By Karsonya Wise Whitehead
I was introduced to the work of bell hooks for the first time when I was 14 years old, sitting on my Nana’s porch, complaining about the mosquitoes and the heat.
My Nana, who was probably frustrated by my endless complaints about being bored, stuck a copy of “Ain’t I A Woman” in my hand and told me just to “shut up and read.” I remember that summer because after I read that book, all we talked about was bell hooks and who she was and who I wanted to be. I said then that I wanted to be a writer, like bell hooks, and change the world with my words.
I took her words with me when I went off to college, and by then, I had my own dog-eared copies of some of her books. I went to her work whenever I needed to be reminded of my strength. The world felt much safer when bell hooks and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou were on the front line, carving out a path to freedom and modeling what a Black woman’s resistance to a system hellbent on trying to make them small looked like. bell hooks’ words went with me everywhere, even while they kept taking me back to myself.
I, like countless others over the past 40 years, was inspired by bell hooks, who died on Dec. 15, 2021, at 69. As a leading Black intellectual, hooks pushed the feminist movement beyond the preserve of the white and middle-class, encouraging Black and working class perspectives on gender inequality. She taught us about white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values – giving both the words to define it and the methods to dismantle it. And unlike previous generations, she prompted Black women like myself to see ourselves, claim ourselves and love ourselves with an unapologetic fierceness.
“No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much,’” bell hooks once wrote, “Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… No woman has ever written enough.”
I used to read her words to my sons when I was holding them in my arms, determined to practice “liberative parenting” and raise my Black sons as Black feminists.
I met bell hooks in person several times in my capacity as an activist, an officer of the National Women’s Studies Association and as a scholar of African American studies. I have heard her lecture and have spoken with her, and every time, I was speechless. In her presence, I was once again the 14-year-old, sitting on the porch, diving into her words and finding myself on the other side.
Her words, like my Nana’s hugs, always bought me back to myself, telling me, coaxing me, pushing me to become who I was meant to be in this world.
I remember speaking her words to the wind, hoping that if I ever forgot who I was, the wind would remind me. Whenever I am hungry for truth, I turn to her work. When I need support or encouragement, I turn to her work. When I need to be reminded of how to love and fight, I turn to her work.
So when I heard, read, realized and finally accepted that bell hooks – genius, scholar, cultural critic, truth speaker, one who had the strength to call out and challenge white supremacy and racism time and time again – had run on ahead to see how the end is going to be, all I could do was sit and breathe.
I am not OK.
None of us – feminists, scholars, activists, truth seekers, survivors – who have ever been touched by her work and her words are OK. Not today. Not at this moment, and not for a minute.
It is not enough to say she saved me from cutting off my tongue, because unless you know her genius, you will think that this is just about violence and not about salvation.
It is not enough to say that she saved me from burning it all down, because unless you know her brilliance, you will never understand how her words taught me how to come through the fire and be better and stronger on the other side.
Because she wrote and published extensively, “bell hooks” the writer – a pen name that she borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks – will never leave us, but Gloria Jean Watkins, did. The sun is not shining as bright as when she was still with us.
My son called to mourn with me and wanted to know which books I would recommend to someone who did not know who bell hooks was and did not understand why we were in mourning. I told him that they should start with these three, and once they have recovered from the truth of her words, they should then read her other 30-plus books and scholarly articles.
Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
“It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’, to focus on the fact that to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” – Ain’t I a Woman
In perhaps one of her most provocative works, hooks provides a true and clear analysis of what it means to live and be a Black woman in a racist, misogynist world. If you want to understand what it means to be Black and a woman, you start here and then keep going.
Feminist Theory: from margin to center (1984)
“Our emphasis must be on cultural transformation: destroying dualism, eradicating systems of domination. Our feminist revolution here can be aided by the example of liberation struggles led by oppressed peoples globally who resist formidable powers. The formation of an oppositional world view is necessary for feminist struggle.” – Feminist Theory
When I was in college and struggling with understanding and defining what it meant to be a feminist, my professor Jane Bond Moore gave me her copy of “Feminist Theory” and told me to use it as a blueprint and a guide. This book is bell hooks at her best, wielding her pen as a weapon and using it to call out and critique white feminism and white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Teaching to Transgress (1994)
“Teaching to Transgress” lights the way for anyone who wants to use the classroom as a starting place to help our students claim agency over their own learning.As a former middle school teacher and current professor, my goal was to learn how to teach students how to transgress and why they should transgress against racial, sexual and class boundaries.
“We must continually claim theory as necessary practice within a holistic framework of liberatory activism.” – Teaching to Transgress
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is Executive Director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University in Maryland.
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