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20 December 2021

How bell hooks taught me that feminism is for everybody

For the author bell hooks, who has died aged 69, radical politics and gentleness of spirit went hand in hand.

By Elif Shafak

I don’t remember the first time I read bell hooks. What I do remember is that her passionate feminism had become an inseparable part of my thinking and activism by the time I reached my mid-twenties. I was in Istanbul, writing stories, but mostly struggling. As much as I loved the city, I was not sure I belonged. On the radio Tracy Chapman’s voice soared over the cries of seagulls, echoing my confusion: “I wanna wake up and know where I’m going”. Feminism had given me a map of the world but I still kept getting lost.  

That was when I began to read bell hooks, who died of kidney failure on 15 December aged 69, more carefully and intensely. Her words shifted something permanently in my soul; they inspired, encouraged and motivated me.

Years later it would be a sweet surprise to come across the same song lyrics quoted in a new essay by hooks. In her book, Belonging: A Culture of Place (1990), she writes: “Again and again as I travel around I am stunned by how many citizens in our nation feel lost, feel bereft of a sense of direction, feel as though they cannot see where our journeys lead, that they cannot know where they are going.”

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in a rural Kentucky town in 1952, she adopted a pen-name – bell hooks – that belonged to her maternal grandmother, although she would write hers always in small letters to keep the focus on her ideas over her identity. Intersectionality for hooks was neither an academic trend nor an abstract debate. It was at the core of her existence. It was life itself.

With a restless energy her writings explored inequalities and injustices – always plural, interconnected. She was an intellectual nomad, traveling deftly across disciplines and genres. Unlike many thinkers who preferred to stay in a safe cognitive bay, hooks dared to venture into uncharted waters. From race to class to gender, spirituality to universal human rights, collective memory to personal love, she wrote on a wide range of issues. She was one of our sharpest public intellectuals.  

[See also: Malala Yousafzai is right to find feminism and integrity in the institution of marriage]

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As much as she valued and treasured knowledge, cultural theory and the written word, bell hooks was closely tuned into oral culture and oral storytelling, cognisant of “ancestral wisdom”. Not many feminists of her generation followed this path, perhaps even fewer do so today. “Mating radical feminist politics with my urge to write, I decided early on that I wanted to create books that could be read and understood across different class boundaries,” hooks wroteShe imagined her audience as her mother, the person she “most wanted to convert to feminist thinking”. This quietly shaped her style. When the new edition of her groundbreaking 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism was published in 2014, it was a photo of her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, on the cover.  

Anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist, bell hooks was remarkably clear in her call to dismantle the institutions, norms and rhetoric of systemic discrimination. Yet at the same time, there was compassion in her approach. In her work, radical politics and gentleness of the spirit went hand in hand. She was a fighter who didn’t like wars. She wanted her work to heal – and heal us she did. In a recent interview she mentioned that every day she received a letter or a card from someone telling her how her work had touched or transformed them. But I had the feeling she mostly referred to American readers. I wonder if she ever knew how deeply her writings resonated with so many non-Western women. She believed in “sisterhood”, saying it “empowers women by respecting, protecting, encouraging and loving us.”  

In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989), hooks ends one of her essays with a quote from the Freedom Charter against racial domination in South Africa: “Our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting.” She showed generations of readers how similar silences, biases and discriminatory practices had pervaded the contemporary women’s liberation movement.  

hooks was very critical of the layers of racism found, either hidden or manifest, inside feminism – the walls that kept us apart, the widening distance from the centre to the margins. She eloquently questioned the way in which “white feminists tended to romanticise the black female experience rather than the negative impact of that oppression.” That oppression had two fundamental pillars: racism and sexism. The image of the always-strong black woman was part of the same problematic romanticisation.  

hooks was remarkably candid about her own bruises and scars, as well as her power, resilience and resistance. “All too often in our society, it is assumed that one can know all there is to know about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person.” 

[See also: In My Body, Emily Ratajkowski asks difficult questions about beauty and capitalism. Does she have any answers?]

Writing extensively on politics, society, masculinity, patriarchy, parenting and freedom, she never stopped defending the value of diversity, the need for a plurality of stories and experiences. A prolific writer of more than 40 titles, she traveled widely, giving talks and lectures. From poetry to essays to children’s books, her work was eclectic, reflecting the breadth and depth of her interests. Learning was endless, an ongoing journey, and at times it also involved the uncomfortable experience of unlearning, disassembling. It was important, hooks maintained, that we kept reading, sharing, becoming: “To end patriarchy… we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts.”

bell hooks knew it was easier to change minds than to change hearts. She dared to imagine a world where there would be no discrimination, no domination and no oppression. One of her most powerful works is Feminism is For Everybody (2000). “There has never been a time when I believed feminist movement should be and was a woman-only movement. In my heart of hearts I knew we would never have a successful feminist movement if we could not encourage everyone, female and male, women and men, girls and boys to come closer to feminism.” 

In an era when feminism is needed everywhere, in every corner of the world, and hard-won gains for women’s rights are being rolled back at an alarming rate, her words are more relevant and urgent than ever before. We can neither be disengaged nor indifferent. In an age of deepening inequalities – gender, racial, regional, class and digital – now is the time to connect with the works of bell hooks, to come closer, and see that feminism is for everybody.

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