Why I Miss bell hooks

A month ago, when that white Seattle cop punched a black girl in the face over a jaywalking incident, I thought of bell hooks. When, with assistance from the Urban League, the girl apologized days later in order to get a reduced sentence and I waited for the public outrage that never came, I realized I really miss bell hooks.

To get a reality check, I talked to my girls. We agreed this situation was seriously messed up and, moreover, there wouldn’t be any Obama beer summit over this one.

I considered different angles on this moment. No doubt, this was about the intersections of race, class and gender. It was also a story about performances of civility and docility. About what is acceptable behavior for a young black woman confronting legitimized white power. But I just could not write it.

Lakia Brown at TheRoot.com came close to expressing my feelings when she wrote that the punch in the face felt like a kick in the gut. But writing about it required that I go to a place where black women know we dare not go publicly (though I tend to go there in my performance work). We dare not go there in mixed company, particularly among white folks with unexamined white privilege–who think that Obama’s presidency means we are all miraculously equal and now live in this purportedly post-racial society.

Each time I looked at the YouTube video of that incident I felt so sick I refused to share what went on in my head and body. Ultimately, I gave up. I had the luxury to decide not to put myself through any more of it, especially after I saw the results of a CBS news poll that asked viewers whether the cop’s action was justified or if it was an act of police brutality. Seventy-three percent of those who voted agreed his actions were justified. Another kick in the gut.

Where was the feminist response to this incident? I don’t doubt for a minute that Black feminists talked about it amongst ourselves. Fact is, we all know only too well there is always a high price to pay for offending white sensibilities. There’s never been a safe public place for our rage. These days, some of us take less risk since the backlash blows can be particularly brutal. This means more conversations with friends–reminders that we are not crazy. But we keep coming back to one question: Where is bell hooks? We miss her.

My buddy KLO–a writer and former student of hooks’ at Yale—said,

[the punch reminded her] of the scene where Sophia gets decked by the white cop in The Color Purple while everyone just stands by looking, too. That punch demonstrates the continuity of black women being put in their place (violently!) whenever they should deign to stand up for themselves. No one likes a strong black woman, right? This is why bell is so important. She stands toe to toe with authority and TELLS IT LIKE IT IS. We know, because she writes about it, that she pays a huge emotional price for speaking truth to power.

bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins), humanist and kickass feminist theorist, has been a fearless cultural critic for more than three decades. For years, she has courageously taken to the front line and, with her academic sword, deconstructed everyday occurrences as evidence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. That punch brought me back to her essays in Killing Rage: Ending Racism. That punch is another moment that highlights how a black woman’s rage, as hooks wrote in the Killing essays, must always remain
 repressed, contained, trapped in the realm of the
 unspeakable. bell is relevant now more than ever!

I decided to hang in there, respecting the fact that bell is somewhere in Kentucky doing as she must do. And then the Sherrod affair broke out. A dedicated black woman was wrongly discredited by both the right and the left, white and black men, and had to confront power at every level all the way up to the White House. Of course, I found myself wondering … what would bell hooks have to say?

And as the Essence magazine controversy recently unfolded over their decision to hire a White fashion director, I remembered bell hooks’ penchant for pop culture and thought of her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister,” from Black Looks: Race and Representation.

Essence.com interviewed hooks this year in honor of women’s history month. To the question, “What should Black women be paying attention to the most?” she provided a substantive and critical response. My favorite line from it– “I think the revolution needs to be one of self-esteem because I feel we are all assaulted on all sides”–sums up why I have been missing her presence and insights lately.

Really miss you, dr. hooks. Wish we could get you to come back.

Photo of bell hooks from Flickr user Rainer Ebert, under Creative Commons 2.0.

Do you miss bell hooks? Inspired by this post, Ms. is seeking blog submissions relating bell hooks’ work to current events/pop culture/life. Email pitches to jstites@msmagazine.com.


  1. not to mention missing June Jordan…….sigh……

  2. Yuri Sagawa says:

    This is really great! Thank you so much for this inspiring article! It is a great reminder not to let ourselves get “sleepy” or complacent. I think the next challenge is how each one of us can be more bell-esque, and take action right now, right where we are, and help others to do the same. It is really daunting to think of trying to live up to her legacy, but perhaps that is a part of the revolution of self-esteem she referrs to. I think perhaps the most important part isn’t if she “comes back” but what we do with all the new tools she showed us – what will each one of us dismantle/ build today?

  3. yoteech2002 says:

    I have never heard of bell hooks. Ms Blog tell me more = publish more of her work here. Thank you.

    • you can get all of her books on Amazon or any other bookstore. Most bookstores have a few of her books on their shelves.

  4. i love bell hooks and june jordan and would love their intellect, analysis, wisdom and revolutionary spirit!

  5. i really miss bell hooks too, but i don't want her to re-enter the public fray. she's done so much, i respect her right to rest. what kind of black feminist would i be, if i encouraged another weary sister to shoulder the burdens of the rest of us simply because she's so good at it? no more superwoman mantras for me. once a sister has gone above and beyond her call of duty, i can be proud to let her go and boldly recruit others to stand in her place with me.

  6. Great reflection! Honest and open and so heart felt. I miss bell hooks too and long to learn to engage in discourse about the intersections of race, gender, and class the way she does. Love your commitment to doing so as well!

  7. Pam Redela says:

    Wonderful analysis. Thank you so much for reminding feminism to keep the critical thought glasses on! Hopefully dr. hooks sees your piece and finds comfort in all she has inspired. (I can't help but agree with Ebony and Yuri that dr. hooks has "done her part", if you will, and now it's our turn to run with the torch…)

  8. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you, Gina, for offering this rumination and to Ebony for reminding us that we need more than one "superwoman" to get us through these difficult times.

  9. bell hooks has written a new book, the third in her pedagogy series, called Teaching Critical Thinking. It came out last year. She hasn't completely disappeared. In the book, she explains why she decided to re-enter academic life after a break. Worth a read, as all of her work is.

  10. I miss bell hooks, too. I’ve read many of her books, responded to her analyses, and usually found myself in agreement with her.

    But as a Black woman who identifies herself as a feminist and is incredibly aware of race relations in Seattle in general and with the police specifically – the cop was justified.

    You’re right that we need to have the discussions about how race, gender, privilege, and power intersect. And there have been many times where I feel that I cannot say what I want to say because it isn’t safe. But that wasn’t the incident to get behind.

    The Sherrod affair – that felt like a kick in the guts.

  11. earthbeauty says:

    My God(dess)I broke down in tears at this post…I miss her terribly. Terribly.
    We should have hundreds of thousands of bell hooks though.
    I wish African-American women would moblize. Seriously. If I had three wishes, one would pertain to that.

  12. bell hooks is not simply "somewhere in Kentucky", as if to suggest that this is some minor, insignificant place not worth naming, "doing as she must." She is teaching at Berea College in a context that has shaped the very person that she is today (including the feminist we admire so much). bell has also challenged the elitist, classist feminism, which this essay also reeks of just a tad bit. Feminism is for everybody from any social location.You've done a fine job of expressing your feelings. You don't need to "miss" bell hooks.

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