bell hooks: Reflections

SHaME reflects on the death of bell hooks. We think about hooks’ legacy and influence on our own work.

The SHaME team is saddened to learn of the death of the luminary Black feminist scholar bell hooks. In this blogpost, members of the SHaME team reflect on hooks’ legacy and influence on their own work and that of the project more widely.


Dr Rhian Keyse:

“Our struggle for liberation has significance only if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people”.

These words, concluding the Introduction to bell hooks’ classic 1981 work, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, made a lasting impression on me as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate and aspiring socialist feminist scholar. In devouring the pages that followed, I found much more than material for the now long-forgotten essay I was writing. Reading her searing critique of the racism inherent in much white feminist thought, along with other Black feminist scholars such as Angela Y. Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave me the tools I needed to start examining my own feminism, and gave structure and substance to the discomforts I felt but could not yet express about the racism, classism, and hetero- and cis-centrism I observed in the student feminist movement of the late-2000s. In her inclusive articulation of the goals of feminism, and her demonstration of how racism and sexism were intertwined with other forms of oppression, hooks calls upon her readers to accept that they are ‘socialised to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialisation’. Her appeal for continuous self-reflection and unlearning is one lesson I try to apply to my scholarly work, no doubt with constant room for improvement.

Applying the lessons of hooks’ work only to scholarly activity, however, is to miss the point. Hers is a practical worldview, encouraging her readers to ‘assume responsibility for drawing women together in political solidarity’. I return to her work often when thinking through the necessary links between feminist scholarship and activism, and how I can use the platform and resources unfairly available to me as a white scholar in the global North to build solidarities with colleagues in the global South, and to further the aims of a feminism which is intersectional and internationalist in focus.

Finally, although hooks provides much food for thought in terms of the failings of the feminist movement to date, her focus on the place of love and solidarity in social movements provides a way of working through these questions. In her beautiful work All About Love: New Visions (2000), hooks notes the transformative power of love in social justice struggles. She advises that ‘to truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication’, ingredients which are surely necessary, yet often lacking, in activist circles. As she says, ‘always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word…automatically assumes accountability and responsibility’. In scholarship, and in activism, we need more love, solidarity, accountability and responsibility. Despite the passing of bell hooks, her work will endure as a roadmap for activists and scholars alike.


Dr George Severs:

Observing the outpouring of grief at her death, I have noticed a recurring theme: most of us cannot imagine a world without bell hooks. For most of us, there has never been such a time. I first encountered the works of bell hooks as an undergraduate at Royal Holloway, University of London. Better read students than me, who I met at feminist and other political meetings, used her work to make calls for truly intersectional understandings of the challenges which faced us (at that particular moment as part of the immediate post-2010 student movement). There are few thinkers who achieve such reach, but bell hooks was undoubtably one of the most impactful public intellectuals of not only my generation but of many generations. For that reason, it is hard to imagine the world without her.

But hooks’ work helps us to imagine alternative worlds in more positive and productive ways. Her work is consistently inflected with the spirit that the future can be different. I think this is why, in part, she is so influential to those of us working on the SHaME project; we too are invested in the intellectual work of imagining new worlds (namely, a world free from rape and sexual violence). hooks helps us to do that. In my own work, it is The Will to Change which has been among the most influential of hooks’ work. This book, as she put it, urges us ‘to reclaim feminism for men’ by ‘looking at the reasons patriarchy has maintained power over men and their lives’. By recognising this power, men could begin to undo patriarchy’s harmful effects both on themselves and others. ‘What the world needs now’, she argued, ‘is liberated men’. The intellectual and activist work required to imagine a rape-free world requires us to believe in (and see the possibilities of achieving) such liberation, and hooks helps us to see these possibilities.


Prof Joanna Bourke:

bell hooks has been an enduring presence in my life. I first read her 1981 classic Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. It was a time when white feminists of my generation were engaging with Maori and Polynesian activists. hooks was widely referenced in the struggle, providing a frame of meaning and a language to critique ourselves, whiteness, and the intersectional oppressions of race, gender, and class. Her empathy, solidarity, belief in love, and passion for creating coalitions has remained with me over the decades. hooks’ opposition to reformist and ‘lifestyle’ forms of feminism have been particularly powerful. It has driven my political identity as a socialist feminist. hooks’ definition of feminism, however, was always simple and uncompromising: feminism is ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’. It is a feminism that requires as well as inspires hands-on confrontations. When I first began teaching at university, I found her reflections on a ‘transformative pedagogy’ helpful. She constantly reminded me that the politics of teaching meant creating a ‘democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute’ (in her Teaching to Transgress). But, most of all, I learnt from her reflections on the art and activism of writing. hooks believed in the power of writing – of ‘narratives of resistance’ – where women can be healed and ‘where our souls can speak and unfold’ (from Remembering Rapture). bell hooks will continue to make us all think anew about creating more equitable worlds.