bell hooks / Photo via WikiMedia Commons

A Love Letter to the Personification of Love, bell hooks

On December 15, 2021, the world lost an icon. bell hooks, a prolific Black feminist scholar and cultural critic, died at the age of 69. The Kentucky-born writer produced more than 30 books and essays during her life, some of her most notable being “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity,” and “All About Love: New Visions.” She is remembered by many as one of the most important and revolutionary voices in the feminist discipline, but those who have read her know that her work meant even more. bell hooks is cited by many — including me — as a favorite author not only for her brilliant ideas but for the way she personified love as a politic.

 

As a queer Black woman, hooks intimately understood the realities of oppression, which are reflected in the truths about womanhood, race, and identity she so aptly captured with her work.

 

When expanding upon her queer identity in a conversation with The New School in 2014, hooks said that she subscribed to a definition of queer “not as being about who you’re having sex with — that can be a dimension of it — but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”

 

hooks expressed a complex understanding of her own and others’ identities that resonates with many: that daring to speak, live, and thrive while marginalized is simultaneously necessary to survival and an act of rebellion; and therefore, that queer survival is, at its core, revolutionary.

 

hooks also recognized, however, the obvious truth about oppression: it’s painful for those who have to endure it. Even if one does create or find a place for them to love and be loved, there are still wounds that oppression leaves behind. hooks wrote in ways both comforting and challenging that not only allowed readers to better understand the realities of oppression, but also encouraged them to do the internal work necessary for healing from its wounds. In other words, she wrote with love for whoever was reading her words.

 

“I want my work to be healing,” she said when she was inducted into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2018. “I am a fortunate writer because every day of my life practically I get a letter, a phone call from someone who tells me how much my work has transformed their life.”

 

hooks’ approach to healing and love wasn’t grounded in some soft and fuzzy ideal, though. She knew love required work, dedication, and responsibility. Love wasn’t a good feeling or an escape from pain and unhappiness, but an unflinching action necessary to survival, something we owe to ourselves and others.

 

“Most of us think of love as having to do with feelings of attraction to someone and whether or not we feel happy with that person,” hooks said in a chat room conversation moderated by CNN in 2000. “But love is really more of an interactive process. It’s about what we do not just what we feel. It’s a verb, not a noun. So many people think that it’s enough to say what they feel even if their actions do not correspond to what they are saying.”

 

For her, love was commitment.

 

“… if I’m committed to loving you, then it’s not possible for me to ‘fall out of love,’” she said in that same conversation. “It’s possible for me to change the nature of my commitment, or even to break that commitment, but most people do not break that commitment when they make a covenant with someone else about love. The people I love, I’m committed to loving for the rest of my life.”

 

As a cultural critic, hooks did something truly revolutionary. She not only labeled and questioned oppressive social structures, providing language necessary for marginalized people to understand and navigate their experiences, she did so in a way that was deeply personal, that so obviously came from a place of care. It’s impossible to read something she’s written and not feel like the words are coming from a mother, mentor, or friend.

 

hooks’ death is a huge loss, one that many, including me, feel very deeply. But we are lucky enough to have been graced with her wisdom and love and to have an extensive record of that wisdom and love we can continue to learn from. The love bell hooks so beautifully personified will always keep her connected to the living, as — in her own words — “love is the only force that allows us to hold one another close beyond the grave.”