For the love of bell hooks: A Black Feminist Reflection

Illustration: Ellen Budell

I first learned of bell hooks’s passing via twitter. I witnessed a frenzy of tweets devoting praises to a woman whose life was cut too short but yet achieved so much.  ‘Sixty-nine is no age to die,’ I told a friend and she replied, ‘she did not even get to enjoy her retirement.’ We sat in silence. I punctured it by sharing bell hooks died from kidney failure, an organ whose sole purpose is to filter out toxins from the body. In ‘Sisters of the Yam,’ bell hooks write, ‘Stress is a hidden killer underlying all major health problems black women face,’ (p.53). We speculated that dealing with the rampant misogynoire within the academy must have contributed to her illness another friend summed, ‘the body keeps the score’ in reference to the book of the same title. We noticed how so many Black Women writers and activists die before their time, where their demise is either connected to crippling illnesses, obscurity, or both. A pattern emerges and examples like, Olive Morris (died aged 27 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma), Audre Lorde (died aged 58 from breast cancer) and even Octavia Butler (died aged 58 under strange circumstances and suffered from chronic high-blood pressure), to name but a few, illustrated to us that white supremacy kills. hooks makes similar point when she writes, ‘Much of the stress black people experience is directly related to the way in which systems of domination…disrupt our capacities to fully exercise self-determination.’ As two young Black Female scholars, what does this tell us about our own impending futures?

bell hooks, was born as Gloria Jean Watkins on the 25th of September 1952. Raised in the segregated south to a working-class family from Kentucky, hooks were one of the first generation of Black children to be educated in a de-segregated school. A gifted child who soared academically, hooks’s received her doctorate at aged 29 from the University of California, Santa Cruz. However, it was 2-year prior, aged 27, where Gloria Watkins, aka bell hooks made her publishing debut, with ‘Aint I a Woman?’  hooks began writing this text at just aged 19, where its title references the infamous speech made by Sojouner Truth. However, it was Watkin’s penname, bell hooks, which created an air of mystery, paying homage to her maternal great-grandmother and written in all lowercase, hooks wanted readers to focus on her ideas and not her identity. bell hooks was known for her unflinching, piercing and ‘telling it, like it is,’ critiques  of  Black male chauvinism and white feminist exclusionism and in doing so, she introduced us to the intricacies of Black Feminist thought.

I was 19 years old when I first read hooks. Her book Black Looks,’ evangelicalised me to identify as a Black Feminist. This was 2006, when espousing feminist politics did not provide social clout it does today, let alone one that critiqued race, sexuality, and class. hooks’s true gift was providing us a framework to understand our lives and bestowed on to us a critical language to express it with. hooks words told me I was not delusional when dealing with the racism and sexism I was experiencing and there was no minimising nor excusing to be had. hooks generously offered us a critical consciousness which has empowered countless Black Women to speak our unwavering truths, even when faced with stereotypes like ‘angry,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘unprofessional.’ hooks told us these stereotypes were attempts to dehumanise us because our resistance challenged their power.

hooks represented principle, ethics, and courage. She taught me this when leaving her prestigious professorship at Yale in favour of a racially diverse teaching community in New York. She later returned to Kentucky to teach in her local arts college, where she established the bell hooks institute. hooks herself writes, ‘Knowing when to quit, is knowing one’s value.’ Embodying that Black women’s lives are worth more than the oppressive institutions we find ourselves in.

 hooks published over 30 books and I own just about half of these. I often chart my own critical development to the ways in how hooks expanded her writings from Black Feminist thought to critical pedagogy as well as her several texts about love. Whilst ‘Black Looks’  may have transformed my entire worldview, it is her book, ‘Salvation: Black People and Love,’ that sustains me with words of encouragement, wisdom and advice when seeking to form radical love bonds with my people. For instance bell hooks writes, ‘To give ourselves love, to love blackness, is to restore the true meaning of freedom, hope, and possibility in all our lives.’ It is political affirmation such as these that challenge my internalised anti-blackness and to be more gracious to myself and others.

It was my life goal to see hooks speak live and even one day meet her in the flesh. Whilst both opportunities may not happen in this lifetime, the legacy of her work is where we can convene and be in community together, manifesting our collective liberation.

bell hooks laid to rest on Wednesday 15 December 2021, where she transcended to meet our ancestors. Her life’s work radically changed feminist thinking, popular culture and  critical pedagogy and may she rest in peace and be forever be remembered.

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