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Remembering bell hooks, inclusive feminist, sharp critic

bell hooks, who grew up in the racially segregated American South, made incisive critiques that spared no one — not even Beyoncé or Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black activist and pioneering feminist, bell hooks.  (Screenshot via YouTube/The New School)

The 69-year-old American writer, professor and activist Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, died of an undisclosed illness on Wednesday at her residence in Berea, Kentucky (USA). A prolific and influential writer, hooks wrote over 40 books that included literary and cultural criticism, treatises on the interconnectedness of race, gender and class, as well as memoirs, books of poetry and children’s literature. Her style was marked by a rare combination of accessibility and academic rigour, and emphasized lived experience as a way of understanding the world and its systems.

Born and brought up in the racially segregated American South of the fifties, hooks adopted her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother Blair Bell Hooks; the lowercase was because she wanted her work to define her, “the substance of books, not who I am”. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) wasn’t her first book (And there we wept, a collection of poems, came a few years earlier) but it was the one that introduced readers to the depth, historicity and intensely personal nature of her work.

Channeling her disillusionment with the (white-dominated) women’s liberation movement’s race-agnosticism, hooks analyzes gender relations from the Antebellum era (1812-1860s) up until the 1980s in Ain’t I a Woman, showing us how race, gender and class act in tandem (and independently) to marginalize Black women. Along the way she also cites some of her early influences, like the 1970 anthology The Black Woman (edited by Toni Cade), a collection of essays, stories and poems by then-emerging writers like Alice Walker, Audrey Lorde and Paule Marshall.

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According to hooks, feminism’s goals did not end with the legally mandated stoppage of gender-based discrimination. Instead, in this intersectional framework (encompassing gender, race, class et cetera) feminism becomes a way of understanding and ultimately ending all oppressors/oppressed relationships around the world, including those brought about by capitalist excess. In this framing, the patriarchy is the imperialist capitalist state’s weapon of choice. As hooks writes towards the end of Ain’t I a Woman,

“Patriarchy forces fathers to act as monsters, encourages husbands and lovers to be rapists in disguise; it teaches our blood brothers to feel ashamed that they care for us, and denies all men the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives (…) patriarchy has become merely a sub-heading under the dominant system of imperialist capitalism, as patriarchs men do not serve their families and communities but serve the interests of the State.”

Several bell hooks texts either begin with or prominently feature a personal memory, usually from childhood or adolescence. This device is used quite often in her 2000 book All About Love: New Visions, wherein hooks interrogates American ideas of romantic love (men mistrust and therefore fear the value of love, women are conditioned to overestimate the same). 

Covers of a few of bell hooks' books 
Covers of a few of bell hooks' books 

All About Love has great lines all through, really, but here’s one that memory serves up right now: “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”

hooks was very good at starting from the personal and gradually, with wit and rigour, arriving upon a near-universal proposition. This is part of why much of her literary and film criticism, for example, is delightful. The 1990 collection Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics brings together some of her best magazine pieces down the years, including essays on films by Spike Lee, Wim Wenders and others. In the introduction to the 2015 edition of the same book, hooks wrote that the most essential aspect of Yearning was its “call to all of us to link personal passion and political quest”.

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Yearning is an assured, ambitious collection of essays and besides, it has aged well, which so often isn’t the case with cultural criticism. hooks is astute, for instance, on the collaborations between novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Stephen Frears (the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), hooks says that Kureishi’s stories work because they “expose the oppressive aspects of the dominant white heterosexist culture, as well as the ways the cultures of brown and black people are transformed as we internalize the colonizing mentality (…)”

She could also be brutally funny when she wanted to, as this summary of the Frears/Kureishi collaboration proves: “They make a rather formidable pair; the white man with power to produce and direct — the man of color who provides the fascinating vision, who sees ethnicity, race relations, the politics of difference and diversity that is so much the content of these films.”

Throughout her career, hooks kept looking for inclusive modes and expressions of feminism, especially those that incorporated queer (she once described her own sexual identity as “queer-pass-gay”) and trans people. During a widely-publicized 90-minute conversation with the actor and activist Laverne Cox (a trans woman herself) at The New School (New York) in 2014, hooks discussed these aspects and how her idea of feminism has evolved over the years. It’s worth your while to watch that conversation; it’s good enough to be transcribed as a book-length interview.

Over the last two decades or so, hooks was preoccupied by class, specifically her journey from “being a have-not to being a part of the affluent class” (from her 2000 book Where We Stand: Class Matters). And it’s class that drove some of her most talked-about critiques in recent years, like her May 2016 article about Beyoncé's video album Lemonade — she said that the pop star was using images of Black sisterhood and endurance in the service of an ultimately stereotypical capitalist enterprise wherein Black women would always be portrayed as victims. Similarly, she criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-loved 2015 nonfiction book Between the World and Me; she said the language of the book sounded like it was addressed to a middle-class, mostly white male audience (despite Coates addressing the narrative to his Black teenaged son).

Some of these bluntly expressed views earned her pushback from various quarters. During a 2015 public dialogue with writer Kevin Powell, she said that people would often “get upset at the way the thing is said”, ignoring the “critical kernel” of the matter. But bell hooks wasn’t really interested in the safety offered by diplomatic approaches. As she wrote over two decades ago in All About Love: New Visions, “The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control.”

We’ll never see another quite like her.

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