Rereading bell hooks, Claudia Rankine, & Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a recent interview, Hanif Abdurraqib said he found himself returning to albums that felt familiar, because “the familiarity gives me comfort. It’s been hard for me to listen to unfamiliar things in unfamiliar times.”
The author and poet’s 2017 collection of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us moved beyond music criticism and appreciation into an illustration of how music intimately influences lives. His 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest looks back on mid-1980s and early ’90s hip-hop with a mixture of music history and personal essay.
“When I say I’m returning to familiar albums,” he said to Pillars Fund co-founder Kashif Shaikh, “it’s because I like to know where I’m going to land. You know? It feels like, as I mentioned earlier, we’re constantly falling very slowly through several folding clouds of grief, with no end in sight, and so I like a song that I remember. I like a song that I know. I like knowing where I’m going to land. I like knowing that if I put the needle down […] anywhere on that record, after a few seconds I’ll be able to find my way to an entry point. There’s comfort in that for me always, but there’s comfort for me in that particularly now, when I feel like it’s hard for me to predict what’s around the corner.”
Five days before George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department, a Canadian told me it was hard to believe racism still existed in America. He was planning a road trip across the border into the USA, which was still closed due to the pandemic, but he had a visa, white skin, and a plan to tell border patrol it was “essential” travel so he could go on vacation. I’m not even sure how we got on the topic of racism in America, but I nodded and didn’t contradict him, even though I disagreed.
I thought about it for days afterward: how it was a privilege to be surprised; how it means you haven’t seen or experienced racism up close; and how my silence rendered me complicit. I was not surprised about the existence of racism, but my lack of shock didn’t translate into meaningful action.
Public academic, writer and lecturer Rachel Cargle writes how it “is in all actuality wildly offensive that our pain is so far off of your radar that the mention of it shocks you. It’s actually hurtful to know that the news that’s been keeping me up at night hasn’t even been a topic of conversation in your world. […] Your shock isn’t enough. Your wow isn’t solidarity. Your actions are the only thing I can accept at this point.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some expressed shock and some expressed an unfortunate lack of it. Many were moved past shock into action. The nerd in me wanted to jump headlong into anti-racism reading lists, but I decided to first slow down, to take inventory of what I had already read. Like listening to a familiar album, there was a solace in knowing where I was going to land: in how the narrative progressed, where the prose would lead. And yet I ultimately retraced my steps not because they were familiar but because I needed to see what I had missed.
Over the course of my life there have only been a dozen or so books that, once finished, left me with the urge to shove a copy into the hands of every passing stranger. Three of those are what I chose to revisit: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, All About Love by bell hooks, and We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In 2015, I attended a writing conference in Minneapolis — my first-ever visit to the Midwest — and sat in a packed auditorium to listen to Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine discuss nonfiction with Fiona McCrae, the editor of Graywolf Press. I had already read the three white panelists but was unfamiliar with Rankine, whose book Citizen: An American Lyric was recently published by the small press. My reading skewed white, a mirror of the disparities present in the publishing industry. After the panel, I ran into Rankine in the bathroom and said I was excited to read her new book. She politely smiled. Only later would I understand the look on her face.
I read Citizen in a single sitting on the plane back to Portland. It’s perverse to feel “excited” to read a book about racism, which illustrated my immense privilege: I could get excited to read a book about racism in America because I didn’t experience the exhausting impacts of it each day. Citizen was published a few months after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. President Obama was still in office and Trump had not yet announced his candidacy. Still, almost six years since its publication, the book becomes more and more relevant and urgent each day.
I’ve purchased at least three copies of Citizen for myself, lending it out to friends and then forgetting where it wound up. I’ve written about it for Ploughshares, trying to unpack the elements of craft, marveling at each word. I reread it with a book club at Dotters Books in August of 2017, the same month white supremacists and neo-Nazis openly converged on Charlottesville, Virginia. The conversation was charged, electrified by the book itself and the events which cast it in a new light. The situation in Charlottesville was jarring to the like-minded white liberals in the group because it was overt racism, but Rankine’s book reminded us all that racial aggressions are ever-present, and not just in the United States. Blending essay, images, and poetry, Citizen demonstrates the micro-aggressions Black people encounter each day, and the impacts of those stressors on their lives.
A year after Citizen was released, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me topped bestseller lists and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Framed as a letter to his son, the book blended journalism, history and memoir to describe growing up as a Black man in America. Toni Morrison called it “required reading.” His follow-up was published in October of 2017. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy features eight of his articles from The Atlantic; one for each year of Barack Obama’s presidency, alongside his reflections on the time period, the way the piece was written, and how it has aged. Much like Between the World and Me, what results is a riveting mixture of journalism, history and memoir. To read Coates is to interrogate our nation’s narratives and myths, our collective un/conscious, and to recognize complicity — my own and other white people’s.
“There is a basic assumption in this country,” Coates writes in the introduction, “one black people are not immune to, which holds that if blacks comport themselves in a way that accords with middle-class values, if they are polite, educated, and virtuous, then all the fruits of America will be open to them. In its most vulgar form, this theory of personal Good Negro Government denies the existence of racism and white supremacy as meaningful forces in American life. In its more nuanced and reputable form, the theory pitches itself as an equal complement to anti-racism. But the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government — personal and political — often augments the very white supremacy in seeks to combat.”
And this is not new. It has happened in the past, and reading Coates is a striking reminder of how little the history books discuss not just racism and race in America but also Black people and Black history. The reductive narrative I recall from my education was basically comprised of a bunch of documents authored primarily by white men: the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, the Fifteenth Amendment granting Black men the right to vote in 1870, and then there’s a huge gap until the Civil Rights Movement in 1950s and ’60s, marked by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
There is no “getting over it” or “moving on” when our society has hardly reconciled or grappled with our past. Reading and rereading Coates reminds me of all I didn’t learn in school, of all that I’m still learning, and how history continues to echo from the past into our present.
The first time I read We Were Eight Years in Power, I used a scrap of paper as a bookmark. On it, in my mother’s handwriting, was a quote from Joseph Campbell: “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth.”
As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation, I watched as yoga studios, self-help gurus, wellness influencers, and brands posted messages in solidarity, “sending love.” The folks “sending love” are often the same ones who express surprise that racism still exists in America, but as one protest sign read, “racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.”
The Canadian posted quotes on social media intending to amplify Black voices. The first was bell hooks:
“There can be no love without justice.”
In January, when I asked the Canadian if he had read All About Love, he said he had not (and still had not when he posted her quote in June). It was my turn to be surprised: the Canadian was a relationship coach, and I considered All About Love a must-read, the most radical and all-encompassing book about love I’d ever encountered.
Like Citizen, I’m on my third copy of All About Love. I read it, lend it to someone, forget who has it, then buy a new copy to re-read and underline all over again. bell hooks is an author, professor, and cultural critic whose first book, Ain’t I a Woman? in 1981, unpacked the history of race in feminist movements — illustrating how white feminism fails to address issues of race and class, oftentimes even perpetuating the problems.
For instance: how well-intentioned white feminists say they’re “sending love,” or wonder aloud, “why can’t we all just get along,” and entirely miss the point. Until we’ve rooted out both the outward structural inequities and the inward subconscious bias, there’s no hope for equity, equality, justice, or love.
And what is love, exactly?
“Everyone assumes that we will know how to love instinctively,” hooks writes. But we do not study love in school. When the author set out to investigate the subject matter, she found two things:
First, that “whenever a single woman over forty brings up the topic of love, again and again the assumption, rooted in sexist thinking, is that she is ‘desperate’ for a man. No one thinks she is simply passionately intellectually interested in the subject matter. No one thinks she is rigorously engaged in a philosophical undertaking wherein she is endeavoring to understand the metaphysical meaning of love in everyday life.”
Second, “that the vast majority of the ‘revered’ books, ones used as reference works and even those popular as self-help books, have been written by men. All my life I have thought of love as primarily a topic women contemplate with greater intensity and vigor than anybody else on the planet. I still hold this belief even though visionary female thinking on the subject has yet to be taken as seriously as the thoughts and writings of men. Men theorize about love, but women are more often love’s practitioners.”
Love, as hooks points out, is a sensation many writers and poets define as undefinable. The author explores what love looks like in relation to childhood, honesty, commitment, spirituality, community, greed, capitalism, romance, loss, grief, and healing — taking into consideration racism and patriarchy, structural realities often left out of relationship seminars or spiritual and self-help texts.
After searching for years, the most “meaningful definition of the word ‘love’” that bell hooks encountered was by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck: “Echoing the work of Erich Fromm, he defines love as ‘the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.’”
The Canadian who quickly posted quotes from Black authors he had not yet read is unfortunately not alone in his tokenism — many in the self-help, wellness, and spiritual communities are using the Black Lives Matter movement as a prop to promote their brands, touting the benefits of manifestation (“your energy flows where your attention goes”) and “radical” love.
Fuck your love, I think as I scroll past posts about white people who feel sad about racism. I don’t doubt the authenticity of their emotions or the intentions of their sentiments, but we clearly hold very different definitions of love. The well-intentioned white feminists “sending love” often do so passively. What bell hooks outlines is the fact of love as an active act. Yes, we need love threaded into social justice movements, but we do not need empty rhetoric and spiritual bypassing.
And yet. I find myself toeing the line, verging into performative allyship and white centering. Perhaps you noticed how I kept returning to the Canadian as an example of What Not To Do, subtly implying that I am somehow different and thus better than him. (Look at me, I can read! While he’s quoting Black authors he hasn’t even read!) Meanwhile, I felt the need to insert myself into the narrative of how I came to find these books, as a mechanism to show you my initial ignorance, but it verges into centering and signaling wokeness.
Rachel Cargle writes, “The point of anti racism work isn’t a practice in white self improvement so that they can proclaim to be ‘one of the good ones’. […] The point of anti racism work is to upend the systems of grave injustice that have been braided into the ‘normalcy’ of this country fabric, into its morals, into its institutions, into the air we are all breathing. The point of anti racism work is to protect black existence. […] It’s black liberation, it’s black reparations, it’s black lives mattering. […] I’ve no interest in existing ‘a little safer’ in a ship that was never built for me to survive in. I want a brand new vessel.”
Even my decision to reread — to return to what’s familiar — is demonstrative of a desire to cling to what’s comfortable, to stay aboard the ship even as it sinks. I opted to stay within the realm of what I already knew, and this is part of the problem: an unwillingness to venture into the unknown. But unlike finding comfort in listening to a familiar album, a deep and pervasive discomfort settled in my sternum as I re-read Rankine, Coates, and hooks.
“Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination,” hooks writes. This is why it’s vital to learn what love means and how to act on it. This is why it’s vital to understand the difference between non-racist and anti-racist, allyship and co-conspirators, and to fill in the gaps of our whitewashed histories. This is why it’s vital to read and reread, to retrace our steps, to learn from history.
As hooks notes, “What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.” But what white America has dreamt up has both literally and figuratively been at the expense of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color. Instead of trying to love it away or pretend it’s a distant past when it is actually a very real present, I am turning toward it, interrogating my role in it, and how to move beyond the page.
I see a lot of white people saying, “It’s hard to find the words right now,” before diving into a diatribe verging on verbal diarrhea. It’s hard to find the words because white supremacy is so ingrained in our language and habits, so insidious, so much so that I catch myself engaging in white centering, virtue signaling, tokenism, and performative activism. I am personally complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression and racism in America. Perhaps you read this and noticed. Perhaps you didn’t. I considered erasing every trace of my missteps but decided to keep it here, to claim my fuck-ups, to not pretend I possess all the right words or the play-by-play guide to eradicating white supremacy and racism, and in doing so hope to demonstrate how confronting racism and oppression is a lifelong pursuit — an uncomfortable one at that — and to illustrate how much there is to learn, even and especially for liberal white women like me.