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What bell hooks Taught Black Women About Self-Love

What bell hooks Taught Black Women About Self-Love

On Wednesday, December 15, 2021, we lost a beacon of light. bell hooks, trailblazing author, poet, feminist, professor, and social critic, passed away at her home in Kentucky. She was 69.

I learned of it while scrolling Instagram, and it stopped me in my tracks. Before I knew it, posts were popping up like wildfire from other Black women. We were all hurting. Even though we didn’t know her personally, it was evident we lost someone who loved us and transformed our thinking. She gave us permission to challenge the systems of oppression that harm Black women.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she assumed the name of her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks to honor female legacies. She preferred to spell it in all lowercase letters to focus attention on her messages rather than herself. At the age of 19, she began writing what would become her first full-length book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which was published in 1981. It analyzed feminist theory by linking the connections between Black history, women’s history, race, gender, and class. She studied English literature at Stanford (B.A.), University of Wisconsin (M.A.), and the University of California (Ph.D.).

bell hooks taught English and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California, African and Afro-American studies at Yale University, as well as women’s studies at Oberlin College at the City College of New York. She became a professor in residence at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The bell hooks Institute was founded at the college in 2014.

bell hooks clarified the concept of feminism, in particular, Black feminism. She gave understanding about the ways in which anti-Blackness shows up in Black women’s lives, and that there was a language for that. Traditionally, feminism is seen as a white woman thing. bell hooks made clear that it’s not the property of white women — that they’re not the architects of these ideas around women’s liberation — but that Black women have always thought about these things and thought about them in very open ways. This is why her work was so important to me at a time when I was trying to find my place in the world.

Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism was the first bell hooks book that I read. I was an undergrad trying to find my voice as a young, Black woman. I wrote for the school newspaper and focused on injustices within the community — homelessness, poverty, violence — but also anything that centered Black women. Within that predominantly white institution, I was the only Black woman on the newspaper staff. Often what I had to say didn’t go over well. A Black woman’s point of view made others uncomfortable and even angry.

In college, I didn’t have the range to consider how the same systems of oppression I wrote about also harmed Black women specifically. I didn’t have the language to speak on the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect. The more I read bell hooks’ work, the more I realized how my formal education would not save me. I needed to expand myself in order to save myself.

It was hooks who helped me understand that fighting racism also means fighting sexism. We can’t fight one without the other. We can’t be afraid to question any system or narrative that fails Black women. Once I understood this, I was able to see my Black womanhood differently.

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I believe that Black women hesitate calling themselves a feminist because they only see it as something white women can have. bell hooks and others challenged that by presenting us with the possibility that we can have it too. For example, Alice Walker created the term womanism, which is specific to Black women. This for sure opened up the space for Black women to embrace the idea of feminism and that we could be feminists too.

In her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, published in 1992, hooks took a radical stance of “loving Blackness” and doing so as resistance. It was in this book that she also introduced the concept of “oppositional gaze” and urged Black feminist writers to expand their representations of what a “revolutionary” Black woman really is.

During a discussion at The New School, hooks and others were dissecting Beyonce’s Time magazine cover for the 100 Most Influential People issue (2014). hooks upheld her position on who we put on the revolutionary pedestal when she said, “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” She went on to explain that “the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos.”

Of course, her comments caused controversy. Brittney C. Cooper, Rutgers University professor and co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective saw hooks’ comments as a way to police Beyoncé and said that a Black woman should be able to be publicly sexy without the charge that her sexuality is harmful.

hooks made a valid point, while also noting that young girls are being stretched into impossible standards of beauty. However, I have to agree more with Cooper. She questioned if Beyoncé should be vilified when she’s only trying to explore her own ideas of feminism. hooks had a clear vision of what Black feminism should be, and at times could be dismissive of that outside of those ideas.  

All About Love: New Visions has become my favorite bell hooks book. One of the most profound things she says is this: “One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others. There was a time when I felt lousy about my over-forty body, saw myself as too fat, too this, or too that. Yet I fantasized about finding a lover who would give me the gift of being loved as I am. It is silly, isn’t it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself. This was a moment when the maxim ‘You can never love anybody if you are unable to love yourself’ made clear sense. And I add, ‘Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.’”

bell hooks, we thank you. You are what we needed. For so many of us whose writing is grounded by your work, we will continue to use our words to speak truth to power. You 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” (bell hooks, remembered rapture: the writer at work).

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