bell hooks, teaching to transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom – a review by Claudia Mazzilli
Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom, published for the first time in the United States in 1994) is much more than an essay on theoretical pedagogy, because experience and theory never separate in the thoughts, in the teaching, in the very writing of bell hooks, which is above all a self-narrative. The Italian edition (Meltemi 2020, with the translation by Feminoska) enriches the text with valuable critical appendices, which highlight its relevance for the Italian public: within a conservative and non-transformative culture (in school classrooms as well as in the political debate) that still avoids facing recent history with an honest and decolonial approach (the southern issue, gender issues, racial laws, colonialism in Africa and Albania…); in a school where distance learning during the pandemic has removed bodies and emotions and excluded the unpriviledged, in an educational system in which teachers are almost exclusively Italian, while teaching in increasingly multi-ethnic classes, in a cultural framework in which the school should teach to filter and deconstruct the messages of the digital agora, avoiding its passive consumption. I would add, in the midst of an increase of racism, violence and indifference (no less murderous) in recent months – which this summer killed the street seller Alika Ogorchukwu in Civitanova Marche – bell hooks speaks to us, here, now, today.
“In the apartheid South, black girls from working-class backgrounds had three career choices. We could marry. We could work as maids. We could
become school teachers”: three different activities but all connected to the “care” that patriarchal sexist thinking still considers exclusively female attitude. Thirsty with knowledge, bell hooks (pseudonym of Gloria Jean Watkins, 1952-2021) chooses to become a teacher. She comes from a segregated school in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where her black teachers considered teaching as a mission of redemption and anti-colonial resistance to white rule: here school and society, private life and militancy, are never separated and the teaching has a warmth that bell hooks will not find at Stanford University, in an apparently de-segregated study environment, but where white suprematism marginalise those who come “from the margin”, to use an expression dear to bell hooks, discouraging contact between white and black students out of classes, in the gym, in the cafeteria, where social apartheid still prevails and she, who has obtained a scholarship, is considered an intruder. And yet bell befriends Ken, a 16-year-old, her white peer: ” Friendship across racial lines was bad enough, but across gender it was unheard of and dangerous.”. bell hooks will think nostalgically of him, of the depth and sincerity of that friendship, when she will find herself living relationships not completely on equal terms,“when meeting and interacting with liberal white folks who believed that having a black friend meant that they were not racist, who sincerely believed that they were doing us a favor by extending offers of friendly contact for which they felt they should be rewarded. ”
And, in the classroom, from curiosity to habit and boredom. From passion for knowledge to sterile information, based on teaching-learning practices that function as the assembly line. From participation to obedience. From the choice of words in the effort of building a different dialogue each time in the classes, from the continuous remodulation of communicative codes to the crystallization of a uniform language, which universalizes the white male model.
What bell hooks observes as a student will serve her as a teacher: students and teachers must return to being embodied and equipped with experience in order to cross the boundaries of race, gender, class and deconstruct power.
Starting from a teaching practice that knows how to recognize its failures and tensions in the classroom, which does not remove the bodies of those who teach and those who learn, bell hooks develops an “engaged pedagogy”, different from depository education and conventional critical or feminist pedagogy, focusing on the well-being and pleasure of learning, absorbing ideas from Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who has a holistic approach to teaching, emphasizing the unity of mind, body, spirit) and the Brazilian pedagogist of the oppressed, Paulo Freire. But above all bell hooks adds value to her own experience and the observation of the classroom as a space and the dynamics that take place there, because the classroom is not at all that democratic space in which the desire to learn makes us all equal and in which knowledge is administered in equal portions in the free market of ideas. The classroom is not aseptic as an operating room, it is not the place of social amnesia where we are all equal, but its walls are permeable and there converge tensions and experiences that come from afar: thus the classroom becomes a hegemonic field of domination and oppression. How to turn it into a space in which the categories of race, ethnicity, gender, class are not removed? bell hooks does so without idealizing the black culture from which she comes, where she has known oppressive male chauvinism (indeed bell hooks must even demonstrate to white people that also in black communities there is gender inequality), and without conforming to the white culture of destination, of which she grasps the faults of classism, racism and colonialism, in addition to those of the patriarchy already experienced in the black culture of origin and within her own family dominated by an authoritarian father. All this allows her to draw from white and black thinkers from a perspective of constructive criticism, with great willingness to “crossbreed” the emancipating thrusts of each theoretical contribution, without delegitimizing it in its entirety or rejecting it when she catches limits or contradictions, but contextualizing it and opening a dialogue with other authors and other intellectuals,“because when you are thirsty you are not too proud to extract the dirt and be nourished by the water.”
The classroom, therefore, as research and experimentation of freedom, in which the teacher is not the king (neutral, incorporeal and entrenched behind the chair) in a system of coercive hierarchies that in a small scale reproduces the social system and in which quiet students respond only if asked, but it is the space that “allows students to assume responsibility for their choices” and in which even teachers, sharing their experiences in discussions, relativize them and “neutralise the possibility of becoming silent and omniscient inquisitors”. Trained in Western metaphysical dualism, the teachers mostly deny the erotic in the classroom, do not let emotions flow (even laughter is forbidden!) and least of all talk about eros (which for bell hooks is not limited to the sexual dimension; eros is the connection with the energies of nature and the ability to release our potential, just as birds migrate and flowers sprout from the ground). “To call attention to the body is to betray the legacy of repression”, that repression that acts on the teachers to the point of renouncing to use the bathroom if they happen to need it in the middle of the lesson!
Faced with increasingly heterogeneous and numerous classes (from thirty to one hundred students), the purpose of bell hooks is to transform education from passive cultural consumption to authentic critical thinking that deconstructs racism, militarism, materialism, for a society oriented to people and not to things. Giving the tools to demolish the great lie that blames those on the margin, the false narrative that “people are poor and unemployed because they want to be “. bell hooks is explicit:” contemporary crisis is created by a lack of meaningful access to truth.”
bell, for example, makes students write journals and texts that they read to one other, to educate them to exercise recognition, so that no voice remains unheard in the classroom, often asking “how ideas that they have learned or worked on in the classroom impacted on their experience outside”. Students, not only those of marginalised groups, are more motivated to learn and participate in a discussion if they connect it to the experience, which is one of the methods of knowledge, not the only one: ” imagine we are baking bread that needs flour. And we have all the other ingredients but no flour. Suddenly, the flour become the most important thing even though it alone will not do. This is a way to think about experience in the classroom. ” The sharing of experiences is more tiring in multicultural contexts, it entails changes in the program and the risk of not carrying out all the topics (the quantitative obsession of each teacher), but it is essential, even when it does not give the teacher instant confirmation of the success of their teaching. At the same time, warns bell hooks, we must avoid that the person carrying diversity is objectified by others as a “native informant”, because this would burden them with too many responsibilities (not without risking that this experience becomes a universal paradigm or a new stereotype), because “experience does not make one an expert.”
bell hooks tells of conflicts or misunderstandings with students, as well as among students, she does not censor the moments in which her credibility, esteem, authority, professionalism have been undermined in the opinion of students or colleagues, she does not hide the hypocrisy or naivety of teachers who add to the traditional canon black writers without ever talking about race and changing the teaching method. She reveals episodes in which the crossed vetoes of apparently innovative so-called progressive colleagues have slowed down her research path, she tells us about white feminist scholars who took credit for studies of lesser-known black feminists; bell hooks narrates circumstances in which the works of black men were considered more illuminating and representative of the work of female black thinkers, thus letting us perceive what the intersection of race and gender is and, precisely with the self-narration, she never ceases to remind us of the relationship between theory and practice, because she came to the theory through suffering, the theory was a “place of sanctuary” in which she could imagine “ possible futures,”: but to try to build them in reality, not just yearn for them in words, rather in the effort to say the theory with simple words that are understandable to all, in order to share it and realize it. And here school, academia, research have revealed their classist and supremacist face: “the work by women of color and marginalized groups or white women (for example, lesbians, sex radicals), especially if written in a manner that renders it accessible to a broad reading public, is often de-legitimized in academic settings, even if that work enables and promotes feminist practice.” The separation between theory (abstract and written in a highly specialized micro-language) and practice serves to perpetuate class elitism. “we must continually claim theory as necessary practice within a holistic framework of liberatory activism”.
But precisely because the classroom and the world are not separated and the bodies are always involved, through an increasingly radical (collective) story, bell hooks declares that the access of black men to the body of white women, even outside marriage, did not undermine the foundations of white patriarchy or racism, while the real taboo was the legalized union between a white man and a black woman, out of sexual abuse and violence.
The real point of friction between white and black women was the relationship between wealthy white women and black women serving as maids (this was the job of bell hooks’ mother): every gesture, every word, every silence reaffirmed the difference in status and strongly restored the boundaries of race and gender. At the same time, in racially segregated neighborhoods, the only relief for black women was to be able to return home and, if for white women the black woman was “like a family member,” the perception of black women was completely different, regardless of whether the power of white women was exercised in a tyrannical or benevolent manner. Even the feelings of envy, hatred, resentment and jealousy of black women towards white women (whose lives they observed within their own homes, almost with an ethnographic-anthropological approach, that is, of observing a different culture) have been transmitted from generation to generation and have not favored integration and multiculturalism in the phase of de-segregation. This is what happens when white feminists try to draw on the work of black women on race and racism to master the subject (terrible linguistic lapses): “they reproduce the servant-served paradigm in a radically different context. “. Through concrete testimonies bell hooks does not hide what it means “to be treated like shit by white women who are busy getting their academic recognition, promotions, more money, etcetera, doing ‘great’ work on the topic of race ‘, but in the meantime tries a constructive confrontation on racial issues to reach a true sisterhood, not abstract, but based on political solidarity.
How can we ignore all this in a university like Queens (where Bell taught), a community of 17,000 people who speak 66 different languages, a community even larger than many American towns? What language, bell hooks asks herself, for communities so plural? How touching and lacerating is the eleventh chapter (Language): in standard English, the Afro-descendants still hear the sound of the slaughter of the slaves in the plantations, yet their ancestors needed the language of the oppressor to speak to each other, because they had no other language in common, and they began to take fragments of it to create a counter-language, that language that is a space of resistance and that somehow also comes to bell hooks, which uses some cadences: “W hen I first began to incorporate black vernacular in critical essays, editors would send the work back to me in standard English. Using the vernacular means that translation into standard English may be needed if one wishes to reach a more inclusive audience. In the classroom setting, I encourage students to use their first language and translate it so they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately”. It is not at all necessary to choose between one and the other belonging, but to learn in a creative way to cross the boundaries between culture of origin and culture of destination, learning to live with enthusiasm both these territories, in the awareness and confidence of being able to act and transform them, instead of considering effective a single assimilation model of interaction and communication based on the values of the bourgeois class.