bell hooks Memorial

A beating heart might dare encapsulate Dr. bell hooks’ indelible imprint on feminism, pedagogy, and activism, for hooks led with love. She reiterated the complexity of human existence, valuing compassion alongside conflict. In her copious writings on the intersectional nature of oppression, hooks stressed personal connection, of reaching beyond academic spaces to uplift marginalized communities – for in the effort lies the promise of progress. The usefulness of knowledge demands supplemental action on its behalf. The academy stands to sophisticate the next generation of difference makers. bell hooks believed in the purpose of the academy, while criticizing it relentlessly to improve its function. Constructive criticism is foremost an act of love, she argued.  

hooks’ feminist philosophies captured my attention during graduate school. While acquiring feminist theory familiarity, I stumbled across hooks’ blistering critique of Spike Lee’s representation of black women in “Male Heroes and Female Sex Objects: Sexism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.While the article asserted Lee’s sacrifice of whole black female characters to appease a predominantly white, potentially blockbuster, audience, hooks’ objection to the art arose from respect for the artist. In acknowledging the work, hooks extended love to Spike Lee. In sharing her truth, she potentially broadened his space for truth telling.  

As a composition instructor, I frequently lean into hooks’ feminist pedagogies. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks binds feminist philosophy to classroom practice. Eschewing the archaic concept of authoritative educators, she espouses classrooms as freedom frontiers. The quest for knowledge involves the input of everyone, students and teachers alike. hooks advocates diversified ways of knowing, insists that acumen is enriched by multiple sources of seemingly contradictory information. Opposing ideologies stand in opposition because we resist complexity. The sticky tension of conflict often rewards one with enlightenment, broadening the scope of understanding. The classroom exists as an invitational space, one in which we admit to unknowing and collectively move toward mutual awareness of one another’s lived experiences and vantage points.  

Feminism’s spotlight on the collective depends upon cooperation. hooks understood the necessity of conflict for potential resolution. As human beings, we most desire to be heard. The loudest voices require the most love. hooks believed in love without caveat, without boundaries, without conditions for transfer. As educators, we must lean into the principle of love and knowledge coexisting. We must use our liberating spaces for their intended purpose, to build connections and give back to humanity future generations unafraid to interact, to conflict, to challenge one another for society’s betterment. To exist in such spaces and not continually grow alongside our students, to not challenge our own beliefs, would be to waste a sacred space and responsibility. From Dr. bell hooks, I learned that authority absent love and compassion emulates colonizing impulses. Only intentional acts of love breed the human connections that fortify education and cultivate progress.  


Embracing a Pedagogy of Love and Grief

I turn to her when I find myself lost in the process. I turn to her as a fourth-year college student, disillusioned with how rarely I encounter engaged pedagogy at my liberal arts college.  

She writes in grounded ways. These grounded ways of writing are vulnerable. She writes and cracks open the mysteries that occlude exactly what it is that makes engaged pedagogy painful, joyful, contradictory. This openness makes space for all that I bring when my heartache leads me back to her: my frustration, optimism, and grief.  

bell hooks writes: “In these [classroom] settings, I learned a lot about the kind of teacher I did not want to become” (Teaching to Transgress 13). To me, this sentiment resonates painfully across generations, decades, and racial identities, both as a current student and as an aspiring teacher. Although she writes from a positionality that is significant and different from my own, I find myself feeling the same stress, apathy, and boredom she describes having felt in the classroom over thirty years ago. When she says, “I had never wanted to surrender the conviction that one could teach without reinforcing existing systems of domination,” it aches because when I inevitably return to her, it is with the wounded hope that I might catch in her writing a mirror glimpse of my own exposed nerve (Teaching to Transgress 18). What does it mean when such a cavernous emptiness in one’s own educational experience drives us to become educators ourselves? What lies within the absence(s) in our lives that moves us to action? What does it mean to be a teacher within spaces that reproduce existing relationships of power and oppression?  

I am at odds with myself trying to find direction within institutions that perpetuate violence both figurative and literal. I wonder if this sentiment is part of what we call grief; a grief for the liberatory education we seldom (if ever) have; a grief that expands tenfold with the news of her passing. When I am hit with this loss I wonder: do we even know how to process absence and loss? We live our entire lives in various stages and forms of grief, yet we treat it like a one-time event. Grief is expected to remain within a finite sphere of our lives, incompatible with the sudden way that a loss can hit you after weeks, months, years. Despite these unspoken rules, grief is uncontained, uncontainable. In spite of these unspoken rules, grief is incomprehensive, incomprehensible.  

What part does grief play in all this pedagogical business, and why is care for life and death cycles important to radical practices of teaching? This grief might be transformative if we honor it. This grief might be central to what she describes as a “pedagogy which emphasizes wholeness,” a pedagogy with space for all that we think, feel, and experience (hooks, Teaching to Transgress 14). Her teachings describe a pedagogy where we can embrace grief, embrace ourselves, and embrace each other wholly.  

hooks describes teaching as an act of love; she also says, “To be loving is to be open to grief” (All About Love, 200). I turn to her when I am lost in the process—especially now, in the process of grieving her loss.  

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994. 

—. All About Love: New Visions. HarperCollins, 2000.