Writers share the lessons of the bell hooks

Photo: Joyce Dopkeen / The New York Times / Redux

During her lifetime, revolutionary feminist theorist Bell Hooks wrote over 40 books. hooks, who died this week at age 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 memoir . As a writer, teacher, and thinker, she pioneered intersectional feminism, working to make room for the voices of black and working women in a discourse of middle-class feminism that excluded them. His work has influenced a new generation of writers, giving them permission to write with joy, privacy and resistance. Most importantly, his work ensured that there was space for them. “I think the bell hooks are essential for a whole generation of black feminists who saw for the first time that they had the right to call themselves black feminists,” said Kimberle Crenshaw, Columbia law professor and prominent specialist in the critical theory of race. New York Time. “She was quite courageous in terms of writing down thoughts that many of them had had in private.”

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

I wouldn’t be a writer without bell hooks. By the time I met Bell in the early 90s, his work had already entered me and changed me. I had already read Am I not a woman. Yam sisters taught me the value and power of fellowship and community healing in providing a safe space for black women to heal the “world of suffering” within us.

I became a feminist because of Bell. I eventually accepted a writer-in-residence position at Berea College, where she was a student-in-residence, in part to be closer to her. I can’t claim to have been her best or closest friend – she had so many intimate relationships – but every time she invited me into her living room and we sat and chatted I felt special and smarter in somehow. After each visit, I drove back to Lexington from her home in Berea, motivated to change, to write more, to resist, to be more comfortable in my skin. She was my friend and didn’t like me calling her my mentor or my teacher, but she taught me anyway. – Crystal Wilkinson, author of Perfect black and The birds of opulence

I first encountered bell hooks on the page as a teenager. I wrote a long research paper on black feminist thought as a high school student; one of my main texts was she Am I not a woman: black women and feminism.

Sisters of the Yam: black women and self-recovery was a revelation. She named my melancholy and claimed that my emotional interior was worthy of both careful attention and care. Reading his work reinforced my desire to be both daring and self-reflective, to live tall despite the daily demands of my smallness. Reading the doorbell hooks confirmed that I could be a writer and that the rich world of thoughts, feelings, and reflections of black women was a good starting point for literature. – Naomi Jackson, author of The starry side of Bird Hill

I first read bell hooks after sneaking in All about love from my mom’s library while I was in college. It was the first thing I had read that allowed me to understand love’s overwhelming hold on my sensitivity. It was the first thing I read that gave me permission to be sensitive and to give love generously in a world that makes love unnatural. bell hooks scholarship, criticism, prose have given permission to generations of artists and thinkers in perpetuity: now we have love as a lens to assess our world, a lens rooted in something fundamentally opposed to the oppressions that exhaust us. We are a different people today, just because it touched us. – Camonghne Felix, author of Do you build a boat

I didn’t go to college. When I was 26, I picked up Feminism is for everyone, and that concretized and completely changed my thinking. Over the next six weeks, I did nothing but read every book on the bell hooks in a runaway state. It was my college. It was an introduction to black feminism and it was quite an education in itself. I marveled at Hooks’ self-permission and wondered how she had become so free, how she had disentangled all this vital thought. There is a line at the end of the introduction for Willingness to change where she writes about how women wait for men to die so they can really live, and I suddenly cried while reading this. She mapped out the deepest emotional heartache of the patriarchy, named that desperation so clearly. How do I get this for free? How do you help others get this for free? The other great richness of her work showed me that my feminism should be fueled by love, not by seething rage, if that was to support me or support my work – it was also a revelation that gave me a whole life. – Jessica Hopper, author of Night movements

There are so many of his texts that I keep coming back to that it’s hard to choose one, but the one I’ve read a lot lately while working on my own book is his 1984 book. Feminist theory: from the margin to the center. Not even to quote it as much as to keep it as what a friend recently called a “talisman,” a reminder of who raised me and what feminist praxis I am rooted in. it had a profound impact on the way I thought and saw myself in feminism. She gave me language and accessibility that I struggled to find in the other feminist theory I read in college. Later, as I worked on my first book on dating and feminism, I continued to revisit that book, even though she had written several on love and marriage. I came back to this quote, which is at the heart of so many of our thoughts on patriarchy, love, and our own free will: “Whenever domination is present, love is lacking. – Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of Outmoded and editor of Wicked women

The first time I read Feminist theory: from the margin to the center, I felt like the top of my head was coming off. This book is everything you could expect from theory, or even poetry: fierce, gracious, prophetic, lucid. He refused the simplification. It was so bright, so precisely to the right. I was outraged: all my life this book had existed, and I could only find it now. I was also immediately grateful for what she had done. I am grateful that I never do without his ideas and his writings again. – Jordan Kisner, author of Thin places

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 faced with hostility, racism, belittlement or meanness (which I often do) I look for this quote: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they see it and don’t want it to exist. While I hate that we always fight the same fights she fought, I’m so grateful for her wisdom. —Emily Raboteau, author of The teacher’s daughter and In Search of Zion

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 found out All about love. Until then, I was filled with a lot of anger – against the people who wronged me, against my position in society, mainly against the world – and I didn’t know what to do with it. So, I turned that anger outward in a way that I felt was right, while wondering why my personal relationships were suffering. All about love overturned it all. It taught me that moving in love is the clearest way to create a better world. It recognized my pain, but also instilled in me the will to change my situation. And by putting his philosophy into practice, I gained a better understanding of myself and the people – friends, lovers, enemies – around me, just by keeping quiet, listening and doing the necessary work. This book changed my life. – Kaila Philo, political reporter based in Washington, DC

Reading Killing Rage: Ending Racism going to college was an eye-opening experience for me. It was a clear examination of the systems of domination that work together to make freedom an elusive outcome for blacks. When I was a teenager, it was one of the first things I read that explained it. It helped me understand the world around me in a new way. I am eternally grateful for the care that the brackets have given to his writing. I know that many of my peers and I have been indelibly shaped by his work, and I know that will be the case for generations to come. – Diamond Sharp, author of Super sad black girl

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