Saved by the bell: Celebrating a Literary Light During Women’s History Month
One of my sheroes, Dr. bell hooks gave women a language to express our lives, our work and our feelings of love, despair and hope.
Last year, we lost a literary luminary, who has meant so much to me as a professor of literature and as a woman. During Women’s History Month, I celebrate Dr. bell hooks (1952-2021) as an important scholar who pulled back the veil on so many unspoken cultural and gender-based biases, taboos and nuances. She mirrored both our significant strides and our as-yet-unaddressed faults. One of my sheroes, hooks gave me and other women a language to express our lives, our work and our feelings of love, despair and hope.
Among the many lessons that make up her legacy, here are some that have touched my life, love and work the most.
Lessons about language
and there we wept
“they that wasted us/ said sing us one of the songs of zion/ we answered/ how
can we sing a freedom song/ in a strange land” — “and there we wept”
In 1978, Gloria Watkins (who wrote under the name bell hooks) published a little-known collection of poems, and there we wept, a small, but powerful chapbook with only 250 copies in circulation. I’m lucky to own a copy of this slender, prophetic book because it set the precedent for the next 43 years of hooks’ searing, loving and penetrating gaze on race, feminism, sexism, love, compassion, scholarship, rage and everything between. In this book, her words were like copper bangles on the delicate wrists of a graceful dancer learning her craft — a harkening, teaching me that poets can become both fire and educator. We could equally adore and challenge social, cultural and historical paradigms in which we existed, that denied Black women their voice.
Lessons about learning
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
When I assigned the chapter in Teaching to Transgress, “Holding My Sister’s Hand: Solidarity in Feminism” to my senior seminar class, African American students at a historically Black college, they could have spit nails. At first, they didn’t want to hear what hooks had to say, that there was and will always be a semiotic, yet unequal relationship between Black and white women due to the hideous nature of enslavement and our binary roles as women in opposition to the white male slave master. Then, as I had, when they pulled the threads of this and other chapters in the book, gradually my students could see the argument that impacted me personally: The struggle, the tug-of-war between the persona of the “weak” white female and the perpetuated stereotype of the Black woman’s body as “property,” “sexualized,” “mysterious,” will continue to weigh down feminism and the fight against sexism, weakening us, unless we combine our struggles intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. This inequality can be seen still in the way murdered or missing white women earn an immediate bounty for the killers, and the media’s 24-hour attention, while murdered or missing Black women receive far, far less attention and notoriety. I took this to heart long before we started calling for allies, and I felt validated in hooks’ words.
Lessons about liberating Black men
We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity
I remember when the movie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple came out, and Black men, angered, protested their representation. In contrast, hooks’ We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity attacked how these historical and contemporary representations arose, ones that everyone was afraid to utter aloud, “this is a culture that does not love black males … and most black men do not love themselves.” With this, We Real Cool punched a hole in the silence surrounding how African American men are treated in our society, by Black women and especially each other, from a bald critical gaze, as opposed to the equally powerful fictional one that authors such as Alice Walker presented in books like The Color Purple. I, too, heard hooks’ clarion call. Change. Society must change in order to allow Black men to change.
Lessons about Love
All About Love: New Visions
bell hooks used this book to help us relearn how to recognize our need for love; how to seek, value, release, embrace and admit that we all needed some form of love in our lives in order to function. Her relentless pursuit of the meaning of love led her to question friends, family, colleagues and strangers about love’s impermeable existence in not simply our hearts but our minds. She taught us that love is not actually elusive; it’s an act that we forge with our intentions.
Of hooks’ more than 30 published books interrogating racism, sexism and feminist theory, her first critically acclaimed book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, published in 1981 is still a Rosetta stone read by mothers and daughters alike as a baseline toward understanding not only our place in this society, and the world, but also as a way to understand ourselves. Indeed, my daughter’s upbringing was sprinkled with many of these gems.
I saw hooks once, many years ago, as she walked down a path at USC with her then partner after a reading, and in awe of her, not wanting to intrude, I let them pass. I wish now I would have said something, added my praise like rose petals at her feet.
Thank you. Rest in power, bell hooks. Rest.