In ROCK MY SOUL: BLACK PEOPLE AND SELF-ESTEEM, bell hooks references Nathaniel Branden heavily. At the beginning of chapter 15 he synopses the breadth of the book: “No one debated the subject’s importance. No one denied that if ways could be found to raise the level of a person’s self-esteem, any number of positive consequences would follow. “But how do you raise an adults self-esteem?” was a question I heard more than once, with a note of skepticism that it could be done. As was evident from their writings, the issue—and the challenge—were largely ignored.” (pg. 201) This was not the only facet of the book that worried me. bell hooks is close to the mark in this book, but not as close as she indicates with her indictments and implications. She miss-diagnosed symptoms that under casual observation seem to correlate but actually overlap or deviate from a point of inception that is more directly addressed. For instance, on page 221 she states, “Any African-American who watches television for more than a few hours a week is daily ingesting toxic representations and poisonous pedagogy. Yet the ingestion of constant propaganda that teaches black people self-hate has become so much the norm that it is rarely questioned.” Here she has indicted television as the instrument of transmission of self-hate, presumably in the form of status quo, and goes on to imply that this transmission has become the norm and that is why this “pedagogy” is “rarely questioned,” but this as some other suggestions made in this book miss the grounded perspective that cultivates clarity for such complex ideas as these presented. Where you could have an assault on assimilation, and how it accosts our sense of self by having us internalize expectations that are not self actualizing and in many cases are noxious to autonomy, there is instead a ploy at either indoctrinization or propagandization… or demonization.
Nathaniel Branden’s portentous synopsis aside, There is a bigger gap in the “ideological armor”; self esteem is referenced throughout the book as a book on esteem might indicate, but for all the references of esteem there are only two direct references to self-acceptance. This book’s argument is weak not for a lack of intellectual fodder but for a working definition of esteem. It is not a conglomerate of ideas about things that make us feel good to talk about that is the dynamic relationship esteem holds (as Mr. Branden would have us encourage); it is acknowledgement that produces a positive relationship to esteem (more acknowledgement-more esteem). Ideals and pathologies that negotiate acquired esteem may embellish our desire for acceptance, but it is acknowledgement: active listening, appreciation, and of course accepting; that asks us to come to the table and choose acceptance or denial.
Other than the glaring omission stated above the book is sound with its indictments of not only capitalistic imperial white patriarchy, but a host of dispatched pathologies. The strongest indictment she makes is implied: “We looked into ourselves and, even more, we looked deep into white America. Our flaws, which we were taught to hide in shame, were in the flaws of this nation. The hatred we had of ourselves was minor placed along whites’ folks hatred of us. Where once we saw ourselves as deformed and debased, we now see how much more deformed and debased is the white bigotry which has so hurt us. Black people who all that time had tried futilely to turn themselves inside out have now opened the festering wound of America and see that it is America which has most need of healing.” (pg. 115) In this quote taken from Grier and Cobbs it is her suggestion that a flagrant neglect and lack of acknowledgement juxtapose the quest for justice on the one side and the harvest of accommodation on the other. When she notes that, “the mortality black folks had shaped in liberation quest was unique and special, one that would help heal the nation as a whole,” (pg. 114) she dares to dream a dream of putting black people in their place of power. She dares to envision the fealty of blacks that stuns not only the status quo, but the prejudices of those who feel threatened by and/or question black fidelity.
hooks has a host of sources from Mohammad Ali to Toni Morrison to W.E.B. Dubois and many others. She performs a cross-examination of black conservatives as well as some black radicals. And raises the awareness of the reader to several works that substantiate the perspectives presented. From additional readings to research that started in the 1960’s to a curt illustration of a drama inspired by Langston Hughes there was inspirational and persuasive support throughout this piece of literature. The book is full of poignant ideas that are relevant even today; in fact, her only real weakness is seen in her appeal to unconventional wisdom. She states a clear and concise paradigm, as such: “Any black person who clings to the misguided notion that white people represent the embodiment of all that is evil and black people all that is good remains wedded to the very logic of Western metaphysical dualism that is the heart of binary racist thinking. Such thinking is not liberatory. Like the racist educational ideology it mirrors and imitates, it invites a closing of the mind.”(pg. 91) Having filled the dialog with relevant content she takes ownership of the context and with it the perogative of the premise without further substantiation. She does this more times then I care to count in this book, but even her specifications are more often refreshing than not.
This book has 16 chapters ranging from Living with integrity and Teaching values to Restoring our souls and Tearing out the root: self hatred. The tone is obviously intellectual and almost academic, but is a fairly easy read being chopped up into so many chapters. The references are placed in time relative to black sufferage recent historical and modern as well as some reference to the trauma of slavery’s victimization. It is redemptive but not quite temporal; it does follow however. I would recommend this book to someone looking to expand their conceptions and has room to be convinced or persuaded. I don’t recall at anytime feeling as though this reading has made any of the addressed paradigms obsolete, but I was satisfied with the substance provided by the content of a mind as sharp as Ms hooks.