9. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”
Not everything that’s on my reading list is a 600-page doorstopper. bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is only a few pages long. To be honest, I’m not sure how this essay ended up on my reading list. I ran across a reference to it somewhere, I think, and I was impressed. In any case, I had time this afternoon to read something short, and so I chose this essay.
hooks begins by asking questions about “the realities of choice and location”:
Within complex and ever shifting realms of power relations, do we position ourselves on the side of colonizing mentality? Or do we continue to stand in political resistance with the oppressed, ready to offer our ways of seeing and theorizing, of making culture, towards that revolutionary effort which seeks to create space where there is unlimited access to the pleasure and power of knowing, where transformation is possible? (145)
That choice is crucial, because it determines “our capacity to envision new alternative, oppositional aesthetic acts” and “informs the way we speak about these issues, the language we choose” (145). Place is both literal and metaphorical for hooks: it is “not just who I am in the present but where I am coming from, the multiple voices within me,” a confrontation with “silence, inarticulateness,” and the words that emerge from suffering (146). Identifying “the location from which I come to voice—the space of my theorizing” is, she continues, a “personal struggle” (146).
For hooks, language is a “place of struggle” (146). “Often when the radical voice speaks about domination we are speaking to those who dominate,” she writes. “Their presence changes the nature and direction of our words” (146). Is it possible to speak in a different way? “Dare I speak to the oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?” she asks. “Dare I speak to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination—a language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you?” (146). One of the questions these words raise—a question that is answered later in the essay—is who “you” is in these questions. She appears to be addressing the oppressor here, although she wants to speak in a language that moves beyond the binaries or boundaries of oppression. One way to do that, she writes, would be to use “black vernacular speech,” something she wants to do in this essay: “Private speech in public discourse, intimate intervention, making another text, a space that enables me to recover all that I am in language,” she writes. But that recourse to the vernacular seems impossible. As a result, she continues, “I find so many gaps, absences in this written text. To cite them at least is to let the reader know something has been missed, or remains there hinted at by words—there in the deep structure” (147).
hooks’s relationship with her community of origin and her family is ambivalent. Her home community and her family were places of silencing and censorship (147-48), and so she needed to leave them, “to move beyond boundaries,” and “yet I needed also to return there” (148). “Indeed,” she continues,
the very meaning of “home” changes with experience of decolonization, of radicalization. At times, home is nowhere. At times, one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. (148)
This “dispersal and fragmentation” must be both confronted and accepted in order to construct a new world “that reveals more fully where we are, who we can become” (148).
Part of the reason that home is so complex for hooks is her experience of privilege—her entry into the university, which she describes as a place of privilege. People without privilege who enter such places “must create spaces within that culture of domination if we are to survive whole, our souls intact. Our very presence there is a disruption” (148). There is constant pressure to silence or undermine the voices of people like her within places of privilege, like universities. “Mostly, of course, we are not there,” she writes—not in those places of privilege:
We never “arrive” or “can’t stay.” Back in those spaces where we come from, we kill ourselves in despair, drowning in nihilism, caught in poverty, in addiction, in every postmodern mode of dying that can be named. Yet when we few remain in that “other” space, we are often too isolated, too alone. We die there, too. Those of us who live, who “make it,” passionately holding on to aspects of that “downhome” life we do not intend to lose while simultaneously seeking new knowledge and experience, invent spaces of radical openness. Without such spaces, we would not survive. (148-49)
Such a space of “radical openness,” hooks continues, “is a margin—a profound edge” (149). But marginality is more than just a site of deprivation; it’s the site of “radical possibility, a space of resistance,” “a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (149). Therefore, this marginality isn’t something one would wish to surrender or lose as part of moving into the centre; rather, it’s “a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of a radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds” (150). This is what interests hooks: “what it means to struggle to maintain that marginality even as one works, produces, lives, if you will, at the center” (150). This margin is different from “that concrete space in the margins” she left behind when she entered the centre (150). Nevertheless, she writes, “I kept alive in my heart ways of knowing reality which affirm continuously not only the primacy of resistance but the necessity of a resistnce that is sustained by remembrance of the past, which includes recollections of broken tongues giving us ways to speak that decolonize our minds, our very beings” (150). It’s not necessary to surrender one’s self to learn from places of domination, such as universities; one needs to maintain “that radical perspective shaped and formed by marginality” (150)—both the “concrete” marginality of her home community, I think, and the “profound edge” she finds inside places of privilege.
“Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people,” hooks writes:
If we only view the margin as sign marking the despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being. It is there in that space of collective despair that one’s creativity, one’s imagination is at risk, there that one’s mind is fully colonized, there that the freedom one longs for [is] lost. (150-51)
The margin, she continues, is both a site of repression and a site of resistance, but it is typically only spoken about as repression, as deprivation. “We are more silent when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance,” she argues. “We are more often silenced when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance” (151).
Who silences those who speak of the margin as site of resistance? Scholars within places of privilege, it seems—“especially those who name themselves radical critical thinkers, feminist thinkers,” because they “now fully participate in the construction of a discourse about the ‘Other’” (151). This paragraph is difficult, the words slippery, but it is central to her argument:
I was made “Other” there in that space with them. In that space in the margins, that lived-in segregated world of my past and present. They did not meet me there in that space. They met me at the center. They greeted me as colonizers. I am waiting to learn from them the path of their resistance, of how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers. I am waiting for them to bear witness, to give testimony. . . . I am waiting for them to stop talking about the “Other,” to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. . . . Often this speech about the “Other” is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there were silence, if we were there. This “we” is that “us” in the margins, that “we” who inhabit marginal space that is not the site of domination but a place of resistance. Enter that space. Often this speech about the “Other” annihilates, erases. (151)
What hooks appears to be calling for, here, is twofold. First, these scholars and thinkers need to speak about their own experience—“how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers”—and by doing that, by ceasing to speak about the “Other” but rather to engage in a dialogue with the “Other,” they will actually be performing the decolonization they pretend to speak about. Second, they need to listen, to create space and silence for the “Other” to speak. The command, “Enter that space”—the space of marginality—is directed at those scholars and thinkers: by decolonizing themselves through silent listening, they will enter that space and stand alongside the “Other” who is waiting for them there. “This is an intervention,” hooks writes:
A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators. (152)
That last statement is ambiguous: who is liberating whom? I think it is those who are already within the space of marginality who are liberating whose who are entering that space for the first time, but hooks’s syntax could have the opposite meaning as well.
hooks’s concluding paragraph describes her location in the margin, a marginality she has chosen as a site of resistance, as a “location of radical openness and possibility” where “resistance is continually formed in that segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination”:
We come to this space through suffering and pain, through struggle. We know struggle to be that which pleasures, delights, and fulfills desire. We are transformed, individually, collectively, as we make radical creative space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world. (153)
That space seems to be available not only to those who are oppressed or dominated or colonized, but also to those (presumably white) scholars and thinkers who are willing to speak to, rather than about, the colonized and listen to their responses, who are willing to tell their own stories of decolonization and to meet with the colonized in that marginal space of resistance and transformation.
“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” makes me think about how some of my students relate to the university as a place of power and domination. Moreover, it also makes me consider how my research might enable me to enter the margin hooks describes at the end of the essay. Can I follow her command to “Enter that space” by telling the story of my own decolonization? Do I have that kind of story to tell? I don’t know—or rather, I do, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s much of a story. Not yet. Perhaps someday. Perhaps this research will lead to that kind of narrative. That’s a possibility I will hold on to.
hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53.