bell hooks speaking at Asilomar Conference Center on Feb. 18, 2017. 

Despite the wind and rain storms, many women and men convened at the three-day Third International Women’s Convocation, held at Asilomar Conference Center last weekend by a branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Speakers and luminaries included Dr. Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, and Rev. Florence Caplow, an author and Soto Zen priest.

One of the most-anticipated addresses came late in the afternoon on Saturday from the author, feminist theorist, activist, intellectual, cultural critic and artist, bell hooks.

Before her introduction, as the growing audience filled Merrill Hall, hooks sat in the front row immersed in a book (Never be Sick Again by Raymond Francis) but open to conversation, including recommending to one admirer her children's book Be Boy Buzz

She earned her doctorate in literature from UC Santa Cruz in 1983 and is known for consuming a book a day. She says she’s tried not to live up to that reputation, but in her talk she referenced nearly a dozen books. And all that reading and scholarship was on full display—as was a homey, self-deprecating sense of humor—in her hour-long talk.

Here is 10 minutes from the start of it.

hooks: A couple of years ago my sister—one of my five sisters—died unexpectedly. She was 62 years old. We were all just shocked. She seemed very well. I had seen her and had good times. But she fell and when she went to the doctor it turned out she had lung cancer. On the way here, I was reading some information from the Lung Cancer Foundation and found out lung cancer kills more women than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined. [Audience gasps.] I was stunned by that. And I knew that lung cancer has been a very leading cause of death for many black women.

Part of what the Lung Cancer Foundation is trying to do is educate people that it’s not just about people who smoke. When I heard that lung cancer was one of the leading causes of death for black women, I thought “I don’t know any of these black women who are smokers.” I learned that it doesn’t have to do with whether you smoke or not, and it can have something to do with whether you smoke or not. It’s either/and.

So one of the things I was reflecting on about that is how much—if we really want to undo imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy—we have to study. We have to learn. We have to utilize new forms of knowledge, and allow those forms of knowledge to change us.

Those of us who have grown up in church traditions know that we talk about what it is to have a conversion experience. You tell your story. In the traditional black church, when you got religion. In that telling of your story, it’s not only meant to inspire those who are listening, but to reaffirm your own transformation of yourself.

I like to sing—I’m not going to sing for you, don’t worry—that song that says “Said I wasn’t going to tell nobody, but I couldn’t keep it to myself.” Those experiences in life that deeply change us and transform us…don’t we want to share it? Don’t we want to hear the stories?

That’s why Ann’s book [Combined Destinies by Ann Todd Jealous and Caroline T. Haskell] is so important. When you read that book—and I haven’t finished it, but I read quite a bit of it before coming here to this podium—about the grief of so many white people who were educated into white supremacy and racism, and then begin to educate themselves, to decolonize their minds. But then they had to look back and think of the cruel things they had done to people of color, or white people who are our allies in struggle.

Okay, here we are at A-see-lomar. How do you say it? [Crowd murmurs “Asilomar”]. Thank you. It’s very important that we’ve come together in this refuge by the sea and have this moment to meet, in nature, even if some of us would have preferred sunshine and warmer weather.

I get up in the morning and I’m doing my prayers, and I’m looking out on the water and seeing those fierce waves…I’m singing “Master, the tempest is raging” [crowd laughs] and “Peace be still,” and I’m reminded that when we come together in this type of environment, nature becomes a place where we can restore our souls. Where we can connect with the divine and with each other. The natural world continually restores my soul. To commune with nature is a central aspect of spiritual journey.

[Reading from her book Belonging: A Culture of Place] “In his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, Greg Levoy reminds us that ‘nature is a proper setting for a return to ourselves, our source, our place of origin. It is the place where the world was created, where our ancestors came from…”

By going back to nature, we are, in a sense, returning to the garden. To a place where we were contained within nature’s wholeness, where we were not separated from the divine from whence our visions and calls emanate. Guided by prophetic vision, we understand that it is the wholeness of life that we are called to celebrate and cherish.

By prophetic vision, I mean, simply, divinely inspired imaginings of different possibilities. Vision requires imagination—the ability to see what cannot be seen.

In The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis reminds readers that “the prophetic vocation is to challenge the old while announcing the new. Like the prophets, we must call certainty into question. The Biblical prophets always had a two-fold task. First, they were to be bold in telling the truth and proclaiming justice. In addition to truth telling, the prophets had a second task. They had to hold up an alternative vision. They had to help the people imagine new possibilities.”

We are called to cultivate, both individually and collectively, a spirit of radical openness. One that strengthens our collective willingness to be bold in hearing and in telling the truth, to stand for justice.

The focus of my talk is very much on the whole question of feminism and where the movement for justice in challenging patriarchy is today. People have made so much talk about this new administration’s racism and white supremacy. But I was really amazed when I went on the internet and looked up a lot of the alt-right statements.

So many of them were so deeply misogynist and woman hating, calling for a return to a mean-spirited, hard-hearted sense of womaness and women. I am always concerned when people are so obsessed with abortion. I definitely think we need some good therapy to try to figure out why white men are so obsessed with abortion and being anti-abortion.

Even the kind of feminist women that I know, we’ve had great discussions here about reproductive rights. Our primary issue, as women and men who are our allies in the struggle, is not the right to have abortion, it is to have reproductive rights, of which abortion is one.

I often have this discussion with my good comrade Gloria Steinem—I’ve not convinced her. I’ve said, “Do you really believe that women in the world who are just trying to get clean water and feed their children and to survive, are running around being upset that they can’t have an abortion?”

This is a very small example of how First World women in our society, mostly white, can impose our sense of what is important for women in the world. As such, that is a form of violence. Because we are not respecting the lives of the millions of women in the world for whom feminist issue is ending war, having food, ending poverty, ending disease.

In our society, we’re so privileged, we don’t have to think about those things as feminist issues. But in fact the three things that are causing the most death of women and children: war, disease and poverty. So let’s keep that in mind when we talk about imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. And what is the role of white women in perpetuating those things?

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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