On the passing of bell hooks (1952–2021)
Published in The State, December 17, 2021
Iconic Black feminist author, teacher, and activist bell hooks has joined the ancestors. As scholars and teachers in Black Studies, we are grateful for her example: her pathbreaking scholarship, her incisive public-facing writings, her relentless political and cultural activism, and her deep commitment to teaching across all levels. From these avenues of her storied career, she touched countless souls and transformed innumerable minds. She moved us.
Any serious thinker over the past forty years interested in film, visual art, feminism, pedagogy, and the politics of emotion have grappled with her wide-ranging and prolific brilliance, as has any serious person committed to social justice for oppressed people everywhere. At the intersection of these commitments was bell hooks’s work in Black feminist cultural criticism, which gave us the very terminology that we use in our teaching and scholarship every day, including “white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.”
bell hooks also taught us about love: how it can be practiced and where it can be theorized, as well as its yet-unrealized possibilities when delimited by the forces of racism, sexism, and classism. She famously stated that love is an action, not a feeling, and that love, rather than only an interpersonal sentiment, can be “the most powerful antidote to the politics of domination.” In such a conception of love, specifically the love of and for Black women, bell hooks conjoined in jargon-free terms how lived experience and reality always go together with the dream-like possibilities of the not-yet-here. For bell hooks, such entwinement began from Black feminism and Black-centered pedagogy, but her love-bound practice spilled behind these social formations as well, as exemplified by the title of one of her many influential books, Feminism is For Everybody (2000).
When the announcement of bell hooks’ earthly departure was saturated across social media, we pulled her books from our shelves to glance upon her words as a way to thank her for being a part of our foundation to Black feminist thought. We turned ruffled pages to reminisce on underlined sentences within Teaching to Transgress (1994). bell hooks embellished the understanding of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy with the empowerment of Black feminism and radical thought. Scribbled comments attached to underlined sentences decorated with exclamation points, “Amens,” and asterisks assured us that we were in the right profession. bell hooks emphasized the freedom to teach while Black. She also emphasized the freedom to teach while pro-Black. She reflected love by giving homage to the Black women writers and scholars that shared her intellectual space to bring forth the power to love the students in our classrooms.
This season has already been marked by the inestimable losses of so many giants of Black culture and scholarship: Albert Raboteau, Charles W. Mills, Virgil Abloh, Robert Farris Thompson, and Greg Tate. As we continue our year-long celebration of fifty years of African American Studies at the University of South Carolina, we collectively mourn and honor those who have made Black Studies the field it is today. Our vocational lives are impossible without the work, example, and abiding love of bell hooks.
Dr. Nancy Tolson, Assistant Director of African American Studies, University of South Carolina
Dr. Seulghee Lee, Assistant Professor of African American Studies & English, University of South Carolina