Tribute | Bell hooks: Feminist, sister, ally

Her writings on love and abandonment, rage and justice, feminism and healing, struck a chord with us all

The last couple of years will be remembered for the incredible void it created — individual and collective, personal and political, spectacular and ordinary. But nothing prepared us for the untimely death of bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), author, teacher, professor, feminist, and a black woman who made it count in white supremacist America. hooks was remarkable — she insisted on writing her name in lower case, something that I found hard to explain to the editors of my book when they insisted on standardisation. Some women refuse to be standardised, even by multi-million dollar publishing houses, and hooks was one of them.

Her writings resonated across the globe, reaching the farthest corners, in a voice that was distinctly black and overwhelmingly woman. She wrote of love, justice, feminism, teaching, living, politics, and mounted a scathing criticism of white liberal feminism, holding those in power accountable to those they claim to represent, or erase. She hammered the last nail in the coffin of universal sisterhood when she wrote: “Privileged-class white women swiftly declared their “ownership” of the movement, placing working-class white women, poor white women, and all women of color in the position of followers.”

Electrifying hooks

What was it about hooks that gave her such a wide readership? If testimonies on social media are anything to go by, women of all age, location, space, read her, nodding in agreement, tearing up, and resolving to carry on as they found their lives written on those pages. Her writings on the possibilities of love and its abandonment, on rage and justice, on feminism and healing, struck a chord with us all — women facing patriarchal norms and disciplining, and paralysed by an inability to grasp the world. An inability that emerges from a bewilderment. A bewilderment that cannot comprehend a world that devalues traditional femininity and yet hates the deviant female. A world designed to exploit, extract and profit from the lives and labour of women.

For many, hooks was not just a powerful feminist writer, but also a sister and ally. In All About Love, she cajoled us into trying again, into loving again, urging us not to curl in but to open ourselves up to a world that recognises and respects vulnerabilities and differences. One can imagine the electrifying effect hooks has on young adults, particularly in India, growing up in patriarchal families that normalise violence and abuse as love and care, when she writes “…the intensity of our woundedness often leads to a closing of the heart, making it impossible for us to give or receive the love that is given to us.” She also teaches us that absence of justice makes love impossible and the absence of love is antithetical to justice. She urges us to forgive and to love again.

End to inequalities

In the past few decades, neo-liberal feminism has imagined a world strangely at odds with a vision of feminism that envisages a transformation in consciousness. While the former talks of inclusion of certain kinds of women in hegemonic structures, hooks’ brand of feminism calls for an end to caste, race, gender and sexuality-based inequalities that govern the ways we inhabit the world. Her searing critique of reformist feminism foregrounds how working-class racialised feminine labour formed the basis on which bourgeois (as well as white/ upper-caste) women secured a degree of freedom within the existing system for themselves.

For me and many feminist teachers/ practitioners, her book Teaching to Transgress left an indelible mark at the core of our beings. She taught us that critical pedagogy meant perceiving students as not receivers of compartmentalised knowledge but as seekers who “want an education that is healing to the uninformed, unknowing spirit. They do want knowledge that is meaningful.” She urged feminist teachers to make women’s studies classrooms a site of resistance, based on curriculums that do not reflect dominant ideologies but question them.

Her words never rang truer than in the current environment where women’s and gender studies programmes across the globe have taken a conservative turn, particularly in the global north where liberal feminism has allied with militaristic and supremacist ideologies by targeting Asian women, particularly Muslim women, as objects of feminist campaigning, thus strengthening neo-imperialism.

Radical classrooms

For her, the classroom was a space where marginalised students would speak of their experience of theory, practice and politics. And she declared it was these utterances that frightened teachers who continue to perceive students as mere consumers of knowledge. She wrote, “Many professors have conveyed to me their feeling that the classroom should be a “safe” place; that usually translates to mean that the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on.”

In India (as much elsewhere), where academic institutions are central to reproducing inequalities rather than dismantling them, education has always been a pathway to producing good workers and citizens. It ensures that the middle-class and/ or upper-caste continues to take advantage of the social and cultural capital granted to them through inter-generational privileges. Her statement that “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” has inspired many feminist scholars and teachers (including me) not to quit academics, even when our spirits were broken by the systemic sexism, casteism and homophobia rampant in our universities.

As feminist teachers and practitioners, we remain indebted to hooks, for she has taught us that the goal of transformative pedagogy is to create a democratic classroom where everyone takes ownership of learning, where everyone is an agent. hooks has given us, a whole generation of feminist teachers and educators, a language — to express, to resist and to transform.

The writer teaches anthropology and gender studies at Krea University, Sri City.

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