What bell hooks taught me

By Caitlin Judd  

In recent weeks, my feed has been flooded with outpourings of grief for the loss of bell hooks, author, professor, and activist known for her publication of over thirty books on race, gender, sexuality, and feminism, as well as several poetry collections.  It is evident from the millions of tweets, articles, and Instagram stories – as well as the translation of her work into fifteen languages – that hooks made significant contributions to so many people’s lives, and that her presence will be sorely missed by those who found a place for themselves in her work – myself, among many, many others. 

The corner of academia that hooks occupied has to be one of the safest.  Her ability to use storytelling as a way of illustrating complex theory uniquely makes her writing accessible for all who attempt to engage with it.  This reduction of economic disparity within academia was something that hooks herself felt passionately about, telling Bomb Magazine

“What does it matter if we write eloquently about decolonization if it’s just white privileged kids reading our eloquent theory about it? Masses of black people suffer from internalized racism, our intellectual work will never impact on their lives if we do not move it out of the academy. That’s why I think mass media is so important.” 

hooks wrote that she “wanted to create books that could be read and understood across different class boundaries” and this is what she achieved, enabling a working-class, first-generation student to comprehend concepts that I would otherwise have had no ability to access.  

It would be very easy to write a piece simply listing hooks’ academic achievements – of which there are many – or detailing her colourful and powerful life, which is of course hugely significant to her work.  Many of the pieces eulogising hooks have rightfully chosen to focus on her as an individual and reading them is undoubtedly important in keeping her memory alive.  I encourage you to do so.  However, it is my feeling that hooks herself wanted to be remembered for her works, and how they spoke to people, citing this as the reason for the self-styling of her name in all lower-case. It is through these works then, and how they shaped me and so many others, that I will choose to remember her.

I discovered hooks at the age of fourteen through her poetry collection When Angels Speak of Love (2005), later moving on to Ain’t I a Woman? (1981) and Feminist Theory (1984), along with many of her other texts in my late teens.  I grew up with hooks, and her work shaped my feminism more than any other media that I engaged with, most significantly for its development upon the white-centred, often racist ideology of second-wave feminism into something that not only included black women, but emphasised their experiences as something not to be romanticised by their white counterparts – an understanding which first requires dismantling the layers of racism found within feminism.  hooks’ active anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-capitalism still remains at the forefront of everything I do, and it is my teenage engagement with hooks’ work that has shaped, and continues to shape, my own personal feminism. 

But as much as hooks’ feminist work is an important part of my life, and will always remain so, it is her writing on love that impacts me most deeply today, as I write this. hooks taught me about the importance of love before I was ever able to find the words for it myself. In the introduction to her book All About Love: New Visions (2000), hooks writes: 

“I feel our nation’s turning away from love as intensely as I felt love’s abandonment in my girlhood. Turning away we risk moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love. Redeemed and restored, love returns us to the promise of everlasting life. When we love we can let our hearts speak.” 

When we love we can let our hearts speak.  This, as much as hooks’ writing on race and womanhood, is the ideology that sits at the centre of my life.  Love as truthfulness, as a kind of uncovering, the most powerful act a human can take – that is what hooks taught me.  Love is, above all else, power.  And it is with this powerful love that I came to this piece, letting my heart speak on the way that hooks’ work moulded it, at a pivotal point in life when I needed the guidance that she offers.  Thank you, bell.  I couldn’t have got here without you. 

Featured image: bell hooks, courtesy of The bell hooks Institute

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