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Prophetic Voice Calls for Justice

Prolific, canonical and beloved: Social justice scholar bell hooks packed the Walter Theatre April 15 for a reading of her essay on “The End of Domination.”

Comparing Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision with present-day realities, hooks challenged privilege that does not extend itself to all, encouraged conversation and preached a message, ultimately, of love.

“The End of Domination”
In defining white supremacy, hooks considers tacit cultural supremacy as much as avowed prejudice. To bring an end to such supremacy, she told her audience, we would all need to learn to love justice more than our race, class, sexuality or any aspect of our identity:

“There is no greater moral and ethical crisis our nation faces than the loss of a collective awareness of the essential need for an epic of justice as a fundamental pillar of democracy. … Throughout his life as a civil rights activist, Martin Luther King would lead the clarion call for equality. Time and time again he would tell audiences that justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. More than any other contemporary freedom fighter, King encouraged black folks to see justice as a divinely ordained aspect of citizenship.”

King’s assassination and the death of charismatic leaders like John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X left black people despairing that racial injustice would ultimately prevail in America. “With prophetic insight, King understood that white citizens – even those who supported what he called ‘ecstatic notions of equality’ – would join with their more openly and actively racist counterparts in actively fearing actual equality,” said hooks.

It was easier to revere a dead King than it was to celebrate the militancy of King’s anti-imperialism, since reframed by mass media as essentially the voice of the “I have a dream” speech: “As King has predicted, many white folks could embrace the notion of racism ending, as long as overall white supremacist domination remained intact. Against this backdrop of what officially appeared to be cultural support for racial equality, racial segregation remains a social norm. As Obama was issued into the White House, white supremacy was actually on the rise.

“Tragically, most American citizens are not horrified and alarmed by this great assault on democratic ideals. Unjust political practices, everyday racism, racial terrorism have all chipped – and are chipping – away at the foundation of democracy.”

hooks claims that the process of decolonization remains more a self-help project in our society than a formal structured system of transformation:

“I consider all the writing that I’ve done to be aimed at challenging and changing domination in all its forms. … This work acts to aid readers in the process of decolonization. It is fundamentally about healing, linking the work of ending domination with efforts to create a society where commitment to democracy, to peacemaking and to justice is a way of life.

“Learning to affirm the power of justice daily is the way to build a firm foundation from which decolonized resistance can emerge. All the knowledge of what must happen in our society for a culture of justice to be the norm is already available to us. When we create a context for justice we create a culture where love exists.

hooks concluded her reading: “Throughout his life King linked the struggle for justice with the work of love. And as I declare in many of my writings, any time we do the work of ending domination we are doing the work of love.”

The conversation continues
Devotees of hooks, whose works have been taught in college classrooms for decades, traveled from across the state and beyond to encounter the author.

How do you transform rage into love, asked a student from Lawrence University. Hooks quoted Thich Nhat Hanh: “Hold on to your anger and use it as compost for your garden,” and she pointed to the existence of the CVC – born out of a father’s grief at the loss of his daughter – as one example of what compost had made.

Fielding one question, “How long shall we educate them [those who block equality]?”, hooks replied that the question was not so much, “How long shall we educate them?” as it was, “How long can we engage in a mutual struggle for awareness, together?” And she alluded to the lyrics of the song: “When we work for freedom we cannot rest.”

May 6, 2013