“Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation,” wrote bell hooks, “healing is an act of community.” When I learned of her passing on December 15th due to kidney failure, at the age of 69, these words on healing permeated my soul. Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, she assumed the pseudonym ‘bell hooks’ as tribute to her maternal great-grandmother; the lower case spelling in order to keep the focus on her work, as opposed to the persona.
Isolated as we all are in 2021, I sought comfort on social media and my heart warmed by the outpouring of posts to honor her life and work. I scrolled upon a post for “Gathering of Love” on Instagram, honoring bell hooks’ life and work. “Show up with your favorite quotes or texts,” we were told and I knew I was already there.
I’m seated at my desk in the Danish countryside, while the other attendees, 19 in total, are zooming in from all over the world, including the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which the two hosts, Ashlee Burnett, 24, and Sapphire Alexander, 19, are from. In true hooksian fashion the two, who met on Twitter years ago through their passion for feminism, created a space for, as one attendee noted, “Sisters of the Yam,” a nod to hooks’ 1993 classic on “Black Women and Self Discovery.”
After intentions and community guidelines are set, Burnett leads us through a guided meditation. We are then asked: “What brought you to bell hooks?”
I first met bell hooks through her work, while attending a small, radical college in Manhattan. Her words helped soothe the pain that “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” a term she coined, elicited in me. Years later, in 1997, I found myself staring at bell hooks in the flesh at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I was on my way back to New York from Pensacola, Florida.
Psyched was not the word. I approached her, my newly-bought women’s magazine rolled up under my arm. On the cover was Sudanese-British model Alek Wek.
“Aren’t you bell hooks?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied warmly, her face exuding a peace that comforted me. We were the only two Black people at the gate – both awaiting our flights.
“I’m a former student of Professor Gary Lemons,” I told her. Recalling my college professor who introduced me to her work. Dr. Lemons would go on to write Black Male Outsider: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man (2008) among many other titles. He was a student of hooks’ and extolled hooks’ work to his mostly white students, helping them to hopefully dismantle their own classism, racism, and sexism.
“Oh yes,” she replied, a gentle smile on her face. By this time we were seated next to each other. She glanced at the magazine I unconsciously placed between us.
“I think she is so interesting,” hooks said. “What do you think about her?” she asked me.
It was a valid question – Wek, whose dark skin and, what white supremacy has taught us to label, “African features,” was causing a stir, not only in the fashion world, but in the social political sphere as well. Wek had recently been named model of the year by MTV, and months later, she would be the first African model to appear on the cover of Elle Magazine.
I was stoked. I’m having a discourse on race with bell hooks herself. How cool is this? But then my idol started to talk to me about love.
Despite my access to hooks’ work, now numbering about forty titles, she had not yet gifted us with her seminal work on the subject, all about love (2001). We would have to wait four more years to read, “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”
Back on that fateful day in New Orleans, I was a very wounded twenty-something-year-old. I was all over the place and frankly, intimidated. In my immature mind, I didn’t think myself worthy of her work. Her attention. Her care. I had not done the work to untangle the gordian knot of “love” – especially what it means for most of us in the west. For me, love was romantic love, which was an oppressive love.
“I’m really interested in love,” hooks confessed.
I stumbled inwardly.
All my life I had struggled with love; well, the romantic kind. I had in my deluded youth in Trinidad read too many paperback romance novels. Looking back, these stories did a whole lot of harm. It would take me years to get to that place where I was willing to examine what hooks was attempting to discuss with me that day. It would take me years to begin to deconstruct the unhealthy ideas about love I had inherited, a process that her work has and continues to support.
However, back then, in my puerile mind, talking about love meant we had taken a dive into the mundane; that path, that we as women, femmes, were always pushed into, to distract us from living as full, whole beings. Here I was, talking to one of my intellectual gurus, and what did we end up talking about?
Love? I thought, if bell hooks is talking about love, then, we’re all doomed.
How foolish I was. Looking back now, I can see it was not just an intellectual investigation she had taken on, but a spiritual one. Here she was, wanting to engage me on something she would have much to write about, words that would help me and so many others. Throughout the conversation, she remained warm and calm – and as my gate opened, we parted ways.
hooks’ work would go on to save me on multiple occasions. At the beginning of the pandemic, stranded in Brooklyn, thankfully, I had my copies of Bone Black: Memories of a Girlhood (1996) and Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995). Once again her words became instrumental in my life, this time helping me navigate rage, fear, and loss.
Not only was I stuck in Brooklyn at the beginning of the pandemic, but the brutal public lynching of George Floyd had seemed to push an already tense situation even further over the edge for so many of us – personally and socially. Between the extreme polarities of the eerie stillness of pandemic Brooklyn, and the eruptions of protests that would soon flood the streets in response to Floyd’s senseless murder, hooks’ work was the compass, the 23rd psalm for me.
I shared all this with the group gathered over Zoom to celebrate her life, her work, and to mourn. We spoke about what hooks’ work taught us. Almost everyone mentioned all about love; another disclosed how “putting love at the center,” was instrumental to their healing. One spoke about how crucial her work had been in giving them courage to “break up with my family.”
“She taught me that love isn’t black and white – it’s a rainbow,” another attendee added. There is something soothing, invigorating to be in communion with other women, around the world on this day of mourning. Many of the attendees come from previous European colonies, and spoke of how much her words informed their own decolonial work.
Later, after the gathering, I’m talking to the organizers of the event. Ashlee Burnett is the Coordinator of Transform Education and also the founder of feminitt, which advances gender justice in the Caribbean through education, conversation and social good “using an Intersectional Caribbean Feminist Lens,” she explains. Sapphire Alexander is a member of Transform Education and the founder of the blog Caribbean Feminist. Transform Education, I am told, was founded three years ago and is a coalition created to bring young feminists together. The goal is to work towards transforming education for gender equality.
“We center care, love and solidarity for each other, which is why hosting a space to reflect on the work of bell hooks was so necessary,” says Burnett about the event held by Transform Education, a young feminist coalition hosted by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.
“Often times feminist spaces and feminist dialogue comes with a cost attached,” Alexander adds. “A lot of feminist discourse is tied into academia, which makes it inaccessible to young feminists and those who do not have the means to attend college. In this way, we neglect the power and the voice of all the feminists who don’t have access.” In this time of grieving, I am held by these two young feminists determination and passion.
Thankfully, bell hooks was wildly prolific. With a career spanning over four decades, she has left us with an indelible canon of blueprints for liberation. She was a political and spiritual leader; it is almost as if her canon is an elaborate quilt that she so lovingly sewed together – each book an antidote for our collective wounds. With her transition, now an ancestor, it is as if she has covered and protected us with this work.
“The work of feminist activists like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Peggy Antrobus . . . has shown us that our lived experiences aren’t in need of validation from academia or anyone else but ourselves. By sharing these experiences, we help to build and grow community,” notes Burnett and Alexander.
Sharing space with this group of young feminists to celebrate bell hooks, who Cornel West calls a “love warrior coming out of our community,” seems to me a fitting way to honor her life. Gathering together like this fills me with gratitude, for her work, for these women who I can sit in community with, and the work that is still there to be done. These young feminists remind me of the work that I must revisit, the shrine I must build, the cups from which I must sip, intentionally.
We celebrate you, bell hooks. Thank you for all you have done. I go back to that fateful day at the airport when I met you and dream of another chance. This time I’d have the wisdom of the 50-year-old that I now am and your canon of work to support me. This time when you tell me about love, hooks, I will hold your hand and compassionately listen. I will hug you and tell you that yes, you too, deserve love.
It only seems fitting that I end with one of your quotes, just as I started.
“The transformative power of love is not fully embraced in our society because we often wrongly believe that torment and anguish are our ‘natural condition.’” Thank you for reminding us that it is our right to love and be loved.
Rest in power, our shaman of love and liberation.