Watch this Amazing Conversation Between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry

bell hooksmelissa harris perry

The New School hosted an amazing conversation this afternoon between MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and acclaimed writer bell hooks.

You really won't spend an hour this weekend doing anything better than watching their whole discussion. 


We'll have more in-depth writing about this conversation next week, but for now, here are some highlights from the conversation on specific pop culture topics: 

On cable news:   

bell hooks: “Melissa represents a generational shift. She has this whole national voice. One of the things we want to talk about is: Has there been a meaningful concrete change in how we feel about black women's voice? Many of you have probably seen the show where she is talking to the economist. I was so impressed, it was like a love moment. Melissa really boldly put out there what we know to be real and true. I was so stunned to hear from people, 'Oh, she really lost it.' I kept thinking, if this was Charlie Rose or any number of white men who would boldly speak their truths—she didn't raise her voice, there was (for me) no sense of aggression. She was turned into the “angry black woman” not the “insightful, brilliant black woman who just threw down in such a way that it created a sense of awe.” That gave me pause: Has there been a shift or are we still pushing against a certain characterization of the black female voice?” 

Melissa Harris-Perry: “I'm not sure how I wound up with a television show. Clearly it's part of a set of very odd circumstances that are part of this moment historically where we have an African-American man as president and the most popular commentary on that president being a queer woman who is out and butch (when they don't overly make her up). There's a shift that occurs around representation and that shift occurs at the same time when there's a profit motivation to get an audience. I don't want to miss that. There's no moment in cable news where people are not making any kind of decision based on believing there is audience and income out there.”  

On Michelle Obama:

Melissa Harris-Perry: “First Lady Obama is navigating multiple spaces. And in some ways, [her voice] has retained its bigness and its value and in some ways it has diminished. Most importantly, for me, there was an active, purposeful and—she has said it to us—desire to remove from public space the idea of the black woman who emasculates her husband. She very actively moved back from the partnership model of her relationship—not just a partnership, but an active critique of her husband. So when Senator Obama is running in 2007 and 2008, she has a variety of punchlines, including, 'Barack is stinky in the morning and he leaves his socks around.' She had another line about feeling like a single parent for much of their relationship because he was working downstate. She was the primary breadwinner, plus she was taking on all the parenting. That narrative went away as soon as they got through the primaries. As soon as they got through South Carolina and it was clear that Obama could win the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama 'the wife' became the much more traditional political wife who, in a sort of doe-eyed way, supports her husband.”

On Beasts of the Southern Wild

bell hooks: “I just can't take another image of an abused black child being represented as entertaining… I'm hurting because we can't get past the construction of black children as little mini-adults whose innocence we don't have to protect, who we can consider cute if they're being slapped around by an alcoholic father.”

Melissa Harris-Perry: “The abuse not only of the character, but of Quevanzhané Wallis by both white and black audiences in the immediate aftermath of that movie. I really, really disliked that film. I sat in a theater in New Orleans and watched it and came home and read your piece… it was one of those movies that you were supposed to like, that you were supposed to say nice things about. It was supposed to be arty and fun and you were supposed to be deep and 'get it' and your willingness to say, 'Nope, the abuse of a young black girl's body is not deep. It's appalling.'”

On 12 Years a Slave

bell hooks: “I really hated it. I said, 'Eh, sentimental clap-trap.' It actually negated the black female voice. I felt like she was only given voice in so much as she gave expression to the black male feeling. The black male does not have to take responsibility for his own emotional universe—Patsy takes that cross. So it's like, okay, not only are you suffering, but you've got to take on you the added burden of articulating this black man's pain to him. 

Melissa Harris-Perry: How much of that, though, is because it is the reading of his autobiography, his slave narrative? He does create Patsy that was in his text and so the film reproduces the thing that he, as black patriarch even in the context of slavery, does to her? 

bell hooks: Yeah, honey, but if the filmmaker can create for us that scene of Mrs. Shaw that is not in the book, why can't he—one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don't want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination… I'm tired of the naked, raped, beaten black woman body. I want to see an image of black femaleness that alters our universe in some way. 

On Lean In

bell hooks: “When you are committed, you often have to do thing you don't want to. I am not interested in Lean In, okay? But I wrote a piece about it because I was disturbed by its overall impact. Because I wasn't particularly interested, writing the piece was torturous. I was unhappy… I had my colleague saying, 'bell, you agonized over this, you did it, let me put it on the Internet for you.' That has been my story in writing from the beginning. I have to say some things, but I'm not always someone who wants to say them. I want someone else to jump up and say them—and take the heat.”


Photos via MSNBC and Wikipedia.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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28 Comments Have Been Posted


As a middle-aged white woman, I found the interview educational and surprising in many respects, but "amazing" is a word I'd reserve for something, well, truly amazing. Use of it here smacks of adolescent hyperbole.

Why comment with this,

Why comment with this, really? bell hooks is amazing, MHP is amazing, they are speaking together in a public forum on their views (which are actually quite different). So, it is Amazing to have them together. Your comments just seems to show a general lack of respect for these women as two major advocates for black women in the US. It's Amazing to me that you don't get their importance.

Why comment with this

Because I find the word "amazing" in this context condescending, hyperbolic (if this interview is "amazing" then won't we be at a loss for words when bell hooks pens something that causes an international sensation?) and totalistic: It signals that this is a place for cheerleading, not honest critical thinking or civil dissent.

Just because bell hooks herself is a remarkable public intellectual doesn't mean that every interview she grants is "amazing" or that it should be hyped as such. What's more, the title cheapens the content.

But never mind. I suppose that if I was expecting "The Atlantic" for millennial feminists, I've come to the wrong place.

Wow. So sad, that you would

Wow. So sad, that you would take such issue with an adjective.

Adjectives, or gender presentation?

As a second-wave feminist, I'm dismayed by what appears to me to be the juvenilization of presentation and discourse on feminist sites established by millennial women (by which I mean Bitch and Bust)..

Adolescent hyperbole in print recalls other worrying trends - such as sexy baby voice and vocal fry ("this is sooo *amazing*. Like, totally.")

But, hey, maybe this is what Bitch's target audience prefers. One thing's for sure. They are not stampeding over to staid and serious publications like The Economist, where a measly 13% of the readership is female. (How embarrassing is that?)

So, any suggestions on where I might find a contemporary feminist site with a more professional tone?

Feminism of the Economist....

If you think the Economist is a serious and staid publication then I humbly suggest you have a lot of unexamined privilege to confront, and you are perhaps not ready to fully appreciate voices like Harris-Perry and hooks. (Not that I can claim to be!).
The Economist is a straight up neo-liberal lovefest, there's nothing serious about it. I was lucky enough to be at this talk, and as far as I'm concerned: there isn't much going on more serious than this.


Ah, the usual buzzword... "privilege" along with a convenient derailing of the subject at hand.

The Economist is not eschewed by most women because they sympathize (as I do, it so happens) with Tony Smith-style critiques of neoliberalism. If only that were the case! And regardless of the faults one might find with it in other respects. The Economist does offer breadth of serious news coverage and geographic data pitched to readers of more than average education.

So, if, as we know, women are not appreciably more radical than men, what is keeping them from reading The Economist?

Now if you take the trouble to reread what I actually wrote, as opposed to what you imagine I wrote, you'll see that I didn't disparage the hooks & Harris-Perry dialogue as unserious, merely the accompanying title.

my bad.

Sorry for the double-post! (Moderator, can you please delete one?). And that it wasn't a particularly constructive comment... two derails don't make a right!

There is so much that is amazing and serious about two radical, black feminist voices packing out a NYC auditorium to talk about oppression and real lived lives; trying to police the tone and style of the conversation rather than actually engaging in one is just a terrible shame.

Thanks Bitch media for recording and posting this!!

Again, no one is "policing" the tone and style of the dialogue

Instead, as a reader, I am offering *feedback* on the choice of title for that piece.

That's what readers tend to do... offer feedback.

re: The Economist

<I>The Economist</I> may indeed be a straight up neo-liberal lovefest, but their newsstand and subscription rates are only affordable for the privileged with money to spend on it. Sure, there's the local library, but I happen to live in an ultra-conservative community (Unfortunately not of my choosing. I am in the community for family reasons) where the community's only public library won't bother subscribing, even after numerous suggestions I have made for them to. Same is true for <I>Bitch</I> and even <I>Ms.</I>, I am sad to say ...

So women are a Third World unto themselves?

Unlike men, they can't afford The Economist?

News to me.

In any case, the difference in the cost of a single issue of The Economist and Vogue or Cosmo is measured in dimes, not dollars.

We already know that men typically read more news magazines than do women. News magazines that do better with women are lifestyle-oriented.

And just who do you think is keeping high-circulation magazines like People, Glamour etc in business?

What's more, only 15% of Americans don't surf the Internet on a regular basis (whether from home, library or work) and the biggest chunk of non-users are the elderly.

So could it be that non-privileged women are reading generally accessible Economist articles online?

What's your best guess?

I'm sorry, is this article about you?

The fact that you are trying to derail the main points of this AMAZING interview/discussion by nit-picking an adjective in a really divisive way, means that YOU are not ready for the seriousness and complexity of current feminism/womanism, not us. Did you come here to show solidarity and and participate in valid discourse, or did you just come here to lord your second wave-feminist credentials over us? Are you a hindrance or a help?

I also hope you are a WOC, because otherwise you are a walking -talking White example of why second-wave feminism fell out of favor, because when it comes the voices and narratives of WOC, White Feminists always policed tone and vernacular, as a way to avoid their own knee-jerk racial prejudice and derail true conversation. So if you are not, congrats, you are the problem. BUT, if you are, you are STILL the problem. I'll just feel extra sorry for you.



Why do you think POC shy away from feminism? Instead of listening to this inspiring and insightful conversation between two black women, this commenter decided to turn it into a feminist "Get Off My Lawn!" rant? Serously? How disprespectful and selfish.


Your comment is a non sequitur since it presupposes that "feminism" per se has a default race. It doesn't. Secondly, I'm new here and would have responded the same way to the vast majority of other articles so entitled. It happens that this was the first article I & video clip I came across. Third, at another (non-feminist, non-race oriented) millennial site covering a range of news stories, I found fault with the sensationalized headlines there as well.

It's clear to me that my brief complaint was like a Rorschach inkblot eliciting interpretations that say more about the respondents' own insecurities than anything else. And while no one has yet pointed it out, the biggest difference here may well be generational. Perhaps all of you came of age in the 80s or later when tabloid sensibilities went mainstream AND when notions about feminism as a movement to secure full, dignified *adulthood* began to change.

By the way, POC have their own feminist movements (more or less) which I support - and I always regretted the quick demise of the National Black Feminist Organization.

Rubber and Glue!

Oh! Does that mean everyone born after the eighties need to get off the Feminist Lawn? Our young widdle brains just can't handle the rules to doing feminism properly? I did skip learning the super-seceret feminist handshake to go buy lipstick, MY BAD.

Where is the thought and maturity

in your latest response? I don't see it. I see an emotional outburst, not an argument.

If this is the future of feminism, god help us all.

To make this exchange more constructive, perhaps you'd care to discuss what standards, if any, you think should be broached on feminist sites like this?

And what's up with the lipstick comment? Care to expand on that?

I know! Young people like me

I know! Young people like me are just the WORST, right?! We really aught to require young people to submit forms requesting permission to become adults.


Why are people even paying attention to this Tethys woman? If she wants to get herself in a knot over a word, let her! I think this talk is amazing and nothing she says matters to me. If she doesn't like it then she can look elsewhere for reading material.

I'm sorry, is this article about your grammar obssessions?

The fact that you are trying to derail the main points of this AMAZING interview/discussion by nit-picking an adjective in a really divisive way, means that YOU are not ready for the seriousness and complexity of current feminism/womanism, not us. Did you come here to show solidarity and and participate in valid discourse, or did you just come here to lord your second wave-feminist credentials over us? Are you a hindrance or a help?

I also hope you are a WOC, because otherwise you are a walking -talking White example of why second-wave feminism fell out of favor, because when it comes the voices and narratives of WOC, White Feminists always policed tone and vernacular, as a way to avoid their own knee-jerk racial prejudice and derail true conversation. So if you are not, congrats, you are the problem. BUT, if you are, you are STILL the problem. I'll just feel extra sorry for you.

No, but the title, etc is about being taken seriously

I love how people like you complain about knee-jerk prejudice when everything about your own remarks is knee-jerk (cliche).

Would it surprise you to know that I grew up on the Lower East Side and that until I attended (Stuyvesant) H.S., the overwhelming majority of my friends were Chinese, Puerto Rican and Black (and desperately poor, btw)? Would it surprise you to know that my husband is non-white or that I have biracial children? Sure it would. You just won't admit it.

Coming to a venue to show solidarity is one certain sign of the fragility (and intolerance) of a movement. I believe all movements advance and thrive through constructive argument and criticism, not through boosterism and totalitarian-like insistence on Group Mind. This isn't Richard Dawson's Family Feud, where every answer, no matter how idiotic, was a "good answer" meriting applause; this is a feminist (democratic, thought-based) website which presumably champions the values of the civil society.

What goes by the lazy buzzword of "policing" is no more than an appeal to higher standards. And the response I'm getting strikes me as just so much prickly whining by women who object to any and all discussions of standards - out of a fear that it might make them feel bad.

And after all, how on earth can any of us face another day if someone makes us feel bad?

So in fact, far from feeling sorry for people who talk about standards, you sound like you're feeling sorry for yourself.

And it seems to me that the main reasons why 1st and 2nd wave feminism are greeted with such ambivalence by millennials is a nagging sense that those groups set the bar too high (along with a puerile disinterest in politics -- now watered down to such a degree that the personal - to a very large extent - has become the new political.)

No one has yet broached the subject of what "amazing" ought to look like.
Nor has anyone considered the possibility that to call everything amazing is to play into that awful quip of Samuel Johnson's about a woman preaching. You all know the one.


Oh, the old "I have a Black friend" trope, Nice. (Pro-tip: Knowing people of color does not mean you cannot do racist things, or act to hold up the racist White paradigms of power and discourse. How's that for buzzwords?).

And how, one hand, can you talk about constructive criticism and conversation being better than solidarity , yet refuse to budge intellectually on your stance that the word AMAZING cheapens feminism somehow? Who make you the arbiter of what feminism is valid? You hide behind schooling us awful young people about TRUE feminism as way to mask your pettiness and bitterness that there is something in 'YOUR' movement that you might not fully understand or like.

And instead of showing respect, both to this article's point and to the WOC for who it resonated for, you resorted to petty attacks and whining (which you then tried projecting onto us) about how we are just too base for real feminist discourse. You turned this thread into a divisive, nit-picky derailing whinefest that became all about you, and how much smarter you are about feminism than anyone else. So congrats. You win. You are the better 2nd-wave feminist. Hope it is super fun up there on your high horse.

We'll be down here, actually connecting and growing as activists and advocates. Have a nice evening.


<blockquote>Oh, the old "I have a Black friend" trope,</blockquote>

Only if you think being raised in a majority non-white neighborhood (by choice, incidentally), marrying a non-white and having biracial kids is an instance of "I have a Black friend logic". On the contrary, it's precisely because I <i>have</i> grown up around smart, female POC that I am not "amazed" to hear them offer up intelligent conversation. Does no one here at least recognize the "Samuel Johnson effect" we inadvertently promote when we react to each and every female achievement with utter amazement?

<blockquote>racist White paradigms of power and discourse. How's that for buzzwords?).</blockquote>

Not buzzwords, just regurgitated ideas misapplied in this instance out of a sheer unwillingness to imagine that a critique of tabloid editorial policies could be just that.

<blockquote>the word AMAZING cheapens feminism somehow</blockquote>

How absurd. I said nothing of the kind. "Amazing" is appropriate in the proper context. For example, bell hooks herself uses it in her informal conversation to describe MLK's warnings about incipient white fascism. I thought it was quite appropriate there. The effect IS bracing (i.e. amazing) because it's not an aspect of Dr. King's message most people recognize, having had most of his words mediated for them by mainstream "sentimentalizers" -- to pick up on yet another strand of hooks' thoughts in that interview.

<blockquote>Who make you the arbiter of what feminism is valid?</blockquote>

Instead of replying with "you're not the boss of me", you might consider a countervision, a counterargument. I lay out one point of view, you lay out another. Discussion ensues. Why is that so hard?

<blockquote>pettiness and bitterness that there is something in 'YOUR' movement that you might not fully understand or like.</blockquote>

I suppose there's plenty in OUR movement/s that we ALL may not fully understand or appreciate. That said, both "pettiness" and "bitterness" are odd, and I think wholly inappropriate descriptors here. I was surprised by your use of them. One is not "petty" when one reflects critically on a social movement and "bitterness" is more appropriate when one faces <i> personal disappointment</i> over unfair treatment. Disappointed I am about the apparent course of "third wave feminism" overall -- but hardly "bitter."

Just as I remain critical of the tabloidization of what are ostensibly non-tabloid magazines. Again, I made the point that Millennials may be inured to it because that's all they've known; the "problem" has been rendered nearly invisible.

<blockquote>You turned this thread into a divisive, nit-picky derailing whinefest that became all about you</blockquote>

"Became" how? Seeing how dead it is around here, I didn't expect any replies, and when I received some, I clarified my stance. If those who disagreed with me had explained what they found amazing about the hooks/Harris-Perry conversation, things would have turned out quite differently.

Talk about respect and "derailing". The hooks/Harris-Perry conversation had been posted the day before and elicited no comments. It was only the following day, when <i>I</i> posted a brief remark, that anyone saw fit to post here. Why is that? Ironically enough, your own continued harping on my initial remark - and your refashioning of it to suit your own purposes - perpetuates the problem. Instead of commenting on the interesting observations the discussants made, you'd rather lob personal attacks on me. If there's any bitterness on display in this comment section, look no further than the people fixating on the personal rather than ideas, practices, editorial choices.

You want to talk about ideas? I'd say that while there is much I agreed with in hooks' remarks, and much (as always) to admire about her eloquence, I did find her comments about sentimentalism peculiar in one important respect. Mainstream films that stress Black characters and Black-white relationships ARE unusually prone to sentimental treatment (and I think we are right to be offended by them), but sentimentalism is hardly a new trend or confined to films with racial themes. Is she unfamiliar with whitey-white Les Miserables? What about the horrifically mawkish megamusical phenomenon of the past 30 years? It's one thing to criticize sentimentalism in films showcasing Black characters and Black themes, quite another to ignore a pervasive trend in American popular culture which is as old as America itself.

<blockquote>Hope it is super fun up there on your high horse. </blockquote>

Someone who seeks to impugn my integrity with accusations of racism is in no position to tell me to come down from a high horse. Attend to your own horsemanship. And ask yourself why you'd rather attack me than discuss the "amazing" conversation which took place at the New School?

<blockquote>We'll be down here, actually connecting and growing as activists and advocates</blockquote>

Can one have growth without tolerance of criticism? Can one be an effective activist while brooking no dissent? Can one be an effective advocate for <i>anything</i> when one has such a thin skin? I wonder.

<blockquote>Have a nice evening.</blockquote>

It was lovely, thanks!

bell hooks/Melissa Harris Perry

Call it whatever you like, but to hear two people speak with such complexity and intelligence and fearlessness on the issue of racism, sexism and white and male domination is a pure gift. This is what happens when people, any oppressed people, are given even a bit of room to tell life straight "without slant" as Tillie Olsen said. Every time we've been made stupid by the oppressive society that benefits from our stupidity and ignorance (no human actually does - it's a lousy life in the human sense) we need to hear truth spoken - many perspectives on truth. These two women have an ability to articulate some powerful realities. And I guess that is kind of "amazing" given the political realities we still live with.

Thanks to this site for providing this to us. I want to say my experience with the B word. I remember as a young girl being called the B word by a group of adult men with such hatred, anger and physical violence that it's still makes me wince when we women use the word to try to define our most powerful selves. I think I understand why, but I can't use it.

The B word

Neither can I, any more than I can imagine using a racial-ethnic epithet on myself.

Henri Tajfel, in his Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, notes the many ways that a disparaged group can respond to assaults on their dignity. One strategy is to appropriate the Other's images of themselves and attempt to overcome (neutralize) them by recasting them in positive terms... in this case turning "Bitch" into a proudly owned description of efficacy and assertiveness.

I sympathize with the effort, but I still think it's a mistake. For me, equality is about equal dignity and equal status in society. I don't see how "Bitch" (the word) gets us closer to that goal.

Bell Hooks and Mellissa Harris Perry Conversation

I really enjoyed watching this conversation. Thanks for posting it.

i think it's really great

i think it's really great what was said about "Beasts of the souther wild." I never watch movies immediately when they come out with all that hype.. so i watched it rather late in the game. I was really just wondering what was so great about it. And I also find it interesting that the playwright who wrote it, Lucy Alibar, who I read an interview about, had based it (loosely, i believe) on her own life, and her own relationship with her father... who are both white. So their criticism of it, with this fact, seems to be only even more so important ... was it the fact that producers or screenwriters whoever made this change felt that audiences would just be more accepting of this storyline with a black father/child relationship, than one where a white father was abusive and a white female child took on this role? i don't know but i do wonder about the thought process

I did find 12 Years a Slave

I did find 12 Years a Slave kind of hollow. A series of scenes depicting horrific acts but very little attempts at exploring the lives of the slaves outside of their masters' torment, or in other words, humanizing them. And, yes, we really missed out on Patsy. N'yongo performed beautifully, which made me long for scenes of the character not getting terrorized. There was one scene, I believe, in fact, it was Patsy's introduction, showing her making a family of dolls out of some kind of husk. So sweet and peaceful, I was nearly brought to tears. And it wasn't just Patsy. Who was Solomon outside of his determination to get back to his family, eloquent speeches, and musical talent?

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