What has been so profoundly stirring about the tributes to the black feminist cultural critic and scholar bell hooks, is the breadth of the lives that her words and teaching touched. Each tribute, a hand held to the heart, or perhaps a wave, across generations, distance and experience. hooks’s talks, essays and books confirm her renowned skill as a formidable storyteller and bricoleur; the singular way she had of moving with agility between social theory, activism, community struggles and what is more hidden, not least of all the vitality of love as a political force and a necessity for our individual flourishing.
And then there is the worldly bell hooks who continues to—and will continue to—engage and incite new generations, enthralled and captivated by her passion and earthing of complex political and theoretical debates and conundrums from pedagogy, to black masculinities to the damage done to girls and young women by visual cultures.hooks told us that we need maps to find our way towards love. We thank her for her companionship and guidance along the way. – Yasmin Gunaratnam
“To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility”.bell hooks
Grace: I first met the words of bell hooks when I was getting my Masters in education at Harvard University in 1995. The elitism I felt at Harvard was soul-crushing at times, but Teaching to Transgress saved me. I quickly devoured four more of her books over the next several months, by which point “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” had become central to my social critique. On the last Friday of August 1996, I moved to New York City with a mission to find her, and on the following Monday I crashed her undergraduate class at City College. I confessed that I was not a student there, but a fan whose life had been changed by her work. There was an audible gasp from another student, who blurted out “you’re bell hooks?” On the course schedule, her name appeared as Gloria Watkins. After class, miss bell (as I came to know her) invited me to take her seminar on the non-fiction work of Toni Morrison. I became one of seven students who gathered each Sunday afternoon around the dining room table of her Greenwich Village apartment. It was so clear to me then that she lived what she preached. She opened her home and her heart to students, listened to our yearnings and passions, along with our thoughts about Toni Morrison. She reminded us that writing and speaking were acts of resistance. In that space of radical love and possibility, she was teaching to transgress.
Grace M. Cho is an Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology College of Staten Island – CUNY. She is the author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy and the Forgotten War (2008) and Tastes Like War: A Memoir (2021). In addition to her work as an academic, she is a contributing performance artist for the art collective Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the Forgotten War, which toured from January 2005 to May 2009. She tweets @GraceMCho
Darren: Encountering bell hooks’ writing for the first time deeply impacted how I thought and felt about teaching and my research on classroom practices. Prior to this, I had felt somewhat adrift between two sets of research literature; those who advocated for dialogic pedagogy in the classroom in almost evangelical terms and those who offered detailed analysis of the deep-seated structural problems that shape classroom practices whatever our declared intention. I knew that neither naivete nor despair were states of being that could sustain me. In the teaching trilogy; Teaching to Transgress, Teaching Community, Teaching Critical Thinking, hooks writes in a personal, reflective style that felt as though she was sat next to me, sharing her understanding of the world and making space for me to bring my own fledgling thoughts to the narrative. It feels as though the writing is effortless – yet these philosophical books resist the pretence of objectivity, and the neat safety of abstraction, and demonstrate through the very form of the text that another way is possible. In hooks I found a writer with the intellect, the heart and the courage to offer an unflinching analysis of the world and at the same time retain a sense of hope and possibility. For this, I am truly thankful.
Darren Chetty is a writer, teacher and researcher. He has published academic work on philosophy, education, racism, children’s literature and hip-hop culture. He is a contributor to the bestselling book, The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound. Darren co-edited Welsh (Plural), to be published in March 2022 by Repeater. @rapclassroom
Alanah: ‘I came to theory because I was hurting.’ I first saw this quote from Theory as a Liberatory Practice as a freshly matriculated PhD student, printed out and stuck on the wall of our communal office. ‘I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me.’ I read and reread it; I let these words of kindness wash over me and sink in, down to the aching part of me still questioning my place in the academy. In my new workspace, these words felt like the greeting of an old friend, the kind who intimately understands you and always knows the right thing to say. For me, it all started with bell hooks. I read Ain’t I a Woman in the final year of my Psychology BSc; venturing outside the syllabus, I sat between the shelves on a new-to-me floor of the library and cried as I finished the first chapter. Theory had never spoken me into existence the way hooks did, and she set me on a journey to find and create work that could do the same for myself and others. hooks gifted us with a language intended to help us understand – ourselves, each other, and the institutions in which these lives and encounters take place. Her work is a lexicon of kindness and also of rage, a call to arms in the reassurance that you are not alone, that you are worthy, and that theory is for us, too.
Alanah Mortlock started her ESRC funded PhD research at the LSE Department of Gender Studies in 2019. Her research explores racial ambiguity as a structuring function of Blackness through an interrogation of contemporary academic and popular discourses of transracialism. She tweets at @AlanahMortlock
Carmine: I was distraught. It was 1998 and I was about to complete my MA dissertation on Interracial rape. And then I happened to come across the works of bell hooks. I was conflicted, yet overjoyed. I wished that I had come across her work earlier. The introduction to her work seemed to take me a few steps farther away from completing my dissertation. Yet, I was elated as her work led me to black feminist thought. The writings of bell hooks resonated with me as a young, black woman. It provided me with the theory and language to articulate the discomfort that I had with white-centric feminist and psychological theories that I had engaged with at that point in my dissertation. Her scholarly work, together with the other black feminists that she led me to, made me feel comfortable in my own skin and with my own voice. It was her vulnerability and her bravery in tackling matters that would not sit comfortably with many others, including feminists, that stood out for me. Recently, having entered the academy, I again turned to bell hooks as a teacher. Her readings in The will to change, are texts that I often return to both as a teacher but also as a mother raising a black boy in a world that does not value black boys. The work of bell hooks will continue to inspire me and my students for many years to come. Hamba kahle bell hooks.
Carmine Rustin, is a lecturer in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape. She is the former Chief Researcher in Parliament of South Africa. After 16 years in Parliament, she left this position to pursue a PhD full-time – a PhD in gender equality and happiness. Carmine is a feminist scholar, interested in matters related to gender justice, gender related policies and legislation, as well as happiness and subjective well-being.
Hannah: I never met bell hooks. I do not know people who knew her. I was simply one of many who held space with her books and the numerous recordings of her speaking or in conversation available online. Instinctively, we want to “quote bomb” hooks’ work in our grief. We want to reach for Teaching to Trangressand proselytise about how our teaching and learning was unbound and remade by her insights. Like many other Black-heritage academics, her work has profound meaning to me as an individual as well as a researcher. And yet, I am somehow most grateful that she taught us how to listen generously but also to answer back, unapologetically, as our full selves. I return often to the recording of hooks and Laverne Cox in dialogue at The New School in 2014. They listen to each other very closely and hooks highlights that they are able to hold their disagreements about topics including femininity, visibility, and radicalism in peace without diminishing the seriousness of their conversation. Through her reflections, hooks helped me to recognise that we need community to be well, but that being in community brings emotional and social risk. For those of us working in universities and hoping to challenge the social injustices of the academy, hooks reminds us that we require communal harmony with the space to challenge one another richly. Without that, we cannot change, or grow, or accept and learn when we get it wrong. I’ll be forever grateful for hooks because she showed us what it means to live truthfully, while also being in progress, and that disagreement and clapback in community is integral to our future wellbeing.
Dr Hannah Marie Robbins is an Assistant Professor in Popular Music and Director of Black Studies at Nottingham University. Hannah is an expert on the intersections of Blackness,queerness, and gender in American musical theatre. She has published and spoken on queer culture, race representation, and the construction of gender in musicals ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Hamilton. They are currently finishing their first monograph on Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and have forthcoming publications on the American musical and identity politics through a Black feminist lens. Hannah is a committed advocate for equality in higher education. She is the co-founder of the international network Black in the Arts and Humanities and a member of the radical collective, the Free Black University. @drhannahrobbins
Patrick: bell hooks is one my favourite black cultural theorists alongside the late Stuart Hall. Although respected in the academic world, her cannon of work transcended academia and was based on her lived experience in being born and raised in the Deep South during a period of segregation and through the civil rights movement. In many ways, she articulated a black political approach from a feminist perspective, speaking to structural racism, misogyny, and class. She was also able to explore issues around black masculinity, which you could argue is reflected in the thinking and ideology of Black Lives Matter. bell also inspired millions of black and brown women around the world, with her many contributions informing social action and political discourse and influencing the rise of black led women organisations and publications. She also inspired the brothers too in coming to terms with our own behaviour and relationships with women and exploring our masculinity in a world where black men are still subjected to violence and degradation. Her contribution to black cultural theory and politics will continue to be influential and hopefully can be catalyst for a future generation in the context of the ongoingness of intersecting structural violence and gaslighting. Thank you, bell, for your love, support, and contribution to humanity.
Professor Patrick Vernon OBE is a cultural historian and founder of Every Generation and the 100 Great Black Britons campaign. He is a patron of Santé, a charity that aims to improve asylum seekers’ rights and health access. @ppvernon
Jaimee: “to you, our dearest bell hooks:
from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for loving us. And when I mean us, thank you for loving Black feminists.
Thank you for setting my path to Black feminisms ablaze, through your pioneering scholarship. Thank you for giving me the permission to name those things that couldn’t be named in my life; for giving me the language to name and combat white cisheternormative patriarchal capitalism
that often leave Black women and gender expansive feeling like they do or cannot have a voice.
Thank you for giving us a voice, bell.
For centering those at the margins. Thank you for recognizing that marginality does not equate to inferiority or self-depreciation; that our existence is beautiful, bountiful, brilliant, and Black.
Thank you for showing us how to love. And more importantly, that our liberation requires the necessitation of transformation of ourselves and our world, and that love is a key factor to the true freedom we seek.
Thank you for you, bell hooks. For showing us the way.”
Jaimee A. Swift (she/her) is the executive director, creator, and founder of Black Women Radicals, a Black feminist advocacy organization dedicated to uplifting and centering Black women and gender expansive people’s radical activism in Africa and in the African Diaspora. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Howard University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oxford College of Emory University
Further reading: What’s the problem with Black Masculinities?
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