bell hooks

We’ll Never Be Done Learning From bell hooks

Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times/Redux

In her lifetime, the groundbreaking feminist theorist bell hooks authored over 40 books. hooks, who died this week at 69, was a prolific and incisive writer who examined race, class, gender, media and art across multiple genres, including literary criticism, children’s fiction, and memoirs. As a writer, teacher, and thinker, she was a pioneer of intersectional feminism, working to make space for Black and working women’s voices in a discourse of middle-class feminism that excluded them. Her work influenced a new generation of writers, giving them permission to write with joy, intimacy, and resistance. Most importantly, her work ensured there was a space for them. “I think of bell hooks as being pivotal to an entire generation of Black feminists who saw for the first time that they had license to call themselves Black feminists,” Kimberle Crenshaw, a Columbia law professor and a leading scholar in critical race theory, told the New York Times. “She was utterly courageous in terms of putting on paper thoughts that many of them have had in private.”

We asked writers to share the books and essays that have had a lasting impact.

‘I became a feminist because of bell’

I wouldn’t be a writer without bell hooks. By the time I met bell in the early ’90s, her work had already entered me and changed me. I had already read Ain’t I a Woman. Sisters of the Yam taught me the value and power of sisterhood and communal healing through providing a safe space for Black women to heal the “world of hurt” inside us.

I became a feminist because of bell. I eventually took a job as writer in residence at Berea College, where she was a scholar in residence, in part to be closer to her. I can’t claim to have been her best or closest friend — she had so very many intimate relationships — but every time she invited me into her living room and we sat and talked, I felt special and smarter somehow. After each visit, I drove back to Lexington from her home in Berea buzzing — motivated to make a change, to write more, to resist, to be more comfortable in my own skin. She was my friend and didn’t like me to refer to her as my mentor or teacher, but still she taught me. —Crystal Wilkinson, author of Perfect Black and The Birds of Opulence 

‘She confirmed I could be a writer’

I encountered bell hooks on the page for the first time as a teenager. I wrote a long research paper on Black feminist thought as a high-school senior; one of my primary texts was her Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery was a revelation. It gave a name to my melancholy, and it affirmed that my emotional interior was worthy of both attention and careful tending. Reading her work reinforced my desire to be both audacious and self-reflexive, to live large in spite of the daily demands for my smallness. Reading bell hooks confirmed that I could be a writer, and that the rich world of Black women’s thoughts, feelings, and musings was a worthy starting point for literature. —Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill

‘She gave me permission to give love generously’

I first read bell hooks after sneaking All About Love from my mother’s bookshelf while I was in middle school. It was the first thing I’d read that gave me a way to understand love’s overwhelming clutch on my sensibilities. It was the first thing I’d read that gave me permission to be sensitive and to give love generously in a world that makes love feel unnatural. bell hooks’s scholarship, her criticism, her prose have given permission to generations of artists and thinkers in perpetuity: Now we have love as a lens by which to evaluate our world, a lens rooted in something fundamentally opposed to the oppressions that keep us exhausted. We are a different people today, simply because she touched us. —Camonghne Felix, author of Build Yourself a Boat

‘I was marveled by her self-permission’

I didn’t go to college. When I was 26, I picked up Feminism Is for Everybody, and it concretized and evolved my thinking entirely. Over the next six weeks, I did nothing but read every single bell hooks book in a fugue state. That was my college. It was introduction to Black feminism and it was an entire education itself. I was marveled by hooks’s self-permission and wondered how she got so free, how she untangled all this vital thought. There is a line at the end of the introduction to Will to Change where she writes about how women are waiting for men to die so they can truly live, and I suddenly wept reading that. She mapped the deepest emotional grief of patriarchy, named that desperation so plainly. How to get that free? How to help others get that free? The other great endowment of her work was showing me that my feminism needed to be powered by love, not a roiling rage, if it was going to sustain me or my work — that too was a revelation that gave me an entire life. —Jessica Hopper, author of Night Moves

‘She gave me a language’

There are so many texts I go back to of hers that it’s hard to choose one, but the one I’ve been going to a lot lately as I work on my own book is her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Not even to quote it as much as keeping it as what a friend recently called a “talisman,” a reminder of who raised me and what feminist praxis I’m rooted in. I first read it as an undergrad in the late 1990s, and it had a profound impact on how I thought about and saw myself in feminism. She gave me a language and accessibility that I was hard-pressed to find in the other feminist theory I was reading in college. Later, when I was working on my first book about dating and feminism, I continued to revisit this book, even though she’d written several on love and marriage. I went back to this quote, the core of so much of how we think about patriarchy and love and our own agency: “Whenever domination is present love is lacking.” —Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of Outdated and editor of Nasty Women

‘She refused simplification’

The first time I read Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, it felt like the top of my head was coming off. That book is everything you could want from theory, or even poetry: fierce, graceful, prophetic, clear-eyed. It refused simplification. It was so brilliant, so precisely right. I was outraged: My whole life this book had existed, and I was only finding it now. I was also immediately grateful for what she had done. I am grateful to never be without her ideas and writing again. —Jordan Kisner, author of Thin Places

‘I’m so grateful for her wisdom’

I keep this photo of bell hooks pinned to the bulletin board above my desk at City College for inspiration and courage as a Black woman in the academy. When I am met with hostility, racism, belittlement, or pettiness (which is often), I reach for this quote: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” Though I hate that we are still fighting the same battles she fought, I’m so grateful for her wisdom. —Emily Raboteau, author of The Professor’s Daughter and Searching for Zion

‘Her books acknowledged my pain’

I first encountered hooks in college. I used to visit this women’s lounge on-campus that had a library full of social-justice books, and that’s where I discovered All About Love. Up until that point, I was filled with a lot of anger — at the people who’ve wronged me, at my position in society, basically at the world — and I didn’t know what to do with it. So, I turned that anger outwards in a way that I considered righteous, all while wondering why my personal relationships suffered. All About Love turned that all around. It taught me that moving in love is the clearest way to create a better world. It acknowledged my pain, but also instilled in me the will to change my circumstances. And by putting her philosophy into practice, I gained a deeper understanding of myself and the people — friends, lover, enemies —around me, just by shutting up, listening, and doing the work necessary. This book changed my life. —Kaila Philo, political reporter based in Washington, D.C.

‘Reading hooks was a revelatory experience’

Reading Killing Rage: Ending Racism in college was a revelatory experience for me. It was a clear examination of the systems of domination that work together to make freedom an elusive outcome for Black people. As a teen, it was one of the first things I read that spelled it out. It helped me understand the world around me in new ways. I am eternally grateful for the care that hooks poured into her writing. I know that I and many of my peers were indelibly shaped by her work, and I know that will be the case for generations to come. —Diamond Sharp, author of Super Sad Black Girl

‘Her work cracked open the door’ of feminism

How many of us would be feminists if not for bell hooks? I encountered her in college, in a critical-theory class, a small speck of brown on a blindingly white syllabus. I studied theory for its challenge, for the ways it prodded and alienated me. I never saw myself in it, never thought about the ways it would change me if I did. For most of my life until then, I had held feminist beliefs, but I considered its sisterhood closed off to me, even hostile. Their feminism was not my feminism. Maybe mine was something else? I thought. Her work cracked open the door, beckoned me inside. Like the best writers, she challenged us, always telling the truth even when we didn’t want to hear it. May we be continually up to the task of loving her — as she taught us, as she did us. —Zinzi Clemmons, author of What We Lose

‘She gave out what she knew, when she knew it’

I delved into bell hooks and her work during the early-to-mid-2010s. Where We Stand: Class Matters helped me understand my early life, being poor for the entirety of it, and facing the structures and systems head-on as an adult. But hooks’s most memorable piece to me was her conversation with Lil’ Kim for the 1997 cover story of Paper magazine: “Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low With Lil’ Kim.” I sometimes wish I was of age during that era to have read this in real time. Knowing how much vitriol was aimed at Lil’ Kim for being herself and how she was responsible for moving the needle, as far as what forms of self-expression from visible Black women are accepted and ridiculed then and now, reading a back-and-forth between her and bell hooks was probably even more mind-blowing back then. hooks’s works are simple, studied, and passionate. She made theory accessible, concise, and digestible to everybody — and did so with a sense of urgency. She gave out what she knew, when she knew it, so that we could, too. She was a light. —Ivie Ani, editor-in-chief and director of Amaka Studio

‘She taught me to ask hard questions’

Long before social media, before viral TikToks and before blogs, bell hooks showed us how Black women intellectuals can critically engage with the world and write for the people far beyond the narrow confines of academia. She taught me that black feminism isn’t just about analyzing interlocking systems of domination; it’s also about acknowledging the full range of our inner lives and intimate relations. Much has been said about her emphasis on love, but hooks also viewed love as rooted in spiritual practice. As an academic and a writer, her work gave me the permission I felt I needed to openly engage with themes of spirituality and the realm of the unseen. Books like All About Love and Sisters of the Yam weave together powerful ideas about the role of interiority and spirituality in our individual and collective healing.

bell hooks also taught me to ask hard questions — including questions about her widely influential work. I strongly disagreed, for example, with her controversial description of Beyoncé as a terrorist. But that disagreement itself reflects the influence of hooks’s work on love and her call for us to acknowledge the perils of harm expressed between and toward Black women. Perhaps, most of all, bell hooks continues to teach me that in a society built on centuries of violence, the work of healing ourselves and our communities is unceasing. —Crystal Marie Fleming, sociologist and author of Rise Up!: How You Can Join the Fight Against White Supremacy

This post has been updated.

We’ll Never Be Done Learning From bell hooks