Key thinker: bell hooks (1952–2021)
bell hooks (1952–2021)
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She grew up in a segregated community in the US South and received much of her early education in segregated schools. At school, hooks developed an early interest in the poetry of William Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/17/bell-hooks-obituary). After graduating from the desegregated Hopkinsville High School, she enrolled at Stanford University where she received her BA in English Literature (1973).
In the following years, hooks earned an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1976) and a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz (1983). At Santa Cruz, she published her first book of poetry, And There We Wept (1978) under her nom de plume, a stylized version of her great-grandmother’s name. The lower-case spelling was intended to draw attention away from the author’s identity and towards the ideas explored in her work (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/books/bell-hooks-min-jin-lee-aint-i-a-woman.html).
hooks published around 40 books, and taught at the University of California, Yale, Oberlin College, the City college of New York, and Berea College in her home state of Kentucky, where she founded the bell hooks Institute in 2014. She wrote extensively on subjects ranging from film to relationships and love. Her collection of film essays, Reel to Reel: Class and Sex at the Movies (1996), was influential in shaping contemporary Black studies’ focus on visual art and cinema (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/the-revolutionary-writing-of-bell-hooks).
hooks was a passionate educator whose critical pedagogy ascribed a key role to education in the development of personal freedom (hooks, 1994). hooks described herself as ‘queer-pas-gay’ (queer-not-gay) to emphasize the non-conforming nature of her sexual and gender identity. For hooks, queerness is ‘about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJk0hNROvzs).
Her belief in a positive conception of freedom, understood as humans’ ability to shape their destinies in a communal and healthy way, led hooks to found Sisters of the Yam, a support group for Black women which placed community healing at the centre of its politics (https://www.britannica.com/biography/bell-hooks). bell hooks died on 15 December 2021 in Berea, Kentucky. She was 69 years old.
A pioneering Black feminist, hooks’ work explores the intersections between race, class, and gender. The title of hooks’ first major work, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), is as a reference to a line from a speech in support of women’s suffrage by Sojourner Truth (see Chapter 1 on Sojourner Truth) (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/books/bell-hooks-min-jin-lee-aint-i-a-woman.html). Ain’t I a Woman anticipates an idea that Kimberlé Crenshaw would later succinctly describe as ‘intersectionality’ (see : that ‘systems of oppression can overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories’(https://daily.jstor.org/kimberle-crenshaws-intersectional-feminism/). hooks points to the shortcomings of the white feminist movement, which had failed to take seriously the experiences of Black women. She argues that white feminism mimicked the structures of white patriarchy and obscured how oppression was lived by Black women (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/the-revolutionary-writing-of-bell-hooks). By tracing the ‘devaluation of black womanhood’ back to the sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery, hooks sought to write these perspectives back into feminist theory, so that a collective and inclusive women’s movement might emerge in place of an exclusionary white feminism.
The recent republication of the first volume of hooks’ Love Song to the Nation trilogy became a literary event that introduced hooks to a new audience. Alongside Communion: The Female Search for Love (2002) and Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), All About Love: New Visions (1999) showed hooks as a thinker concerned not only with politics in the narrow sense, but with building ‘loving communities’(https://tricycle.org/magazine/bell-hooks-buddhism/). hooks’ writing combines a commitment to radical politics with a profound belief in the spiritual power of a love that rejects hate, fear, and injustice (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-tribute-to-bell-hooks/). For hooks, love is the practice of freedom and is central to any political project aimed at emancipation. In the following years, she also published two companion books, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2003) and The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004), exploring how racist white society hampered Black men’s ability to love.
hooks argues that racist white society undermined Black family relations by propagating the myth that Black women have an unnatural ability to withstand all kinds of neglect and abuse (Wallace, 2015). Because many Black men were unemployed, Black women were forced to take on the burdens of both wage and domestic labour, and provide for the family. This prevented Black women from forming political subjectivities in the public sphere, where Black men dominated the conversation. Although Black women became the breadwinners in Black households, Black men neither relinquished their masculinity nor their role as the head of the household. The traditional myths of Black womanhood thus reinforced patriarchy and sexism by reasserting the subjugation of Black women in the family and public sphere.
hooks’ writing on love and relationships is closely related to her analysis of the family and the home (see 3.5.2. hooks on the Homeplace). For hooks, the home is not only a site of oppression, but a place where Black women can develop a critical consciousness and engage in political organising. For hooks, the ‘homeplace’ is a site where critical thinking about society can take place (see 3.2. Locations of Politics). Unlike Aristotle, hooks insisted that the home is a political space, and that boundaries created in the home continue to operate in the public sphere. In place of the patriarchal home, hooks presented the African-American ‘homeplace’ as a humanising space where Black women created nurturing spaces of love and compassion (see 3.5.2. hooks on the Homeplace).
hooks spoke up for the marginalized and oppressed, amplifying voices that had been silenced by a lack of access to education and public life. She argues that our perspective and prospects in life are shaped by our standpoint and positionality (see Key Concept: Positionality and Standpoint). A working-class queer Indigenous woman, for example, occupies a position of oppression along the vectors of race, class, gender, and sexuality, while an upper-class heterosexual white man holds a position of privilege along these same lines. Their different social standing conditions how they experience and interpret the world, and how they interact with others.
To uncover structures of oppression we must therefore acknowledge our respective standpoint to show that social hierarchies aren’t natural. The conviction that we can learn something from those who occupy a different standpoint and positionality from ourselves was at the heart of hooks’ critical pedagogy. For hooks, the classroom is not a hierarchical space where teachers pass on knowledge to students who then consume it; instead, both teachers and students are actively engaged in a collaborative learning (hooks, 1992: 7-12). But this is only possible if everyone in the classroom recognizes each other’s diverse standpoints, and engages in an open dialogue with the aim of learning from each other.
Like Charles Mills (see chapter 9), hooks has long been ignored by mainstream political theory (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/december/on-bell-hooks). This is, at least partly, because her own critical pedagogy challenges the very foundations of the discipline. With its claim to neutrality, normative political theory obscures the standpoint of the theorist and detaches them from their social context and lived experience (see Concept Box 2.4). In practice this often means that a white heteronormative middle-class man obscures the position of power that has been made possible by his social position. For hooks, however, making a self and identity requires us to oppose normative power structures and free the subject from their constraints (see 3.4.2. bell hooks on subjectivity).
In books such as Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984) or Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989) hooks points to the emancipatory power of theory. For hooks, theory is a way of personal healing that can also lead to revolutionary struggle. Theory, hooks argues, can help us better understand our contemporary predicament, and engage in collective resistance aimed at transforming this social reality (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/december/on-bell-hooks). If we want to heal the world, then, we must first learn to heal ourselves.
hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.
hooks, bell (1982) Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (1984) Feminist Theory from margin to centre. Boston: South End Press.
Mills, Charles W. ‘“Ideal theory” as Ideology.’ Theories of Justice, 2017, 565-84.
Wallace, Michele (2015) Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. London/Brooklyn: Verso Books.