Writer: Rachel Leong
Edited by: Harvinder Kaur and Clarissa Lilananda
Illustrations and Design by: Cindy Witono
“If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining.”
– bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000)
Before Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality came to the forefront of Black feminism, there was bell hooks. Her first book, Ain’t I A Woman? (1981), which she wrote as an undergraduate, is now recognised as a pioneering study of its time. The book traced Black feminism within contemporary society, locating their identity within history. Passing away late last year at the age of 69, the renowned writer, poet and activist has left behind a legacy for generations to come. In light of her death, we reflect on how her work has changed the face of feminism everywhere.
[Note: The capitalisation of Black takes the lead of The New York Times and other journalist sources. Dean Baquet and Phil Corbett of The Times explained in this article, “we believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.”]
bell hooks’ work paved the way for other feminist trailblazers such as Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde. Her work employed theories of class, race, gender, and history, writing in a way that made these concepts accessible and relatable to the general reader. Her writing allowed people to feel theory, not just understand them. Most prominently, bell hooks always incorporated love into her work – a love of justice – for your race, your gendered identity, and your community.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks was the pen name she adopted throughout her career. Using an alias was a power move in itself as she aimed to de-emphasise her individual identity so that her work could solely represent her community. She dedicated her life to the unity of togetherness and her legacy ensures that her work truly belongs to feminists everywhere.
bell hooks anchored love at the heart of all her writings. She hoped we could “live in a culture where love can flourish.” [All About Love] She believed that any difference to be made within the movements of racism, sexism, or classism must begin with a love for justice for that community. She believed that only by allowing your actions to come from a place of love, can change then happen.
“Individuals who want to believe that there is no fulfilment in love, that true love does not exist, cling to these assumptions because this despair is actually easier to face than the reality that love is a real fact of life but is absent from their lives.”
– bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (2000)
Her writings on love are beautiful, yet, almost uncomfortable to digest because they so powerfully give you no other choice but to face your own prerequisites. At the same time, bell hooks’ musings on love provided a narrative for new ways of giving and receiving love – placing love as a possibility in our public as well as our private lives.
Her book, All About Love, argues against the notion that “many of us believe that to speak of love with any emotional intensity means we will be perceived as weak and irrational”. She explained that a society rooted in love is antithetical to a community that has been structured around patriarchal domination. Emotion is a source of love, not weakness. She believed that the exchange of love is the most natural impulse to human beings – something infinitely more powerful than any hierarchical system imposed on society.
bell hooks’ distinct choice to reject the use of footnotes in her work emphasised that what she spoke of was intangible, and would not fit into the confines of a citation. She always referred to love and feeling as a grand force we were capable of – the absence of footnotes thus places her books as love letters to a community of people whom she loved deeply.
She believed that the exchange of love is the most natural impulse to human beings – something infinitely more powerful than any hierarchical system imposed on society.
The Patriarchal Nuclear Family
In the third chapter of Ain’t I A Woman?, she describes patriarchal systems ingrained in our communities, beginning from the home. bell hooks also challenged the subconscious gendered associations placed on the concept of love. In All About Love, she pointed out love was perceived as the stuff of fantasy, stating, “male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.” She radically challenged the way our society was moulded, questioning our ability to innately access and act from a place of love. She further argued the normalisation of the ‘privatised patriarchal nuclear family’ within society often transforms into dysfunctional family environments.
“The patriarchal nuclear family makes all its members dependent upon the male (father-husband). It is in this oppressive atmosphere, we grow up and are extremely sensitive to this hierarchy of power even as children. We realise, more than adults know, that our father (and society in his image, from policeman to doctor to president) is powerful, and that our mother is powerless. She has to scheme and manipulate through sympathy to get what she wants.”
Race and Gender
Regarding theories of race and gender, bell hooks’ work has been frequently credited as offering the vocabulary and freedom to marginalised individuals seeking justice. She disputed the way in which white women had always occupied the forefront of feminism, as this indirectly excluded women of colour from the discourse entirely. In Ain’t I A Woman?, she describes, “Black women were told that we should find our dignity not in liberation from sexist oppression but in how well we could adjust, adapt, and cope.”
“Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation. In fact I was saying just the opposite: that it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.”
– bell hooks, Marginality As a Site of Resistance (1990)
At the time of her writing in the late 20th century, Black feminism seemed to have gotten misplaced within the margins of wider feminist and racial discourse. In Ain’t I A Woman?, she points out with regards to Black feminism that “the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.”
She placed emphasis on the implementation of images within our culture. She revises the power of the cinematic gaze when it is applied to identities located within the diaspora. Her essay, “The Oppositional Gaze”, spoke about visual representation in pop culture and film. She describes the gaze of a black body as “repressed, denied, and ultimately interrogating.” Her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), further addressed general visual culture. She states, “the ‘we’ evoked [within culture] is all of us, black people/people of colour, who are daily bombarded by a powerful colonising whiteness that seduces us away from ourselves that negates that there is beauty to be found in any form of blackness that is not imitation whiteness.”
In All About Love, she pointed out love was perceived as the stuff of fantasy, stating, “male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.”
Most significantly, bell hooks addressed the harmful stance that scholars have adopted in the past; they had argued the most ‘damaging impact’ of slavery was that it did not allow Black men to assume traditional male roles. The statement implies that men were made to assume ‘feminine’ roles – this inadvertently painted the ‘masculine’ as superior, or the ‘good’. She urged us to remember that labelling something as ‘good’ subconsciously causes us to mark the other as ‘bad’. bell hooks’ work addresses men and masculinity with just as much strength and vigour as she did women’s issues, pointing out that to be the oppressor is just as dehumanising as is being the victim. So while she argued the biggest threat to patriarchy is women’s economic and psychological independence, we must also acknowledge the experiences of marginalised masculinity.
The work of bell hooks was seminal, not just for Black feminism but feminism everywhere too. She poised the issues of both women and men with grace – speaking to a wider audience while forging forward to make theory accessible to everyone. The power of bell hooks was her ability to look within as well as outside the margins of identity, addressing people and ideas with love. From her, we learn that love for justice can counter any injustice, and that any margin is not a limitation but a site of resistance.
“We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice.”
– Jet Magazine interview, 2013.