Introduction by George Yancy
AS I THOUGHT about how to frame what to say about bell hooks (who died of end-stage renal failure just before the new year, on December 15, 2021), no phrase or terminology came to mind with ease that captured exactly what I felt. Many of the descriptions seemed too familiar: prominent and courageous Black feminist, brilliant wordsmith, cultural theorist who refused perfunctory performances and faux gestures of political consciousness, deeply informed theorist of critical pedagogy, self-styled Buddhist Christian with a heightened revolutionary sense of spirituality, a rare self-critical public intellectual, an unabashed truth-teller vis-à-vis imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, a protector of children (their vulnerability, innocence, and genius), a philosophical polymath, a love warrior, a lover of Blackness and Black people, a voracious consumer of texts (written, filmic, musical), an iconoclast, a dreamer, someone unafraid to name bullshit when she recognized it, courageous, and “irreverent” in the most beautifully playful and yet serious ways.
Then it hit me. The term was there embedded within her writings, within her discussions, within the arc of her existence: kenosis. It is such a beautiful term. It means to empty oneself or a process of self-emptying. That, it seems to me, captures the political, educational, spiritual, and interpersonal core that was/is bell hooks. The term clearly resonates with bell’s Buddhist Christian sensibilities as it speaks to a form of dying to aspects of the self that sustain violence and forms of toxic divisiveness. Dying, within this context, though, speaks to radical transformation, generative opening, self-forgiveness, and the forgiveness of others, a powerful sense of letting go. Keep in mind that bell was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952. The movement from Gloria to bell hooks can be said to function as an important and momentous site of kenosis. The transition involved letting go of those impulses that militated against speech, that would relegate bell to a place of silence. Kenosis, then, allows for what bell called “the liberated voice.” She writes, “Choosing this name as a pseudonym was a rebellious gesture. It was part of a strategy of empowerment, enabling me to surrender Gloria, give her back to those who had created her, so that I could make and find my own voice, my identity.”
In a beautiful, small self-published book of deep spirituality and a life of prayer entitled all divine love: prayers for now and always, one that I acquired after being invited by bell as a speaker at the bell hooks center at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, in 2016, bell writes, “Prayer is a space of reckless abandonment.” Think here of the theological implications where one’s life is un-sutured and vulnerable, think of the generativity and fecundity of freedom and transparency, and the unburdening of wounds that are laid bare. Later in the text, bell speaks of “offering trust as necessary surrender,” and she petitions, “Teach us to accept one another without judgment or blame. Teach us to trust. Letting go completely.” Notice how the concept of kenosis is conceptually braided to bell’s pedagogy: “In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.” That form of mutual expectation is a form of reciprocal trust rare within the logics of neoliberal academia. Within this context, bell is speaking to radical forms of learning, radical forms of education (educare, “to lead out”), radical forms that risk challenging forms of domination, dogmatism, and unabashed and insidious sites of authoritarianism. When bell talks about “our love of freedom” within the classroom, she is talking about forms of radical conversion or metanoia. She writes, “All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions.”
The concept of renewing our minds powerfully critiques and resists what Paulo Freire metaphorically calls (and critiques) the banking system of education, which is designed to create what bell called “passive consumers.” To have been wedded to such an ideological and anti-dialogical prison, it is doubtful that Gloria Jean Watkins would ever have become bell hooks. That transition was one of growth. I would also add that with many significant forms of growth and metanoia, there is deep passion or suffering. Within this context, suffering is consistent with kenosis, letting go of what might be dear to us, but is toxic to its core. How can that form of growth not involve pain? Listen to bell’s voice: “When I fail and make mistakes, make me ready to forgive. Ready to start over.” And what is forgiveness and being prepared to start over, to begin again, but a form of commitment to growth, which can also function as a site of revolutionary love, which is has nothing to do with sentimentality or respectability? For bell, she is describing a form of love that refuses the injustices and horrors of an entire world predicated on hatred and fear. bell writes, “When we love, we no longer allow our hearts to be held captive by fear.” Living in fear, within this context, is a form of what I would term being sutured, closed off; there is no yearning in that state. There is just a deceptive sense of completion, separateness, and atomization. As bell notes, “The space of our lack is also the space of possibility.”
To read the work of bell hooks is to inhabit a textually open space of possibility. The writing, as so many of you know who are reading these words, invites an opening. To have spent face-to-face time with bell, as the seven of us have had the honor of doing, is to be within the presence of so much joy, honesty, intellectual integrity, and the beauty of mutual vulnerability. Each of us, seekers of truth, lovers of peace and justice, and talking back as best we can and as forcefully as we can, have witnessed bell’s transformative presence, have seen what surrender looks like and feels like within a room filled with hundreds who came to learn-with bell, to catch something of her intellect, spirit, and yearning.
It is with honor that I share this space with those who have had the chance to converse with and be-with bell hooks, to break bread with her, to see her smile up-close, to laugh with her, perhaps even to cry with her. For me, the powerful theme of kenosis was also right there at “the end” of bell’s life. For what is death but a species of self-emptying, a letting go? As Khalil Gibran says in his beautiful poem entitled “Fear”:
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
At the penultimate end of that beautiful small book, bell writes of giving thanks “that we can wait patiently knowing all will be restored, all reconciled.”
To truly understand bell hooks is to understand her love of the child.
We all know the numbers — bell hooks wrote nearly 40 books, which is an astonishing feat of writing nearly a book a year for most of her adult life. She wrote searing critiques of injustice, but most do not consider her children’s books. Yet her love of the child is not just because she wrote for children. Philosophically, she held up the child as the source of original wisdom and creativity, a state to which we all should return.
When I say “love of the child,” it’s true, bell hooks was a baby magnet. She hated dogs and loved babies — touching them, looking at them, commenting on them. As a non-biological parent, she was uber aware of children in a room. She spoke to them at their level and, when she could, met them physically at their level so they could be eye-to-eye talking about real things. Many mourning her passing, who knew her personally, mention her deep care for their own children. But her affection for children was not sentimental, just like her theories on love are not sentimental. Her affection for children was built on admiration and respect. For bell hooks, the child is awake. Awake in the Buddhist sense, as in “I am awake,” says the Buddha. hooks notes, “Sadly, children’s passion for thinking often ends when they encounter a world that seeks to educate them for conformity and obedience only.” She believed that children are unboundaried and unfettered — truly alive — as she herself insisted on being.
She believed that the child is wise. That is, in the Christian sense: “[A]nyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” bell hooks was both religious and spiritual, another uneasy truth for many, and the child was a prophet. It was the child’s eye and vantage point that she relished, both cultivating it herself and treasuring it in children. As hooks writes, “Only grown-ups think that the things children say come out of nowhere. We know that they come from the deepest parts of ourselves.” In a sense, the child has the ability to have the original “oppositional gaze.” When hooks writes about herself as a child, she had a preternatural sense of her own voice. She was a child genius. hooks read constantly both as a child and as an adult (several books a day, even). In Hopkinsville, Kentucky, there were some who noticed her genius and others who were disturbed by it or tried to alter her early sense of herself. She writes, “Even so, the hills were the only racially integrated places, poor whites living in isolated hollows where poor blacks also lived. It was there that I learned to be curious about folks not like myself, to move past fear. And in that movement I became someone my family saw as different.” This early awareness of her own difference prompted her to write about what she saw as revolutionary parenting grounded in acceptance: “[I]f we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them.” Her work grants the dignity, rights, and respect for the child seldom given in a culture built on domination. Children are the first second-class citizens; they are subjugated to the adults around them. bell hooks wrote for children in an academy that is by and for adults viewing children as unformed adult intellectuals. For hooks, children are seers in their own right.
The child is also the artist for hooks. Children have a small window in which they make art without judgment. bell hooks was always making or appreciating art — painting, writing, dancing, eating. She did it all with great gusto, whether it was relishing a chili dog at Dairy Queen (a favorite) or thrifting a beautiful something — a scarf, a small pot, a piece of jewelry — and then re-gifting it to someone she thought needed it more. Her life was the work of art for hooks. Everything in her home had an aesthetic purpose. “Bring me the chocolates in the little red bowl in the upper cabinet.” She eventually made actual art for children by writing multiple children’s books. hooks reveled in reading her children’s books to audiences of children; she would slow down and take pleasure in beautiful lines like, “Girlpie hair smells clean and sweet” from Happy to Be Nappy. That sentence came to her in a dream, as she describes it. Or from Be Boy Buzz, “I be boy sitting all quiet and still.” She wrote for Black girls to marvel at their beautiful hair and for Black boys to be still and read a book. Both, she argued, are stereotype breaking and see Black children in their fullness. Her children’s books, like all her work, were far ahead of their historical moment; children’s books on identity and oppression can be found frequently now, but that was not previously the case. It’s worth marveling that she wrote children’s books even as she continued to publish stringent criticism on injustice for adults. hooks saw the need for children to have words and tools to free themselves.
We enter the world in a childlike state and often leave it similarly. In her final days, hooks was able to be in her beloved home returning to the Kentucky she helped others reimagine. She was able to return to her girlhood, the place of her first freedom. And she returned to the all-knowing and seeing Gloria Jean Watkins, the place from which she liberated others.
Etsy advertises for $24.95 a dark cloth T-shirt sporting white letters and a bell hooks (Gloria Watkins) quote which capitalizes letters in her name, forgetting the significance of her ancestral alter ego: “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance. Bell Hooks”
Over decades, I got brief glimpses of the professor and author determined to lead a full life by standing up straight, disdaining the servile bow; behaving intolerant toward willful ignorance. In the 1980s, in a small classroom at Union Theological Seminary, I watched bell hooks engage in a fiery debate with another author forging Black feminism, Michele Wallace. Impassioned and intellectualized, their camaraderie and rivalry framed ethics and overwhelmed analyses. In the early 1990s, I served on the planning committee for “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894-1994” conference held at MIT. While discussing keynote speakers, bell hooks’s name came up along with the assertion by some that she was not suitable to keynote. I pointed out that hooks was the nation’s most prominent Black feminist; yet the final decision was that if hooks wanted to attend the historic conference, she could submit a workshop or panel proposal. I thought that she would find this demeaning, but I later learned that hooks did submit a proposal that was approved by the committee and thus participated in the conference. An opportunity to teach outweighed ego and prominence of place. A few years later, when she unexpectedly rang the doorbell of a prominent feminist, we sat in the living room chatting while she waited to be seen. I was an assistant prof with no publications. She was gutsy in her appearances, inquisitive and talkative. A teacher, bell hooks also proved to be an internationalist peace warrior.
Defiant and self-embracing, her writing cared for and about the global citizen. In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, hooks reflects on the gifts of Brazilian activist and educator Paulo Freire. A Freire quote appears on the opening page of her book: “It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite.” bell hooks followed that imperative for decades. She taught teachers and students. She taught me. I did not always agree with her but I saw her as unique, less an academic (although she was pedigreed by the ivies) and more a Southern antiracist, anti-misogynist rebel who traveled from Kentucky to Stanford/Yale, etc., and back to home to Kentucky. She became famous while taking risks as an ethical, political theorist, a moralist and a feminist. I did not always agree with her political conclusions, such as her pretrial writing of the Exonerated 5, previously known as the “Central Park 5,” as guilty. I do not know if hooks ever publicly acknowledged her error. But what she did later — writing, teaching, and holding dialogues with the incarcerated, including those imprisoned for rape or violence against women — was extraordinary.
hooks’s feminism drove progressive politics. With a firm hand on the wheel, she wrote to safeguard the personal and therapeutic from disintegrating into fetish. She would describe how publishers courted her for potential books only later to view her writing as out of fashion. Never “fashionable,” although popular, bell hooks seemed too quirky and passionate to court manners and performance. The professor stitched her own T-shirts, with strategies — not slogans — for battling racist patriarchy, poverty, militarism.
The formidable gifts of this loving teacher include her political will that brought agape into the “classroom.” For hooks, the entire world was/is a classroom. She was determined to imprint teaching upon all encounters because she cared about all life forms. In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, she writes:
[A]s I went out into the public world I endeavored to bring as a teacher, passion, skill, and absolute grace to the art of teaching: It was clear to audiences that I practiced what I preached. That union of theory and praxis was a dynamic example for teachers seeking practical wisdom. I do not mean to be immodest in openly evaluating the quality of my teaching and writing about teaching, my intent is to bear witness so as to challenge the prevailing notion that it is simply too difficult to make connections — this is not so. Those of us who want to make connections who want to cross boundaries, do. I want all passionate teachers to revel in a job well done to inspire students training to be teachers.
She left too soon. But we do not control time. Still, it is comforting and instructive to recall the insights that she gave us along with her warnings.
Bettina L. Love
I write this letter to say thank you to an icon and a friend. There are so many things I never got to say to bell, not because we ran out of time, but because I never knew how to tell her that her writings made me believe in myself enough to work toward transformation through love, honesty, vulnerability, compassion, and feminism.
When I met bell hooks in 2014 at a National Women’s Studies Association conference in Puerto Rico, I had read many of her writings to perform the role of a “good” Black feminist, but I had yet to put any of her ideas into practice. So, I came to her as a fan, not as someone committed to the world she was asking us to create.
One of bell’s friends, Stephanie Troutman Robbins, introduced us over lunch on the beach in Puerto Rico. We instantly hit it off. I spent our entire conversation trying to understand how in the hell I was sitting at a table with the bell hooks, laughing, joking, and grinning from ear-to-ear. I wanted to ask for a picture, but I could not bring myself to ask. Of course, I played it cool, I did not know how to express myself. Three years later, I received a call that bell hooks would like to be in conversation with me during her residency at St. Norbert College. I was floored. When I arrived in De Pere, Wisconsin, a day before our conversation, bell and I picked up where we left off. From there the friendship was always easy. We would often chat on the phone; bell always had several book recommendations and hilarious stories from her past. A few months later, she invited me to the bell hooks center at Berea College to be in conversation with her yet again. During that trip, I was able to spend some time with bell at her house in Berea, Kentucky. Her home was the home of a writer and thinker who lived fully as a writer and thinker. No computers, no internet, no distractions from her books. bell loved to thrift shop and eat good food. She loved peppermints.
Around the same time, I sparked a friendship with bell, I also started therapy, and to me the two are inextricably linked. For more than three decades, I never created any space in my life to discuss my emotions, fears, and anxieties. I never wanted to feel deeply. I was taught that expressing feelings and being vulnerable were not only weak, but dangerous; if you were vulnerable, you were a target for ridicule and emotional abuse. And as a result, I was now experiencing panic attacks. Once I embraced therapy, I returned to bell’s writings not to cite her in my next article as a college professor, but as someone searching desperately to be fully human. I was learning through therapy how to sit with and be curious about my emotions, to be open, and to speak my radical truth. Each time my therapist spoke, I recalled a passage from one of bell’s books or a conversation I had with bell. For me, there was no healing without bell.
One of bell’s works that spoke the most to me at that time was All About Love: New Visions. In that book, she poignantly wrote:
To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.
It took years of therapy, self-examination, rereading bell, and listening to her talk about love, but I am finally at a point in my life where I am willing to let love save me — and now bell is gone. There is a generation of Black feminists who stand on bell hooks’s shoulders. Her words are our North Star. Her words are also how we put one foot in front of the other and work to heal ourselves to one day destroy patriarchy and all forms of oppression. bell’s imagination for the world that is possible through love is one I hope we never stop reaching and stretching toward because it will heal us all.
Thank you, bell, for believing in humanity enough to give us our roadmap back to each other. And thank you, bell, for giving me the language to be whole. I Love You and miss you dearly.
john a. powell
Author, theorist, poet, scholar, friend, activist, artist, seeker of wisdom, and above all else, someone who deeply explored what makes life worth living: love. I shared with bell the profound interest in love and death and their interrelationship. As we mourn her passing and celebrate her life, we would be wise to ask ourselves how bell would want us to grieve, process her passing, and honor the legacy of her life and work.
“Contemplating death has always been a subject that leads me back to love.”
— bell hooks, All About Love
Few, like bell, have dedicated their lives to the multidisciplinary study and understanding of love. Even within the walls of academia, bell embraced love for the deeply personal, messy, and often painful thing that it is. bell did not shy away from sharing her vulnerability with others. As she wrote in her 1991 essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice”: “I came to theory because I was hurting. […] I came to this theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me.” She used suffering as one of her greatest teachers. For bell, it is through love that we belong to life, each other, and death.
Perhaps the most important lesson bell teaches us about love is that love is a verb. A verb to which integrity, or the “congruence between what we think, say, and do,” is paramount. A fierce advocate for accountability, bell regularly asked herself and those around her, “What am I doing in the service of that which I say I believe and hope for? If you love me, feed my sheep.” bell lived her commitment to deep interpersonal and spiritual practices on a daily basis, beginning her days at 5:00 a.m. with an hour of prayer and reflection. In her later years, she was more likely to ground life and legacy through spirituality and love drawing on the life and teaching of the Reverend Dr. King, Thick Nat Han, and others. She called herself a Buddhist Christian. bell’s way of doing love and spiritually was not passive or quiescent. She engaged with the world, politics, and life and death themselves.
“Love prepares us to live well and die well.”
Equally unusual and brilliant, bell lived a life full of nuance, complexity, grounding, and practice.
While famous for piercing quotes like, “Love and abuse cannot coexist,” she reliably struck an ideal balance between being tough on structures, yet soft on people. Frequently writing on intersectionality, bell addressed the deep and complex relationship between our multiple selves and identities. She navigated love and life in ways that delineated blame and the responsibility for change between systems and individuals quite differently. Recognizing that people live within systems and systems within people, bell was able to challenge our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, and homophobic society, without unduly disparaging or othering people at an individual level. She had compassion for and friendships with people trapped in each of those systems. Yet, this did not mean forgoing accountability. Her searing critique was not just for the “other” or those unlike her, but was equally applicable to a close friend and even herself. Her ability to challenge and love, to be vulnerable and bold, to hold what might appear to be contradictory and paradoxical, is all part of her beauty and visionary teachings. It is what made bell such a wonderful teacher and special friend.
“I believe conversation is the best mode of learning.”
As an ardent member of her local community, bell understood that few are able to survive or thrive in isolation. Throughout her life, bell revealed the power of love and belonging by embracing our interdependent and shared humanity, and fully engaging in life and relationships. bell spoke about community and her legacy at our first Othering & Belonging Conference in 2015. After experiencing the death of her sister and several other loved ones within close succession, she asked herself, “What am I doing with my legacy?” Her answer to this question led to the creation of the bell hooks center, a place where people from all walks of life can gather, experience, and learn through a collection of artifacts. Just as she noted that artifacts mean different things to different people, I know bell understands that her passing and legacy will hold different meanings to different people. To me, bell’s life was bigger than bell, and has a place for all.
At the close of 2021, while we remain in a pandemic, suffering from loss in many forms, I offer a parting piece of advice given by bell, “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” Let us draw upon her life’s work by engaging in love and life, in all its complexities, in 2022 and beyond. And, as bell would say: Give all to love.
Stephanie Troutman Robbins
Like so many great love stories, our relationship was a lifetime compressed into one complicated and sometimes intense decade … with ebbs and flows and the inevitable twists and turns of life. The “love story” being my close friendship with bell hooks. “Love at first sight” was how she characterized our meeting and the friendship that promptly ensued. While the rush of meeting her in-person for the first time was a unique and undeniable thrill (I was fan-girling and blushing) for me, it was most certainly love at first read. bell hooks first came to me in the form of words and ideas — via the printed page — during my first and very difficult year of graduate school. I encountered and became transformed by her book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, in my first graduate-level women’s studies course, at Penn State University in 2007.
I devoured Teaching to Transgress. It felt like a sacred gift: bell hooks had challenged and opposed the systemic failures of thought and imagination in the context of schooling. It made me wanna holla! That with precision and conviction, this Black woman scholar had challenged mainstream logics of education and laid bare the ways that education comingled with capitalist imperatives and racist, sexist paradigms and agendas was really something palpable for me. Her arguments went right to the core of so many of the things I had often reflected upon in terms of possibilities and realities regarding teaching and learning … upended so many of the established conventions of schooling that I disagreed with but found it difficult to explain. bell hooks’s work — her words and ideas — have a way of doing that: articulating things that so many of us have felt deeply or known intuitively or experienced psychologically but can’t always find language for. Teaching to Transgress offered me the hope and courage to stay on the path and to push boundaries in my research, specifically, and in academia more generally. I quickly learned that Teaching to Transgress was part of a trilogy and I went on to acquire the other two books: Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope and Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. The latter, the final book in the trilogy, being my favorite of the three — like a tiny gem; I teach it often.
As I made my way through my doctoral program, I also discovered other work by bell hooks: Outlaw Culture and Reel to Real … and All About Love … and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center … and We Real Cool … and Feminism is for Everybody. I latched on fiercely to her brand of cultural criticism, especially in Reel to Real. It resonated even more deeply with me than her work on teaching had. So much of bell’s writing has influenced, informed, and affirmed my own ideas, questions and interpretations of the two things I’m most passionate about: teaching and movies/popular culture. So, I never ever thought I would get to meet Dr. bell hooks in the flesh. She seemed out of reach because her mind was almost just too expansive to be embodied; a mind so big it had to exceed skin and bone and physical manifestation. bell hooks was no mere mortal.
Imagine then, my shock upon finding out I was to meet her during a job interview at Berea College, Kentucky, in spring 2011. I’ll make it plain: it felt surreal and overwhelming. I was informed upon my arrival that the blank space on my itinerary was “lunch with bell at her house.” Her personal fucking home! I nearly fainted like a white Victorian lady in a too tight corset, I’m embarrassed to say. And just like that, she welcomed me into her home and into her life, and from that point forward we shared so many fantastic moments. I’ve collected mountains of memories of my times with bell … memories that span the country, Kentucky to New York City to Florida to Puerto Rico to Martha’s Vineyard. Countless movies watched — The Avengers, Coco, and Cloud Atlas, to name a few. I remember driving home from The Avengers and her explaining to my young son and daughter that the Hulk is the angry man of color and asking them how or if they understood his rage. bell hooks loved my children and all children.
bell had a thing for cars, but she hated driving. bell was not vain, but she was unwilling to let her hair go gray or white. bell hooks was not only a trailblazer or a feminist icon. It seems more befitting to call her a folk hero and a legend. Read her work, as much of it as you can. Watch and listen to videos of her many lectures, talks, and interviews online. The lessons are in her legacy. Know that she was a giant and a friend and a believer in human capacity to build loving relationships and communities that endure.
There is no comfort for the loss of bell hooks. She was a unique combination of populist and profound, a teacher who made academia accessible, and an activist who invited everyone to create theory based on real life. I can only hope that the global notices of her loss will introduce more people to her writing and to the unique story of her life.
I first met bell more than 30 years ago when she was teaching at Yale University. Students told me about her because she was a rare professor who listened to them, and who also included current activism in any discussion of theory and the past. Yet we didn’t really come to know each other until bell was teaching in New York and living in a small apartment in the Village. She loved that solitary apartment in a way that told me about the crowded living of her childhood, and she knew every small restaurant for blocks around, especially those that didn’t mind our occupying a table for hours of talking.
We discovered that we shared a childhood of reading anything that came to hand. Her five siblings often complained that she kept them awake at night with the light of her bed lamp. They also couldn’t understand her inexplicable childhood dreams of becoming all the various and unlimited things she read about, including an architect.
Since she was born Gloria Jean Watkins in a small town in Kentucky, we also had shared a first name for much of our lives. It was only later at Stanford University that she found and fell in love with such feminist foremothers as Sojourner Truth because they shared her seemingly impossible dream of rejecting all hierarchies of sex, race, and class. She also began to write under her chosen pen name of bell hooks, a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. To democratize that name, she rejected capitalization. She also began to combine all her radicalisms into one phrase by declaring herself to be against “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
But bell never confined her revolution to name, page, or classroom — she lived it every day. When we vacationed together one summer on Martha’s Vineyard, she fell in love with this island that somehow diminished mainland divisions of race. We both dreamed about living there ourselves, yet she was the one who found a small affordable house and kept returning there as a summer resident. Later when she was teaching in Florida and then finally at Berea College in Kentucky, she managed to buy the small places where she lived, as if never again to have her family’s worry of eviction.
Over the years, we were sometimes invited to lecture together. At New York University and Spelman College in Atlanta, we sat in our respective chairs, and, like two jazz musicians, improvised on current events and future hopes for an hour or so of talk that became the launching pad for an audience discussion. We were so into the subject at hand that we were sometimes surprised to hear from audience members that our friendship was part of our message. As bell said, this made us feel both worthwhile and discouraged at the same time. How did Americans get to the point of categorizing each other by meaningless melanin?
Once, we were asked to try to rescue a multicultural women’s meeting. It was to take place in Bermuda but was floundering because it hadn’t been planned by all the groups together. Though it turned out to be beyond repair, I had a week or so in our Bermuda hotel room, witnessing bell’s patience and flexibility in dealing with all its component parts. Whether navigating personal or political divisions, I would put my money on bell’s ability to argue, humor, and inspire people, especially but not only women, into a state of cooperation and trust.
Also in the service of dispelling any boundaries between trivial and serious, let me mention the joys of exploring antique and secondhand clothing shops with bell. She had an eye for beauty and bargains and made these forays into adventures. I count some of the happiest and most relaxing times of my life as wandering around those old shops full of clothes and objects that spoke of other years, all made into great memories by bell’s ability to live fully in the present.
Now that she has been set free from her couch at home in Berea, where her years of struggle with renal failure had caused her to rule like a captain at sea, I hope that even more people will be introduced to her mind and heart as expressed in her many books and interviews. If there can ever be said to be a purpose in death, it is to value what has been left behind.
For those of us who were lucky to be her friends, there is no way not to mourn the loss of her voice on the other end of the phone, or her gift for opposing all divisions at once with such bell-invented phrases as “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
I, too, am grateful for the words she left us on the page. Without giving physical birth as so many women bravely do, she gave emotional and intellectual birth to her unique self, as so many women are forbidden to do. She proved that our individual humanity cannot be contained by gender, race, or class.
Perhaps she will be most remembered for daring to value love as a revolutionary emotion because it crosses all barriers. As was said of bell in life, she “steps outside the confines of the intellect and into the wilds of the heart.”
Especially in this global era when unity is being imposed by danger, bell’s unifying message of love may come just in time.
As the US stands on the precipice of undoing its fragile democratic experiment, as we bear witness to massive forms of disinformation, crude and rude political divisiveness, as we witness political cowardice, and as so many kowtow in the face of strongmen — who are actually morally weak, politically inept, and wanting in terms of a critically informed consciousness — I am even more saddened by the profound loss of bell hooks and the ethical and critical standard of courageous speech that her work and praxis exemplified. You see, I am under no illusions. Like bell, I refuse to be silent. What better way to remember her? This country, one founded upon the enslavement of Black people, the brutalization of their bodies, and the genocide committed against Indigenous people, is moving toward a massive social implosion. And from the spineless and reckless rhetoric and actions carried out at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, it is clear to me that there are many who are so enamored by false gods, idols, and barefaced lies — who have sold their souls to neofascism, and where anti-intellectualism, sycophancy, and lustful hatred are palpably in the air that we breathe — that they are prepared for a form of existential cleansing that will take no prisoners. They are more than ready to see blood run in the streets of this nation predicated on convictions saturated with lies.
At a time like this, bell’s voice speaks not of nihilism or victimization, but of what is necessary to empower those of us who believe in the possibilities of love. In honor of bell’s memory, I refuse to be filled with reciprocated hatred, toxic xenophobia, and to wage war against manufactured “enemies.” However, I wholeheartedly welcome the power of rage. As bell writes, “My rage intensifies because I am not a victim. It burns in my psyche with an intensity that creates clarity. It is a constructive healing rage.” When I think about why and how the US is on the brink of hell, and where we, as the collective demos, might very well be complicit in bringing this about, I feel compelled, like bell, “to take a stand, speak out, choose whether I will be complicit or resist.” I choose to resist even as I bemoan the fact that I cannot undo all this politically sickening shit by a simple spoken word: “Enough!”
For bell, rage isn’t reckless. For her, cognate expressions of rage include strategic resistance, liberation, “talking back,” creating counterhegemonic narratives, coming to voice, and “interrogating habits of being as well as ideas.” What I find so powerful, radical, and beautiful about bell’s work is how she weaves love and spirituality into a framework that emphasizes parrhesia, critical pedagogy, and liberatory defiance. It is a mode of being that is diametrically opposed to political demagoguery and vicious forms of ideological lockstep. As bell writes, “Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth.” What bell suggests here is dangerous. It is dangerous because of the emphasis placed upon the importance of critical interrogation, of looking deep into our souls for what is biased, cruel, and dogmatic. It is dangerous because it asks that we decenter our rigidly held and unyielding narratives that silence others. It is dangerous because it asks that we open ourselves to be deeply touched by the voices of others who are also open to be touched by our voices, to be mutually transformed, and mutually “prized open,” as Édouard Glissant might say. It is also dangerous because it rejects what philosopher Fred Evans calls and critiques as “oracle voices,” which are hegemonic voices that are self-styled as infallible, free from interrogation. Indeed, Evans, while not drawing from bell’s incredibly important work, argues that it is the virtues of solidarity, heterogeneity, and fecundity that are crucial to a democratic polity. These are virtues that bell would say challenge what she calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” In response to this braided, hegemonic, and tyrannical white supremacist teratological structure, bell emphasizes the importance of forging “a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies — different ways of thinking and knowing.”
At the core of bell’s critical consciousness, her righteous indignation of injustice and inhumanity, and her unmitigated speech, is love. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine an elected official wedded to a discourse of love. Imagine someone at their bully pulpit: “When we love, we no longer allow our hearts to be held captive by fear. The desire to be powerful is rooted in the intensity of fear.” Imagine that resounding voice, standing before millions, stating it plainly: “When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive.” Unfortunately, we are aware of the backlash — assassinations, crucifixions. Call it want you want. Wanton power is afraid of love and truth.
The US has never collectively known genuine love; certainly not bell’s embodied language of love. After all, as she says, “I wanted to care for the soul and to let my heart speak.” There is nothing solipsistic or neoliberal about that embodied language and intent. That is the bell hooks who I knew, that is the bell hooks with whom I walked, with whom I spoke, and with whom I shared moments of caring for the soul and speaking from the heart. That is the bell hooks who left us still loving, a form of loving which refuses to be silent in the face of oppression, injustice, and violence. Thank you bell hooks for your audacity to look deep, to talk back, to refuse self-deception, and thank you for a love so defiant and so caring that it had to be dangerous.
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, one of the college’s highest honors. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019–2020 academic year). Yancy is the author, editor, and co-editor of over 20 books. He is cited as one of the top 10 influential philosophers in the last 10 years, 2010–2020, based upon the number of citations and web presence. He has also published over 200 combined scholarly articles, chapters, and interviews that have appeared in professional journals, books, and at various news sites. He is well known for his influential essays and interviews at The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone,” and at the prominent political website Truthout. He is also series editor of Philosophy of Race at Lexington Books.
Karlyn Crowley is provost and professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University. She has published in academic and popular publications, including Inside Higher Ed on leadership, social justice issues, and higher education. Her book, Feminism’s New Age, explores the relationship between feminism, whiteness, and New Age culture. Previously, Karlyn was founding director of the Cassandra Voss Center at St. Norbert College which is a sister center to the bell hooks center at Berea College.
Bettina L. Love is an award-winning author and the Athletic Association Endowed Professor at the University of Georgia. Her writing, research, teaching, and educational advocacy work meet at the intersection of education reform, urban education, abolition, and Black joy. In 2018, Georgia’s House of Representatives presented Dr. Love with a resolution for her impact on the field of education. She has also provided commentary for various news outlets including NPR, Ed Week, The Guardian, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is the author of the book We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.
john a. powell is director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He was previously the executive director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, and prior to that, the founder and director of the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. john formerly served as the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He is a co-founder of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and serves on the boards of several national and international organizations. john led the development of an “opportunity-based” model that connects affordable housing to education, health, health care, and employment and is well known for his work developing the frameworks of “targeted universalism” and “othering and belonging” to effect equity-based interventions. john has taught at numerous law schools including Harvard and Columbia University. His latest book is Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.
Stephanie Troutman Robbins (she/her) is a Black feminist scholar, mother, and first-generation college student. She is the department head of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, where she is also an associate professor of English. She is a formally affiliated faculty member in Africana Studies, Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies, and the LGBT Institute. She received a dual PhD in Curriculum & Instruction and Women’s Studies from the Pennsylvania State University in 2011. Her research interests include literacies focused on social justice, feminist pedagogy, critical race theory, film studies, Black feminist theory, schooling, identity/ies and education. She is co-author of the 2018 book, Narratives of Family Assets, Community Gifts, & Cultural Endowments: Re-Imagining the Invisible Knapsack (Lexington Books) and co-editor of the two-part encyclopedia, Race & Ethnicity in US Television (ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Press) published in 2021.
Gloria Steinem is an American activist, journalist, and leader in the global feminist movement. Steinem contributed to feminism internationally as a writer, lecturer, organizer, and media spokeswoman on the issues of equality. At the age of 87, she continues her work toward a more just world through her support of seasoned and budding activists and organizations, such as the Women’s Media Center, the ERA Coalition, and Equality Now. She is a co-founder of Ms. Magazine.