The following essay was published in the September issue of The Architectural Review for their “Reputations” series. You can read its edited version here on the magazine’s website. I would like to thank the editors for permitting me to publish the longer version of this essay on my personal blog.
bell hooks taught us to analyse the cultural labour of Black women who dared to challenge the universal claims of white cultural nationalism, writes Charles L. Davis II
As is the case with any public intellectual of the 20th century, it would be impossible to cover all the contributions bell hooks has made to academic thought. The most notable tendencies of her career, however, are perhaps best telegraphed in her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, from 1981. In Ain’t I a Woman, hooks critiques the occlusion of Black women’s lived experiences of sexism from the critical writings and political allegiances of middle-class white feminists and Black male suffragists from the late-19th to the mid-20th century. In several instances, Black women’s social status had become a wedge issue for white women seeking white male support for suffrage and Black men seeking patriarchal control over Black women. hooks’ mission was to expand the reach of feminism as a mass political movement by documenting “the impact of sexism on the social status of Black women” that went above and beyond racism as an oppressive force. In the book, hooks developed a writing style that interwove the personal testimony of Black women with polemical and academic interpretations of feminism’s core principles. Treating the personal as not only political, but as evidence of deeper historical trends, built a foundation for the recovery of lost histories of women of colour. This remained an important strategy throughout her career, as evidenced in her later writings on art, culture and politics. In addition, hooks wrote in a voice that was consciously and polemically accessible to a broad audience. Known for rejecting traditional footnotes in her writing, she developed a journalistic and at times even colloquial tone to better invite the non-academic reader. Yet her mode of analysis remained complex and challenging, taking the reader far deeper into the immediate problem at hand. In just about every way one can imagine, hooks extended the reach of the humanist critic from the classroom to the public, or what we in architecture might refer to as the demos, to illicit an explicit set of political effects.
As a result of her early success, hooks became a victim of her own scholarship. Infamously parodied for her jargonistic depiction of intersectional ideology critique (‘imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy’) and notoriously critical of the capitalist roots of contemporary feminism (‘Beyoncé is a terrorist’), she was not always accepted without criticism. She was not in favour of canceling problematic people, as her serious collaborations with Paulo Friere – a man she claimed had retrograde and sexist views of women – demonstrate. Nor was her feminism the kind that pitted men against women in a zero-sum game of battle of the sexes. For hooks, sexism was one of several presiding forms of oppression that required higher political action, not individual liberation. In 2015, during a New York Times interview with the philosopher George Yancy, she clarified the reasons behind her intersectional approach when she states “We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another.” It is important to think of class, empire, capitalism, racism and patriarchy as “all linked—an interlocked system.” Her politics of resistance to sexual commodification remains out of step with today’s trend toward sex-positive feminism. But hooks persisted in questioning when choice, as a near religious doctrine, begins to warp the perceptions and agency of young women. Should celebrities be modeling a corporatized form of sexuality to a young generation of women who are just learning what this means in their lives? And does the modeling of sexual liberation by a wealthy subject really track onto the lives of the poor especially the Black poor who have been pejoratively labeled as welfare queens, jezebels, and many other tropes of hypersexuality? Hooks discussed such questions in the classroom—at Stanford, Yale, Oberlin College and the City College of New York before returning to her home state of Kentucky to teach at Berea College—with the very women whose lives were directly affected by such phenomena. And even if we are trained to roll our eyes at the thought of inviting college students to speak at length about their feelings, we must remember that hooks addressed the full demos in her work, encouraging an affective approach as a mode of active citizenship. Her belief in the transformative role of critique paved the way for some of the most spectacular revisionist histories of Black womanhood we have today. Would we be ready for Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments if hooks had not prepared us to see Black women as historical subjects in their own right? Would we be ready for Tina Campt’s A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See if hooks had not already critically engaged with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or exposed the whiteness of Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze? So foundational is her approach that she is often built upon without proper citation. We owe her a great debt.
In order to demonstrate the relevance of bell hooks’ work for an architectural audience, we must review at least three intersecting aspects of her oeuvre. First, she taught us to transgress hegemonic structures in general through her pedagogical philosophy. Heavily indebted to the strategies outlined in Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, hooks’ 1994 book Teaching to Transgress offer architectural educators a basic model for complicating canonical histories of architecture. Second, she examined the political function of architecture through her commentaries on public art and space. For hooks, art and architecture merge in terms of their political function. “That’s why I think it is useful to think about architecture as a cultural practice, rather than solely as a professional one,” she says in an interview with LaVerne Wells-Bowie in her 1995 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. Both art and architecture are premier forms of visual representation and private expression that invite public commentary. As such, architecture is, much like feminism, always and already political. And third, hooks revisited the specific function of ‘vernacular architecture’ as a material form of social praxis in communities of colour. For her, vernacular architecture operates as the most basic form of building; indeed, as a model for all professional practice. Yet in her writings vernacular architecture is never an anonymously built form. Its builders have names, personal motivations and cultural affiliations. In the essay ‘Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice,’ published in Art on My Mind, she states “When my father’s father, Daddy Jerry, a sharecropper and a farmer, talked in concrete terms about his relationship to land, his longing to own and build, he spoke poetically about working with space so that it would reveal and mirror the texture of his longings.” When compared to the conventional understanding of vernacular forms within architecture, hooks’ position presents a social critique of reductive tropes of Black cultural genius. Black vernacular forms do not exist to renew the rationalist project of advanced European modernity, as Adrian Forty suggests in his essay for the 2006 book Primitive: Original Matters in Architecture. They have a life of their own, their own agenda. When it came to the art of postbellum America, the makers of rural Black homes saw “freedom as always and intimately linked to the issue of transforming space” because the very mobility of the Black body was premised on “oppositional modes of psychic decolonization” that enabled its subjects to resist the anti-Black sentiments of European modernity. In other words, Black vernacular architecture was a unique form of modernity rooted in the material conditions of its making. As hooks states explicitly in her chapter “House Art: Merging Public and Private,” the disciplinary schism between vernacular and avant-garde forms in the European Enlightenment is “a binary that does not organically exist” for all people at all times.
hooks made great use of her early childhood memories by mining these episodes for deeper principles of Black art and culture. Born in 1952 as Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she attended all-black public schools in the segregated rural south. As a result of her narrative approach, we spend a lot of time vicariously growing up with her in various settings, from the classrooms of the schools she attended down south to the homesteads that her relatives managed over multiple generations. Despite the fact that most of these settings are associated with the most disenfranchised subjects of society – places that many architectural historians have explicitly ignored in their canonical histories as less than architecture with a capital ‘A’ – hooks treats them with the gravitas that is due a well-loved ancestor. In her conversation with Laverne Wells-Bowie, she insists that “we have to think deeply about the cultural legacies that can sustain us, that can protect us against the cultural genocide that is daily destroying our past. We need to document the existence of living traditions.” From my position as an architectural historian, her reverence for poor Black spaces provides an excellent ethos for the revisionist historian. Never one to reserve avant-garde methodologies for ‘high art’ alone, she employed all forms of critical methodologies to analyse popular culture, because these were the cultural forms that influenced the greatest number of people. Through her eyes, we learn to see Black space as a corollary of the social and political principles propelling Black music, fashion, painting and sculpture. Within this expanded field of artistic expression, architecture operates as a more permanent but no less autonomous form of public expression.
Perhaps the best illustration of the power of vernacular architecture came in the form of hooks’ chapter in the edited volume Row: Trajectories Through the Shotgun House. Intimated by the title of her essay, ‘House Art: Merging Public and Private’, the house becomes an art form by a merging of public access and private motivations. For hooks, a house was different from a home. A house is abstract; it operates as a real estate commodity with static and reducible features. The history of the shotgun house as a building typology is perhaps the best evidence of this discrepancy. As the anthropologist John Michael Vlach traced in his essays in the journal Pioneer America, the first housing forms resembling the American shotgun house emerged from discreet changes to local economies in west Africa and later in the islands of the Atlantic slave trade. But these homes were known by different names: Apuja and Bohio during periods of freedom, and later maisons basses in French colonial Haiti. By the time it became mass produced housing for a particular niche of the US market, it was no longer created directly by Black craftspeople. And yet this mass-produced housing form transitioned into a ‘home’ when it was occupied as a private space for Black families moving on from slavery.
In this vein, the architecture of the shotgun house contained two warring definitions of modernity: first as a physical structure created by the anonymous forces of modern capitalism; but second, and more definitively so, as the private settings of a people in transition toward full liberty. When read in this way, the importance of the shotgun house is not its physical structure (house) but in the lives of those who gave it meaning during seminal periods of cultural change (home). For me, this is the perfect lesson for subverting the objective gaze that is inherent to certain brands of architectural formalism today. Not only is the ‘vernacular’ often already ‘modern’ insofar as it is a mass-produced corporate form, but this spectre of modernity is often empty when it is not constituted by the Blackness of its spaces. In this way, the vernacular can only have real meaning when it ceases to be the anonymous phantasm that European modernists required it to be – that is to say, when it is no longer stymied by the rigid labels of ‘a binary that does not organically exist.’ As bell hooks shows us, a Black architecture already exists; we need only recall the names of its authors and the rationale behind its choices in order for us to appreciate its modernity.
bell hooks, “design: a happening life,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for our Times, July 1, 1998 (online journal) https://www.lionsroar.com/design-a-happening-life/
bell hooks, “Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice,” Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York, NY: The New Press, 1995), 145-151
bell hooks, “Architecture in Black Life: Talking Space with LaVerne Wells-Brown,” Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York, NY: The New Press, 1995), 152-162
bell hooks, “House Art: Merging Public and Private,” Row: Trajectories Through the Shotgun House, edited by David Brown (Houston, Texas: Rice University School of Architecture, 2004), 20-32
bell hooks. Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009)