“Other Mother” of a Generation: On bell hooks and Living Black Feminism

Some people are so a part of your story you almost forget what life was like before you encountered them. For many Black women, bell hooks was part of a community of truth-telling “other mothers,” as Patricia Hill Collins named the women who parent the children who are not their own. Some of us were lucky enough to be exposed to hooks at a young age. Or, to meet hooks in seemingly mundane spaces of a bookstore or conference that she made magical through insight, wit and usually some analysis of the racial dynamics at the event itself.

Of Books, Mothers and Community

I remember going to bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Not an unusual journey in my high school years but this time, my mom bought me a purple book by bell hooks and Bitch issue #2. That was back when Bitch was a photocopied square black and white ‘zine with hand drawn images.

I remember the bell hooks because I asked my mom why her name was all lowercase. She explained and I would engage with that name for decades to come. After I learned about hooks’s death, I looked at my bookshelves. I moved to different parts of my gathering 12 books spanning pedagogy, cultural criticism, feminism, writing, self-esteem and of course love. I have moved homes almost 10 times in my adult life crossing coasts multiple times, inevitably culling books each time. Not bell hooks though. She always came with me.

I have moved homes almost 10 times in my adult life crossing coasts multiple times, inevitably culling books each time. Not bell hooks though. She always came with me.

hooks wrote extensively on exclusions in feminism—a theme I explored for years through my own life and writing. I ended my college senior honors thesis on Black women and feminism with a wistful sentence about Black feminists searching for each other. While themes of community had been prominent in my that interview study, I had added that sentence specifically after learning an acquaintance had also driven down to a hooks reading, but in that pre-cell phone era we had no idea we were both present because the space was overflowing with people. Who wouldn’t drive hours to hear hooks?

Boldness by the Beach

bell hooks.

When you listen to interviews with hooks there is often a moment with a long pause as the interviewer processes that, yes, she just said that. She was the keynote speaker at a women’s religious conference where I was an invited speaker for my expertise around reproductive justice. Hearing hooks had been part of the draw to drive hours north along with the opportunity to visit my nearby family including my ailing mother. I told my mom about aspects of the conference and wrote a friend a quick email: “Oddly enough, bell hooks is here and I sort of have been chatting with her—she has said, ‘Hello Zakiya.’”   

One conference morning as I selected food, hooks called out to me in line. She sat at the slowly growing table of people of color: One of hooks’s friend, an acquaintance I connected the conference organizers with who I eventually serve as Board co-chair with of organization, some teenagers of color there with their white adoptive parents (a fact we learned over meals along with their common discomfort at these events). We spent various times in that beachy place with hooks giving us wisdom, jokes and strength.

Her formal keynote covered a range of topics—including challenging her friend “Gloria” about why the world’s women should be more concerned about accessing abortion than stopping the wars that kill their children. And the audiences, mostly white, laughed nervously as they realized she was talking about them, not just those other white feminists who bought her books and don’t take in the nuance of her words or enact her ideas at their own events. She believed in building community, challenging white supremacist heteropatriarchy and holding each other accountable.

Her formal keynote covered a range of topics—including why the world’s women should be more concerned about accessing abortion than stopping the wars that kill their children.

Feminist Paradoxes Embodied

When I worked at a university in student affairs, I remember a discussion about hooks’s speaking fees and disbelief that hooks called herself feminist and charged thousands to speak—as if having a Ph.D. and written 25 books (at that point) meant it wasn’t okay for her to ask for what white speakers with fewer credentials commanded. People get upset when Black women ask for money for our labor. But hooks reminded us there was never a reason to pretend we were happy to be invited into a space where we had a job to do.

Some people learned about her after hooks critiqued Sheryl Sandberg’s insistence on “leaning in.”  Relying on scaling the corporate latter was never as the answer to all women’s problems. It will only be the answer for some women—as hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Mikki Kendall, Tressie McMillan Cottom and so many others have noted.

People get upset when Black women ask for money for our labor. But hooks reminded us there was never a reason to pretend we were happy to be invited into a space where we had a job to do.

Others learned about hooks when she referred to Beyoncé as a “terrorist.” Unsurprisingly, hooks didn’t appreciate that intersection of feminism and capitalism that Beyonce embodies. As multiple (Black) feminist respondents people pointed out, hooks seemed to hold different expectations for some Black women. She was wary perhaps of what in my latest research on Women’s Marches, I term “trickle down intersectionality.” The idea that representation of different types of women at the top of a capitalist, heterosexist, patriarchal social structure equals success that will somehow empower women below is as misguided as trickle-down economics. Challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy meant recognizing it even in the celebrities we love.  

Despite objection, I wonder if hooks critique may have opened the door for more people to lovingly challenge Queen Bey such, as this year when she wore a world-famous blood diamond for Tiffany and Co. Whether speaking about celebrities or addressing power in her own intimate relationships, hooks reminded us none of us was above critique.

Connecting Black Feminists Forever

But to hooks—whose inscription in Rock My Soul read “Only connect”—I owe a different thanks as she influenced my academic work. A sister-friend and I have recently published Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis, that features elders like Dorothy Roberts and Patricia Hill Collins and vibrant new scholars working in a Black feminist tradition. As we describe in the book’s introduction, a Sisters of the Yam online group had been started for Black women on the tenure-track in sociology. As some of us gathered for a first meal at the 2018 Association of Black Sociologists, I queried the group about putting together a collection. The rest is the history currently being made with hooks literally in the first footnote of our volume.  

A few days after hooks’s death, some of our contributors gathered for a public conversation to remember bell hooks and her influence on Black feminism, sociology and beyond. As one presenter recounted her journey with hooks and the audience thanked us on for creating the space, some online trolls projected images and audio that repeated the words “nigger, nigger.” We managed the space and continued the event because this is what we do: Black feminists persist, choose ourselves and create healing space for our communities as we literally face assault.  

My co-editor closed out the event with a bell hooks quote that reminded us: “Sometimes, people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power. Not because they do not see it, but because they see it and they do not want it to exist.” As a practicing Buddhist, hooks was committed to what the community refers to as right speech, which emphasis speaking truth and kindness (not the same as false niceness.) Offering right speech demands we take serious love as her legacy as we move forward without her.

May we do right by her all continue to recognize and amplify the power of Black feminists.

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About

Zakiya Luna is a dean’s distinguished professorial scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, author of Reproductive Rights as Human Rights: Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice and co-editor of Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis.