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As we grieve bell hooks, let’s remember all that she taught us | Shanita Hubbard

On Wednesday, 15 December 2021 the world became a dimmer place. bell hooks, the brilliant, trailblazing author, cultural critic, feminist, poet and professor, died of an undisclosed illness. The news was first announced by her niece. I learned of it while scrolling social media. Before I could even digest what I had read, my phone exploded with texts from other Black women. I didn’t need to read them to know what they would state – I knew my sisters were hurting. We lost someone who transformed our thinking and gave us the language to challenge systems of oppression and the unique ways they harm Black women.

In her book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks brilliantly explores racism, feminism, class and patriarchy – or institutionalized sexism, as she called it. The book opens with a chapter tracing contemporary imagery of Black women in America back to the brutality of slavery. The book holds no punches; bell hooks explains how the suffrage movement excluded Black women and the ways that the civil rights movement didn’t always address the distinct needs of Black women. Like bell hooks herself, the work is complex and thought-provoking.

Aint I a Woman? was the first bell hooks book I read. I was in my final semester of graduate school at the time. At 23, I considered myself to be socially conscious. Prior to engaging with her work, I would wax poetic about injustice and the ways that systemic racism effectively launched weapons of mass destruction in my community. I would tell you that the “war on drugs” was nothing short of a war on Black men, and how the prison-industrial complex was another form of slavery. While the data indicates that there is a disproportionate number of Black men incarcerated, I failed to consider how these same systems of oppression also harmed Black women specifically. I did not have the range or language to even consider the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect and how this should frame my work and thinking around criminal justice reform. The more I studied her work the more I realized how much of my formal education left me with gaping holes in my thinking.

It was bell hooks who helped me understand that even when we talk about our collective freedom from racism this must also include fighting against sexism. Any fight against oppression that doesn’t include contending with sexism is not freedom at all – for Black women it’s merely an unspoken agreement to devalue an entire aspect of our personhood. This revelation started a radical transformation in me. I began to love my community differently. I developed a love for my community that wasn’t afraid to interrogate any narrative or practice that failed Black women. Because, as hooks’s work demonstrates, love without analysis is merely appreciation. She planted a seed that I’m still watering with her work.

bell hooks’s work shaped generations of Black women. Candice Marie Benbow, an essayist and the author of the forthcoming book Red Lip Theology, shared how bell hooks impacted her life. “bell hooks taught me that there is powerful specificity in my Black womanhood,” she told me. “That our lives require critical engagement and generous care. She loved us. When few loved Black women, she loved us well. She laid the blueprint so many of us are trying to follow. She was my teacher. I never met her but she taught me as well as she loved me. And, whenever I read her or listened to her, I felt it.”

Even without meeting her, bell was our instructor. She brilliantly theorized about radical love, healing and community in a way that caused us to consider unimaginable possibilities. Rhonda Nicole Tankerson, a singer-songwriter and digital marketing consultant, told me that she met bell through words. “bell hooks came later (in my 20s), as I began to explore Black feminists thought and scholarship. Her writings on love have been especially important in challenging my own understandings and expectations when it comes to seeking and experiencing it, romantically and otherwise. She made me dream of possibilities that I never knew could exist.”

bell hooks’s legacy consists of possibilities and reimagining love. This is especially true for Dr Jenn M Jackson, a writer and professor. “Her legacy, amongst other things, shows us that our work must be rooted in a deep love for our people and an unwavering commitment to holding grace for ourselves as we struggle,” they told me.

There is no single Black woman, cultural critic, feminist, poet, or professor among us that can carry bell hooks’s legacy alone. Nor can we heal from this loss alone. Fortunately, we don’t have to. She has already given us the blueprint for both. When we hurt over her death we will heal together as she taught us: “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”

For the great many of us whose writing is informed by her work, we will continue to use our words to fearlessly contend with white supremacy while never letting patriarchy off the hook. This is a collective action and we are all needed. Because as bell hooks taught us, “No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’ … No woman has ever written enough.”




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