Three writers explore the legacy of bell hooks and her most consequential book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.
Fighting Prejudice and Promoting Love
by Emily Zobel Marshall
I always turn to bell hooks to help my students understand the fundamentals of Black feminism. hooks, who died in December 2021, was a professor, poet and feminist cultural critic who sought to highlight how the dual and intertwined forces of racism and sexism have subjugated Black women throughout American history.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks changed her name to honour her late grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and the decision not to capitalise was born of the desire to turn the focus away from herself towards the content of her writing. This choice facilitated important debates about the relationship between the scholar, the ego and the work produced.
One of the most influential of hooks’s texts is Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). The title draws from the speech by the formerly enslaved human rights activist Sojourner Truth, delivered at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. Truth lays bare the forces of racism and sexism at work in her life and pleads for recognition of her humanity as a Black woman: ‘I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’
In Ain’t I a Woman, hooks explains how racist and sexist ideologies have resulted in Black women occupying the lowest status and suffering from the worst living conditions of any group in American society. She highlights how issues of race, class, gender and sexuality cannot be tackled separately; they are profoundly intertwined – a discussion which has influenced contemporary approaches to intersectional feminism outlined, for example, in Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017).
hooks argues that stereotypes of the overtly sexualised and animalistic Black woman have led to a devaluation of Black womanhood. Even movements which have claimed to fight for the rights of Black women have reinforced these entangled forces of oppression. White nineteenth-century abolitionists often still held fast to stereotypes of Black women as sexually permissive and intellectually comprised. The Black Nationalist movement, established in America in the mid-twentieth century, was profoundly patriarchal – led by powerful Black men focused on overcoming racial inequality whilst simultaneously reinforcing sexist divisions.
Feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, hooks explains, were primarily made up of white, middle-class women who overlooked racial and social differences, accepting their own privileged worldview as the ‘norm’. Despite this, hooks chose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’ to focus on the fact that ‘to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.’
bell hooks’s final book, All About Love: New Visions (2020) sets a very different tone to her politicised writings. Here she’s didactic but also meditative and reflective, writing openly about her personal life and the lack of love she experienced as a child.
hooks promises the reader that ‘this book tells us how to return to love’, based on rejecting a culture of narcissism. She establishes the fundamental role of love in early childhood, examines how patriarchal gender roles can corrupt the love between queer and heterosexual couples, and contemplates religious love. She ends: ‘When angels speak of love they tell us it is only by loving that we enter an earthly paradise. They tell us paradise is our home and love our true destiny’. While I appreciate the heartfelt message here, it’s hooks’s work as a searing cultural critic and outspoken intersectional feminist that really fills me with visions of a more hopeful, loving future.
When Truth Is a Lie
by Julian Vigo
bell hooks’ legacy might very well emanate from the symbolic gesture of spelling her name in lowercase, which set out to revolutionise the way language is informed by social practice.
Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism provided an historical account of slavery’s legacy and an analysis of the ongoing dehumanisation of black women within American society. This opus was also a critique of the revolutionary politics that arose in response to the centring of the male subject. True liberation, hooks believed, needed to grapple with how class, race and gender are inextricably linked facets of our identities. Her view was that we are a composite of these identities ‒ identities that inform our power relations and how we look at each other. In her analysis of the ‘white gaze’, hooks described how black females are rendered as passive spectators in relation to their own lives.
hook’s oeuvre set into motion a generation of scholars devoted to studies of intersectional identity, involving gender, race and sexuality. Along with a cohort of others already pushing these boundaries from within their specialised disciplines ‒ Cornell West, Derrick Bell, Stuart Hall, Henry Louis Gates and Michele Wallace, to name a few ‒ hooks became a major force in cementing cultural and race studies in the United States and beyond. She would go on to publish dozens more books ranging in focus from patriarchy, masculinity and pedagogy to sexuality and the aesthetics of visual culture.
To the chagrin of radical feminists, hooks attempted to wrestle feminism from the control of white power structures in order to ‘re-appropriate’ this term for the liberation of both men and women: ‘to focus on the fact that to be “‘feminist”’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression’ (1981). Her desire for critical consciousness and the liberation of men and women from the chains of sexism could be understood as revolutionary inasmuch as it represented her commitment to social healing ‒ even if her project was anathema to those who view feminism as uniquely a political axis by and for women.
While hooks claimed that she was not attempting ‘to diminish feminist struggle’, instead attempting to ‘share in the work of making a liberatory ideology and a liberatory movement’, it is noteworthy that until this millennium hooks knew exactly what ‘woman’ and ‘black’ meant (Feminist Theory, 1984). In recent years, she became one of many scholars who embraced the ideology of ‘gender identity’ which necessitated her disavowal of the specificity of ‘woman’ as both social reference and ontology, given the atomising and individualistic hold gender ideology wields over the material reality of sex. Many feminists have criticised hooks for her abandonment of a material-based feminist politics, reducing women to a function ‒ ‘birthing bodies’ ‒ and being female to a self-proclaimed identity.
Towards an inclusive feminism
by Naomi Foyle
bell hooks first entered my consciousness in the late eighties in Toronto, her early books feeding my voracious, new, anarchist worldview. hooks taught me about the inseparable yokes of racism and sexism, and white women’s accountability for that brutal reality. Her work is not just revolutionary fuel, though – it is deep nourishment. Gradually, I realised that bell hooks, with her driving gift for interconnecting politics, pedagogy, psychology and spirituality, was not just an incisive scholar, but a profound and passionate mentor to everyone who seeks progressive change. Her example has helped me sustain a belief that, no matter our backgrounds, we can and must work lovingly together to achieve social justice.
As hooks said, ‘What we cannot imagine, cannot come into being’. In addition, she talked about ‘mutual hospitality’, in which respectful exchange generates trust and solidarity. Over my creative career, from casting my theatre projects inclusively to writing political poetry, from editing Palestinian poetry in translation and publishing emerging global majority poets at Waterloo Press to decolonising the curriculum at the University of Chichester, I have aimed to both imagine social progress and to help create it by sharing what power I have. Working with diverse people who share my values enriches my life, but as hooks also said, feminism is politics, not a lifestyle. Being autistic, I value inclusivity highly and have zero desire to benefit from inequality. And I know that activism is necessary ‒ no progressive socio-political change has ever occurred without collective struggle.
Despite its rewards, anti-racist activism is not easy; I sometimes make uncomfortable mistakes. But as hooks’ ‘critical friendship’ with the activist feminist Gloria Steinem demonstrates, this is all part of the process. In Ain’t I a Woman, hooks took Steinem to task for her racist assumptions about black feminist scholarship, and called the magazine she founded, Ms., a magazine for white women. Steinem listened. In 2014, she and hooks shared a platform at Eugene Lang College, debating, laughing, and explaining that their evident mutual admiration and affection was, at heart, rooted in kindness. I can’t think of a parallel alliance in British politics, but hooks’ warm, dialectical relationship with Steinem, and the audiences they attracted, shows me that an inclusive feminism is possible. However long that might take to fully achieve ‒ and beyond ‒ bell hooks will continue to inform, challenge and inspire all those who will accept nothing less than a world built on what she named ‘the ethics of love’.
Photo courtesy of Cmongirl