Book Reviews

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 216 pages, $15.95; and Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1993), 508 pages, $27.95; Reviewed by Manuel N. Gómez, Vice Chancellor, Student Services, University of California at Irvine.

The overriding strength of hooks' work is its attempt to link form and content. hooks asserts that teaching and learning occur within a community in which there is "shared commitment"­"a commitment to 'the desire to learn'" that allows for "education as the practice of freedom"(40). Similarly, hooks attempts to create a community within her text, collecting voices and voicing different experiences and viewpoints. She relies on a dialectical structure in which to open up a discourse about teaching that includes rather than marginalizes feminist criticism, the teacher as body, and transgressive pedagogical practices that disassemble traditional authority structures and hierarchies which have framed traditional student/teacher relationships. She does an effective job of creating an accessible yet sophisticated forum which could go a long way towards facilitating discussion among teachers and between teachers and students.

The weaknesses of the book come, perhaps inevitably, from hooks_ insistence on the personal as political framework. Within such a matrix of praxis, the superficial markers of social and political identity­class, race, and gender­press the text into a Black-white dichotomy. The voices which generally speak in her text are those of whites and Blacks, a move which flattens out some of the complex intergroup dynamics that might complicate her liberatory model. Further, her emphasis on a feminist theory that actively includes race and class cannot escape an essentialist tone. For example, when hooks remembers one of her courses on African American critical thought, she admits that "[a]lthough I learned a great deal from this white woman professor, I sincerely believe that I would have learned even more from a progressive black professor, because this individual would have brought to the class that unique mixture of experiential and analytical ways of knowing­that is, a privileged standpoint" (91). hooks' simultaneous assertion that literature and theory are not the property of one group or another is problematized through hooks' own struggle to authorize herself and other Black women.

Teaching to Transgress is an important work precisely because of the difficult theoretical terrain hooks transits. The snags that she encounters testify to the depth of hooks' commitment to the praxis of education. The efficacy of this text lies, then, in its potential to provide a link between educators who wish to continue the questioning that hooks' text begs.

Ronald Takaki begins A Different Mirror with the assertion that "[r]ace...has been a social construction that has historically set apart racial minorities from European immigrant groups" (10). He goes on to argue that this construction does not accurately reflect the "rich and complex mosaic" of American diversity. The project of his book, then, is to reflect more authentically the multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic American character. An exhaustively detailed history, A Different Mirror is an essential primer for anyone interested in American history and its profoundly multicultural nature.

Takaki begins with the "discovery" of America and proceeds through World War II, devoting chapters of each section to the different experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Chicanos, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese. Each section reflects carefully on the intertextuality of the separate narratives, and each chapter points out general divergences as well as overlap, coalition, and shared experiences of different groups. For example, he points out that after the Civil War many Southern plantation owners attempted to replace African American laborers with Chinese, whom they believed could teach Black workers to be more industrious. Similarly, he points out that Mexican and Japanese laborers struck together in California in 1903, complicating common perceptions of interracial competition. In fact, the overriding motive of Takaki's project seems to be to confound stereotypes and historical accounts which stress violence and tension, rather than coalition and exchange. Takaki does not ignore the more conflictive aspects of multiculturalism, but he shows that they are only part of the story of America.

Takaki's work should be required reading for anyone teaching in a field of American Studies. It is particularly valuable as a revision of earlier works on immigration and culture, like Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America, which tends to strengthen rather than diminish prevalent racial stereotypes. At the same time, the breadth of Takaki_s book necessarily results in less depth, particularly in analyzing the more profoundly transcultural, transracial moments. When he presents the example of the Chinese/Black labor situation in the South, he does not really unpack the ambivalence of the historical moment. The racist intentions of the Southern plantation owners were undermined by their determination to racially hybridize their labor force. Such moments point to the power of transformation that such hybridity can ultimately effect. In other words, if race is a social construction, then America_s history needs to be figured as transracial, as well as multiracial. Takaki suggests these transracial moments, usually through examples of coalition, but he does not often push his discussion past the notion of cooperation.

Such a hesitation in the book does not in any way diminish its value as a primer for multicultural American history. In fact, such moments of silence should encourage thoughtful readers to research beyond the text and begin to examine the sources from which Takaki's work emerges. For if this book excites such curiosity, then Takaki has fulfilled the ideal of scholarship. We cannot ask for more from such a competent and comprehensive scholar.


Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2014 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI