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There’s a quiet stillness that lingers in the air when you learn that someone you looked up to for years has passed, even if you never got to meet them. Yesterday, it felt like time stopped for a moment as the collective mind grappled with the sorrow of knowing that our time on earth with a legend had come to an end. bell hooks, or Gloria Jean Watkins was an inspiration. She always will be. A bestselling writer, feminist, poet and activist, who challenged us to think critically and look at the world through an intersectional lens. She changed people’s lives. She changed mine. There are generations of feminists who do not know who or what we would be without her teachings. She has guided us to live courageously and speak loudly.
I came across bell hooks’s ‘All About Love: New Visions’ during a tumultuous time. “When love is present the desire to dominate and exercise power cannot rule the day.” ‘All About Love’ invites us to define love beyond our ideas of what it is and what we think it looks like. It teaches us to challenge the prevailing cis normative, patriarchal notion that the nuclear family and romantic love are the most important expressions of love. It helps us think about love in a wider context, in terms of social justice, community and self-love. hooks said that “there can be no love without justice” and she emphasised that love is part of the journey to freedom; that truly living by a love ethic could bring about societal change.
On race, gender, politics and radical self-love, bell hooks shaped me into the woman and feminist that I am today, a sentiment that has been shared broadly by so many in the outpouring of love and gratitude on social media.
In ‘Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics’, hooks argued that “true resistance begins with people confronting pain… and wanting to do something to change it”. Her analysis of the importance of acknowledging and confronting the pain that we have experienced in order to move beyond it was powerful and still rings true today. The premise of theory as a place for deep transformation and healing on a personal and societal level led to a profound paradigm shift for me.
When I read her nuanced critique of white feminism in ‘Ain’t I a woman?: Black Women and Feminism’, I was entranced. “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’ to focus on the fact that to be a ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” In the book, which is titled after a line in American abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech in favour of women’s rights, hooks addressed the effects of the intersection of racism and sexism on Black women in ways that to this day, still resonate for so many of us. bell hooks was one of the leading intersectional feminists who made the critical connection between race, other marginalised identities, class, political history and feminism. She made feminist theory more inclusive and accessible for millions of people, including me.
She explained political theory in a way that made sense and found the words to describe the complex emotions that many of us often feel. For young, Black women trying to navigate hostile societies and find our place in the world, this was everything. She gave us the language and the courage to speak boldly about Blackness in an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She had the ability to take a collective experience and articulate it in a way that made her work feel deeply personal. In ‘Remembered Rapture: The Writer At Work’, she said: “No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… No woman has ever written enough.” I have carried these words with me ever since I first read them.
No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… No woman has ever written enough
The beauty of hooks’s commentary was that while her analyses showed a fervent love for Black women, it was also universal in that everyone could learn from her literature, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. There are lessons in her teachings for each and every person.
Her work shows that there is a place for radical feminism in our everyday lives. From engagement within our communities to our personal relationships. In ‘Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics’, hooks says that: “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”
What consoles us, as she takes her place with the ancestors, is the lifetime of work and wisdom that she has left behind. Even if, like every other woman, she didn’t write enough.
Feminism wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of revolutionaries like bell hooks. May her teachings live on in our actions and in our words.
May she rest in love.