“Black women with no institutionalized "other" […] often have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs”
Feminist Theory: From the Margins to Center (1984)
I was 19 when I was introduced to the work of bell hooks. It was in a philosophy class on gender and sexuality, which I took on a friend’s recommendation. I’d staked my academic career and a methodical ten-year plan on pursuing a career in astrophysics. In spite of my best efforts, I had come to realised that I only really liked the research which was exactly 10% of what I was doing. The academic experience of my sophomore year was only made enjoyable by the Women’s Issue Network and my research. Over the winter break, I found myself spiraling. A series of anxiety attacks and four meltdowns later, for the first time, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.
In that exact moment, fresh from my existential crisis, I walked into this second term philosophy class unsure of what to expect, what I would gain, and what I was doing. The only thing I was certain of was my newly growing interest in understanding feminism. My lecturer was a quick witted PHD candidate with a tendency to overshare, and she assured us that we would be learning from the greats. She was right.
To help us center our understanding of feminism, she recommended a chapter from bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From the Margins to Center (1984). For the first time in my entire academic career, I saw myself. Hooks' writing was magnetic and accessible, never hiding behind obtuse language that gatekeeps academia from the lives that produce it. She wrote about us - Black women and about the Black experience. Always making sure that no matter your background, you could always take a seat at her table, like your favourite auntie would. Hooks remained a prominent feature on our syllabus, and I was also introduced to the work of Angela Davis, Patricia Hill-Collins and Sojourner Truth.
When her passing was announced on December 15, 2021, I felt robbed. I never expected to feel the loss on such a personal level. In the years following our introduction, she had become an integral part of my foundation. She had shaped me as a writer and as an academic, and she also shaped my humanity. Unbeknownst to hooks, her work inspired me to change my major to feminist studies, build my community, and pursue writing. She had given me generations of voices within Black feminist thought- many of whom were inspired by her.
Being on Twitter that day, felt like being in the classroom again. A digital service and an act of collective memory. Scrolling through the outpouring of anecdotes, reflections on her legacy, key moments in her career, I felt connected to her in a new way. It was a testament to her, throughout all the accolades she stayed connected to the culture. In 280 characters, we came together to grieve her and to love her, and it couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute to her legacy.
Away from pressure of production and dissection of academia, I revisited her work starting with a book I’d never read before: All About Love: New Visions. I started it and didn’t get far before I had to put it down. She had encapsulated what three years of therapy taught me about my complicated family dynamic, in a single paragraph. To protect my edges, I devised a read, reflect, live and repeat approach. As I let myself live her work, I was able to experience another dimension of her work-love.
Central to her work was indeed the pursuit of the ethic of love. hooks wrote because she loved us. For many of us, she created a language we didn’t know we needed, made our existence and our experiences legible within white supremacist structures that necessitated our erasure and rooted for our deaths. She candidly detailed her experiences as an academic, in the classroom and as a Black woman, to let us know that we were not alone.
Hooks deeply believed in the radical and transformational power of love. She wanted us to love more and to be unapologetic in our life pursuits and our understanding of the world around us.
I remember her in love and will continue to honour her legacy in love’s pursuit.
Rest in love bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins).
“Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination—imperialism, sexism, racism, classism”
Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (2006)
Written by Naciza Masikini
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