Remembering bell hooks, a beacon of light – for Black women and beyond

By imploring feminism to be something other than thin and white, she forced America to take a look in the mirror at how it treats the most vulnerable part of its population.

Donna Dietrich/KRT/Newscom/File
Author bell hooks, who died this week, was a pioneer of Black feminism and is known for the precise, fierce tone of her writing.

bell hooks didn’t just embody Black feminism – she was Black feminism.

Not only did the esteemed author and intellectual use her voice to promote equality between men and women, but she also intentionally prioritized the marginalized experience of Black women. We’ve seen this theme expressed richly throughout her canon of works including: “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” (1981), “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” (1984), and “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice” (2012).  

“As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized,” she wrote in “Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics” (2000).

By imploring feminism to be something other than thin and white, she forced America to take a look in the mirror at how it treats the most vulnerable part of its population. In “Ain’t I a Woman” Ms. hooks addresses the history of the suffrage movement and how it blatantly excluded all women of color. She also discusses how the legacy of slavery ultimately meant the fetishization and dehumanization of Black women and that the civil rights movement didn’t place Black women on equal footing with Black men. Even though the topics she chose to analyze were harrowing and hard to confront, her writings showed nuance, depth, and grace.   

Much of her work focused on encouraging women to truly love themselves. Her words became a buoy for women caught in abusive relationships.

“All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget,” Ms. hooks wrote in “All About Love: New Visions” (2000). “In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”

That theme of self-love also runs through her children’s books, such as “Happy to Be Nappy” (1999) and “Homemade Love” (2002). These gorgeously illustrated tales depicted young characters with smiles radiating ear to ear, and deep mahogany skin tones serving as a point of pride instead of shame. Instilling the belief that Black is beautiful from such an early age was important to Ms. hooks, so she expanded her repertoire so that even preschoolers could see themselves in her work.    

Not only did she push cultural discourse surrounding Black womanhood forward, Ms. hooks made students out of some of the world’s most notable celebrities, creatives, and performers. From Vice President Kamala Harris to Emma Watson, Ava DuVernay to Cornel West, the number of public figures who have been inspired by her path is seemingly endless. In the wake of Ms. hooks death this week, Twitter is overflowing with posts of gratitude. 

“Thank you #BellHooks for your abundant love & deep well of wisdom,” wrote Massachusetts Sen. Ayanna Pressley. “In you, we found sisterhood, visibility & affirmation. We found understanding & sought to understand too. Thank you for being our teacher. Your lessons are transcendent & eternal. Your memory shall be a revolution.”

As we honor one of the most vital thinkers of our time, may one of her most famous quotes brilliantly guide young Black women and girls who are hoping to follow in her footsteps: ”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.”

Although Ms. hooks is gone, her words – and ultimately her unmitigated resolve – will never be forgotten.

Candace McDuffie is a cultural columnist and the author of “50 Rappers Who Changed the World.”

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