A Story of bell hooks

A Story of bell hooks

Peitho Volume 21 Issue 2, Winter 2022

Author(s): Hephzibah Roskelly

Hephzibah Roskelly taught for nearly 30 years in the English Department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She moved back to Kentucky when she retired and now teaches classes for UNCG’s continual learning program and works with area high school teachers. Her latest book is a group of essays on teaching in high school and the university. Following bell hooks’ advice about risk, she occasionally gives a sermon at her Episcopal church. 

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The first thing you had to know about her was that she spelled her name in all lower case letters. bell hooks. Writing a syllabus, or an article, you had to correct the auto-correct when you typed. Of course, it made you hyper-conscious of her name. But it was neither a rhetorical trick nor a mannerism, I think. Instead, it was an argument, one she maintained throughout her life. It was a way of saying we were all—speaker and listener, teacher and student—one, alike in our smallness, alike in our uniqueness. If we can see ourselves as lower case listeners, helpers, lovers, and friends, she implies, we move beyond what separates us. We might move beyond Class, Gender, Race and the ugly negatives those big words call up—injustice, inequality, intolerance.  We could take up instead the truly big ideas of mutual respect and connection. 

Like many in our field, I first encountered bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress. The book changed my teaching life. She was frank, so refreshing, as she spoke about racism and the walls of custom and distance teachers must break down. “I celebrate teaching that enables transgression,” she proclaimed, echoing Freire. “It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.” Reading her, I felt her honesty. I felt I knew her.  

I got the chance several years later.  She came to my university for three days as part of a two-year program on race and gender, which had brought together twenty or so professors across disciplines.  My colleague Ben and I met her at the airport, and we took her to lunch.  She had a merry face and spoke with energy and humor about her work. But I truly realized how engaged she was when, at the end of our meal she looked across the table with a little smirk. “Why haven’t you asked me about Kentucky?” she said. “You’re a Kentucky girl too.” She laughed, and I, surprised that she knew about me, stammered something and laughed too.   Driving back to the building on campus where she was to stay, she asked about shopping in town. “I see a TJ Maxx over there,” she smiled. So we shopped. Ben stood in the front of the store while bell and I looked for candle-holders and soap and undergarments. We bought bras. By the time I took her to the little pink and frilly room in the Faculty Center, it seemed we were friends.  

The next day at the workshop, she began with a question for all of us seated in our large circle. “Tell me one thing that’s great about you,” she began. We went around the circle. I was the second one to speak. “I’m a loyal friend,” I said. She looked hard at me. “That’s not enough,” she told me. Or something very like. I was a little stunned, a bit hurt. We completed the opening discussion, everyone offering something, no one challenged but me.  

The workshop was invigorating, thrilling even. Her talk the next night electrified her audience, many of them students. I thanked her enthusiastically; someone else took her to the airport. bell was all I had thought her to be from my reading. But it took me awhile to understand her message—and it was that—to me. She knew, I finally came to see, that I hadn’t been honest. I had given a suitable answer and a “true” one, but not a vulnerable one. You can’t be a friend unless you show your self. 

bell’s point—consistently her point—was that dismantling racism, ending patriarchy, finding justice—required mutuality. We have to become vulnerable to the people around us if we would build trust and make change. She was authentic and vulnerable, and she demanded that we—I—be. Teaching to Transgress is an extended example of how this mutuality can happen. She asked teachers to let the guard down, to use real lived experience in order to show students how to use theirs. I knew that; I hadn’t trusted it.   

The list of her books shows her topics to be far-ranging, as they move from education to art and toward spirituality. I believe she uses a wide lens and a variety of locations to explore an essential, single point. People must transgress—break down barriers, both external and internal—in order to see. In All About Love religious leaders and philosophers like Thich Nhat Hanh fuel her discussion of the varieties of and the paths to love. Once we see and let ourselves be seen, she tells us, we can love. She knew well Freire’s comment that education is “an act of love and therefore an act of courage.” Teachers, leaders, artists, learners and lovers all have to risk ourselves. Whether in a classroom or a board room, a prison or a chapel, for bell hooks, it’s all about love. Always lower case.