pretty. dangerous. words. being honest about bell hooks’ passing
December 17, 2021
I did not read bell hooks until later in life. People I admired often referenced her, but she did not make it off my “ought-to-read” shelf until a close friend described how she used the title essay from “killing rage” in a sermon. “It’s a classic,” my friend told me. “’killing rage’ was the first time I heard someone draw the connection between the grief and rage incited by racism. She asks whether we can solve our race problems if white people remain unable to hear Black rage. In her own way, hooks defended a space for rage in anti-racist struggles.” It was obvious that hooks’ work meant a lot to her. As an agnostic always looking for texts to add to my sacred-texts-shelf, I thought I should check hooks out.
That same friend gifted me “sisters of the yam” for my birthday that year, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. To put it gently, I found the read … challenging. The concepts were pretty straightforward – truth, affirmations, beauty, healing. What challenged me was the nature of her writing. Every few paragraphs I would stop, scandalized, and just shake my head or laugh out loud at her iconoclastic claims.
To me, her loudest radical idea urged for a collective unmasking of Black folks. After reflecting on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s oft quoted poem, hooks asserts that “If it remains a mark of our oppression that as Black people we cannot be dedicated to truth in our lives, without putting ourselves at risk, then it is a mark of our resistance, our commitment to liberation, when we claim the right to speak the truth of our reality anyway.”
Pretty words, I thought. Pretty. Dangerous. Words.
It boggled my mind that a Black woman in the South would say such a thing without caveats or exceptions, without problematizing her claims using the context of Black experience in America. Instead, she engaged the context of Black experiences in America, putting class, geography, and Blackness in conversation with one another, and still she insisted on moral standards that could cost someone their livelihood or their children or some other harsh recourse from white supremacist structures so ready to police Blackness. Her insistence on some radical honesty, in my first reading of her work, felt like naïve rigidity.
I could not understand how someone whose descriptions of Black life rang so authentic and pulsed with a deep love could urge people to lay down the tools that had kept them safe for generations. It felt like theory that did not care about the consequences of its application – one of my least favorite types of theory. So, I did not finish “sisters of the yam.” I got a third of the way through and thought, Welp, I tried.
Fast forward a few years: I receive an invitation to read “all about love: new visions,” with a group of Black women, mostly in Jackson, Mississippi. That we were reading hooks gave me *deep* pause, but that I got to discuss anything with a group of Black women committed to liberation? I couldn’t pass that up.
So, I tried again, and my experience with the text was no different than before. Again, I felt scandalized – was bell hooks coming for my mother? My grandmother? Was she telling me how to parent, not with an encouraging pat on the back, but a hand on a hip and a shake of the head? Yes! Yes, she was! She was doing all of those things, with the same rigidity that I felt in her earlier work.
I read her book, furiously taking notes, talking about it non-stop with girlfriends, reflecting on experiences of my own life that called her ideas and assertions into question. By the time I logged into that call, I had thought all about love – I had questioned whether I’d experienced it, whether I was exercising it as a parent, whether I was teaching it to my son. I wondered about the way white supremacy and misogyny had stunted my grandparents’ ability to love their own children, and I reflected on what that my meant for my relationship with my parents.
I still found her too rigid. I still found her ideas too impractical for this world. And I also found her opening the door to conversations that were so necessary for my humanity. I felt her calling me to a wholeness and freedom in world where hooks observes “black people are not supposed to be ‘well.’ This culture makes wellness a white luxury.” The radicalness of hooks is that in the midst of that culture she still invites us to the wholeness that every human deserves.
I wasn’t alone in my experience. As the women in the book club shared and reflected it was clear that none of us were completely ready for the healing and connection that occurred as we reflected on hooks’ observations and assertions. Her strict definitions and insistence on system-buckling honesty created a space for a conversation none of us knew we were craving.
With hooks’ passing this week, I probably should have only written nice things about her brilliance and contributions to the academy. But somehow, I think she’d be more interested in my total honesty. So, here’s my truth: hooks remains a hard author for me to engage, I still knuckle up sometimes when I read her. But I think that’s part of her works’ brilliance. Yes, she is offering her ideas about what it takes to heal and grow, especially for Black, Southern women like myself. And even if I find myself talking back to the page, there’s still a place for me in the conversation, often a conversation hooks has boldly pointed out that we need to have. You know, those conversations about love. About the heartbreaking and corrosive nature of racism. About how to be whole and Black in this world that rewards us when we are small and less than who we are. Those easy-to-avoid, yet vital-to-have conversations.
So, I am thankful to bell hooks. Wherever she is, I hope her passage was smooth and she has found the love and light she was so persistent in searching for and inviting others to in this life.
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