To Read bell hooks Was to Love Her
By Tao Leigh Goffe, Vulture. DEC. 17, 2021
bell hooks taught the world two things: how to critique and how to love. Perhaps the two lessons were both sides of the same coin. To read bell hooks is to become initiated into the power and inclusiveness of Black feminism whether you are a Black woman or not. With her wide array of essays of cultural criticism from the 1980s and 1990s, hooks dared to love Blackness and criticize the patriarchy out loud; she was generous and attentive in her analysis of pop culture as a self-proclaimed “bad girl.” Sadly, the announcement of her death this week, at 69, adds to a too-long list of Black thinkers, artists, and public figures gone too soon.
Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
Publishing over 30 books over the course of her career, perhaps the most well-known is her first, Ain’t I a Woman. Referencing Sojourner Truth’s famous words, hooks drew a direct line between herself and the radical tradition of outspoken Black women demanding freedom. Before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” in 1991, hooks exemplified the importance of the interlocking nature of Black feminism within freedom movements, weaving together the histories of abolitionism in the United States, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights era. She refused to let white feminism or abolitionist men alone define this chapter of America’s past. Finding power and freedom in the margins, she lived a feminist life without apology by centering Black women as historical figures.
Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992)
I love teaching the timeless essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” from this collection above all because it is the first one of hers I read as a college sophomore. In it, she reflects on what she overhears as a professor at Yale about so-called ethnic food and interracial dating. In some ways, the through-line of hooks’s writing can be summed up here, in the way she examines what it means to consume and be consumed, especially for women of color. In another essay from the collection, “The Oppositional Gaze,” hooks taught her readers the subversive power of looking, especially looking done by colonized peoples; drawing on the writings of Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, and Stuart Hall, she grappled with the power of visual culture and its stakes for domination in the lives of Black women, in particular. (She mentions that she got her start in film criticism after being grossed out by Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.) Her criticism shaped feminist film theory and continues to be celebrated as a crucial way to understand the politics of looking back.