“If that was all I had to be proud of, I’d kill myself,” my father said as the punch line to one of his stories. This one began with my father sipping a drink and probably puffing his fair share of cigarette smoke into the hazy atmosphere of one of Detroit’s gone and all-but-forgotten jazz clubs. A white man had sat himself down at the bar next to him and struck up a conversation. As it was the early ’60s — before the Civil Rights Act — the man probably thought it was very white of him to rap with a colored.
“You know what you got to be proud of?” he rhetorically asked after a while.
“What’s that?” my father asked suspiciously.
“That Cassius Clay. He’s a real credit to his race.”
Of course, a few years later, that young boxer, Clay, would take the heavyweight title with a knockout, convert to the Nation of Islam and have the name Muhammad Ali bestowed upon him. But Daddy delivered his sucker-punch line right on the spot.
It wasn’t until I read Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem that I realized my father had told me a true-life parable. But the militant moral of its ending is where culture critic and author bell hooks begins. Parables basically break down medicine-of-life lessons and slip them into an easily swallowed story. Hooks’ readable social science essay is distilled from a library of black studies, sociology and psychology texts. Rock My Soul examines the history and the current state of black America’s ills, diagnoses them and then prescribes a cure. It can be a bitter pill, but it goes down with relative ease. And it’s effective.
As dissected by the sharp culture critic, that old-fashioned and backhanded compliment, “a credit to his race,” oozes white supremacy — in fact, the phrase becomes a theme in Rock My Soul. The results of hooks’ analysis conclusively reveal a pathological belief system in which it’s the rare black person’s “credit” that reduces the implied deficit of the entire group. It was a white supremacist interpretation of the Bible, hooks writes, that wrote the script of black inferiority before the two races ever encountered each other. In Europe, evil and the macabre were thought of as dark, while beauty was fair and goodness was light. The contrast seemed inevitably acted out in the European colonization and enslavement of Africa and Africans.
This is no news to anyone well-read in black studies. Malcolm X — the man who converted Clay into Ali — made it plain decades ago. But hooks uses these ideas to lead us onto common ground. Then she wields her well-honed intellect to surgically cut through what she sees as patriarchal dead wood.
It’s here that hooks doesn’t just take a road less traveled, but blazes a new one, like an intellectual Harriet Tubman, toward true black freedom. She is a feminist from back in the days when the black power brothers branded sisters involved in the women’s liberation movement as “race traitors” aping bra-burning “white chicks.” She finds those denouncements ironic: For her, the black power movement was a relapse to Marcus Garvey’s early-20th century thinking which turned away from the proven healing and spiritual-educational uplift promoted by black women’s clubs — and later by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — to actually reflect the white “culture of domination.” For hooks, the real problem has become the “gender domination of women by men” in the pursuit of material wealth and power.
She maintains that by ignoring the mental health issues of LWB (living while black), the civil rights movement today has become focused on victories of equality. And if that’s all we have to be proud of, we’re killing ourselves. It’s the persistent white colonization of the minds of black folk that ultimately leads to the anti-ethics and mores of the gangsta and the catastrophic destruction of young black self-esteem.
Hooks doesn’t pull any punches in Rock My Soul. Her book knocked me out. And she is a credit to her race — the human one.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.