Local and Organic

Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism

by bell hooks and Amelia Mesa-Bains, South End Press, 2006.

In Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism, bell hooks and Amelia Mesa-Bains discuss critical perspectives on the social conditions of African and Latin American communities in the United States. Homegrown takes up issues related to multiculturalism, art, pedagogy, socio-economic oppression, resistance and revolution. It is in many ways an extension of the critical, creative, and pedagogical practices already associated with hooks and Mesa-Bains. hooks is perhaps most well-known for her critical writings on the workings of race, class, and gender in popular Western culture, including Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), and Teaching to Transgress: Education and the Practice of Freedom (1994). Mesa-Bains, as an artist, curator and writer, has been involved with a number of Chicano art projects, including Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation and Mi Alma, Mi Tierra, Mi Gente: Contemporary Chicana Art.

Presented as a dialogue between hooks and Mesa-Bains, Homegrown weaves in the authors’ personal experiences in order to give readers a sense of where they are coming from in their analyses of race, class, sexuality and gender. Rather than aim their text at an academic audience by contributing new theoretical perspectives and frameworks, hooks and Mesa-Bains aim their book at a wide range of activists in North America; the use of the word “homegrown” addresses this audience of “organic intellectuals.” While the political, historical, cultural, and economic conditions that hooks and Mesa-Bains discuss are situated within the United States, the analyses are relevant to activists in Canada as well.

One of the topics addressed is affirmative action programs. Mesa-Bains argues that because such programs have been effective in helping people of colour into institutions that they would not otherwise have access to (she points to her admission to Stanford as an example), it has come under criticism. hooks and Mesa-Bains point out that men of colour who have spoken out against affirmative action – such as Shelby Steele, Richard Rodriguez, Dinesh D’Souza and Ward Connerly – have received “certain kinds of approval from the dominant culture” (57). As hooks points out, the fact that these critics are of colour deters other people of colour from responding to them critically.

A similar case occurred in Canada. In The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, Canadian Irshad Manji essentializes Islam, claiming that it is anti-feminist and backwards in comparison to “modern society.” The ways in which Manji identifies and is identified as a Muslim queer woman of colour is relevant to how her work has been taken up, particularly within a multicultural context that celebrates differences but fails to address relations of power. Her essentialist perspective allows her to be accepted by the mainstream, while the ways in which she identifies, and is identified, enable those who accept and celebrate her work to be viewed as adhering to the principles of multiculturalism, liberalism and democracy. Ms. Magazine named Manji a “Feminist for the 21st Century,” while Maclean’s selected her as one of ten “Canadians Who Make a Difference.” Manji’s views have allowed her to maneuver successfully within the mainstream Canadian media, while underlying relations of power continue to go unchallenged.

The success of such individuals as Manji needs to be looked at critically, particularly within ‘multicultural’ societies where the “fear of being labeled ‘politically correct’” (89) is escalating. hooks and Mesa-Bains point out that, at the root of Manji’s success, lies an ignorance of the socio-economic realities that divide racialized communities. Underlying these realities is the “growing state fascism and the complacency of people who benefited from movements of radical change” (1). These are critical starting points from which to begin to unravel and deconstruct Manji’s success, and the complexity of how, within multicultural capitalist societies, certain acts of identification serve the ruling class.

Within these societies, the celebration of diversity, such as different ethnicities, religious practices and sexual orientations, becomes acceptable in particular ways. They are acceptable so long as they are contained by the nation-state and by those in power. They are acceptable so long as they do not disrupt underlying relations of power, and remain dotted along the surface as mere celebrations rather than rooted within mobilizations for resistance. The underlying hegemony of the state remains in place. History remains buried. The patriarchal, white supremacist, nationalist, capitalist, neo-liberal system remains grounded. Thus an actual abolition of the existing power structures is neither the result, nor the objective when figures such as Manji are given prestige. In fact, the success of Manji only reinforces the tendencies within dominant Canadian society.

One point of dialogue in Homegrown that could do with further explanation is the application of psychoanalysis for critical analysis. When speaking of artist Frida Kahlo’s work, hooks praises the artist for having applied both a “sophisticated political theory” to her work, as well as psychoanalytic theory (36). While she points out that “many women of color who are artists, writers and other cultural workers are only now discovering how valuable psychoanalytic tools are, because those tools have been withheld from us, and marked off-limits” (36), hooks neither explains how Kahlo’s work critically applied psychoanalytic approaches, nor does she elaborate on the ways in which psychoanalysis may be applied to other forms of resistance. A more specific discussion of how psychoanalysis can be applied to an understanding of the production and reproduction of racialization within the psyche would have been useful.

An elaboration of psychoanalysis as a tool for critical understanding is also necessary because while it may provide a new way of interpreting and understanding, it also presents a number of limitations. Psychoanalysis is an approach that tends towards the individualization of the self. While Lacanian approaches are structural in that they allow for an investigation of the self in relation to more central and dominant systems of patriarchy (and in some cases white supremacy), the application of such approaches remains most effective when exploring the actions of a particular individual, or groups of individuals, rather than society as a whole. Psychoanalysis is perhaps most effective when combined with other approaches that take into account more general and material tendencies. These details are important if one is to effectively apply psychoanalytic methodologies towards critical analyses, particularly those dealing with various forms of oppression.

Perhaps, for activists, the most enlightening aspect of the dialogue between hooks and Mesa-Bains is their dedication towards revolutionary thought, vision and practice. There are two key areas of focus: critical pedagogy and artistic expression. On pedagogy, Mesa-Bains describes various teaching methods used in the “open classroom,” which allows students to learn at their own pace and integrate their life experiences in meaningful ways. She describes one approach that integrates students’ experiences with texts in order to create a meaningful, “relevant and useful education that engages the learner” (46). Mesa-Bains emphasizes the importance of “interactive, hands-on, and collaborative learning” rather than methods that encourage individualism, competition and isolated learning (47). She talks about her experiences using these methods within the public school system in San Francisco. Whether educators in Canadian public school systems would be interested in these methods is worth exploring, as well as to what extent these systems would be open to allowing such methods.

The public education system is a significant area for consideration, given the proportion of the population who access it. With the increasing neo-liberalization of public services, however, it becomes of even greater concern, particularly as conservative governments push for reforms that reduce funding for arts programs. This is the case in California where a state policy (Proposition 13) has led to the loss of art teachers in primary schools, as well as limited arts education in secondary schools. Through their discussion of resistance pedagogies, hooks and Mesa-Bains present a critical issue for Canadian activists building upon and beyond campaigns that aim to make post-secondary education more accessible. This is particularly relevant to those parent and teacher activists who have been working on these issues without wider support.

Both hooks and Mesa-Bains come to similar conclusions on the use of art for revolution. hooks argues for the need to produce a “new field of images of decolonized representations” and points to the work of Frida Kahlo as an example (30). This is a key point, yet lacking within this discussion on decolonization is any thought to the ways in which the colonized indigenous communities of the United States have contributed revolutionary artistic expression and work. Solidarity with the work of members from these communities is particularly important. In the Canadian context such solidarity must be critical because of the various tendencies that result from the country’s official state multiculturalism, including cultural appropriation and a decontextualizing of historical material conditions. Thus, in addition to the production of ‘decolonized representations,’ another issue at hand is how much control indigenous artists have over the presentation and ownership of their work.

Mesa-Bains offers an explanation of how she has dealt with notions of the past and history through art drawing from Meso American traditions. She describes how she, as well as other Chicano artists, have drawn inspiration from the tradition of the home altar, which expresses the interconnectedness of personal and political stories, particularly through linking family histories and meanings of home with the larger socio-economic and political contexts.

Overall, Homegrown provides North American activists with critical analyses that usefully reveal the social realities in which racialized communities are situated, as well as the various resistance tools that have been adopted to overthrow them. At the same time, however, hooks and Mesa-Bains are careful not to simplify these conditions, but take the time to identify and discuss their complexities.

hooks and Mesa-Bains also offer possibilities and examples of resistance, whether through critical analyses, pedagogical approaches, artistic expression and/or spirituality. A portion of their discussion focuses on the application of these tools within the public school system. While the integration of these tools within the public school system in Canada would make certain approaches to resistance more accessible, how embedded are notions of white supremacy, heterosexism, patriarchy and classism in the school system, and where are the cracks and openings for change? How might these approaches be applicable outside of the school system, within workshops, and in grassroots organizing?

Overall, while at times hooks and Mesa-Bains fall into the trap of assuming a certain level of understanding on the part of their audience, their discussion is effective in pointing readers towards revolutionary ideas, an important task in these trying times.