bell hooks is not a fan of Orange Is the New Black. But she, like everyone else, loves her some Laverne Cox. The two sat down for a conversation as part of hooks’ recent residency at The New School, poised on either side of a coffee table like a Black feminist yin and yang: Laverne’s long blonde weave and red-bottoms, bell’s uniquely braided short hair and flat sandals. They agreed and didn’t agree. They acknowledged their varied histories and perspectives. They talked identity and love. They talked labels and risk. They did and didn’t cater to the patriarchal gaze.
Here are some moments when I shouted YASSS and NAWW during their talk.
YASSS: “Janet [Mock] said to me, ‘You speak so eloquently about race yet you so rarely talk about it publicly.’ And… it was a read,” Laverne said, admitting her fears about being political in the public sphere. I love that her friend was able to call her out on making her feminism more inclusive and acknowledging how oppressive systems overlap and intersect.
YASSS: Talking up a new documentary project, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, Laverne said, “I think it’s courageous for transgender folks to just step out of their houses as themselves and live their truth.” YES. I love the word courage. I love the agency given in this statement, the protest. I love the universality of leaving the house as a revolutionary act. As bell said later in their talk, “Decolonization is a constant vigilance in our culture.” At the heart of their discourse was the mutual recognition of struggle, of the very serious effort it takes to remain awake under an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Laverne noted that decolonization is a practice, something active and continual.
NAWW: “I wish we could get rid of labels…”
YASSS: “…and we could all be queer.”
Mixed feelings here because of how cute it was watching bell hooks call for universal queerness and how detrimental it can be to buy into myths of sameness and post-raciality.
NAWW: “All those other tired-ass Black women who are just reproducing stereotypes.” OK. She ain’t wrong, and we ain’t all angelic in our vigilance, but I would have expected more love and care in bell hooks’ language than “tired-ass.”
NAWW: “One of the issues I think that many people have with trans women,” bell said, “is the sense of a traditional femininity… that many feminists feel like we’re trying to get away from.” To which Laverne responded, “A lot of trans women do not embrace this kind of femininity. My choice is about what I find aesthetically pleasing… and this is where I feel empowered and comfortable…” I give a general YASSS to this conversation. I was happy they were discussing the different aesthetics of feminism, and that Laverne pointed out the variety of ways trans women choose to present, the variety of politics they have. Likewise, it felt important for bell to quickly remind Cox that she was, in fact, appealing to a patriarchal gaze with her traditionally feminine presentation. But then Laverne said “I’ve constructed myself in a way that I don’t want to disappear. I think so often there is an erasure of certain bodies and identities and I have never been interested in being invisible.” The conversation flattened as bell called for criticism and Laverne stroked her hair lovingly. And I felt disappointed they didn’t prod one another more on the subject, which I find complex and worth exploring further: how do we dismantle patriarchy and traditional, sexist expectations of female-identified folks when we are also fighting to remain visible where we’ve been erased? Or, in the case of many women of color, both trans and cisgender, to reclaim agency over our bodies in the face of objectification? This dilemma, of course, is also at the heart of bell hooks’ disapproval of Beyoncé.
YASSS: I’m pretty broke, so I was absolutely there for bell hooks on finances (financial activism?), on rallying against the oppression of capitalism while also understanding money as a tool for facilitating freedom. Then she said this, and I just about got up from my seat: “I wanna say to every Black women in this room, ‘Girl, go get your money straight.’” bell keeps it real, and the really real is: whether we like it or not, we live within a capitalist structure wherein well-being is facilitated by financial independence. As a friend said to me after the talk, “How am I supposed to march if I gotta go to work to pay the rent?” That’s really real. It’s something I’ve had to continually “check my privilege” on—while I was in school, or at poetry readings, or spending lazy Saturday afternoons debating Audre Lorde with friends. While feminist theory and wide-eyed activism may be at the center of many of our hearts, it’s important to marry politics with practicality. As a Black woman, financial literacy has always been an inaccessible privilege in my mind—something murky and hazy and not for me. I really appreciated the reminder that financial empowerment is a road to freedom. That maybe in order to make change, you gotta make paper.
YASSS: “Whiteness is a construct. Nobody is as white as they think they are,” Laverne said of privilege, which is an intriguing though watery point. bell responded: “Some constructs allow for greater well-being than others.” Church hands. This exchange perfectly encapsulates the 21st-century “post-racial” complex. While we know that race—whiteness, Blackness, otherness, and the spectrums of privilege therein—was constructed as a means of oppression, it’s impossible to call for race-neutrality in a society where, for example, Black boys are dying for reasons that white boys aren’t, and women are paid less than men. We can’t ignore that opportunity is selective, that historically and presently, (not to go all Hegelian master-slave dialectic on y’all) some people do the oppressing and some people are born into oppression. And we can’t fight what we don’t acknowledge.