In a world where the words of black women writers, even our very names are often soon forgotten, it is essential and necessary that we live through writing and teaching the words of our great and good writers, whose voices must no longer be silenced, even by death.[i]
– bell hooks
On December 15, 2021, the world lost the great feminist theorist, teacher, activist, and writer bell hooks. As a white feminist theorist, I valued immensely the ways her work widened my partial perspective, challenged my blind sports, and gave me important viewpoints on everything from sexism, racism, classism, pedagogy, militarism, work, and parenting. Her piece on feminist solidarity is the best I know — examining not just the ways we are divided by classism and racism, but also by sexism, addressing the very real and destructive ways that women undermine, abuse, and disregard each other, and how important it is to unlearn this with each other. She used the term “feminist movement,” rather than the feminist movement, knowing it not to be one thing, but rather a verb, a process of moving, changing, and transforming. Championing the power of coming to voice, she spoke truth to power, engaging in honest exploration of often difficult and divisive topics. It was this honest, liberatory voice that spoke throughout her work and made her voice so compelling, and so valuable.
Hooks centered her feminism in love, boldly declaring, “Embedded in the commitment to feminist revolution is the challenge to love.”[ii] Undoubtedly it was this that drew me so deeply to her work. Themes of love, compassion, healing, and wholeness weave throughout her work. She acknowledged that she came to the work of theory because she was hurting and saw in theory “a location for healing,” which motivated her to create a feminist theory and practice that was liberatory, and would offer, “. . . healing words, healing strategies, healing theory.”[iii] Of utmost importance to her was that her writing not be confined to the academy, but rather could be understood and be of use to people in their ordinary lives. It was a way of acting out her love.
Hooks dedicated her life to ending all forms of domination and oppression and did so through daring to love. Much of her work is devoted to articulating, exploring, and communicating what this entailed. She accepted Erich Fromm’s and M. Scott Peck’s definitions of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”[iv] This, she maintained, entailed seven components – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest and open communication. Throughout several works she reflected on the implications of these for work, family, friendship, public policy, and more.
She began to write about love because she had found that those who had successfully decolonized their minds from the self-hatred instilled by racism and sexism did so out of deep feelings of love. “It was always love that created the motivation for profound inner and outer transformation. Love was the force that empowered folks to resist domination and create new ways of living and being in the world.”[v] This transformative power of love became the centerpiece of her writing and her activism. She emphasized that every great movement for social justice was grounded in love as a transformative force. It is the foundation that provides the source necessary to sustain the work of creating a world without domination. As she reiterated so often, “Anytime we do the work of love, we are doing the work of ending domination.”[vi] Love and justice go hand in hand. As she is so often quoted, “There can be no love without justice.”[vii] This transformative practice of love requires accepting “the fullness of our humanity, which then allows us to recognize the humanity of others. Within that recognition we can engage a practice of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion.”[viii]
A deep spirituality underlay hooks’ life and work. Even though she wrote that it was in her 40s that she experienced a spiritual awakening and an ever-growing awareness of the transformative power of love, “living life in the spirit” was always important to her. Raised in the traditional Black church, she learned early on the importance of sustaining the needs of the spirit. It was there, she said, that she first sang songs “that posed profound questions like: ‘Is it well with your soul? Are you free and made whole?’”[ix] She lived these questions as she left home to enter the world of academia, where she felt “plunged into a wilderness so intense it felt as though I was breaking into bits and pieces and would never feel whole again.”[x] This led her to explore a variety of spiritual traditions. Having been most drawn to the mystical elements of Christianity, she went on to study Islamic mysticism, Sufi poets, and Buddhism – particularly the work of Thich Nhat Hanh.
She understood the spiritual as “the recognition within everyone that there is a place of mystery in our lives where forces that are beyond human desire or will alter circumstances and/or guide and direct us.“[xi] She engaged in conscious spiritual practice, involving recognizing our connection to the earth, and a “commitment to a way of thinking and behaving that honors principles of inter-being and interconnectedness. . . and that love is all, everything, our true destiny.”[xii] She practiced daily through mindfulness, meditation, prayer, attention to her dreams, communion with the natural world, daily service to others, the study of spiritual teachings as guides for reflection and action, and fellowship with others. Most important was following the call to write, to give testimony, which she regarded as her true spiritual vocation. And above all and always, she “dare[d] to love.”[xiii]
In her work, writings, and life, she gave witness and example to the transformative power of love. May her voice never be silenced, even by death, and may her wisdom continue to be heard.
hooks, bell, All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow & Co., 2000.
______. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.
______. “Lorde: The Imagination of Justice.” in Byrd, Rudolph et. al. eds. I Am Your Sister:
Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. New York: Oxford U. Press, 2009.
______. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
______. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
______. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.
______. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. NY: Routledge, 1994.
______. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. NY: Routledge, 2013.
______. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990
[i] Teaching Community, 171.
[ii] Talking Back, 26.
[iii] Teaching to Transgress, 75.
[iv] All About Love, 4.
[v] Writing, 194-195
[vi] “Lorde,” 248.
[vii] All About Love, 19.
[viii] Teaching, 198.
[ix] Sisters, 15-16.
[x] Teaching Community, 176.
[xi] All About Love, 77.
[xii] Ibid., 77
[xiii] Writing. 194.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.