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Why You’re Suddenly Seeing bell hooks’ Books Everywhere

Been seeing a lot of bell hooks’ books around recently? There’s a reason. Here’s how she centers black female identity, and calls out feminism for its racist and classist biases.
by Jennifer Duffy | Aug 11 2020

bell hooks has been creating compassionate, powerful, inclusive work for a long time, but of late, it’s clear to see that her writing has entered the mainstream discourse. Quotes and photos of her books have been prolific on social media, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Women of 2020 and O, The Oprah Magazine published a list of must-read bell hooks books.

Gloria Jean Watkins (b. 1952), better known as bell hooks, is an American author, professor and activist. She chose her pen name as a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, showing the importance of female identities and female legacies in her work. hooks decided not to capitalize her name to keep the focus on the work rather than herself.

She wrote the first draft of her debut, Ain’t I a Woman, when she was a 19 year-old undergraduate student at Stanford University. The book was published when hooks was 29, and had received her PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Since then, hooks has written over three dozen books, including Bone Black (1996), All About Love (2000), and The Will to Change (2004). In 2004, she became a professor in residence at Berea College in Kentucky, where the bell hooks Institute was later founded in 2014. The Institute celebrates and documents her life and work.

While she has a strong academic background, hooks aims to be accessible with her work and address the public. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) she wrote: “feminism must become a mass based political movement if it is to have a revolutionary, transformative impact on society.”

hooks’ work lies at the intersection of some of the most crucial conversations of our time; race, sexuality, gender, and the only thing that truly unites us all: love. These themes make her work relevant and engaging. Another reason for her popularity is her work as a cultural critic. She writes about art, media and pop culture exploring the representation of black identities — for example, her insightful analysis of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Such is the public appeal of her work that it even appears in memes — such as the Instagram page @savedbythebellhooks.

Becoming a public intellectual, her work has gained mass appeal and has been crucial to discussions about intersectional feminism. She has been a trailblazer for this more inclusive feminism which recognizes that social classifications such as race, class and gender are interconnected, and that to ignore these intersections is to further the oppression of marginalized groups.

She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Women of the Year in 2020, described as ‘that rare rock star of a public intellectual who reaches wide by being accessible.’

Ain’t I a Woman?

In her first book, hooks goes beyond racist and sexist stereotypes about black women. She examines how black women in particular suffered under slavery, and the specific impact this has on black womanhood today. Looking at the women’s and black rights movements she shows how black women were ostracized and left behind in these social shifts. She explores damaging stereotypes of black identity, showing how these oppress and restrict men and women alike. For black women, stereotypes of sexual promiscuity and of the black woman as matriarch have served to disempower them.

“Without a doubt, the false sense of power black women are encouraged to feel allows us to think that we are not in need of social movements like a women’s movement that would liberate us from sexist oppression. The sad irony is of course that black women are often most victimized by the very sexism we refuse to collectively identify as an oppressive force.”
bell hooks

She also calls white feminism to task for its racist and classist treatment of black women, and how the structure of white feminism serves to uphold patriarchy.

“Today, feminism offers women not liberation but the right to act as surrogate men.”
bell hooks

hooks states that white feminists must recognize their racist, classist and sexist views and work to overcome these biases before liberation can happen. For hooks, true feminism is accepting and inclusive, a revolutionary concept that seeks to overhaul patriarchal power structures.

“The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.”
bell hooks

hooks concludes that true equality can only be achieved by overturning current power structures of race, class and sex, to eliminate domination. As black women stand to gain the most from this revolution, they should lead the charge.

“to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”
bell hooks

All About Love

This is perhaps hooks’ most popular work. She seeks to define love, and explore what love means in different communities. This book challenges our perceptions of romantic love, teaching us that many of the ideals of love we have learned from media and fairy tales are damaging.

hooks encourages readers to first build a loving relationship with themselves. This is obviously easier said than done, but it begins by recognizing the root of our low self-esteem and then addressing this with affection and compassion.

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”
bell hooks

hooks advises her readers to think of love in terms of actions instead of feelings. In this way we see love and being loving as something intentional, rather than something we have no control over.

“The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”
bell hooks

By looking at love in this way, we can challenge neglect and abuse present in many relationships in our society. Seeing love as being about trust, care and growing together offers a healthier model of relationships. However, it is important to note that hooks recognizes the work involved in these relationships — love isn’t always easy and for growth to happen everyone must be willing to do the work.

This book deals with many different kinds of love — hooks is a big advocate for the importance of community. Through our relationships with family and friends we learn how to love, how to nurture connections and how to work through difficulties.

The Will to Change

hooks addresses issues of masculinity and identity in this book. She explores the social basis for masculinity, showing how men are under pressure to be powerful and successful. Boys are taught that violence will make them men, and may lash out violently to prove their status when wealth and success is hard to attain.

“When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent, but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.”
bell hooks

She also engages with the struggle many men have with expressing their emotions. This can come from a lifetime of being taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion for them to express. hooks reveals that only by exploring their emotions can men begin to heal. hooks acknowledges that women too may have patriarchal boundaries around this, and must allow men to talk about their feelings. By sharing their feelings, men can learn to love others, and themselves.

Through The Will to Change and We Real Cool (2003) hooks proves that patriarchy is damaging for men (particularly black men) also and that we all stand to gain liberation from dismantling oppressive power structures.

This is just a small selection of bell hooks books which have drawn on academic theory and lived experience to address issues of race, class, feminism and blackness. Her debut Ain’t I a Woman? remains relevant almost 40 years after it was originally published and hooks’ powerful voice continues to speak out for intersectional feminism and anti-racism.

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