bell hooks: The Black Feminist Guide That Literally Saved Our Lives

bell hooks saved our lives by helping to articulate the oppressions we faced as women, as Black people. Her death is a reminder the work continues—to continue resisting systemic oppressions, to carve a path to liberation.

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Bell hooks died on Wednesday, Dec. 15, at her home in Berea, Ky. She was 69. (Creative Commons)

I had already heard that her health was failing, and yet, the announcement of the death of bell hooks (1952-2021) still felt like a gut punch. She was that influential, that pertinent to my development and identity as a Black feminist scholar. Indeed, an entire generation of contemporary scholars, writers, activists and other creatives has the same story to tell. She’s the main reason why so many of us have collectively embraced a “Black feminist” identity compared to, say, a “womanist” one. As she reminded us in one of her many book titles, “Feminism is for everybody.”

It was no surprise, then, that her name—or rather, her pen name (bell hooks is the name Gloria Jean Watkins adopted from her great-grandmother, deliberately spelled in lowercase letters to deemphasize her individuality) —trended on social media across the feminist, Black and social justice spectrums with news of her passing. She had even garnered news features on our television news programs, from PBS Newshour to BBC News to NBC Nightly News and CBS Mornings. Her writing so prolific (over 30 solo-authored books), her theorizing so relatable.

bell hooks gave us language that literally saved our lives by helping to articulate the oppressions we faced as women, as Black people. She built on the conversations so many of her fellow Black sisters during that era were having on the intersections of race and gender—from Angela Davis to Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective, Ntozake Shange, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to name a few—and wrote with such ease and familiarity, even with the flare of “street credibility” that disrupted the politics of respectability. She was “ratchet” before the word “ratchet” was invented. She liberated the theories of Marx, Foucault, Beauvoir, Fanon, Freire and so many others from the elevated halls of academia and disseminated them worldwide into a Black feminist vernacular.

She built on the conversations so many of her fellow Black sisters during that era were having on the intersections of race and gender … and wrote with such ease and familiarity, even with the flare of “street credibility” that disrupted the politics of respectability.

Perhaps right-wing conservatives chose to weaponize “critical race theory” because the bell-hooksian term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” would have been too on-the-nose even for them. And hooks was already “calling a thing a thing” before Iyanla Vanzant popularized the saying,

My first introduction to bell hooks’s writing was her first nonfiction book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. I was a 19-year-old undergraduate reading what hooks wrote a first draft of at the same age when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. I was already trying to make intellectual sense of Black women’s historical writings that I was studying, and hooks’s work provided me with theoretical tools that stayed with me as I navigated doctoral studies and learned to write from a “Black feminist perspective.” Reading bell hooks ultimately made me a better academic and public writer.

And teaching bell hooks as a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies allowed me to pass on the same tools to my students. Of course, the response is usually the same, class to class, year to year. After struggling with the different academic feminist works assigned, students collectively breathe a sigh of relief and express immediate understanding and connection when they read bell hooks. Her words connect us and unite us, even when we profoundly disagree. My students and I, along with my various colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances began our tributes and sharing their favorite quotes in the wake of her passing. That is the measure of her impact.

After struggling with the different academic feminist works assigned, students collectively breathe a sigh of relief and express immediate understanding and connection when they read bell hooks. Her words connect us and unite us, even when we profoundly disagree.

Of all the books I own that are penned by hooks, one of my favorites is Black Looks: Race and Representation, first published in 1992 by South End Press, an independent publisher, now defunct, behind most of her books. As a scholar of popular culture and media studies, I consider Black Looks to be a blueprint for doing this work.

But more personally, it’s the only book I was able to get signed by hooks when I attended a local lecture while I was a graduate student at Emory University. Her signed message—“Janell! To loving blackness –bell hooks”—still resonates with me because I have approached my critiques through this radical positioning of “loving blackness” and doing so as resistance to “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” It was in Black Looks that hooks introduced the concept of “oppositional gaze” and pushed Black feminist writers to deepen their representations of “revolutionary Black women.”

It is this kind of critique that I brought to my Ms. cover story, “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism,” an analysis that garnered less attention than the cover itself, sparking contentious debates among self-defined feminists. I was more than eager to defend the pop star’s feminist claims amid these debates, and then my academic hero, bell hooks, took a stand on the opposing side when she called her an “anti-feminist terrorist.” Any other public figure making this statement would have earned my critical dismissal. But when hooks makes that critique, I know I have to take it very seriously as I consider it an invitation to revisit, rethink and re-engage with the underlying messages we get from popular media—especially when done in the name of “Black feminism.”

Do these messages decolonize our minds and liberate us toward what she calls a “radical Black female subjectivity”? And yes, she can critique Beyoncé while dancing to her infectious (and problematically lyrical) “Drunk in Love.”

Even the pop star herself, I would venture to say, heard the criticism and went deeper than simply stepping in front of a “Feminist” sign at the VMA Music Awards show to give us the profound Lemonade, a project whose aesthetics hooks appreciated while she nonetheless called on us to recognize how it was still steeped in heteronormative capitalist consumerism. The great irony, of course, is that the many Black feminist public scholars who disagreed with hooks’s position on Beyoncé and Lemonade, did so by using the same theoretical tools that hooks gave us. This is what keeps Black feminism alive and thriving. We engage, we grow, we dissent, we critique, and most of all, we hold each other accountable.

In her chapter “Revolutionary Black Women” in Black Looks, hooks implores Black feminists to engage in what she calls “critical affirmation”: “Critical affirmation is a concept that embraces both the need to affirm one another and to have a space for critique. Significantly, that critique is not rooted in negative desire to compete, to wound, to trash” (58). In an age of social media and digital discourse that fails to register nuance and, worse, holds no grace for those with whom we disagree, these words have become even more urgent for the evolution of Black feminist thought.

bell hooks is now among the ancestors, joining a growing group of generational thinkers—from Audre Lorde to Michelle Cliff to Ntozake Shange to Toni Morrison—who have transitioned while leaving behind a treasure trove of life-changing, radical works. If nothing else, her passing is a reminder that the work continues, and that it is even more imperative to continue resisting systemic oppressions, to carve a path to liberation. hooks showed us the way, as intellectual guide, pointing to the door, Morpheus-style. It is now up to us to open it and keep it open for those following behind.

Editor’s note: You may also like Janell Hobson’s Black Feminist in Public, a series of conversations between creative Black women and Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.