I am writing this at the end of a tiring academic term, staving off burnout from overwork and the trepidation that comes from existing through a brutal global pandemic. There may be mistakes in this post. Please correct me with love. But today I want to write out of the grief/love so many people are expressing at the crossing over of bell hooks. A radical Black feminist teacher, thinker and writer has joined the ancestors. And our grief/love cannot be contained. I say grief/love to note how deeply felt much of the scholarship of bell hooks is, and how she helps us to understand the ways in which we may bring all of ourselves into the academy. But also to note how her work extends beyond the academy. The idea that grief is love persevering relies so much of the pedagogy of compassion that bell hooks embodies.
When the news that bell hooks had joined the ancestors was released, I saw many tweets that designated her as the pioneer of a particular aesthetic of compassionate Black feminism that so many of us have copied. There are few truer thoughts available on Twitter. And so, my admonition in response is that if our grief/love is true, it must not be transient. We, the intellectual children of bell hooks, must with determination continue from where she left off, building new just worlds with love, wherever we find ourselves. We must also remember, as a form of insufficient consolation, that people, like hooks, whose intellectual labour continues to enrich our lives even after they pass on, are only taken for a moment. They are never really gone. And so I try to refer to her inspiration in the present tense. If we carry on her work with fidelity, she is never really gone.
In this post [short on my words, long on hers], I want to share a few of the key things that bell hooks taught me about being an African woman scholar, writer and teacher. I will end this exploration with some other thoughts from other Black women who share and expand upon bell hooks’ aesthetic as a radical Black woman writer and scholar who taught us to lovingly imagine worlds that transgress the one we have now, suffused as it is in a dominator culture that values violence and oppression over love and relation. She taught us that it is possible to work and walk in different paths.
On Education as Freedom and Hope
I often recommend hooks’ teaching trilogy as a way for us to begin to disrupt the standard idea of education that embraces the sage-on-the-stage all-knowing knowledge transfer model that we keep trying to disrupt. For her, education properly done, has to be the practice of freedom and hope. But to get to this point, we need to be honest about how education has been and still is the practice of political and personal unfreedom.
no education is politically neutral. Emphasizing that a white male professor in an English department who teaches only work by “great white men” is making a political decision, we had to work consistently against and through the overwhelming will on the part of folks to deny the politics of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth that inform how and what we teach. We found again and again that almost everyone, especially the old guard, were more disturbed by the overt recognition of the role our political perspectives play in shaping pedagogy than by their passive acceptance of ways of teaching and learning that reflect biases, particularly a white supremacist standpoint. bell hooks
educators who have dared to study and learn new ways of thinking and teaching so that the work we do does not reinforce systems of domination, of imperialism, racism, sexism or class elitism have created a pedagogy of hope. bell hooks
many people supported inclusion only when diverse ways of knowing were taught as subordinate and inferior to the superior ways of knowing informed by Western metaphysical dualism and dominator culture… Many educators embrace the notion of diversity while resisting pluralism or any other thinking that suggests that they should no longer uphold dominator culture. bell hooks
More often than not… gifted students of color from diverse class backgrounds, give up hope. They do poorly in their studies. They take on the mantle of victimhood. They fail. They drop out. Most of them have had no guides to teach them how to find their way in educational systems that, though structured to maintain domination, are not closed systems and therefore have within them subcultures of resistance where education as the practice of freedom still happens. Way too many gifted students never find these subcultures, never encounter the democratic educators who could help them find their way. They lose heart. bell hooks
The Classroom as a Radical Space
When we talk derisively about classrooms as safe spaces, we ignore that for many, the physical space of the classroom represents a place where hope and innovation are brutally defenestrated. Crenshaw writes about how students of colour who study law, to fit in with the norms of the classroom, are often forced to abandon themselves before they enter into the learning space. This is a harmful experience, repeated daily. For hooks, a pedagogy of love requires us to engage with the full humanity of our students. A pedagogy of love invites our students to be the best of who they can be in the classroom and beyond it. Therefore the classroom remains a place and space of possibility… but we must make it so.
The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting. It is the absence of a feeling of safety that often promotes prolonged silence or lack of student engagement. bell hooks
love’s place in the classroom is assured when there is any passionate pursuit of knowledge. Such thinking counters the tenets of those critics who believe love has nothing to do with our ability to teach and learn. Cynical about love, they raise the question of whether or not love in the class is disruptive, as it may serve as a distraction and create a lack of objectivity. Contrary to the notion that love in the classroom makes teachers less objective, when we teach with love we are better able to respond to the unique concerns of individual students, while simultaneously integrating those concerns into the classroom community. When teachers work to affirm the emotional well-being of students, we are doing the work of love… However, there are times when conscious teaching—teaching with love—brings us the insight that we will not be able to have a meaningful experience in the classroom without reading the emotional climate of our students and attending to it. bell hooks
When we teach with love, combining care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, we are often able to enter the classroom and go straight to the heart of the matter. That means having the clarity to know what to do on any day to create the best climate for optimal learning. Teachers who are wedded to using the same teaching style every day, who fear any digression from the concrete lesson plan, miss the opportunity for full engagement in the learning process. They are far more likely to have an orderly classroom where students obey authority. They are far more likely to feel satisfied because they have presented all the information that they wanted to cover. And yet they are missing the most powerful experience we can offer. bell hooks
Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. bell hooks
To be introduced to bell hooks is to be introduced to the radical idea that theory can heal our wounds. Amilcar Cabral tells us that theory needs to be put to the service of humanity, to improve the realities of life for those who have been cast into the sacrifice zone, those who has been made wretched of this earth. hooks tells us that we can use theory to heal ourselves and the world. Theory is more than spouting long and complicated words in books and articles hidden behind paywalls, in stuffy conference rooms and staff seminars. Theory is also a way to make new worlds possible beyond this wretched one.
I came to theory because I was hurting— the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend— to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing. bell hooks
Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end. bell hooks
Possibility Continues to be Possible
In thinking around the non-neutral nature of education and how to disrupt this, there are often pushbacks that arise from the need to violently re-assert the status quo and the comfort that comes with that… for some. What bell hooks shows us through her work is that new worlds are possible through theory and education, but accepting discomfort is the least we can do to usher in these new and just worlds. Hard work done with love will yield rewards… but this work is hard. It is hard. It is harder when we are forced to do it alone and in the face of violent pushbacks.
I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: “We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.” bell hooks
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom…to transgress. bell hooks
bell hooks taught us and here we are
I want to end this post where I started from. bell hooks inspired an entire generation of thinkers. She is an ancestor now. Her work is done. That work is ours now. But it is not ours alone. It has never been ours alone. We stand together, on the shoulders of giants. We continue their work, not just for ourselves, but as an act of love to build new realities and worlds for ‘anonymous generations to come.’
I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that here is something there for them when they arrive. Ntozake Shange
“Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the worlds you cannot live within.” Ruha Benjamin
In conclusion, I borrow words from Andrea A Davis to say that bell hooks gives us the tools and words that help us find, “a way to see, to hurt, to feel, but also a way to dream, to move, to sit still, to live in relation, and not possession… a way to be.”
Rest in power bell hooks. You have taught us how to be free. Your work is done.
Benjamin, Ruha, Troy Duster, Ron Eglash, Nettrice Gaskins, Anthony Ryan Hatch, Andrea Miller, Alondra Nelson et al. Captivating Technology. J. Brown,“Black Utopias, 2019.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Toward a race-conscious pedagogy in legal education.” Nat’l Black LJ 11 (1988): 1.
Gordon, Lewis R. Freedom, justice, and decolonization. Routledge, 2020.
hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A pedagogy of hope. Vol. 36. Psychology Press, 2003.
hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical wisdom. Routledge, 2010.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 2014.