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bell hooks Taught Us Radical Love

bell hooks

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“To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.” Writer, scholar, and trailblazing feminist bell hooks wrote these words in her 2002 book, All About Love. What a gift it is that they would later help us come to terms with her own early departure from this world.

A prolific writer named one of TIME’s 100 Women of the Year, bell hooks has traveled the world influencing your favorite industry leaders and all with little fanfare. Like many Black women academics before her, bell hooks gave so much of herself: to theorizing, to aspiring writers, and to the future she was writing into existence. She understood the sense of urgency in her work and wasted no opportunity to push any and every conversation forward. Publishing between thirty and forty works in her lifetime, hooks wrote feverishly while never letting the quality of her work falter. She once said, “It is not simply a question of finding time to write — one also writes against time, knowing that life is short.” How right she was.

As much as she was shaped by academia, hooks was equally molded by her home state and loved ones. A native Kentuckian born Gloria Jean Watkins, she saw the impacts of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy all around her. Under a lower-case pseudonym derived from her great grandmother’s name, hooks’ life and career were so obviously a labor of love to other marginalized people. Her writing conveyed the intimacy of someone who had seen injustice closely enough to diagnose and offer the treatment plan. hooks was not a doom-writer; she exposed the unjust while providing a roadmap to a freer future. hooks devoted her life to naming the power structures around us as well as the power inside of us to resist them.

“hooks was not a doom-writer; she exposed the unjust while providing a roadmap to a freer future.”

Most people’s journeys into activism begin very externally, like attending events and participating in calls to action with the intention of influencing and changing others’ behavior. hooks reminded us, with no cliches or empty jargon, that true transformation starts internally. We must first change ourselves. In order to live in a more loving society, we all must become love. In order to live in a non-patriarchal society, we all must interrogate what causes the desire to dominate others. In order to live in an anti-racist society, we must live in a more human-centered way.

hooks was always intentional, whether through inspiring rappers like Vic Mensa or challenging Queen Bey to uphold a bolder vision of feminism. A younger me didn’t understand what hooks had to say about Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I initially took her 2016 op-ed about the album as an elder out of touch with contemporary expressions of femininity, when in reality, she wasn’t asking Beyoncé—or her fans—to do less, but rather to do more. Our prowess doesn’t lie in becoming a “girl boss” but, rather, in redefining what it is to be a boss and whether feminism could ever be found in something designed by patriarchy itself. “Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence. And when violence is made to look sexy and eroticized…it does not serve to undercut the prevailing cultural sentiment.” Do we want equity or do we want revenge? hooks reminds us that we can’t have both, her words cutting and healing at the same time. bell hooks is like your trusted aunt or girlfriend who tells you how it is; you know she’s right, even if you didn’t want to hear it. And if you ignore her advice, it’s to your own detriment.

bell hooks took the values you claimed to espouse and held them up to you with the silent question, “Are you who you say you are?” A mirror reflecting you back to yourself, she didn’t ask the question with judgment or indignation. In her tone, it was always clear that she believed in your redemption. Not in an idyllic way but in a way that knew a better world was possible if we all tapped into the best, most interconnected versions of ourselves.

bell hooks

bell hooks signing a boy’s book circa 2003.

The Washington PostGetty Images

The proof is in the outpouring after the news of her death was announced last week. After all the awards, praise, and accolades, it’s the impact one has had on individual people’s lives that matters most in those final moments. And bell hooks’ impact is immeasurable. There is solace in knowing that the woman who gave of herself so completely was, in the end, replenished by those closest to her. For those of us who knew hooks through her work only, social media became our vigil and altar to someone who mothered each of us. Poet Danez Smith summed up the beauty in hooks’ digital send-off in a tweet that read, “What a way to go, you pass on to the next and everybody talking about love, love, love, love, love.”

Rest in love, Gloria Jean “bell hooks” Watkins.

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