Black Female Voices: Melissa Harris-Perry, bell hooks, & The New School
This past Friday at The New School in New York City, as part of their Black Female Voices series, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry sat down with famed feminist and writer bell hooks, and hosted one of the most crucial and brilliant public dialogues about the well-being of black women and the myriad of other pertinent topics.
Candid and with a few welcome straight no chaser moments, Dr. Harris-Perry deviated a bit from her MSNBC persona, and offered up some worthwhile fodder of her own, for folks to chew on.
There were so many profound sound bites and ‘Yaass!’ moments, I’ll just highlight those that stood out the most to me and I’ve noted…
bell hooks on the ‘Angry Black Woman’ stigma black women are saddled with (even when we aren’t), and the lack of power black women have over our own representations: “I’m one of these black women that, if I’m angry, you’re gonna know that I’m angry and I’m gonna own my anger. (…) I don’t think that I’m difficult; I think that I’m exacting and precise.”
hooks on the need for people to recognize the humanity of black children and people and to not laugh at black trauma and pain in films like ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘: “I just can’t take the image of another abused, black child being represented as entertainment. … I’m hurting because we can’t get past the construction of black children as little mini adults, whose innocence we don’t have to protect; who we can consider ‘cute’ if they’re being slapped around by an alcoholic father.”
hooks also shared film critic, Armond White’s disdain for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which she considers to be ‘sentimental claptrap’: “I felt that it actually negated the black female voice; that [Patsey]was given a voice only insomuch as she gave expression to black male emotional feeling. … I’m tired of the naked, raped, beaten black woman’s body. I want to see an image of ‘black femaleness’ that alters our universe in some way.”
bell hooks and Perry dismantling and making some really essential points about patriarchy. hooks added: “We are still in the construction of a world where people don’t want to accept that it is patriarchy that is killing black men. That it is an imperialistic patriarchy that threatens the life of black men of all ages.” [Emphasis mine]
hooks vocalizing her displeasure with Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of neoliberal feminism: “I am not interested in ‘Lean In’. OK?”
hooks affirming the need for black women to protect their personhood and emotional well-being: “What does it mean to have optimal, emotional well-being? Because when you have optimal, emotional well-being, you can be whole; you can be the diversities of who ‘yourself’ is.”
Most poignant: food justice activist Tanya Fields bravely standing up during the Q&A portion of the forum and talking about the mental impact and pain of being shamed by other black people. Melissa Harris-Perry was moved to leave her seat on-stage and, in a genuine show of solidarity, embraced Fields before discussing how intra-racial respectability politics and shaming (of poor, black single mothers especially) impedes community building and organizing: “The thing you’re supposed to be ashamed of is being poor. That shaming is a defense mechanism to keep people from having to do the hard work of organizing. And it is the most dangerous thing in marginalized communities.”
Former Hartford, CT and now NYC-based middle-school teacher Ebony Murphy-Root, asking about the exclusion of black female voices in education reform and the habit of black teachers being scapegoated for a culture of behavior they didn’t create. To which MH-Perry suggested that the black female voice is the ‘thing’ the system is “seeking to destroy”, which is why they’re excluded from the table.
And, hooks challenging overuse of the word ‘ally’: I’ve actually been questioning this use of the word ‘ally’, because I think that if someone is standing on their own beliefs, and their own beliefs are anti-patriarchal, anti-sexist, they are not required to be anybody’s ally. They are on their front-line in the same way that I’m on my front-line.”
Indeed, the folks who got to see the conversation unfold in-person were lucky to experience it. However, and thankfully, it was live-streamed; so do yourselves a favor, click here, and watch the discussion in full, from beginning to end.