Distinguished visiting scholar bell hooks on MLK, love and more

“I have never been a big Martin Luther King fan,” bell hooks said during a discussion about the late civil rights leader. “I was more of a Malcolm X type girl.” hooks, New College’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar, talked with students and the Sarasota community on Thursday, Feb. 23 at Sainer Auditorium about the spiritual conversion of Martin Luther King.

President Gordon “Mike” Michalson, who introduced the leading feminist scholar and accomplished author, met hooks while they were both faculty at Oberlin College in the 1980s. “That’s a lot of trouble to go through to increase book sales,” Michalson joked in response to learning that hooks’ book, Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, had been banned in Tucson, Arizona, where she recently lectured.

hooks, however, was quick to seize the opportunity to banter back: “When he was a young professor, he was a lot sterner,” she said. “I didn’t see the funny, witty Mike that I’ve seen during his years at New College where I guess he’s just been hugged into submission.”

The two forged a friendship at Oberlin when hooks learned that Michalson had a pick-up truck she could use to lug the furniture she found at the Goodwill. “[I was able to invite hooks on campus] at a much-reduced rate, since, as I reminded her, she had said she ‘owed me’ for all the times she’d borrow my truck,” Michalson said in an e-mail to the Catalyst.

hooks, though, admitted she was nervous about speaking, concerned that New College students would find the discussion focused too much on God or too spiritual. “I think they’re all atheists,” hooks said she told friends before speaking, but the audience responded with laughter at the remark.

As a Southern girl raised in the Jim Crow era of segregation, she had never thought about white supremacy, but after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, it was the beginning of a radical conversion for hooks. At 19, as a student at Stanford University, she took her first women’s studies class, where feminist writer Tillie Olson told the class that the big task of the future would be to get women in the workforce. However, hooks recalled that every black woman she knew growing up did have a job. “I realized my world isn’t even the same world as these young privileged white people,” hooks said.

As a person of color at a predominantly white college, she faced ideas that did not concur with her own experiences. “All I heard while I was at Stanford were [things like] how black men weren’t in the home,” hooks said. “Gosh, I grew up in rural Kentucky. Every home I knew had some black men sitting up in it!” It was then she began to realize that sociology had focused too much on the urban black experience. “The experiences of people like my grandparents, who were together for 70 years, did not come to stand for black experience,” she said. “The broken, fragmented sense of family came to stand for black experience.”

As hooks matured, especially in her work as an author, she found herself moving towards the doctrine of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I’ve gone around the world asking people what allows you to move from a position of domination, from your homophobia, from your class elitism, from your white supremacy, and again and again people would talk about love,” hooks said. “I feel like as a nation, in so many ways, we trivialize Martin Luther King. We turned him into solely a kind of soft critic of injustice. In fact, he was awesome in so many ways, awesome in his thinking about love.”

hooks remarked that King was not an original thinker, but a man passionate about ideas and awed by the insights of original thinkers, especially in the works of intellectual or visionary men of genius.  King’s personal magic resided in his ability to take complex ideas and break them down into a vernacular form that rendered them accessible to the widest possible audience.

According to hooks, there are two amazing conversional experiences in King’s life: his transformation into a non-violent resistor and his call for a social revolution of values based on a commitment to love as political practice, a love rooted in spiritual commitment to the divine.

Two of the men who most influenced his thinking were Mahatma Gandhi and Erich Fromm. King was galvanized by Gandhi’s mission to bring about social revolution through non-violent resistance, while Fromm’ s book The Art of Living provided the intellectual framework for King’s spiritual understanding and awareness of love as a divine force uniting all life. King advocated that love “may well be the salvation of our civilization.” He urged listeners to see love as a force that could shape the nature and outcome of resistance struggle.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, masses of Americans motivated by a belief in the love ethic strived to unlearn the logic of domination and dominator culture. “That was so much of what the students who were fired up about the teach-in wanted people to think about — how do you unlearn the logic of domination and dominator culture?” hooks said.

“Love needs to be introduced into more institutional environments, like education,” fourth-year Michael Gonzalez said after hooks’ discussion. “It is important to remember that we’re human, and love is central to being human.”

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