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Archive for the ‘thinkers’ Category

hooksGloria Watkins (1952- ), better known by her pen name of bell hooks (all lower case), is an American professor, a leading black feminist writer and thinker. She wanted to be a poet but made her name as a feminist by showing how white and racist feminism is.

Her catchphrase is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”: not only is American society built by and for rich white men, built on divisions of race, class and sex, but the losers – blacks, women and the poor – are brainwashed into accepting it through education, television, music and film.

That is why she likes to talk about Madonna and hip hop: they both started out speaking truth to power but then sold out, singing the white man’s song, the old song of women as sex objects and black men as violent brutes. That is what those rap videos are about. Spike Lee, meanwhile, did not sell out but then wound up getting sidelined.

She says America is not so much racist as white supremacist. Racism is about how people think and feel, it is something that comes from living in a white supremacist society, that is, a society built to favour whites over others.

Blacks living in such a society are brainwashed, they have colonized minds. They learn to look down on themselves, to hate themselves. They buy into the “black is ugly” message they hear all the time. They suffer from internalized racism.

The road to freedom is education. That is why she teaches. An education, that is, based on reading books, asking hard questions and thinking for oneself, education that tears apart the lies, that decolonizes your mind. A free society can be built on nothing less.

She grew up in the American South in Jim Crow days, on the black side of a small town in Kentucky. Until she went to high school she lived in a world of home and school that was largely the creation of black women. Her school was black, even her teachers were black. It was the old black Southern world that “offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people.”

Then she won a scholarship to Stanford University and found herself thrust into an all-white world.

Even though Stanford was a world of learning and ideas and books, none of the books spoke about what being a black woman in a white world meant – the self-hatred, the injustices, the racism and the sexism both. She looked and looked for a book that would speak to her, for her, but found none. So at age 19 she started writing the book herself in between her studies and her work. In time it became “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” (1981).

She expected her ideas to judged, weighed  and even found wanting, but she did not expect them to be crushed under a landslide of angry words. Many white feminists hated the book, but many black women loved it. In any case it made her name.

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senghor02Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001) – his last name sounds like Song Gore – was a Senegalese poet, scholar and statesman. He was the first president of an independent Senegal, a French poet and one of the top black African thinkers of the 1900s, one of the founders of the negritude movement. He was also the first black African admitted to the French Academy, long the preserve of white men.

He was president of Senegal for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He was one of the few African leaders to leave office peacefully and one of the few who had a free press. People said he kissed up to the French too much. He said a country as poor as Senegal needs a friend.

Senghor was born in a small town along the Mamaguedy, 100 km south of Dakar, Senegal. He grew up Catholic in a land that was mostly Muslim. He went to a missionary school and loved to read French books. In time he became one of the top students in Senegal and won a scholarship to study in Paris.

So in 1928 he got on a ship to France and left Africa. Thus began what he called his 16 years of wandering.

In Paris he became friends with Aime Cesaire of Martinique and Leon Damas of French Guiana . Like Senghor, they found themselves caught between two words, one black, one white. The white world was tellling them it had all the answers, that their blackness was holding them back. Yet they found whites cold and stiff and full of themselves, living in “the world that has died of machines and cannons.”

So together they came up with negritude: the idea that black thought, feeling, art and ideas were just as good as those of Europe. It became a movement among black writers, an early form of black pride.

Senghor loved France and the French language and yet he also loved Africa too. He felt torn, something he wrote about in his poetry. He felt like he was two different people. Yet choosing to be just one would narrow him. So he chose neither and remained whole.

He got his degree from the University of Paris in 1935 and became a French and Latin teacher in France. Because he was black some of his students were surprised to see that he wore clothes!

Four years later war came. Senghor fought for France with the Tirailleurs Senegalais, France’s West African army. He spent two years in a Nazi German prison camp. There he wrote a book of French poetry.

After the war he represented Senegal in the French National Assembly. He pushed for greater freedom for Senegal, but not for outright independence. He also pushed for Senegal and French Sudan (now called Mali) to become one. He thought that so long as Africa remains divided into little countries it will remain weak and poor.

In 1962 his name was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lost to John Steinbeck.

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Michael Eric Dyson

dysonMichael Eric Dyson (1958- ) has been called one of America’s foremost black thinkers. He is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a talking head on NPR, CNN and Bill Maher. He is well known for opposing the views of Bill Cosby about poor blacks.

He sounds like a preacher but talks about hip hop. He thinks for himself and tries to get past what he calls “the labored seductions of all narrow views of black life, whether they be racist, essentialist, or otherwise uncritically disposed toward African American culture.”

As a scholar he has written books for the general public on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Tupac Shakur and gangsta rap, presenting  the truth, as best as it can be known, against the simple-minded, self-serving ideas most people have about such things. He has also written books about Katrina, Bill Cosby’s views, the colour line and why he loves black women!

He wrote “Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X” (1994) so that people now and in the future, in America and abroad, can understand what Malcolm X was all about and how his ideas can help them. Both Angela Davis and Chuck D say it is a great book.

Bill Cosby blames poor blacks for their own troubles. He sounds almost white. Dyson says Cosby only looks at what blacks are doing wrong, not at what whites are doing wrong, which is just as much a part of the picture.

Dyson grew up in Detroit’s black middle-class in the 1960s and 1970s. He read through the Harvard Classsics, the great writings of dead white men, and listened to Motown.

At 16 he got a scholarship to a good boarding school. When he arrived there he got the shock of his life: nearly everyone was white. He now saw that he had grown up all his life knowing only black people. The racism he faced there – the names, his room getting messed up and his stuff destroyed – made him angry and before long he got kicked out.

His life went down hill from there: soon he had a baby on the way and no work except to hustle on the streets. But he kept going to church. He loved speaking so he found out how to become a Baptist minister. In time that led him to study, and then later to teach at some  of the top universities in the land. He started writing too, at first to get some money to help his brother, who was in prison on a second-degree murder charge.

Dyson once said of himself:

I think of myself as a Trojan Horse. I don’t have an earring in my nose or ear. I don’t have my hair combed back in a ponytail, or rough-hewn. I look like an insider. But there’s a whole lot of Negroes inside of me. There’s a whole lot of black men inside of me. And when I get in somewhere, I let them out.

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