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One of the most broken aspects of contemporary society is the lack of community. People often give lip service to the word "community" without knowing what it was, and I did not know what it was until I had children and suddenly understood its lack. When I joined the co-op preschool system, I began to feel what community could be - people looking out for each other, people working together on a long-term common goal. At the same time, I saw its limitations: for one, it would be a community I would have to exit when my children entered kindergarten.

So where do we look for examples of community? Here is a perspective from bell hooks, from her time growing up in the fifties and sixties, where home was a place to develop critical consciousness and a foundation for black liberation struggle. She's talking about the nuclear family as well as the extended family, and linking what happened in the family space to what happened in the broader black community.

This task of making homeplace was not simply a matter of black women providing service; it was about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination. We could not learn to love or respect ourselves in the culture of white supremacy, on the outside; it was on the inside, in that "homeplace," most often created and kept by black women, that we had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture our spirits. This task of making a homeplace, of making home a community of resistance, has been shared by black women globally, especially black women in white supremacist societies. (pp 42-43)

She goes on to talk about the breakup of families under slavery and under apartheid - it was no accident, she says, because undermining the family also undermines the site of struggle - and that capitalism, consumerism, sexism, adoption of white middle-class ideology are doing the same thing today.
Masses of black women, many of whom were not formally educated, had in the past been able to play a vital role in black liberation struggle. In the contemporary situation, as the paradigms for domesticity in black life mirrored white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space), black people began to overlook and devalue the importance of black female labor in teaching critical consciousness in domestic space. (p 47)

So, the first step to a liberatory strategy - for families of any color - would be to rebuild that politicized domestic space, that "homeplace." To bring critical consciousness back into the home through feminist struggle.

I'll agree with that but also say it's only a first step. One home with a critical consciousness, disconnected from the rest of the community, is not going to be effective. Critical consciousness has to be shared with the broader community. For that to happen, we have to strengthen community ties. And for that to happen, we need to know what community really means.

Well, what does it mean?

No, I don't have the answer. But I do know that to build community, you find a common goal, shared work. For me it was the shared work of our co-op preschool. For the community hooks spoke of, it was building a black liberation struggle. Regardless, it goes farther than cultural criticism, farther than standing in a circle holding hands and singing. It has to move into practical action and material change too.

Of what sort?

That's the question.

hooks, bell. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
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Going back to a work I studied in college -  Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics by bell hooks - I found this:

Lastly, I gathered this group of essays under the heading Yearning because as I looked for common passions, sentiments shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice, I was struck by the depths of longing in many of us. Those without money long to find a way to get rid of the endless sense of deprivation. Those with money wonder why so much feels so meaningless and long to find the site of "meaning." Witnessing the genocidal ravages of drug addiction in black families and communities, I began to hear that longing for a freedom to control one's destiny. All too often of our political desire for change is seen as separate from longings and passions that consume lots of time and energy in daily life. Particularly the realm of fantasy is often seen as completely separate from politics. Yet I think of all the time black folks (especially the underclass) spend just fantasizing about what our lives would be like if there were no racism, no white supremacy. Surely our desire for radical social change is intimately linked with the desire to experience pleasure, erotic fulfillment, and a host of other passions. Then, on the flip side, there are many individuals with race, gender, and class privilege who are longing to see the kind of revolutionary change that will end domination and oppression even though their lives would be completely and utterly transformed. The shared space and feeling of "yearning" opens up the possibility of common ground where all these differences might meet and engage one another. It seemed appropriate then to speak this yearning.

There's a ton to pull out of this. The whole concept of yearning and longing resonated with me. And then there's this: "Particularly the realm of fantasy is often seen as completely separate from politics." I agree. Since I'm a science fiction / fantasy writer, I especially like the word "fantasy." Because to me it means, "what if?" Radical politics try to transform society, but without the "what if," where exactly, do you want society to go? There's important visioning work to be done, and fantasy and science fiction certainly does it. But my critique of fantasy and science fiction is that it does visioning work and then stops there - there may be no explicit connection between the world a F/SF writer or reader wants to see and the change it takes to actually get there.

This resonated with questions of privilege and oppression. I'm white. I don't like racial oppression. I don't want it. Nonetheless, I have white privilege. What can I do, other than wallowing in guilt? So this - "Then, on the flip side, there are many individuals with race, gender, and class privilege who are longing to see the kind of revolutionary change that will end domination and oppression even though their lives would be completely and utterly transformed. The shared space and feeling of 'yearning' opens up this possibility of common ground . . ."

I like that possibility. Good. Possibility is better than closed options. But I think that a lot of radical texts point to possibility and stop there. But if we really do want to transform society, we can't step there. We have to take the next step. Which means, I think, finding out what the next step actually is.
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Some people, on road trips, go to antique shops and scenic view pullouts and so forth. Well, I went to the Ellensburg public library and let the kids play with toy trains while I photocopied sections of bell hooks' Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center that I found interesting. Could I have stayed home and done that? Well, sort of. But I'm always up for a visit to a new library.

Intersectionality is a theory that multiple forms of oppression - gender, race, class, and all the others - are interlinked, and that it is a mistake to say that one form of oppression is the "primary" one. bell hooks is by no means the first feminist to introduce this concept, but she's just so clear and plain-spoken that she's a great starting point. So here are a couple of quotes. Eventually some of them will make their way into an essay I'm developing on collective liberation, but for now, just consider this "Intersectionality 101."

Source: hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 2nd ed. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000.

(The first edition, BTW, was written in 1984. The theory of intersectionality has evolved since then.)

Here, hooks explains a prevailing attitude of the time that gender is the only important oppression and that all women experience it in the same way.

"Many contemporary feminist activists argue that eradicating sexist oppression is important because it is the primary contradiction, the basis of all other oppressions. Racism, as well as class structure, is perceived as stemming from sexism. Implicit in this line of analysis is the assumption that the eradication of sexism, 'the oldest oppression,' 'the primary contradiction,' is necessary before attention can be focused on racism or classism." (p 36)

But, she says, it isn't: "Suggesting a hierarchy of oppression exists, with sexism in first place, evokes a sense of competing concerns that is unnecessary." (p 36)

Here, hooks talks about the links between different system of oppressions:

"Since all forms of oppression in our society are linked in our society because they are supported by similar institutional and social structures, one system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact.." (p 36)

And here, she talks about the problem of trying to end one oppression while ignoring all others:

"Significantly, struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles. Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression. While they may initiate successful reforms, their efforts will not lead to revolutionary change. Their ambivalent relationship to oppression in general is a contradiction that must be resolved, or they will daily undermine their own radical work." (p 40)
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So I picked up bell hooks' Teaching Community at the library. bell hooks is the most helpful feminist author for the issues I'm thinking about these days and will ultimately be writing about. I took feminist theory classes in college during the height of postmodernism - which means obfuscated thinking. There was so much focus on reinventing language that the underlying truths were hard to find. I was so frustrated personally, both because I didn't understand everything I read and because I was working as a technical writer and could see how the gobbledygook could be stated more clearly. But the books I'm reading now by bell hooks are so clearly and directly stated that they give ready access to important ideas.

I can't read the whole book. I simply don't have time. (Especially since I am tempted to make a post every time I crack open anything she wrote.) So I opened it to a chapter that immediately interested me: "What Happens When White People Change." I wish I could say my thoughts here, but I simply don't have time. Instead, I'll point to a few paragraphs that made me think:

"Racial integration ushered in a world where many black folks played by the rules only to face the reality that white racism was not changing, that white supremacy remained intact even as it allowed black folks greater access. To many black people who had dreamed the dream, who had believed that racism could be changed by law and interaction, this was cause for despair."

I knew about the ways racial integration did and did not live up to its promises, but I haven't seen this point of view before. It's important for an understanding of where racism is now.

"Rather than focusing on the individual heroic struggles of white folks who committed themselves to anti-racist justice, many black folks dismissed their effort as though it could have no transformative meaning given the collective world of white racism."

I have noticed that many white people tend to believe in racism as a sort of "original sin," one that we can't eradicate.  And I would also like to point out that sometimes people in the feminist movement (men and women too) discount the efforts of men to be feminist.

"All people of color who suffer racial exploitation and oppression know that white supremacy will not end until racist white people change. Anyone who denies that this change can happen, that one can move from being racist to being actively anti-racist is acting in collusion with the existing forces of racial domination."

Okay, now to the happy part. This is what I find most helpful about bell hooks: she does bear a message of hope and give constructive ideas for change:

"All white people who choose to be anti-racist proclaim this truth. Challenging racism, white supremacy, they are transformed. Free of the will to dominate on the basis of race, they can bond with people of color in beloved community living the truth of our essential humanness."

Thank you, bell hooks.


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