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‘She taught me the meaning of love’: five writers on what bell hooks’ work meant to them

After bell hooks' passing on 15 December, five writers of colour explore how her work shaped them.

17 Dec 2021

Courtesy of The bell hooks Institute

One of the great critical thinkers, bell hooks’ brilliance lay in her ability to explore radical ideas such as race, gender and capitalism in a tone that was accessible and open to all curious readers, always centering community in her visions for the future. hooks, who died on 15 December aged 69, adopted the name of her great-grandmother, stylising it in lowercase as a symbol of letting her work speak for itself. 

Two of her books, Ain’t I A Woman? and We Real Cool, have titles borrowed from the words and works of culture shaping black women before her, abolitionist Sojourner Truth and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It is in this same tradition that a new generation of black women writers have emerged on hooks’ shoulders, leading tributes to hooks in her passing; writers who will continue to be embraced, moulded and transformed by the work of bell hooks, who will serve to recognise the importance of hooks work, its place in history, and keep her legacy going.

Here, five writers of colour reflect on hooks’ work that has meant the most, and how it has impacted and shaped us as writers and people. And for all of us, if nothing else, we can take from hooks’ writing her most enduring gesture — that always, always, she returned to love. — Varaidzo

All About Love: New Visions (2000)

I would not be the thinker, writer, and artist I am without bell hooks. Not only did she awaken me to the humanity found in resistance, bring it to vitality, but she also helped shape my politics, brought me to the understanding that the personal often is political, that the political is human. If art is shaped by our humanity, then it stands to reason that our art can be political. I re-read All About Love, often, not only because the subject matter underpins my art, but also because it is the only thing I can read over and over again, because it constantly reveals, and because of its clarity. 

“I am forever grateful to hooks for allowing me the audacity to treat romantic fantasies with the sacredness they deserve”

On a recent revisit, my mind clung to a line in the introduction, in relation to romance: “male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is seen as pure escape”. It was like light breaking through the heavens. hooks had a knack for doing that, for elucidating things known, articulating things felt. I am in the business of writing romantic fiction, and in that line, hooks outlined my mission clearly: to affirm our fantasies – as realities, to lay out that our fantasies are to be held and loved and cared for as things that should and can be within our reach. To treat them with the gravitas they deserve. I am forever grateful to hooks for allowing me the audacity to treat romantic fantasies with the sacredness they deserve.

Bolu Babalola

All About Love: New Visions (2000)

bell hooks taught me the meaning of love. This may sound dramatically life-altering, and that’s because it was. A dear friend gifted me hooks’ volume All About Love: New Visions for my 27th birthday. I remember reading the chapter ‘Clarity: Give Love Words’ in which hooks defines love and thinking, ‘How have I lived 27 years without understanding what love is?’ As a reader and writer, I rely on definitions to help me make sense of concepts. In my own life, love was part of how I engaged with people around me. And yet love, something so foundational and essential remained murky and undefined, something I always took for granted but never took the trouble to probe. 

“bell hooks told me love is transformative: it can transform the self, others and society”

bell hooks said love is not a feeling, it is an action. She said, to love effectively we must learn to combine care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest and open communication. In knowing what love is, I am able to more authentically infuse love in all that I do. As someone who is concerned with transformation, bell hooks told me love is transformative: it can transform the self, others and society. bell hooks may have departed this world but she will live on in how we love ourselves and each other.  

Shaazia Ebrahim

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)

Spirit-speaking, DNA-transmuting, heart-opening. Teaching to Transgress prised open a cosmos of mirrored reflections. My half-worked thoughts, embryonic ideas of healing and sanguine musings on the revolutionary potential of love were iridescent rays of light, refracting and making poetic shapes off of the sacred sun of bell hooks’ mind. I saw myself, my pedagogy, my spirit and freedom dreams in her work; she (re)imagined education as (he)art work; as a gesture of love; as a collective utterance of the sound liberation. 

“She made me see that (un)learning is avant-garde jazz; an improvisation into and through notes of freedom”

She made me see that (un)learning is avant-garde jazz; an improvisation into and through notes of freedom. Education as spirit awakening. The classroom, a smoky, dimly lit bar, full of energy, tension, life, grief, contradiction, fragility, pain, yearning, complexity, sociality, affect, creativity, joy. Hues of becoming in the folds of a space where we come to find ourselves. Rupturing hierarchy with the vision of Don Cherry, she taught me about the circularity of knowledge, how it moves and refuses to bend to the will of absolutism. The openness to question, to shift, to see and create pathways which help us navigate through difference. She made me see how we all need each other. How we are all equal players in the ensemble, working together to figure out how we get free, with vulnerability and care, generosity and accountability, anchored in an abundant ocean of love.

Aditi Jaganathan

Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) 

I first read bell hooks as a wide-eyed, slightly naive university undergraduate, researching for my dissertation on Victorian-era colonial photography. From the first page of Black Looks, I was in awe. She communicated her huge breadth and depth of ideas on race, representation, how we see ourselves and how we are seen as ‘Other’, with such artistry, accessibility and grace. Her cultural criticism was elegantly searing, her arguments always prescient, always difficult to counter because they were – and continue to be – so compelling. Her perspective on how control over images continues to be “central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination” has left a lasting impression on me, and in the intervening years, I have returned to these thoughts time and again for guidance. 

Recently re-reading the essay ‘Eating the Other’ as part of an evening short course, I was struck by how much of what she wrote in the 1990s resonates today. The ways in which blackness and black culture is commodified and sold, the ways in which Asian women are exoticised and fetishised – she was unpacking these issues long before they made their way into the mainstream, and into my vocabulary. She challenged us all to challenge ourselves, and to find our light in a world that so often seeks to dim it. For that, I will always be grateful. 

Suyin Haynes

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004)

It’s something about the way bell hooks wrote music. In Chapter 10, ‘The Coolness of Being Real’, hooks journeys from speakeasy blues to the brash braggadocio of 90s ‘gangsta’ rap, explores how a melancholic, aching 60s kinda ‘cool’ morphed into a no-compromise glorification of violence and money as ‘cool’, and with that she evokes an entire history of black America. It was her great courtesy to speak on wider sociopolitical positions through channels we all have experience in: music, community, love. Music was my entry point to hooks, a language I could understand.

Her 2016 Twitter-stoking critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade begins: ‘Fresh lemonade is my drink of choice’, recalling the simple comfort of childhood lemonade stalls (the first way many young girls make money), before examining how Beyoncé’s projects are flashy capitalist illustrations of selling ourselves – or selling out. Blogs hated it! Did hooks not know what Lemonade meant to black women? But hooks saw it all, and understood. Music can be both intimate to us and beyond us, deeply personal and still deeply political. That is its power. How special it seems now to have had a writer so committed to telling the story of black music in its wholeness, who urged musicians to practice being their fullest selves, remember who music is for: not labels, not money, but for the people.

“If every young black male in America simply studied the history, the life, and work of black musicians,” hooks writes in ‘The Coolness of Being Real’, “they would have blueprints for healing and survival.”

Varaidzo

This article was amended on 17 December to state that All About Love: New Visions was published in 2000. An earlier version mistakenly stated it was published in 1999.