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Even as we mourn bell hooks, let’s celebrate her legacy

Urvashi Butalia writes: bell hooks helped create a feminist movement that is rich in theoretical and practical questions, stringent critiques and deep, emotional bonds

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
Updated: December 22, 2021 9:27:30 am
bell hooks was vocal in her critique of white feminism which, she felt, had wilfully ignored the plight of black women. (C R Sasikumar)

Years ago, on a visit to England, and long before I became aware of black feminism, I bought bell hooks’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Written, at least partially, when she was 19 and published 10 years later, the book became one of the most read works on feminism in many parts of the world.

In choosing the title of her book, hooks proudly claimed her feminist heritage and drew on a speech, given in 1851, by another black woman activist, Sojourner Truth at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. In later years, this title, like that of another profoundly important book for black feminism, This Bridge Called My Back, would go on to become like talismans for black feminists.

hooks was to go on to write many more books on a range of subjects and to lead a full, rich, feminist life that ended with her untimely death last week at the age of 69.

Although we never met, but for me, as someone who came to feminism in the Seventies in India, bell hooks became a distant but close fellow traveller and it was through her work, as much as it was through the work of writers like Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Toni Morison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Ellen Kuzwayo and others that I became aware of black feminism and its differences with white feminism.

At the time, in what has come to be called the global north, black women’s groups mobilised to challenge and critique what they saw as the hegemony of white feminists.

Bell Hooks was vocal in her critique of white feminism which, she felt, had wilfully ignored the plight of black women.

The connections she drew between race, class, gender presaged what another black feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw, would later name as the intersectionality of feminism. At the same time, hooks cautioned that a critique of white feminism did not mean a rejection of feminism — which she called a “movement to end sexism and sexual exploitation”.

Sexism, she would go on to say in speeches and writings, was something women had so internalised that often they did not even realise its presence, but racism was something you felt on the skin, in the body, the heart. In many ways, the raising of the subject of race and gender resonates with the debates that Indian feminism is confronted with today on the subject of caste and gender.

As bell hooks went from being a student to teacher, thinker, theorist, black activist, educator, and so much more, her interests expanded. She wrote movingly, passionately and simply, to communicate about all the issues that concerned her: Love, freedom, pedagogy, the classroom as a space for revolutionary thought and transgression, patriarchy, masculinity, children, poetry and so much more.

In a speech some years ago, she said that there was “no more important historical moment to talk about men and patriarchy” than the present, pointing to a State (this was in the Trump era) that was committed to re-institutionalising patriarchy at a deep level while paying lip-service to its removal publicly. Her words have an uncanny resonance with so many of our realities.

Thinkers and activists like bell hooks are rare, and for that, they are also precious. One of hooks’s strengths were her methods of communication — simple, unthreatening, funny, personal and filled with stories that, in a wonderful sleight of hand, connected to the larger questions that trouble all of us: What did it mean to love? How could one transcend anger? Why was there such strong resistance to patriarchy? What did it mean to talk of family values? What should education be? What was it like to be a black man, a black boy, in America and why were we not talking about men, to men?

Like other black feminist thinkers, hooks was also deeply connected to her community. Her life journeys through the halls of so many elite academic institutions led her back eventually to her home in Berera in Kentucky where she continued to read, write, educate and spread her words and her wisdom.

The Sixties and Seventies were moments of great political turmoil and student movements across the world. For feminists who came to feminism in those years, the presence of such movements offered a ready space to step into, a model of resistance that they could adapt and transform into their own. With their commitment and their passion, they created movements rich in theoretical and practical questions, in stringent critiques and deep, emotional bonds, in friendships and solidarity across borders.

In the death of bell hooks, we have lost yet another of these precious thinkers and actors. But even as we mourn her death (for she had so much more to give) we need to celebrate the plenty she left us with — as food for both thought and action.

As her hero, Sojourner Truth said in her speech: “If the first woman God made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up. And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2021 under the title ‘ The woman she was’. The writer is publisher, Zubaan.

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