A Conversation with Laverne Cox

A Conversation with Laverne Cox

Earlier this spring, bell hooks invited the award-winning actress, producer, and advocate Laverne Cox to speak at the private opening of The bell hooks Institute, a new center in Berea dedicated to critical thinking and contemplating the intersectional issues of race, gender, and class. The choice of Cox as the institute’s inaugural speaker was no accident. A native of Alabama, she leapt to worldwide fame in 2013 as the hairdresser convict Sophia Burset on the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black, making Cox the first transgender woman of color in a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show. An Emmy nomination and the cover of Time followed, and Cox soon realized that her newfound success and fame also brought great responsibility. Since then, her work has expanded beyond the small screen to college campuses across the country, where she brings an empowering message of transgender equality and living authentically.

When they met in New York, both hooks and Cox sensed an instant connection. Cox had long appreciated hooks’s work, which she had studied and applied to her life and craft since college. For her part, hooks had admired Cox’s “humane” portrayal of Sophia on Orange, as well as her fierce advocacy and embrace of intersectionality. After an onstage conversation at The New School, hooks decided to bring Cox to Appalachia.

What follows is an edited version of their lively conversation at The bell hooks Institute, which covered subjects ranging from the power of language and images to fame and fearing corruption.

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BELL HOOKS: When I [heard about] Orange is the New Black, I was like, “Ah, I see some problems with it.” But there’s only one character I really love, and that is Laverne Cox. And I felt that the relationship between the Sophia [Cox’s character] and her wife was one of the most humane couplings—the way they dealt with conflict, the way they talked things out. And I thought, “This is something we don’t normally see on television.” And so to me—despite all its other things I could rap about…I felt like this was a magnificent intervention. [looks at Cox and grins] Hey, Laverne Cox.

LAVERNE COX: Hey, bell hooks. So I don’t know bell well. We just met for the first time last fall…but we all are here because we have a relationship with the work—this work that has truly transformed so many of our lives. It certainly has transformed mine. There’s so many moments in your work where you talk about being transformed, about being made over in more liberatory ways. I think it’s in All About Love that you write “the heart of justice is truth-telling.” And telling the truth has been a hallmark of what you’ve done for over thirty years…I’ve been doing a college lecture tour for over two years now. It’s called Ain’t I a Woman. And of course I talk about your work every time I stand up before college students, and talk about how you talked about intersectionality so many years ago, and how it’s really crucial to understand how these systems [of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia] work with each other, and how we can begin to move beyond those systems.

I discovered your work when I was a college student, through my brother…Black Looks was the first book I read, and then this was the second one, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics…And this particular paragraph, this repeated phrase stayed with me for so many years. bell writes:

Often when the radical voice speaks about domination we are speaking to those who dominate. Their presence changes the nature and direction of our words. Language is also a place of struggle. I was just a girl, coming slowly into womanhood, when I read Adrienne Rich’s words: ‘This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to speak to you.’ This language that enabled me to attend graduate school, to write a dissertation, to speak at job interviews carries the scent of oppression. Language is also a place of struggle…Dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice. Dare I speak to you in a language that moved beyond the boundaries of domination? A language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you. Language is also a place of struggle. The oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are action. A resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.

That’s one of my favorite moments from you.

BH: That bell hooks is just a damn good writer. [audience laughs]

LC: When I was re-reading [your work] this weekend, I remembered my own college days, sort of struggling with identity and who I am, and trying to come to voice and critical consciousness. And I thought about how your struggle is so evident in these words, and how in so many ways you still feel like that young girl to me, sort of struggling to come to voice. How do you feel today, as there’s a bell hooks Institute around language being a place of struggle?

BH: When my sister Teresa died, at a very young age—I have a hard time talking about it—but one thing that struck me was that I needed to take care of my legacy. She did not take care of her legacy. She did not take care of her body. She did not take care of herself in ways that would have carried her into the future. She died a horrible and painful death when she could have died in the comfort of her home with one of the most wonderful institutions in our society—hospice. And it 29 really brought home to me that I needed to take care of myself. And my legacy. My work. And what really struck me is, as I began to tell people that, they were like “bell, you don’t know what you’re doing.” You know, “you need to give your papers to some white institution.” You know, “some black institution like Spellman.”

And one of the things I said is, “I don’t want black people to have to go somewhere where they have to go through surveillance, where they have to show ID, where they have to go through a metal detector to get to the work of bell hooks,” because my work has always been about liberating us and liberating our stories…

In those early days, before I had as many books as I do now…I wrote, I read. But as I grew, as the writing grew, as I grew to have the blessing of my books being taught—in every institution practically in the United States—I was no longer this, you know, kind of hidden treasure, I had to come to terms with the world. I have been obsessed—because of my colleagues wanting me to give a sermon on resurrection—with Simon, and that passage in Luke where it says: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I will pray that your faith will not fail; that you will turn around and strengthen your brethren.”

So for me, it has been a constant struggle to keep the faith. So when I hear that Laverne Cox, with all her blonde tresses and the like…[is] informed by the work of bell hooks, it’s important because this is the ordinary person—and let me tell you, she was ordinary before she became gorgeous new black star—

LC: —I still am.

BH: She told [me]…that for a while she couldn’t pay her rent. That’s over with.

LC: Praise Jesus.

BH: Even though she works in the belly of the imperialistwhite- supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, she continues to work with the work. And that’s what I’m passionate about. How does the work go into the lives of ordinary people? How does it go into the places where we would never think about it going, and have an impact on people’s thinking and their lives? So tell us a little bit about that, girlfriend.

LC: Amen. For me, as an actress, obviously part of my job is advocating for trans folks, and often trans folks of color. And so much of the work of yours that really impacted me was the way you read film and media culture. And it shaped me… many years before I started taking acting seriously. I was a dance major in college, of all things. And when I started my acting training…[teacher Susan Basdon] has this thing where she’s like, “What do you want to say to the world about this character that you play?” And so, doing that very intensive study, I brought in bell hooks’s work, in terms of the ways in which I read scripts. It’s not only about bringing in a walking talking human being, but how do we create subversive moments in the work as an actress?

There’s limits to being an actress, I gotta tell ya. There’s a lot that I can’t do there, but what I’m really also proud about is my work as a producer. I got to produce a documentary for MTV last year called Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, that looks at the lives of seven trans youth between the ages of twelve to twenty-four-years old. And we got to tell their stories. And so being at the helm of telling these stories of marginalized people, I was like “How do we break with traditional ways of telling these stories”? And it’s MTV, and there’s limitations… Working with these institutions that don’t always value black life; working with these institutions where you have to fight to have more than one black person on a television show. And to tell these stories in ways that don’t objectify, that fully humanize—this started with my reading of your work. And it’s an intense fight…

And that piece—“we cannot go into the journey as objects and try to emerge as subjects”—that quote from [Brazilian educator Paolo] Freire that you quote so often—how do we not objectify trans bodies has been so crucial to the ways in which I’ve tried to go out into the world as a trans woman…People [who] objectify us want to reduce us to our bodies or surgeries that we have or have not had. And how do I walk into spaces as a full, whole person? That… has come from your work.

BH: Well, I mean one of the things—as I’ve watched all these episodes of Orange is the New Black—I thought the show was really evil. The only redemptive character in the whole show is Sophia because of how she deals in a just and kind manner… So what I like to think of how the work is going to totally change Laverne, so that one day she will produce more and more work herself…I think that we really need you to produce more. What do you think about that?

LC: We’re working on a new documentary now that I’m executive producing…called FREE CeCe!…about a young African-American trans woman named CeCe McDonald who spent nineteen months of a forty-one month prison sentence in a men’s prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack that happened on June 5, 2011.

And the night of the incident, CeCe was walking down the street—they were going to the supermarket. They were having a barbeque the next day. They passed a group of white folks outside Schooner’s Bar in Minneapolis. And this group of white folks outside the bar were drunk. And the first thing that CeCe heard, in terms of the racist transphobic and homophobic assault, was the “N-word”…and then a fight ensued. One of her attackers ended up dead and, of course, when the police arrive—CeCe is bleeding out of her cheek— they arrested her on the spot and charged her with murder… She’s out of prison now, I’m happy to report … and the documentary is about her story [and] the culture of violence against trans women. And her life has been challenging since she’s been out. She’s had some lovely moments of being honored, and traveling the country speaking, but she still has a felony conviction. She’s still struggling…

BH: I mean, one aspect of Laverne’s trans activism that is very much a model is that she herself embodies intersectionality. Because just as people would ask me why I would want to talk to a Laverne Cox, they might say why would a Laverne Cox want to talk to me? I mean, there’s not many of those Hollywood movie stars knocking at my door saying, “Let’s have a conversation.” So it is her willingness to stand for justice, not just for trans folks, but for anyone who is in need of justice.

LC: Well, what your work so clearly illustrates is that the injustice for many of us happens at the intersection of multiple identities. When CeCe was attacked that night, she was not just attacked because she was a trans woman, she was also attacked because she was black—and because she was a woman. So all of these things are happening at the same time. And if we just look through a single identity lens, we’re not going to really get the full picture. And that is, I think, one of the wonderful gifts of your work and part of your legacy—that we can really look at the interconnected nature of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. I add to that: CIS-normative-heteronormative-imperialist-whitesupremacist- capitalist-patriarchy. These forces are constantly working in tandem with each other and, you know, because of what I do, I understand that I’m working within this system. There’s limitations that I have at this point in my career… But this piece of knowing that there are people who’ve come before me who stood for justice is very inspiring. I think we all stand on bell hooks’s shoulders.

BH: Well, tell us a little bit—how has fame changed the life of Laverne Cox, besides being able to pay the rent?

LC: Being able to pay the rent is amazing. I’m still in the same apartment. Seriously, though, before I booked Orange is the New Black, I had done several independent films in 2011— like seven independent films. I was like, “Yeah! My career is turning around!” Then 2012 comes and I don’t book anything for like six months. I had a restaurant job, but I wasn’t making very much money in the restaurant, so I was in rent arrears when I got the job for Orange is the New Black. I was on a payment plan to pay my landlord a certain amount of money out of a month so I wouldn’t get evicted. So that’s where I was just a few years ago. So I’m very grateful that the rent is paid now. I mean, honestly, I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for Orange is the New Black

BH: Do you find that people get pissed at you when they feel like, “Well, what are you talking about? You’re a movie star and you’re making lots of money.”

LC: I did The View the day after—or I think it was the week— that the Darren Wilson grand jury testimony of Ferguson came out. And I was like, I can’t be on The View and not talk [about it]…I mean, in this grand jury testimony, Darren Wilson talked about this demon coming out. And it was just so—I can’t even repeat it, it was so horrible what this man said about Mike Brown. And I had to say this on television, and people were tweeting all kinds of—when you talk about race in this country, what has been really deep to me as an out trans woman of color is that transgender issues—yes, a lot of people have issues with that still, and come at me with all their hatred or ignorance or whatever—but with race, it’s so much deeper.

BH: Wow.

LC: And I think I lost some fans talking about Ferguson, and telling that truth the way I saw it. So it’s deep. It’s really deep…

BH: I mean, this is a good thing because our work, our lives, are different. You have to always be conscious of the camera, and what’s going to go out in the world about you…because of the impact. And your work is teamwork in a way that bell hooks’s work is not teamwork. You know, I say what I want to say. I choose my battles. It’s a very different kind of work. How do you deal with that?

LC: It’s tricky. I’m very careful about what I say. I’ve said a lot today, all things that are truthful. And I always try to speak the truth, but I’m also very careful about what I say because I understand that it’s not just about me, that I have a lot of firsts by my name at this point in my career. And it is bigger than me. So I try to be really intentional with language…I don’t always get it right, obviously. And I’m a human being. And I have to allow myself to be human, and to have human moments that…may happen in the public sphere. I do it imperfectly, but I’m really careful.

BH: So do you fret about—you know, everywhere you turn, we see you. You’re doing something. I’ve already told her I’ll make my appearance on whatever news show she has. Do you fear corruption?

LC: I do…I’ve had moments when…there was this show I was involved with, and I was involved with several partners on the show, and this network was like, “we want to do this show with you, but we’re not interested in these partners you have.” They came up with the idea for this show all together. And I was like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” I was able to bring them along with me. I think that was a moment when that corruption—it felt like this really intense moment that you see you see out of a movie was happening to me…It’s definitely something I think about and I try to be vigilant about. It’s hard. I just try to continue reading my bell hooks, and continue to stand for what it is I believe in. And I try to pick my battles very carefully. The corruption piece is real, though. What is brilliant, too, about bell hooks’s work is that you remind us that each and every one of us can become an oppressor. We all have that capacity. God help me. I hope that never is me…

BH: Well, what do you think is the most positive intervention of Orange?

LC: I love that there was a moment in season one when we were shooting the rap-battle scene. It was in the common room, and I looked around, and there were like over forty women in one room…There were senior citizens to early twenties. There were plus-sized women. There were women of multiple races. Gender identities. There were various queer women. I was just like, I’ve never seen this on television before. I’ve never seen anything like this, with this kind of female diversity. And for me that’s really exciting. And I think our audiences are really responding to that kind of diversity, as well as the way our stories are told.

BH: You can critique me, as others have. I was very, very disturbed when—what’s the name? The evil one? The evil black woman? LC: V— BH: V is run down—

LC: I don’t see her as evil, first of all.

BH: But run down. Because to me, the image of her with her hands in the air very much echoed that of Michael Brown. And the thing that pissed me off…was that she was rude. And I think that many of us as powerful individual black women are often beaten down and harassed because some white person sees us as difficult or rude. So I found that very troubling. Can you deconstruct that? Many people tell me, “bell, this is the kind of projection you do. This is why we don’t like your work.” [audience laughs]

LC: What I think, for me, one of the wonderful gifts of your work is that, I think it’s in Yearning, where you talked about how you were critical of Spike Lee’s work, but that criticism came out of love.

BH: Don’t know about the love part. [Cox laughs]

LC: Or interest—

BH: —Generosity. [audience laughs]

LC: Generosity. Thank you. [audience laughs] I always encourage people—students come up to me all the time and they ask me about Beyoncé, or whatever, and because of your work, I always encourage them—yes, you can consume this stuff, but never do it uncritically. And so I deeply respect the fact that you are very critical viewer—that you have an oppositional gaze that deeply informs the way that you see. And I feel like that perspective is deeply necessary. As an actress on the show, I can’t agree with it. [audience laughs] But I obviously deeply respect it. We’ve had this conversation before, and I’m still here.

BH: Well, I think that we don’t address the power of images. I’m trying to work on a new book that’s called Spirit Talk, and I’m talking about how when [my family and I]…went to church every Sunday at Virginia Street Baptist Church. There was a huge mural behind the pulpit: white Jesus with his hands out, the world in front of him, and the black and brown people at his feet. I’m trying to write about what do we think is the impact of that image on us as young black children that we saw every Sunday?…And I’m writing about the fact— many of you know I consider myself a Buddhist-Christian, and Buddha comes in all colors, all genders. I feel like when I came upon Buddha through the poetry of Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, there was something so profoundly liberating that we weren’t dealing with the image of a white man, or even of a colored man, because there’s so many different formations. And I don’t think we do enough with, “what is the impact of an image on us?”

LC: What I would say about Orange in light of that is…we see the ‘V’ character as one character who we lose in a sort of horrific way, but we have seen so many other black women on this show, though, that we have different relationships to, as an audience that we can look to, and be inspired by, or laugh with—

BH: I agree with you—

LC: —or feel connections to.

BH: But that doesn’t mean that that image where a white-skinned person is running a black woman down and saying she’s rude as though, you know, “Kill those rude-ass black bitches.” I mean, that’s how I read it… I’ve been trying to critique Doc McStuffins. Doc McStuffins, as some of you may know, is the first crossover black Disney kind of image, but I notice, as I was buying my Doc McStuffins paraphernalia—you know, the Valentine cards were eighty percent off—was that she’s always carrying that white sheep or lamb or whatever. At first, you know, being a black woman, I was like, “Why is she carrying that little white baby?” And people were like, “Oh, it’s not a white baby, it’s a lamb.” But again I thought about our visual processes. You know, how many white people still feel that as black women we need to be Mammy and we need to take care of them? Do you know of that?

LC: I know of it. I don’t watch. And I don’t think I’m the target demographic. [audience laughs]

BH: Well, I mean, so once again, as I try to talk to people about this, especially parents, they acted like, “Oh, bell, this is the problem with you—you’re just too extreme.” And I tried to get people to think about, when you’re looking at the visual from a distance, you can’t tell that it’s an animal—when you’re looking at it from a distance, it looks like a little white baby-doll…

I remember as a girl telling my mama, “I don’t want no white doll. I want a doll that looks like me.” Mom…found this doll [that] came with a little diaper and a bottle, and you could put the water in her, and she would pee out of the little hole. That was fascinating for all of us…I was a brilliant child, I named the doll “Baby.”

Growing up in Kentucky—so racist, in racial apartheid— but…I can tell the world the roots of who I am came from the hills of Kentucky. From the black church. From Mom and Dad. I mean, and I’m critical of Mom and Dad—everybody can tell you that—but I’m also respectful of all the foundation that Mom and Dad gave us…

Let us hope that we will live into that justice that Martin Luther King talked about, but let us not forget about the power of images. And even myself…when Satan says to me, “Well, I don’t think you need an institute, bell. You ain’t all that…Who do you think you are?” I always remember, you know, when I went to college, and these white boys pulled me—I was out with some white man I was dating—they pulled me off the sidewalk, and they said, “Nigger girl, what are you doing with a white man? Who do you think you are?” And you think about those imprints, those assaults, and how—for a long time—that stayed with me. It was echoed by teachers, by different people, by the man I thought I loved…

And so I think that it’s because we have to know who we are. And we have to live in the strength of who we are. That, for me, [is why] this institute is important for Kentucky. For young black girls—for all girls. To recognize—as Toni Morrison always said, she wrote The Bluest Eye because she never read a book that featured a young black girl. And she… wanted to put that black girl at the center.

Growing up in Kentucky, black people were not at the center. Our land, stolen. So many painful things happened to us. We are not just the Wildcats. Cause you know how the white people worship ball players until they do something that they hate, and then it’s like slavery time, plantation culture all over again. So we have to be more than that. We have to have institutions where we are self-determining.

LC: And at the center.

BH: Yes. Even if it’s hard.

bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) is among the leading public intellectuals of her generation. Her writings cover a broad range of topics including gender, race, teaching, and contemporary culture across the literary genres and include the seminal Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism and, more recently, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place. She has taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the City University of New York, and has served as Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College since 2004.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Mara at 8:14 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this essential conversation with us. I am so grateful. And grateful that it was my 18 year old daughter who found it online, knew I loved both Laverne and bell and shared it with me.

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