It is with great pleasure that I dedicate this year’s International Women’s Day post to bell hooks, a feminist writer, theorist and critic whose work has inspired, educated and comforted me in equal measure.
I first encountered bell hooks’s writing in my university library in Sweden and I must admit that I was not instantly drawn to her work. Instead I read Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, all women who impacted my outlook profoundly and still do. But it would later surprise me that I didn’t include hooks in my primary feminist readings then. Probably, it had something to do with the power of media, and bell hooks didn’t then, and doesn’t now, have the media behind her. This is not to say she doesn’t have a wide reach, her work is so good that it spread far of its own account, and the media is forced to notice her. But considering her importance and her prolific contributions to the world of ideas, her name should be featured in the press regularly, which was why I was thrilled to see a recent article in the New York Times, In Praise of bell hooks.
In my case, I finally came to my senses when writing my masters thesis, at which time bell hooks’s books informed my writing.
Now that I have read most of hooks’s writing on love, radical change, masculinity, sexuality, decolonisation, spirituality, memoir, poetry, cultural criticism…and listened over and over to her many talks on similar topics, it strikes me how few writers and thinkers – female or male, of whatever racial or ethnic background – have explored such a broad range of thought in so much depth. It is easier to ask what bell hooks has not written or spoken about than about what she has!
Someone once described bell hooks as having the type of voice “that haunts you at night”, meaning that the message in her words affect you deeply, disturb you, provoke you, linger with you, ask you to reconsider. They were not mistaken. But I’d add that hers is a voice that haunts you at night and sets you free during the day.
In a world where so many intellectuals speak merely to impress and hear the sound of their own voices, what stands out about bell hooks is her moral honesty as a thinker. The more familiar you become with her body of work, the more struck you are by the rare quality of transparency that hooks strives for. This is partly because she shares the often deeply personal processes that lead to her theories as well as her sources. It is thanks to her, for example, that I started to truly engage with Martin Luther King’s thinking because she so frequently refers to him, and I can now indeed see the major impact he has on her, and me in return.
In her memoir, Wounds of Passion, hooks says, “Writing is my passion. Words are the way to know ecstasy. Without them life is barren. The poet insists language is a body of suffering and when you take up language you take up the suffering to. All my life I have been suffering for words. Words have been the source of the pain and the way to heal.”
These lines capture so perfectly the world that opens when you start reading bell hooks. It is a world that interrogates the underpinning biases that constitute the foundations of classical to modern philosophy, of cultural criticism, feminist theory, of spirituality and poetry, but it is above all a world of passion in the most original meaning of the word passion from the Latin term pati, “to endure, undergo, experience”.
Especially in the current mood of feminism, a time of unprecedented visibility but also, consequently, at risk of an unprecedented backlash, I have argued (in hooks-ian fashion) that we need critical feminism now more than ever. But we also need passion. And there are few people who combine so well a strong and unwavering expression of hope, passion and commitment toward disrupting the status quo and creating innovative pathways for social harmony, inclusivity and power parity in our communities as bell hooks.
As she writes in Feminism is for Everybody, “From the moment feminist thinking, politics, and practice changed my life … I have wanted to give it to the folk I love so that they can understand better this cause, this feminist politics I believe in so deeply, that is the foundation of my political life.”
My sentiment about bell hooks is the very same. Her thinking has impacted my life so deeply; it has given me endless amounts of courage and inspiration to be the feminist writer that I am, that I want everybody to read her. It is not only feminism that is for everybody. bell hooks is for everybody.