An Open Letter to bell hooks

An Open Letter to bell hooks

Peitho Volume 24 Issue 2, Winter 2022

Author(s): Abhiruchi Chatterjee

Abhiruchi Chatterjee is a Graduate student of Gender Studies at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad, India. She has a Master’s degree in International Relations and an undergraduate degree in Political Science. She is a Gender & Development consultant, having worked with International Development Agencies like the UN as well as grassroots civil society in India, on various tenets of gender and social justice. The views expressed here are of her own and were first shared during a memorial webinar on Remembering bell hooks, organized by the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad on December 20, 2021.     

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Dear bell hooks, 

I pray that you rest now. Finally. For rest is a difficult feat- as a feminist activist, as a woman, a woman of color.  

As students of Gender Studies, although we were introduced to your writings only now, reading them gave us the air of conversing with a pen pal on the other side of the world – physically distant, but emotionally intimate. 

For you write from the heart, you write from experience. You forefront your experience, your location in theorising, instead of abstracting it – the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” gave so many of us the vocabulary to locate our oppressions and to leverage our lived experiences as valuable forms of knowledge.  

Before I moved to Gender Studies, my disciplinary training lay in International Relations and Political Science. As an early-career scholar and student of color located in the developing world, in studying these disciplines, a lingering feeling remained – of being small and insignificant in front of all the grand eurocentric theories and theorists that felt beyond my control and agency, so far removed that how could I make a difference. You taught me that the answers laid in unravelling my location, right where I was. Your approach of “theory as a liberatory practice” made theory accessible. Not just that, it provided me the language to articulate and name my oppressions, and locate how I engage with them. It provided a bridge for lived realities, for those eroded to the background – nuts and bolts in the grand machinery, invaluable, but invisibilized, to find space in knowledge formation and production. In theorizing and visibilizing the experiences of your self, your community and location, you gave others courage to do the same, and for that we are grateful. 

Your journey, from growing up in a racially segregated US South, to finding writing as an emancipatory tool, to the accomplished author and activist you left the world as, illuminates the possibility and joy in healing from pain. Encouraging looking within, granting ourselves power, celebrating our accomplishments, while being aware of the ways “interlocking systems of domination” are designed to make us feel inferior, aspiring to be something that we are not – the internalized patriarchy, racism, casteism. My journey, as a young woman, hurting, feeling encaged, in neo-colonial, neo-liberal patriarchies that operate even in overtly democratic egalitarian spaces towards one that recognized the intersections of various structures that made me feel not good enough, no matter my achievement, and the awareness that this brought in the way I could self-determine my worth and heal in the way I now engage with these structures in my lived reality. 

One of the outcomes of that journey in understanding the intersecting systems at play, was the need to do so within a framework and not let it be a solitary exercise. And that emancipatory, liberating space was found for me, as for you, in the classroom. Entering the Gender Studies classroom created a safe space for the diversity of our experiences and connected our individual realities and locations to broader frameworks.  

Thank you for centering democracy, participation and presence in pedagogy, rather than hierarchy in teaching. The other day we were analyzing your seminal work on “Oppositional Gaze” in class and each of us brought our layers, beyond the original text – from queer, disability, caste, religion, neurodivergent and so many other perspectives that propounded the meaning of the term. It was possible because each of us was able to put our lens to the term, which would not have been possible in a linear pedagogy that negated our presence. 

One of my friends, a PhD research scholar, who is now discovering the joy of teaching, found the classroom a space for subversion and transgression, in an increasingly stifling discourse in familial and community spaces she has to live in, and finds power, in her capacity as the teacher, to transform the hierarchical and gendered way family conversations and community discussions take place. 

You may not be with us physically, but your words have immortalized you. Rest now, for you have been heard. Rest peacefully, for the flame that your works have sparked in our minds, in the ways that we engage with the everyday, in seeing experience as a critical category, each in our own realities and locations, will keep your legacy alive.  

Thank you, for making us feel less alone about our oppressions, agencies and locations, for feeling seen and validated in the face of multiple oppressions that serve to deny your existence to erasure is one of the key leverages in negotiating power.