My friendship with bell hooks began in 2005, after bell moved to Berea, when we worked together to organize the 2006 summer conference for NCTE’s Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. Some 80 educators ended up participating in “Writing for Reconciliation,” and my time with bell planning and enacting the successful three-day conference forged a strong friendship.
Through the next years, bell visited my classes in writing, autobiography, literacy, and sustainability. And we regularly spent time together, talking. Our friendship was fed by our shared sense of the importance of spirit in education, our interestingly-related Southern girlhoods, and especially our love of reading and writing.
bell was a consummate writer. Writing was the way she knew the world. She wrote every day, early mornings, in hand, on a pad or in a notebook. Her fingers, long and slim, seemed made to hold a pen. “Writing is my passion,” she writes in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, which she said was her favorite among her nearly 40 books. “Writing has been for me one of the ways to encounter the divine,” she writes. “Seduced by the magic of written and spoken words in childhood, I am still transported, carried away by writing and reading.”
bell was also a voracious reader, regularly reading—really reading—several books a day. She owned neither television nor computer; books overflowed her shelves, sitting in stacks on the floor near her reading sofa. I often lent her books I was eager to read, knowing she’d have finished with them well before I could get to them. bell loved having favorite words of other writers in her heart and voice. She memorized and recited poems, making the words her own. I remember especially the pleasure she took in saying Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the way her voice caressed Hughes’ words. To celebrate her birthday each year, she invited friends to read to her their favorite poems.
bell was in the world by means of words, comfortable on a stage in front of thousands. She was at home in the world, walking a path of connection, noticing and speaking to everyone, bringing a sense of home to others. Though she thrived on exchanges with others, she was a person of great interiority, creating around herself an aura of repose. She was able to be; she did not have always to do.
For bell, writing was a place of sanctuary, a place where healing comes because the writer is bearing witness, as she wrote in reflecting on the 2006 conference in a piece published in JAEPL, the Assembly’s journal. At the conference’s closing session, bell invited us to write to explore a reconciliation we all must make—a reconciliation with our own deaths. Sharing our writings created a powerful connection, she wrote. “Late into the night I could hear the mutual give and take of our words—the sound of deep listening. They entered my dreams like a kind of music—luring, inviting me to sleep with the certainty that death will one day surely come. And that when it does I can call out, greeting death tenderly—with complete reconciliation” (“Writing for Reconciliation” 1).
I believe that bell achieved that reconciliation in her death, surrounded by family and friends, knowing she had loved and was loved. I miss her dearly, her words, voice, presence, spirit, her aging beauty. “Hello, friend,” she often greeted me.
Hello, “Ms. bell,” my friend. Hail and fare thee well.
hooks, bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. Henry Holt, 1999.
—. “Writing for Reconciliation.” The Journal for the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Writing, vol. 13, no. 3, 2007, p1.