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How to Radically Transform Society, with bell hooks

“Love is an action, never simply a feeling” [bell hooks]

On December 15, 2021, bell hooks passed away at the age of 69. A university professor, intellectual, feminist, poetess, and iconic figure of Black Feminism, one of hooks’ most important contributions was transforming love into a critical axis for emancipatory research and praxis. Throughout her prolific career, she tirelessly reminded us that love should be at the center of our struggles and practices if we truly want to combat paradigms of exploitation and domination. “Simply being a victim does not radicalize your consciousness.” These words of bell hooks demonstrate the extent to which her theoretical work was dedicated to repairing harm and violence.

In All About Love, a powerful book from 2000 which has become a spiritual guide for so many people, she offers a theory of love that does not settle for the small or too little.

Rather than centering on the desires and will of men, All About Love invites us to rethink how to build a community around love. Children are central to these reflections: how can we go beyond the simple care of children in order to really love and protect them? Her definition of love has since become famous: “When we see love as the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, revealed through acts of care, respect, knowing, and assuming responsibility, the foundation of all love in our life is the same.”

Race, Gender and Class

bell hooks’ involvement in the feminist struggle made her one of the most important theorists of Black Feminisms. Before the concept of intersectionality was developed to describe the overlapping of racism and sexism in the lived experiences of Black women, hooks articulated this thought in her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman? The book opens with an analysis of Black women’s experience under slavery in order to analyze the particular forms of violence they faced.

hooks then demonstrate how the devaluing of Black women has continued to the present. Critiquing white feminists’ racism, she reveals how these movements have excluded the experiences and the voice of Black women. Her words were and continue to be incisive and unapologetic: “To black women, the issue is not whether white women are more or less racist than white men, but that they are racist.” But, beyond the feminist movement, hooks analyzed how white womanhood is a racialized category deeply antagonist to Black women. As she stated in Feminist Theory: From Margin to the Center: “Attempts by white feminists to silence black women are rarely written about. All too often they have taken place in conference rooms, classrooms, or the privacy of cozy living room settings, where one lone black woman faces the racist hostility of a group of white women.”

She created a space for our legitimate anger to express itself. She demanded freedom without compromise, refusing any liberation model that maintains the status quo by simply expanding the group of people who benefit from oppressive power structures. She thus denounced that “Many black men who express the greatest hostility toward white male power structure are often eager to gain access to that power. Their expressions of rage and anger are less a critique of white male patriarchal social order and more a reaction against the fact that they have not been allowed full participation in the power game. In the past, these black men have been most supportive of male subjugation of women. They hoped to gain public recognition of their ‘manhood’ by demonstrating that they were the dominant figure in the black family.”

In this way, armed with integrity and intellectual courage, hooks condemned the invisibilization of Black women within civil rights movements for women, on one hand, and Black people, on the other. At the same time, she uplifted examples of resistance from Black women like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell, with the aim of encouraging Black women to step out of the shadows. Years later, for us as Black feminists, Afro-feminist, and Black women who grew up in majority-white countries (Canada and France), her writings remain unsettlingly relevant and continue to catalyze our struggles by so aptly describing our experiences, even when we are unable to name them.

For those of us who live in countries where we are minorities, bell hooks has allowed us to escape the confines that have been forced on us: the need to fight, either against anti-blackness or against the patriarchy (and gender-based violence). bell hooks’ thinking is still incredibly rich and fertile, not only for Black feminist organizations in majority-white countries but also in majority-Black ones. As Black feminists, we are confronted with a deep sense of loneliness: the antagonism or disdain coming from Black men and the suspicion of Black women who worry about being associated with the “feminist/Black Feminist/Afro-feminist” label.

Teaching to Transgress

In her book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, published in 1994, hooks lays out the epistemological foundations of her thinking, built in pain and silence: “I came to theory because I was hurting – the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.” hooks ultimately created a place for our healing.

She was also determined to turn the university into a space where this type of transformation could be possible. After graduating from Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California-Santa Cruz (where she completed her doctorate in 1983), hooks became a professor in several higher education institutions: Yale, Oberlin, City College of New York, and Berea College in Kentucky. Her work Teaching to Transgress is a testament to this desire for social change that shaped her teaching work as well as her theoretical and critical writing.

hooks explains that her radical understanding of pedagogy was based on a deceptively simple principle: the recognition of everyone’s participation. “To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. These contributions are resources. Used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community.”

Community, as well as individual and collective transformation, constitutes a central theme of hooks’ work. Her contributions and appearances were all the more powerful for her ability to make them accessible to all, in a clear and evocative language stripped of jargon as much as possible.

The film The Feminist in Cell Block Y attests to the topicality of all of these dimensions of hooks’ work. It tells the story of a group of incarcerated men in an American prison who participated in a training program to be able to study the books of bell hooks, with the goal of transforming their destinies and reimagining a masculinity not based on domination or violence.

In the last 40 years, there has hardly been a major issue related to questions of gender or race to which bell hooks has not contributed. Whether writing on domestic violence, cultural appropriation, activism, self-love, BDSM, Beyoncé, or Frantz Fanon, what drives each of bell hooks’ analyses was the acknowledgement of the fundamental humanity of each being, beginning with Black women, as well as a fierce opposition and resistance to “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

bell hooks provided us with so many tools, but through her being also embodied ways in which we can confront oppression and live differently. In 2014, she announced that she identified as “queer-pas-gay” and in doing so offered an alternative rubric for articulating the experiences of sexual minorities and gender: “queer as not about who you’re having sex with–that can be a dimension of it–but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”

bell hooks may have left us, but her contribution–immortal–lives on in us, in the organizations that draw on her work, in our attempts to turn community education into a tool for radical change. In her passing we are rediscovering the strength of love through the intimate connection built with her being and her work, by coming to, returning to, and engaging with her work through the years. Our despair and immense sense of loss are additional evidence of the power of theory. bell hooks’ theory strengthened us and sometimes saved us, from ourselves, others and our loneliness, while simultaneously pushing us to come together and to approach transformation through love as a revolutionary act.

Thank you to bell hooks for having given us a home. We will do our best to rise to the task of building the world in which she hoped to live.

Published in French on in December 2021 / Translation by Jo Blount.

Dr. Nathalie Batraville is an assistant professor at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University. She obtained her Ph.D. in Francophone literature in 2016 at Yale University. Her thesis focused on Haitian literary production under the dictatorship of François Duvalier. Her work examines Black feminism, police and prison abolition, as well as decolonial and queer theories. She is currently working on a book that rethinks the notion of consent from a Black feminist perspective.

Fania Noël is a Haitian-born French Afro-feminist activist, writer and thinker. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology, NSSR. Her fields of research are Black and Africana studies, Black feminism, and cultural studies. She is the co-founder and publication director of AssiégéEs (Besieged) a political publishing project led by women, queer and trans people of color. She is a member of the organization, Black Feminist Future. Her second book, Et maintenant le pouvoir. Un horizon politique Afroféministe (Power Now. An Afro-Feminist Political Horizon), is set to be published at Éditions Cambourakis in March 2022.

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