bell hooks (1952- 2021): The Struggle for Social jJustice as an aAct of Love and Transgression

Rest in Peace bell hooks.

You captured the minds and hearts of many with your simple but not simplistic writing in Talking Back. Thinking feminist, thinking black. with its lovely lucid essays on various topics and the pain felt with regard to multiple oppressions and the intersections of race, gender (including sexual orientation and the scourge of homophobia) and class. The same applies to her acclaimed Feminism from Margin to Center arguing for intersectionality with other oppressions to do justice to the struggles of women. You found a kindred spirit in Paulo Freire despite what you call his “phallocentric paradigm of liberation”. The two books by him you cite over and over again are Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness. You never got to do a ‘talking book’ with Paulo even though you admitted that this would have been a consummation devoutly to be wished. What a great conversation this would have been. You shook the foundations of white feminist politics with your initial Ain’t I a woman which incurred the wrath of many but won the admiration of others. I recall your writing that you had a hard time finding a publisher for this book which came with the subtitle ‘Black women and feminism.

Your Teaching to Transgress with your landmark essay on Freire, first published around the same time in a memorable anthology of essays on the Brazilian educator ­­(Paulo Freire: A critical encounter) by Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard, is to be treated as de rigueur when analyzing Freire. What a coincidence you departed in Freire’s birth centenary year. You broached many topics such as the blonde white feminine hegemony embraced by Madonna which you piercingly decried in Outlaw Culture.

You perhaps wrote one book too many with Teaching Community where you used up too much space telling us how tired you are and that you needed a break. Perhaps the book itself was a living testimony to your being spot on in this regard. The book culture industry must have got you by then. This should not detract from your other work which was full of love for humanity and for the suffering of all those who are marginalized. Exemplary as a writer in English, you have been translated into several languages and your impact can be felt well outside the US and Britain to include Italy and Paris, the former as indicated by the Universitas Alma Mater Studiorum, Bologna electing to confer on you an honoris causa degree and the latter through the setting up of the bell hooks-Paulo Freire Institute.

Your conversations with the Rev. Cornel West were legendary, the chemistry between you two encapsulated in Breaking bread. I saw and felt first hand your charisma and magnetic power at a talk you gave in 1992 at York University in Toronto where a number of halls were packed to the rafters. As a PhD student at OISE/University of Toronto, where your writings were staple readings, I had to be there. It was one of the highlights of my stay in Toronto. You reminisced on your youth and on Malcolm X that day and the latter’s legacy as Spike Lee had upped the ante with brief quips on his then eagerly awaited film on the subject with Denzel Washington in the lead role. I recall your insisting that a person from the audience, who struck a discordant note met by a chorus of boos, had the right to speak, a gesture that enhanced your democratic credentials. I followed you and heard your soft voice over and over again on YouTube many years later. These included your recorded conversations at the New School in NYC.

Despite your fame as writer and speaker, you seem to have kept your feet firmly on the ground keeping ‘closer to home’ as you say in one of my favorite essays from Talking Back. It is an essay I shared regularly with prospective teachers in an undergraduate course unit I taught in Sociology of Education at my home university (the University of Malta) titled ‘Learning, Identity and Difference’. What a devastating piece of news I got this evening on Central European Time. I can now imagine you in heaven exchanging views and exuding your loving warmth with Audrey Lorde, Stuart Hall, Aretha Franklin, Paulo Freire and the great maternal grandmother whose name you adopted as a pseudonym and wrote in the small case throughout as a sign of deference to her. You shall always be loved as you yourself loved too well.

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).