R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, style, and contributions to the culture with ROOTS. In 2022, we’re redefining Black excellence while celebrating where our past, present, and future meet.
bell hooks was — and still is — a rare Black woman scholar on many levels. She published her first book at 26 and did not stop writing, observing, and commenting on the world until she died in December. She published prolific works on a range of subjects, spoke to many audiences, and was tenured at multiple institutions. Neither academia nor public writing are welcoming spaces for Black women, and yet, hooks managed to navigate both while reimagining ways to further her community through each medium.
She was explicit in her commitment to inclusive feminism that considered the needs of all women and was centred in love of self and community. This meant challenging us to speak honestly in service of moving through problems, not around them. Whether the problem was racism in the women’s movement, Black people and self-love, or romantic heartbreak, hooks offered incisive reflection and honest assessments of her own missteps and lessons learned.
hooks’ honesty sometimes took people aback, whether in writing or at a small global women’s conference. I formally met hooks in 2017 at the International Women’s Convocation. hooks served as the keynote and I was one of the invited speakers contributing to the Health and Reproductive Justice tracts. When we met (thanks to hooks — I was too nervous to approach her), I told her the name of the coastal California town I lived in at the time and she replied that she’d been there but didn’t like it because it was too white. She spent part of the conference with the handful of people of colour in attendance, including drinking bourbon with a Latina reproductive justice activist as I attended to my comparatively boring conference duties. That was hooks — she paired her brutal honesty with bourbon and made time to be in communion with other Black women scholars and people of colour who wanted to speak their truth.
There is no doubt that hooks made academia a safer space for Black women throughout her life, even though it was cut too short. In the days after she died, multiple tweets about hooks lamented that she was just 69 years old when she died and did not get to enjoy the “golden years” so many white people of her stature do. According to the CDC, a Black woman born in 1950 (a few years before hooks) had a life expectancy of 62.9 years compared to a white woman born in the same year, who was estimated to live 72.2 years. Life expectancy for most racial groups has increased since then, but Black people can still expect to live shorter lives. Most white people likely do not think of themselves as contributing to the deaths of Black women, but when a system is designed to benefit you at all costs, everyone else is collateral damage.
There are many Black women, like hooks, who give their life to anti-racism work but whose names the public will never know... hooks fought for these women in every book she published and every essay she wrote.
“Despite the incredible changes in the structure of racism in this country, we still live with in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society that must attack and assault the psyches of Black people (and other people of color) to perpetuate and maintain itself,” hooks wrote 30 years ago in her essay “Healing Our Wounds: Liberatory Mental Health Care.” Her words are still deeply relevant. Despite these frustrating examples of white supremacy at work, Black people make it through life’s obstacle courses to pursue higher education and be successful in business, cultural creation, politics, academia, and more.
In U.S. academia, Black women make up 2% of full-time professors. With so few people in these spaces, Black people have to do more to get to these workplaces, then once there, they must do more for their workplaces. For example, none of the white professors I have met over the years were told by administrators they had a special role to play in inspiring or supporting white students, but it is part of the stated expectation for BIPOC faculty to take on mentorship duties. Proposals around diversity efforts continue to assume individual Black faculty can take responsibility for the well-being of Black students dealing with racism rather than the onus being on white-dominated campuses taking responsibility for stopping racism and attacks the students — and faculty — experience.
Amanda Seales writes in her book Small Doses that Black women are envisioned as “sidekicks and saviours.” As such, she opined, “We are a resource, not an equal.” Black women don’t put their bodies on the line. We are the line. There are many Black women, like hooks, who give their life to anti-racism work but whose names the public will never know and whose deaths will not result in obituaries in newspapers globally. hooks fought for these women in every book she published and every essay she wrote.
“Some of us were lucky enough to be exposed to hooks at a young age by our mothers or get to meet hooks in seemingly mundane spaces like a bookstore or women’s conference that she made magical through insight, wit and periodically analysing the racial dynamics at play at the event itself,” I wrote in Ms. Magazine after hooks passed. But even those who did not meet her still benefit from hooks’ commitment to speaking and writing for people outside academia. The simplicity of her words made theory accessible, while her insistence on naming the problems of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism meant we could not forget the roots of the problems Black people, and women in particular, faced. Her vulnerability in laying bare her own struggles with power in relationships as she ruminated on love continues to be relevant.
In spite of what we’re up against, Black women refuse to play by the rules of an uneven system, individually and collectively. And it makes people angry. “The [well-educated white people] who empathise with the passion, resilience and resistance of American revolutionaries or suffragettes argue against ‘radicalism,’ riots, anger and discontent expressed by Black women. To them, injustice is an academic debate, not a complex and potentially fatal reality; it must be approached with the pretence of an impossible objectivity, not with the messy knowledge born of a collective lived experience,” writes Breeshia Wade in Grieving While Black. For Black women intellectuals, forging paths while caring for their communities is often complex, messy work that challenges body, spirit and mind. In 2016, when Melissa Harris-Perry was both teaching at Wake Forest University and had a popular TV show on MSNBC, she left the network after a disagreement, refusing to allow supervisors to simultaneously profit from and ignore her expertise. She declined an exit package so that she could speak honestly about her experience. Besides starting a political candidate training firm, Harry-Perry now hosts “The Takeaway” news show.
Another Black intellectual who is continuing hooks’ legacy is Roxane Gay. In 2018, she was already receiving acclaim for her best selling collections Bad Feminist and Difficult Women when she left her second faculty position at Purdue University due to low pay, tweeting “I know what I deserve and what I am worth.” Forging her own path, Gay now has now written graphic novels, runs a successful newsletter, gives advice about workplace dilemmas for New York Times readers, and hosts a new podcast after years of hosting the popular “Hear to Slay” podcast alongside Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Cottom published an academic study on for-profit education about which early on skeptical white scholars questioned Cottom’s prescient theorising on the predatory dynamics largely BIPOC students faced. Cottom writes for many national outlets (sometimes angering Senators who have their staff contact Cottom repeatedly), interviews celebrities, tweets to over 200K followers and to no surprise to her readers across multiple genres, she received a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Award”). These moves aren’t seamless efforts. Like hooks, the influence of all of these educators goes beyond classrooms and reaches farther than the academic world ever wanted them to, showing intellectual rigor and heartfelt emotion can successfully coexist, and that many audiences long for it.
hooks also left another legacy of withstanding criticism from different spaces, even when that criticism came from other Black feminist writers. As part of a 2014 panel,“Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body,” hooks referred to Beyonce as “anti-feminist and a “terrorist” and questioned the commodification of feminism she saw the artist representing. When the Lemonade syllabus emerged in 2016, contributors suggested six of hooks’ books (the most of any author) be included, highlighting hooks’ importance to cultural criticism. She did not back down from her views on the artist and she expanded on her prior claims, much to the frustration of fans of both Beyonce and hooks.
The women carrying on hooks’ legacy also expose themselves to controversy when they speak their truths, as did hooks. Author, professor, and activist Brittney Cooper received death threats after her interview at the Roots Institute 2021, from which one sentence was taken out of context. When her interviewer offered two scenarios to choose from about white people and power, she quipped, “There is no answer that is sufficient. The thing I want to say is that we’ve got to take these muthaf*ckas out. But we can’t say that. I don’t believe in a project of violence. I truly don’t. Because in the end, our souls suffer from that.” Her last sentence echoes what hooks reminded us of in so many texts: to attend to our own souls as Black people even as we fight the denigrations of domination. So began months of harassment of Cooper and her colleagues.
Earlier this year, Cooper expanded her thoughts in a podcast interview with activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham: “I really meant that I have challenged in our Black organising spaces the rhetoric around violent revolution, in part because I think that it’s an incredibly masculinist rhetoric that says that the only way that we can change things is to destroy everything and to kill people.” Many Black women in the public eye imagine new worlds built to benefit all of us, never sure which sentence will place them in danger.
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones curated the expansive The 1619 project, a Pulitzer prize winning work documenting the history of U.S. slavery. The endeavour incensed conservatives who, among other attacks, sabotaged her offer of a prestigious endowed chair at UNC. With many people rallying behind her, Hannah-Jones won the fight for her position at UNC, but opted to teach at Howard to mentor a new generation of Black journalists. Her decision reminded Black women that just because you win the right to be in a space does not mean you have to go where you are not wanted. Or, you can go and shake them to the core, as she did in an MLK Day speech in which she purposely substituted her words for MLK’s (to an unsuspecting audience) to reveal his radical views on white supremacy and economic exploitation.
In the month since hooks’ death multiple virtual tribute events have been disrupted by the White supremacists, including an event Black feminist colleagues and I hosted and one in her homestate of Kentucky. Hooks’ ideas continue to threaten racists after her death. With hooks death, it becomes clear the next generation of Black feminist truth-tellers will come from all corners because new platforms exist for people to share ideas. Sometimes tweets shared or Instagram posts become blogs or essays that make up a book. Unlike scholars of hooks’ generation, people can become public intellectuals with far fewer credentials or validations from academia and in doing so, they can merge genres and worlds. Movement facilitators like adrienne marie brown encourage people to imagine new social movements inspired by sci-fi writers like Octavia Butler and offer templates of how to cultivate enjoyment in struggle. Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes about Revolutionary Mothering and black feminism while taking inspiration from “aquatic cousins.”
Intellectual activists may look differently than in hooks’ day, but their impact is just as resonant. There is @jillisblack aka Jill Louise Busby who went viral asking why white people needed so much time to “get it.” Megan Thee Stallion challenged the public to think differently about violence Black women experience when she was shot in the foot in 2020 and the response from so many people on social media was jokes rather than concern or compassion. A few months later, Stallion later penned a New York Times op-ed about protecting Black women. Last year, aside from topping the charts, Stallion joined the 25% of Black people who have a Bachelor’s degree (compared to 38% of the national U.S. population) when she graduated from Texas Southern University, an HBCU. People dismissed Stallion for her provocative videos and willingness to talk about sex, like they’ve done to many Black women who discuss sexuality publicly, but she knew her value. In an interview with Angie Martinez, Stallion said, “I just feel like you’re never too old to learn.” Or too young to teach people to stop underestimating Black women.
In some of her last writing, hooks both revealed her own insecurity and insisted the way forward was to cultivate love: “The practice of love requires that we make time, that we embrace change.” Something these women and hooks share is they all require us to stop and think even for a millisecond. By using the moniker “bell hooks” in lowercase spelling, means that every time you write about Gloria Watkins (her given name) correctly in English, you, the writer, must fight the impulse to spell her name with standard capitalisation. It means, for those electronically inclined, to wrestle with autocorrect. To engage with bell hooks is to question and disrupt the status quo. That is precisely the point, and that is what lives on in the women who continue her legacy.
Zakiya Luna is the author of Reproductive Rights as Human Rights: Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice, co-editor of Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis, and a Dean’s Distinguished Professorial Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis.