REVIEW: Killing Rage by bell hooks

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

I have been putting off writing this review for over a month. This is not because I don’t love Killing Rage or bell hooks’ mind—it is precisely because I love the book so much and respect its author so deeply that I’ve been nervous to write a review. After all, I’m just a rinky-dink writer living a rinky-dink life. Who am I to be critical (or praising) of bell hooks, a scholar and feminist I so absolutely admire?

Thus, a warning: this is less a critical review and more a pastiche of memories and a paean.

I first came across Killing Rage back in the day (in the early 2000s, about five or six years after the book had initially come out) when in PhD school and one of my classes read and discussed a chapter. I don’t remember who the professor was, or what the class or context happened to have been, or even which particular essay we read, but I do remember that I didn’t like it. Part of the problem was that I was raised a good Greek girl who was assiduously taught to be “nice” (not to ever raise my voice, raise a fuss, make a wave) and to look with distaste upon any woman who did so. I thought I had unlearned this teaching and fiercely resisted it, but it worked through me in quiet, invisible ways. As is so often the case with such insidious teaching (and by that I mean what we learn in service of keeping other people comfortable in their privilege), it had really wormed its way into my very deepest self.

The other, perhaps larger, part of the problem was that the professor who introduced the work and led the discussion clearly didn’t like hooks. Perhaps that prof, too, had absorbed that insidious teaching, or perhaps they directly benefitted from teaching it to the rest of us. Either way, the discussion was bent forcibly toward a negative conclusion.

(An aside: graduate school, I had thought, would be a haven of brilliant, open thinking and uplifting for this queer, disabled first-gen girl, but it was anything but. One professor used to point at me any time he said the word “gay.” I watched our class of six women—each of us some mix of queer/immigrant/first gen/Black/Asian/disabled, all of us quite smart and driven—be worn down by the environment of American academia and its determination to discourage people like us. Eventually, only two of us would finish the program with health and relationship intact.)

I remember not feeling hate—but neither love—for hooks’ text under those circumstances, but I did keep the book on my bookshelf for decades anyway (and even, in subsequent years, acquired more of hooks’ catalog). Recently, in the looming shadow of racialized police brutality (including numerous execustions) directed primarily at Black folks and the call to consciousness issued by, among other entities, the Black Lives Matter movement, in my grief, fear and despair, I picked Killing Rage back up and decided to reread it.

Boy, howdy, context changes everything.

It struck me most painfully how prescient this book is. First published twenty-five years ago, it seems to be speaking directly to the current moment. Of course, it is not so much that the book is prescient as that what the book addresses has not significantly changed since then. Conditions have, perhaps, become unburied, visible to so many more people than they were in 1995—it was much easier for many people then to ignore what so urgently, directly affected others and not oneself. Or perhaps it is me that has changed, since clearly hooks perceived conditions clearly, even if I did not.

This is all to say that, reading this book of essays about race and racism in the United States now was a mix of the painful, heartbreaking, vilifying, affirming and angering. I like the double (triple?) entendre of the title: it is about a rage that makes one feel like going on a murder spree in response to racist conditions, but it is also indirectly about the rage in others that makes them act/think consciously as racists (another murderous kind of anger), and also about the culture-wide effort to suppress/kill the rage which has the potential to fuel and electrify positive political movements (think: BLM and Act Up, for two examples).

Culturally, we’re taught that rage is ugly, politically useless, a nasty emotion. Consider the difference, for instance, between how Martin Luther King, Jr (leader of passive, loving resistance) has been elevated as more important and more culture-changing than Malcolm X, whose insistence that one must fight racist violence in all its forms (both cultural and physical) with strong resistance and refusal of violent victimization has been largely demonized as “reverse-racist” (ummm… what?) and dangerous. Think about the stereotype of the Angry Black Man (and here I think of lawyer Imani Gandi of the brilliant, sharp and irreverent podcast Boom! Lawyered, whose Twitter handle is @AngryBlackLady), or about the stereotype of the Aggressive Black Woman (again, I think with gratitude of Gandi). Think about the vilification from all sides that is the reward for Black queer feminists or Black trans women.

I’ve strayed: let me wind back to hooks’ wonderful book. It’s a huge collection of bite-sized essays (more than twenty essays, each only about ten pages) about race and racism in the U.S. and the effects of Black liberation and feminism as a counterpunch. It’s scholarly in its approach (carefully reasoned, backed up with facts, tightly crafted), but written in a voice to which everyone might cotton and connect (not that dry, scholarly language of self-important blahblahblah). Some of the essays help make plain the cultural workings of racism, workings which often depend upon effecting near invisibility or easy deniability (essays like “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media” or “Marketing Blackness: Class and Commodification”); other essays propose a way out (see “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” or “Moving from Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination”).

This is a necessarily brief overview of what is by nature a complex, wide-ranging but sharply-honed collection of essays about anti-Black racism in the U.S. and how we must counter its workings. I haven’t nearly done it justice. In short, it’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting collection of essays. Not a collection, really. It’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting gut punch of essays at least as relevant today as when they were originally published.