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Reviews |  It was bell hooks that taught me to “answer”

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Reviews | It was bell hooks that taught me to “answer”

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Growing up, parents, teachers or elders sometimes berated me for not speaking, because I instinctively did not accept what they said about me or the world around me. In other words, to respond. “Rude” is what they called it.

It didn’t deter me. I had the audacity to believe that my voice not only mattered, but that it was at least equally valuable to those around me, if only for my own youthful enthusiasm. Still, I felt some guilt as I answered.

This contradiction was deep. You must understand, I am Nigerian – Urhobo. Although my family and I have lived in countries between Africa and the West, I was still raised in a conspicuously Nigerian manner: with a spoonful of ‘talk when talked to’ and a deference to authority.

When I met the work of feminist, scholar, and cultural critic Bell Hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins), who died at age 69 on December 15, I was in college and was 22. The first book I read was the 1989 essay collection, “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black”. It was only then that my habit of responding to adults took on new meaning for me. As a child, it looked like a personal act of necessary disobedience. In adulthood, it has become a policy worth sticking to.

In the collection, a young Ms. Hooks dissected and pushed aside existing conventions that insisted she only speak when spoken to. She locates her work mainly in her experience as a black woman who belonged in particular to the American South and Kentucky, where she was born. Yet like many other black women of a different generation, nation, and experience from Ms. Hooks, I have found a home in her work.

She gave me language to understand the shame and triumphs of black childhood by describing her own childhood in which she was punished for responding, or “speaking as an equal to an authority figure. “. Children, especially girls, weren’t supposed to be so daring. The triumph, in part, was to have it anyway.

She also felt that it was necessary to do so. Ms Hooks noted that when the girls became women, they would have more room to speak, but their words would be “audible but not recognized as meaningful.” Women could say right and socially acceptable things in everyday conversation, but if their ideas challenged the structure of patriarchy, they would often be rejected. It is a reality that will not change if we do not reject it.

Indeed, the simple act of speaking is not enough; we must also speak the truth to power, sometimes even within our own communities. Ms. Hooks understood what it looks like for black girls and women who are often socialized under a “cult of privacy” – the belief that he is breaking a certain code for openly discussing things that go on in our homes and our personal relationships. She made it clear that responding in your own communities can be drastic.

As a writer and cultural critic, I have found this to be true. For example, I discovered that when I spoke about how art, films and stories about black cultures in Africa are filtered through the predominantly white gaze of industry gatekeepers on people who look like me , we often agree. And yet, when I address such criticisms to them for supporting that same blank gaze, I am accused of dividing.

Yet I know that both realities can be true. In a society that isn’t designed to take our pains seriously – where it can even be difficult for us to see ourselves as the pain-inflicters – I’m learning and relearning to use my speech. Ms. Hooks understood that voice and language are how marginalized people humanize themselves to themselves.

“Going from silence to talking is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited and those who stand and struggle side by side,” Ms. Hooks wrote, “a gesture of defiance that heals, makes new life and a new life possible. new growth. It is this act of speaking, of “responding”, which is not a simple gesture of empty words, it is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.

She was tough but compassionate and ahead of her time in the way she spoke about feminism and representation, whether in Hollywood movie castings or in the workplace. These discussions are incomplete if they do not consider history, race, class and gender together. In light of this truth, the guilt I attached to speaking out as a child fades away.

The day Mrs. Hooks passed away, I returned to the first chapters of “Talking Back” after a few years. I felt a familiarity, a restoration of the rawness of reading his still revolutionary ideas.

Her passing is a painful occasion for generations of women whose voices have been shaped through her work. For us, Ms. Hooks was a beacon, and the response helped us find our way.

Kovie Biakolo (@koviebiakolo) is a journalist who writes on culture and identity and is the author of the upcoming “Foremothers: 500 Years of Heroines From the African Diaspora”.

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