bell hooks’ legacy is love. No black woman scholar has theorized love as seriously as hooks has. All About Love, Communion, Salvation and Wounds of Passion personally inspired me to explore the heartaches as well as the healing powers of love.
In All About Love, hooks argues that everyone wants love, yet most of us are silent on the subject. We fear that honest talk about love will force us to face the pain of love’s absence as well as our failure to love ourselves and each other.
My research picks up where hooks left off. I interviewed 20 ever-married black women, who experienced infidelity during their marriages, and specifically asked them to define love. Their average age was 50. They were self-selected from southern California and their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
I was interested in how women who had experienced a “love failure” would define it. Here are sample responses from half of the participants.
Two women described receiving love.
Love is supposed to feel good. Love is supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Love is supposed to make you feel secure. (Sherry)
It’s someone respecting who you are in the world. Someone who’s not out to change you and mold you into something they think is appropriate and for their benefit. (Tina)
hooks notes in All About Love that men often speak from a position of authority on love because they are conditioned to receive it, whereas women are conditioned to speak from a place of lack. These women are radical in the sense that they clearly define love as feeling good, secure and respected. Furthermore, they give the impression that they would not settle for less.
Another theme was unconditional love.
Love is patient. Love is kind. My definition is God’s definition. I still believe in the Corinthians kind of love, that love really never fails, it’s long-lasting, long-suffering. (Anita)
Well, it’s probably not like a fairytale romantic thing. At this point in my life, I would say it is a mutual respect. It is a place where you have compassion for the other person. Or you’re tolerant and accepting of that person for who he or she is without feeling like you need to change them into what you want. I think that real love is unconditional. (Lola)
Love is hard. Love is definitely unconditional. You really have to put the people that you love above yourself. That’s one of the only ways that you will really ever be able … to find true love. When it’s about pleasing your partner more than it is than pleasing yourself, you’ve found something. (Dee)
Unconditional expressions of love celebrate the mutuality that hooks encourages in her work. Love that is not contingent on structures of domination, behavior or appearance grants partners the freedom to love each other fully and fiercely. However, Lola and Dee’s unconditional love also sounds self-sacrificing. They prioritize the person they are loving and fail to discuss what it would be like to receive unconditional love.
Finally, the majority of the women interviewed defined love in terms of giving.
You take care of people’s feelings—their hearts. You’re a partner. You care. You want them to succeed. You want them to be happy, and so without giving away your whole self you help that person accomplish whatever goals they’re trying to reach, and vice versa. (Kim)
Well, I definitely believe it’s a verb. I believe that love is acting on what you say. (AA)
Love is when you care about somebody so much that their needs and concerns are more important than yours…. You think about them all the time; there is nothing that you wouldn’t do for them, any sacrifice you wouldn’t make. (Kelly)
If you really, really love someone you can forgive them. (Marie)
Let me tell you how I feel about love. Love can and will make you hurt somebody. (Gladys)
Gladys’ definition is the most startling. I do not think she is advocating violence as much as she is expressing the frustration of consistently giving of oneself in the name of love and not receiving the same in return. The women all describe love as something one does for another. hooks cautions against self-sacrificial definitions of love that fail to make room for self-love. Women are too often conditioned to give love and expect little to nothing in return.
Unfortunately, even women who have experienced an ultimate betrayal by a husband who was supposed to love them have not learned to demand the same type of love that they give.
Expressions of unconditional love are admirable. But settling for unconditional giving instead of a radical love that demands mutuality will be damaging.
hooks reminds us that love is a choice. To avoid being victimized or becoming the victimizer in the name of love, we must choose to love by mixing:
care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment and trust, as well as honest and open communication.
Women must make sure that we are giving and receiving those ingredients in equal amounts.