in memoriam

Reaching for bell hooks in the Darkness

Photo: Monica Almeida/The New York Ti​mes/Redux

Last week, someone stole my purse. I briefly left my car unlocked while I ran into an eatery for takeout, and when I got back inside, instinctively I reached for my bag. It was not there. I looked everywhere for it. Drove all over town, hoping I had merely left it somewhere, to be easily retrieved. It was gone. I did not see the thief, but I knew that something had been taken. I felt the loss, groaning internally over what it would mean to replace my license, credit cards, passport, vaccination cards.

I did not freak out, however. I was preternaturally calm. This has been a season of losing valuable things. The cards can be replaced. The people cannot.

I’m tired of losing people.

When word came that bell hooks, the feminist luminary to whom absolutely every feminist of my generation owes a significant debt, has passed on — to be honest, the news hit me in a space beyond feeling.

That is kind of how grief is feeling right now. Like reaching for something familiar, in the place where it should be and coming up empty. And then feeling incredulity at the idea, at the cold hard fact, that something has been taken. This thing that you need, that you were counting on to be there, is not.

Again, I am, as I write this, preternaturally calm. Incredulous actually.

bell hooks has died.

That is unfathomable. So I have ceased trying to make it fathomable. It is a feeling I have had over and over again for the last 21 months of pandemic living, upon hearing that mentors and friends and friends of friends have gone on, from pandemic-related causes or otherwise.

I did not personally know bell hooks. We had many people in common. I know she read a little of my work; I read and revered hers. I responded to the barrage of text messages informing me over and over again that she is gone by going into my makeshift home office and reaching for every single one of her books on my library shelves. Talking Back, Communion, Yearning, Killing Rage. I gathered them around me, remembering at least one story attached to each book, one experience. But still there are missing ones — I can picture them sitting in my actual office, at work, which due to both pandemic and professional circumstance, I have not seen in two years. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Breaking Bread, Bone Black, All About Love, Art on My Mind, Teaching to Transgress, Outlaw Culture. These books and so many more constitute a whole school of feminist thought all by themselves.

Feminists love bell hooks’s books like Jay-Z or Stevie Wonder aficionados love albums. We know these books inside and out. We can quote our favorite lines. We remember the season of our lives in which her books were our companions, our pocketbook-size preachers, always ready with a word.

I hope the missing books, of the many of hers I have come to love, will still be there. So much of this season has been just this feeling: hoping fervently that things are where we left them, that we can go back and pick up where we left off. To our great dismay, we keep on having to confront this dashed hope of a return to the way things were (things weren’t as they should be anyway). Then, we must deal with the full range of emotions about all that has been taken, all that cannot be recovered, all that has been sullied, touched against our will, forever and irreparably altered.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center is one of those books with a sense memory attached to it. Viscerally, I remember loving that book as a newly minted feminist, and reaming a white girl in a graduate seminar who dared to suggest that “surely bell hooks knew better,” when she had chosen not to include footnotes in many of her books of essays. I made sure my classmate knew better than to ever again mistake a Black feminist scholar’s intentional act of care for her audiences, folks who had never pursued graduate study, for a sloppy oversight.

It felt important to me then that folks understand that Black women intellectuals had a duty of care to their communities; how we said what we said would hit different, should hit different, because we weren’t ever trying to impress other academics. At least not exclusively. We were trying to help our people imagine a new way to be in the world. Wrangling over the presence or absence of bell hooks’s footnotes might cause us to miss all the ways we rely on Black women’s intellectual labor often without citing them.

It is hooks who coined the term white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Every single time we are able in public discourse to use that constellation of terms to name the clusterfuck of political circumstances in which we find ourselves, we should remember on whose shoulders we stand. Her name is bell hooks. She spent nearly half a century helping us  to both name things as they are, and then imagine how they could be.

Sometimes she was pushy about it, courting controversy, writing classic, provocative pieces like “Selling Hot Pussy” and “Penis Passion.” There was that one time that she called Beyoncé a terrorist — even I lost my shit with her over that. But feminism ain’t feminism, and revolutions aren’t revolutions, if we cannot sometimes disagree, and still find our way back to each other. bell always called us back to the table, as evidenced by her insistence on being in deep community with feminists young and old, reading our work, sending an encouraging word.

In the days to come, as my grief perhaps makes its way back to a space where I can feel it, I know I will continue to reach for bell’s books. I know I will be most careful to make sure that they are there where I left them, that they bear the marks that say they are mine. bell hooks left more of herself to all of us than any Black woman could ever owe to anybody. She did it as an act of love. What she left us cannot be taken from us. If you feel bereft, look at your bookcase. Grab one of her books. Do as Toni Morrison told us in the closing lines of Jazz: “Look where your hands are. Now.”

Our job is simply to remember to reach for her. If we do so, we will never come up empty.

Reaching for bell hooks in the Darkness