument that teaching democratically is about empowerment, liberation, finding and claiming oneself and one's place in the world (2003, p.43). It is about taking the classroom knowledge into the community and embracing a lifelong commitment to learning and sharing knowledge. It is about the promise of a more inclusive multicultural curriculum, to approach teaching as an art form, a vocation, an exercise in free speech for all. Teaching can happen anywhere- in churches, libraries, in homes and bookstores, anywhere people gather together to learn and share ideas that affect their daily lives. The performative aspect of teaching can be used to create space for invention, spontaneous shifts and catalyst for drawing out unique elements of everyone in the classroom. To do this helps create and build a community (hooks, 2003). Students and teacher form a partnership and by sharing experiences (good and bad) calls for a recognition of the experience that is humanising. There is no better place, hooks argues, than the classroom where students are invited to challenge, to confront and change the hidden trauma of feeling different or stigmatised. For hooks conveying genuine respect and caring for students especially those deemed 'other' or 'different' can affirm everyone's' right to self-determination; to self-actualisation. In moving from the trauma of feeling marginalised or different in a classroom to experience the power of recognition and respect and to be fully present in a place where all voices are deemed worthy is education as the practice of freedom and hope (2003, p.103). Education as the practice of freedom enables teachers and students to confront feelings of loss and restore a sense of connection. 'It teaches how to create community' not only in the classroom but a feeling of connection and closeness 'with the world beyond the academy' (op. cit, p.103). For example, the progressive study of race and gender in the academy had impact beyond the classroom as social justice movements for race and gender equality changed both the academy and the broader political stage beyond the classroom. The anti-racist and feminist struggle challenged the way imperialist notions of white supremacy, of nationalism, patriarchy have created biases in teaching material and teaching styles, curricula, and other educational material. It requires teachers to not only incorporate diversity of readings and discussion topics but to teach from ' a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex and class' in conjunction with a multicultural curriculum (Bauer, 200; hooks, 1989). This is what she means by creating a community.

Hooks' individual quest to explore the longing to know, to understand how life works and adopt a critical black feminist and anti-racist lens in the search for authentic educational experience has influenced social wok education where feminist and anti-racist perspectives become a pedagogy informing its practice.

References

Bauer, M. (2000). Implementing a liberatory feminist pedagogy: bell hooks's strategy for transforming the classroom. In MELUS. 25(2/4). (Fall/Winter). 265-274.
Brosi, G., & hooks. b. (2012). The Beloved community: A conversation with bell hooks. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/488754
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Freire, P. (1974). Education for critical consciousness, New York: Continuum.
Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope, New York: Continuum.
hooks, b. (1989). Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. New York: Routledge.
Noble, C. (2020). bell hooks trilogy: pedagogy for social work supervision. In C. Morley, P. Ablett, C. Noble & S. Cowden (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Critical Pedagogies for Social Work. London: Routledge (pp.501-511).
Wisneski, D. (2013). bell hooks: Scholar, cultural critic, feminist and teacher. In J.D. Kirylo (ed.). A critical pedagogy for resistance: 34 pedagogues we need to know, Sense Publications: Boston. 73-76.