On bell hooks
A few years ago, as a postdoc at Oxford, I added bell hooks’s Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre to the reading list for a political theory course I’d been asked to teach. hooks wasn’t on the official faculty syllabus, but I thought my students should get the chance to engage with her challenge to the liberal white feminists who were. I soon got an email to say there wasn’t a copy of the book in any Oxford library. The Bodleian contains upwards of 13 million printed items. I circulated PDFs instead.
A couple of years later I was walking by the Radcliffe Camera with the philosopher Charles Mills and told him the story. He looked up at the library, shook his head and smiled, unsurprised. Charles had been teaching hooks and other Black feminist theorists for years. He wrote an article in the early 1990s urging others to do the same. He was used to these calls being ignored.
This year, work by both hooks and Mills has been officially added to the introductory syllabus for political theory at Oxford. The intrinsic reasons to include them have always been good ones. But these reasons have only been formally acknowledged, at least where I teach, thanks to calls from students, especially those involved in the movement for Black lives and Rhodes Must Fall.
This year, bell hooks and Charles Mills died. Both were too young: 69 and 71 respectively. And both opened up – made it easier to teach and to talk about – questions of what theory is for, to whom it should be able to speak, and what, for better and for worse, it can do.
In her 1991 essay ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, hooks describes the way that theorising was a kind of therapy for her as a lonely child, trying to escape an often hostile reality. More than once I’ve had a student describe the essay as a lifeline, thrown to them after weeks spent discussing, in other political theory classes, how idealised agents might behave under conditions of strict compliance. How is that a subject whose name, theoria, promises vision, imagination and serious contemplation, is something from which many students – often the most marginalised – feel they need saving?
In ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, hooks diagnosed the dynamics of hierarchy, sidelining and co-option with which many women theorists of colour were (and still are, as Sara Ahmed reminds us) familiar:
Work by women of colour and marginalised groups of white women (for example, lesbians, sex radicals), especially if written in a manner that renders it accessible to a broad reading public, even if that work enables and promotes feminist practice, is often delegitimised in academic settings. Though such work is often appropriated by the very individuals setting restrictive critical standards, it is this work that they most often claim is not really theory or is not theoretical enough.
The only fight I’ve ever got into on Twitter (foolish, I know) came after a colleague proposed that nothing on a reading list which included texts by hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective counted as political theory. Perhaps it made me so cross because, for the first time, I was encountering the kind of reasoning that explains why I was never taught hooks at university, and why I was left to come to her, much as she came to theory, by myself. Now I am a teacher, I wonder what conception of political theory could, at the level of principle, include Machiavelli or Rousseau, say, but discount hooks.
Just as hooks was suspicious of white scholars who refused to acknowledge the theoretical work of Black women, so she wanted to dissuade Black women from fleeing theory. Not that she was unsympathetic: hooks was scathing about academic feminism’s turn towards, as she saw it, an obscurantist postmodernism. But she thought that denying the usefulness of theory tout court and denying the status of ‘theory’ to the work of Black and other marginalised women were two sides of the same anti-intellectual coin. Theory was itself a form of practice, a collective project of naming and meaning-making with liberatory potential.
hooks’s political theory, and her feminism, were socialist and revolutionary. She quickly dispatched with the notion that, as she put in From Margin to Centre, feminism can be whatever you want it to be. No. Feminism cannot, for example, simply be a movement that seeks to make women social equals of men. Why? Because this begs the question of which men women are trying to make themselves the equals of, and fails to attend to the inequalities between men enforced by systems of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy. Of course, rich white women wanted to be the equals of rich white men. But what of poor Black women, who see first-hand how the state and the market treat the men in their lives? Is equality with those men the end to which their movement should aspire?
Equally, it was a mistake to think feminist theory was nothing more than an opportunity to ‘voice your own experience’. Yes, feminist theory should be grounded in the experiences of, and legible to, the people for whom it claims to speak. ‘Describing one’s woe’ could be a starting point – hooks herself recalled coming to theory because she was hurting – but the aim was always to produce work that ‘can move us towards revolutionary struggle rooted in an attempt to understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance struggle that would transform our current reality’.
Honouring hooks doesn’t require deifying her. Early on she frustrated some of those whose cause was closest to her own. After the publication of her first book, Ain’t I a Woman (1981), Barbara Smith charged hooks with writing a book about Black feminism divorced from the realities of Black feminist organising. Cheryl Clarke argued that hooks had occluded the contributions of lesbian feminists to the tradition of Black feminist intellectualism: ‘hooks does not even mention the word “lesbian” in her book. This is unbearable.’ hooks was deeply upset by these responses, and said so in the acknowledgments to her next book. But she also included in that book a clear statement of the central contributions of lesbians to feminist theory, a condemnation of what Adrienne Rich had called the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, and engagement in good faith with both Smith and Clarke.
Towards the end of ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, hooks articulated a principle that would run through almost everything she wrote and did: ‘Feminist thinking must be shared with everyone.’ (In 2000 she published a book called Feminism Is for Everybody.) In 2004 she returned to Kentucky, where she grew up, to teach at Berea, a liberal arts college that does not charge tuition. There, in 2014, she established the bell hooks Institute which ‘celebrates, honours and documents’ her life and work. Reflecting on founding it, she recalled:
I was seeing that so many individual Black writers and thinkers were dying without having protected their legacy. Sometimes, as African-Americans, we exist in a kind of schizophrenia. We know that imperialist, White supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is real but then we think: ‘If we just follow the rules, we’ll succeed.’ When I looked around, especially for Black women writers, that’s not the case. I was discouraged because other Black women said to me: ‘You don’t need an institute, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ And I was really shocked not to get the support, but I think that’s the schizophrenia that we live within. People act like: ‘Well, your books will be around.’ You can’t count on this white racist world to keep anything of ours with the care and the commitment that we would like for it to have.