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The Life-Changing Curiosity of bell hooks

For all the big topics in life—love, feminism, revolution—she asked us to think and feel deeper.

the feminist writer bell hooks, wearing a red jacket with her hand near her face, in a 1999 portrait
The Washington Post

“To build a mass-based feminist movement, we need to have a liberatory ideology that can be shared with everyone,” bell hooks wrote in her groundbreaking 1984 book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, who passed away on December 15 at the age of 69 in her home state of Kentucky, took to task the decades-long inability of the feminist establishment to consider the experiences of marginalized women. “Revolutionary ideology can be created only if the experiences of people on the margin who suffer sexist oppression and other forms of group oppression are understood, addressed, and incorporated,” she wrote.

I read these words in the late ’90s as an undergraduate student at the University at Albany. As I settled into my chosen discipline—women and gender studies—the academic world of feminist theory was reaching its apex. But I was filled with the anger of youth rebellion, lacking the language, history, or context to truly understand the depth of my rage. The deeper I dove into academic feminism, the more it felt disassociated from my own experiences as a young woman of color, a child of immigrants—disconnected from the very women who were most impacted by the patriarchal systems we so righteously critiqued in the classroom.

Until I read bell hooks. Her words shot through academia like an arrow piercing the elitism that had become routine. This new frame, this set of words “from the margin to the center,” changed how I, and many other young women like me, thought about history, feminism, and activism. Building on the important work of the Combahee River Collective and of feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde, hooks charted new territory—a modern, nuanced, inclusive, and accessible feminism that centered Black women and grappled with the issues everyone cared about: popular culture, love, power, and agency.

This uncompromising commitment to a feminism that reckoned with power defined her prolific work spanning decades—as a writer, author, teacher, and public intellectual (though she refused this title). She managed to make more academic concepts such as intersectionality, identity politics, and representation approachable. “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” she reiterated in the 1996 book Feminism Is for Everybody, reminding us that a feminism solely focused only on women’s equality, without consideration of the legacies of racism and capitalism, was simply not enough.

As a young woman who grappled with feeling misunderstood or spoken for, her words gave me solace.

She balanced her clear-eyed critique of systems of oppression with an unabated commitment to the power and promise of women’s agency. In her 1992 book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, she wrote of Black women’s oppositional gaze, “Even in the worst circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency.” And again in Feminism Is for Everybody, “If any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.” As a young woman who grappled with feeling misunderstood or spoken for, her words gave me solace, even if they weren’t speaking to my direct experience—they charted a path forward, one of solidarity and of love.

Her opinions were divisive, sometimes unpopular. She was okay with, and maybe even enjoyed, making people squirm with her challenging questions and polarizing positions. When she spoke about the 1994 trial of O. J. Simpson, she cut through the news with her insight that the media circus ignored that this was a case about domestic violence, not just race and the criminal justice system.

More than 20 years later, she did what no one dared: She criticized Beyoncé, calling her visual album Lemonade, “business of capitalist money-making at its best,” but she acknowledged the power in Beyoncé’s work, saying that “the black female body is utterly aestheticized—its beauty a powerful in your face confrontation.” This wasn’t her first time investigating the intersection of women’s bodies, popular culture, and capitalism. A longtime critic of Madonna, she said, “To me, Madonna symbolizes so much the question of greed,” in a 1997 interview on Madonna’s flip-flopping feminism.

hooks brought a rigorous critique of capitalism—even when it wasn’t convenient or required that she turn the gaze on herself—to her work. In her memoir on class and race, Where We Stand: Class Matters, she wrote, “At the end of the day the threat of class warfare, of class struggle is just too dangerous to face. The neat binary categories of white and black or male and female are not there when it comes to class.” In the same book, she grappled with her own privilege when trying to be approved by a Brooklyn co-op board. Or while also detailing being treated differently as a Black woman of some class privilege. “When I am shopping in Barneys, a fancy department store in my neighborhood, and a well-dressed white woman turns to me—even though I am wearing a coat, carrying my handbag, and chatting with a similarly dressed friend—seeking assistance from the first available shopgirl and demands my help, I wonder who and what she sees looking at me,” she wrote. Later, in an essay about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she posited that Sandberg is selling a neoliberal “whites only” corporate feminist fantasy—but that the backlash to her was also telling of a “rage bordering on envy.”

Her inquiries sometimes revealed certain blind spots as well. Her views on femininity often reflected the regressive second-wave politics of a feminism that rejected femme or sexual presentation as inherently exploitative and oppressive. In a 1997 interview with Lil’ Kim for PAPER magazine she introduced her as someone who looks like they would be in a “sleazy black porn magazine.” She wrote, “Sometimes they looked like raggedy drag queens—a bit rough around the edges.”

One of the criticisms to her take on Beyoncé came from Janet Mock who said her critique of Lemonade “echoes dismissal of femmes as less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains to sell, be seen, survive.” Still, Mock has said they were friends and sometimes disagreed on politics “like most friends do.” In a conversation with Laverne Cox, hooks suggested that Cox wearing blonde wigs was her feeding into the male gaze. Cox responded, “If I’m embracing a patriarchal gaze with this presentation, it’s the way that I’ve found something that feels empowering. And I think the really honest answer is that I’ve sort of constructed myself in a way so that I don’t want to disappear.” Despite their disagreements, the conversation was respectful, lively, and honest.

She insisted on considering the “what about?”—no matter how uncomfortable that question made us.

Her insistence of always considering the “what about?”—no matter how uncomfortable that question might make us—made hooks one of the most prolific philosophers of our time. It was her ability to stay rooted in her praxis of Black feminist thought but expand it to consider all the ways that power impacts everything we do that appealed to me, a young South Asian woman, child of immigrants, lost in white America, searching for a language of understanding. It was through her work that I and countless other young women found ourselves: We expanded our worldviews, were led deeper into feminism, and learned to question everything that was fed to us as taken for granted or expected.

Whether you started with her popular works on love or on feminism or on hip-hop or on race or on Beyoncé, hooks took us to an intellectual, emotional, and theoretical plane deeper than we had been before, and she did it with compassion, and she did it with love. For those of us who were searching, yearning for a language to talk about our experiences, bell hooks gave us that language in an accessible way. She pushed us to have clarity in our thoughts and not rely on binary thinking—advice we would do well heeding today.

As her longtime friend and colleague Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, a former provost of Berea College, home of the bell hooks Institute, told The Associated Press, “There will never be another bell hooks.”

There won’t be. But there will be those of us who had the privilege of reading her, engaging with her work, and being changed by it.

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