All About bell hooks: A Visionary Feminist
When intellectual work emerges from a concern with radical social and political change, when that work is directed to the needs of the people, it brings us into greater solidarity and community. It is fundamentally life-enhancing.From Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life by bell hooks and Cornel West
bell hooks is a social critic and feminist scholar-activist who has produced prolific writings spanning 39 books, including five children’s books, and a book of poetry. Her first book, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, was drafted when she was a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Stanford University and working as a telephone operator to support herself.
I was 27 when I read We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity on a train ride across Melbourne. I can still remember how my heart swelled when I heard the bold, plain way hooks describes our culture of domination:
The imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Never before had I heard anyone so calmly pinpoint the source of the anger and hurt I’ve carried all throughout my life.
Grieving for Black Death
Across the United States, Black people are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police compared to white people. Under these rates, 1 in 1,000 Black men can expect to die of police violence.
hooks’ words in the preface of We Real Cool cut deep: “Black males in the culture of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy are feared but they are not loved” (p. ix). She explains further on the same page:
Sadly, the real truth, which is a taboo to speak, is that this is a culture that does not love black males, that they are not loved by white men, white women, black women, or girls and boys. And that especially most black men do not love themselves. How could they, how could they be expected to love surrounded by so much envy, desire, hate?
Written simply in a way that is accessible to a broad audience, hooks’ work names the pain inflicted by the systemic violence in our society and seek to heal these wounds by inviting possibilities for love.
Who is bell hooks?
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, bell hooks grew up with her mother, father and six siblings in the small segregated town of Hopkinsville in rural Kentucky.
hooks has sometimes reflected on her difficult childhood within her guardedly patriarchal working-class household. She lived with her family in what she would later recall as “an ugly house” where “no one there considered the function of beauty” and so it only “contained a great engulfing emptiness”.
Despite the loneliness she carried, hooks paid tribute to her father’s “impressive example of diligence and hard work, approaching tasks with a seriousness of concentration I work to mirror”, and the ways her mother protected their home from the white supremacist culture of domination that treated them as objects of poverty, hardship, and deprivation.
hooks began her education at the segregated public schools in Kentucky where she encountered passionate African American teachers committed to giving her and the other all-Black pupils a good education.
hooks explained that the education of Black children is not just about preparing them for a vocation, but also about encouraging their engagement with social justice.
When the 1960s brought forced school integration to Kentucky, hooks experienced a profound sense of loss. When she arrived at Stanford University on a scholarship, she described being “truly astonished to find teachers who appeared to derive their primary pleasure in the classroom by exercising their authoritarian power over my fellow students, crushing our spirits, and dehumanizing our minds and bodies”.
It was at college that hooks, frustrated by the lack of interest in race issues shown by her white professors, wrote the manuscript of her first book, Ain’t I A Woman, evoking abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s immortal speech for women’s suffrage through the title.
Ain’t I A Woman would wait another ten years before it was published.
Why Does bell hooks Use Lowercase for Her Name?
bell hooks’ name is not capitalized in her desire to keep the focus on her ideas rather than herself. Given how frequently she’s asked this question, she jokes that her plan “didn’t work”.
Her nom de plume came from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, whom hooks lovingly recalled as “a sharp-tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back”. By adopting her great-grandmother’s name, hooks sought to adopt a writer identity that would embrace her spirit as someone unafraid to speak out.
An Intersectional Critique of Feminism
When Ain’t I A Woman was eventually published in 1981 by South End Press, it was harshly criticized by white feminist academics. In deconstructing the racial, heterosexual, and class privileges of dominant thinkers at the time, hooks’ writings were heretical.
hooks found that her book was more warmly received by non-academic readers. To this day, she maintains that her writings need to be accessible to diverse audiences, and she rejects academic conventions by using clear, lay language and avoiding references.
Although she had little interest in teaching initially, hooks realized that she could no longer afford to support her writing working long hours in menial jobs. She decided that teaching was the best profession a writer could have; first lecturing at Santa Cruz, then teaching African American Studies at Yale.
In 1988, hooks took a position at Oberlin College in women’s studies, where she was able to integrate the discussions of race that were missing from her own undergraduate education.
Over time, hooks came to see how she could follow in the steps of progressive teachers and choose to educate for the practice of freedom.
After working in the City College of New York in the 1990s, she returned home to Kentucky and took a position as Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College, a liberal arts college that charges no tuition to its students.
In 2014, hooks donated her own funds to establish the bell hooks Institute at Berea where she continues to host seminars and panels. Visits to the bell hooks Institute can be arranged via appointment.
What Are Some of bell hooks’ Theories?
One of the central themes of hooks’ work is her use of the term imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to describe the four interlocking systems of power that characterize Euroamerican dominator culture.
hooks has not authoritatively defined or deconstructed the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and in doing so, appears to encourage a broad understanding and use of her theory.
hooks has remarked on how her use of this term is often met with laughter at her talks and lectures. She doesn’t think naming the systems of power is funny and interprets the laughter of her audience as “a weapon of patriarchal terrorism” that exposes their discomfort in being confronted with feminist disobedience.
Anti-feminist resistance to hooks’ provocations notwithstanding, I think that in some cases laughter at the term can come from relief.
In hearing someone so openly and calmly name the powerful sources of violence in our societies generates a jubilant lightness. A lifetime of biting one’s tongue in fear of upsetting white people can be released with these five words.
In her writings on imperialism, hooks references the legacies of the Western colonial project that have historically defined the so-called exotic Other as backward, oppressive, corrupt, and savage.
This imperialist ideology also lingers in what hooks calls white cultural imperialism. In her essay ‘Eating the other’, she describes a white yearning to invade and possess non-white people through cultural appropriation. She critiques the ways white people co-opt Black culture for their own use and, in doing so, erase the voices of Black people and dislocate Black practices from their rich cultural histories and traditions.
Most of us in everyday language use “white supremacy” when we’re talking about white extremist groups and their acts of racial violence.
However, white supremacy as conceptualized within the tradition of race studies refers to the centuries-old racialized social system comprising the “totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege” to quote Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. White supremacy is systemic and operates in and through everyday racism to maintain a strong positive orientation to what sociologist Joe Feagin sums up as “white superiority, virtue, moral goodness, and action”.
White supremacy is therefore integral to everyday work and social life.
Indeed, many of us could probably say that we live in white supremacist societies, work for white supremacist organizations, and were taught white supremacist beliefs and values growing up.
The economic system of capitalism is, for hooks, a thoroughly exploitative and dehumanizing world order. Identifying as a democratic socialist, hooks articulates a vision for the redistribution of wealth that will challenge our current class hierarchy.
Although hooks acknowledges that she has been able to make enough money with her writings to qualify as a member of the upper class, she continues to identify and find solidarity with the poor, working-class community she lived in for the majority of her life.
hooks exercises her newfound class power in practices of giving that enhance the wellbeing of those more vulnerable. In this way, she engages with a “politics of location”, where, within constantly shifting power relations, she rejects the side of the dominator and chooses to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
As someone who researches and lectures in a Business School, capitalism can become an all-consuming way of life.
Our students are taught to see themselves as commodities to be sold and traded in the labor marketplace. We dictate to our students that the three P’s of productivity, performance, and profit should be pursued in organizations at all costs.
Moderate feminism has promoted for (cisgender, heterosexual, white, elite class, able-bodied) women the importance of acquiring economic and political power, but hooks argues that it did not offer guidance about how they ought to exercise that power.
This oversight allowed capitalism to co-opt feminist visions for change by promoting the illusion that money brings freedom and independence. Yet, if the unquestioning accumulation of wealth by women supports the oppression and exploitation of working-class men and women, then it cannot be feminist.
Fundamental to intersectional feminism is the belief that none of us are free until all of us are free.
The dismantling of patriarchy as an entrenched system of gender domination is the cornerstone of the visionary feminist movement that hooks represents.
Like her preference for the term “white supremacy” rather than “racism” to describe race relations, hooks sees patriarchy as far more descriptive of gender relations in society than sexism per se. In particular, hooks reminds us that “patriarchy has no gender” and therefore challenges to patriarchy are not reducible to being anti-men.
Men as a group have historically benefitted the most from patriarchy, but the expectation that men should dominate over women within this system takes its toll on all of us whether we identify as men, women, or otherwise.
In Ain’t I A Woman, hooks observes how:
Patriarchy forces fathers to act as monsters, encourages husbands and lovers to be rapists in disguise; it teaches our blood brothers to feel ashamed that they care for us, and denies all men the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives.
When Black people in the United States fought for civil rights, many left assumptions of the imperialist patriarchal system intact.
hooks argues that many of the Black men who most vehemently attacked white male power were eager to gain access to that power. Their expressions of anger were less a critique of white patriarchal domination than a reaction against their inability to fully participate in that domination against women.
At the same time, hooks calls in the Black women who likewise internalized patriarchal ideologies and expected their Black male partners to financially support them.
As Rosario Morales would say, “we are all in the same boat”. We are all harmed by the ideologies of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and we all have a stake in dismantling it so we can lead fuller, happier lives.
What About Homophobia, Transphobia, and Disability?
On the surface, the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy may not seem to advance a challenge against homophobia, transphobia, and disability.
hooks’ writings have included self-reflexive critiques of the ways heterosexual feminists followed misguided models of sexual expression patterned on patriarchy. In Feminism is For Everybody, she acknowledges the radical vision of lesbian activists who held the feminist movement to account for rejecting patriarchal ideology. She also credits lesbian feminists as among the first activists to raise the issue of class inequality in the feminist struggle.
In her lectures and panels in more recent years, hooks has shared the stage with luminary transwomen of color including Janet Mock and Laverne Cox.
hooks’ writings have not, to my knowledge, discussed disability activism in depth.
Relationship to Intersectionality Theory
hooks’ imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy clearly bears some similarity to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality.
Intersectionality describes the combination of gender and racial discrimination that disadvantage Black women in the United States under the law. Yet perhaps because intersectionality is less threatening than the naming of the four systems of power, it has been more widely accepted in mainstream use.
hooks herself rejects the construct of intersectionality and maintains that her theory of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is more informative. Unlike intersectionality, hooks’ theory names the sources of violence in our culture and compels our confrontation with this truth.
Despite intersectionality’s radical anti-racist roots, the term in many ways was considered more ‘palatable’ in our imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture.
Sadly, intersectionality has been misunderstood and misused to death within and beyond the academy. Crenshaw has remarked that she originally offered intersectionality as ‘a metaphor’, but has been “amazed at how it gets over- and underused” to the extent that sometimes she “can’t even recognize it in the literature anymore”.
In everyday practice, “intersectional feminism” has been adopted as a fashionably ‘woke’ label for self-styled progressives who nevertheless reproduce racism, colorism, classism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, and/or ableism.
The beauty of hooks’ imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is that there is no mistaking what is being critiqued here. It would be much harder for people to adopt it as an empty label for the sake of performative allyship.
Finding hooks’ Visionary Feminism
Throughout her work, hooks distinguishes the various agendas of moderate, white and bourgeois feminisms from one that carries an enduring commitment to dismantle the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
hooks calls her practice visionary feminism. In her essay ‘To love again’, she declares that visionary feminism is “a wise and loving politic. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination. Love can never take root in a relationship based on domination and coercion”.
However, hooks warns that when it’s in the interests of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to suppress revolutionary politics, visionary feminism is constantly at risk of being co-opted.
Confining political change to one axis of power at a time preserves the dominator culture as a whole. For example, white men may be willing to consider women’s rights when the granting of those rights maintains white supremacy.
And as the (predominantly middle to upper class white) women gain economic power in the existing social structure, many let go of their commitment to a revolutionary politics that would threaten that hierarchy.
Visionary feminism reminds us that the eradication of patriarchy doesn’t only liberate women, but it also liberates men and all those who identify otherwise.
Likewise, whether we identify as white or non-white, the dismantlement of white supremacy enables all of us to form deeper connections with one another and lead more loving lives.
The answer, for hooks, is to make love the foundation of our visionary feminist politics. Love, in dominator culture, has been manipulated into a form of control. In heteropatriarchal bonds, it was assumed that women, being the nurturing, caring partner, would give love, while powerful men in return would provide and protect.
Visionary feminism helps us love beyond the bonds of domination. That love must be “rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge”.
Criticisms of Beyoncé
In more recent years, hooks has stirred contention and confusion for her vocal critiques of Beyoncé.
When Beyoncé released her album, Lemonade, hooks published a critique on her institute’s blog. While she acknowledges the visual extravaganza that Lemonade offers of Black female bodies that transgress boundaries, she rebukes the glamorization of victimhood, the eroticization of violence, and the blatant capitalism of Lemonade.
Although hooks’ concerns about the co-optation of feminism by capitalism are valid and important, her disdain for Beyoncé baffles me. Jamilah Lemieux captures my sentiments exactly:
I’m not sure how to process a critique of Lemonade from a woman who has wrapped her significant arms around Emma Watson, the 26-year-old actress who is the face of He For She (a very glib UN campaign for gender equality) while expecting Beyoncé to deliver a flawless feminist work lest she be written off as nothing more than a pretty princess of capitalism. […] What a painful example of white privilege: to gain the co-sign of one of the most prolific Black feminist authors on the planet for contributing nothing that is groundbreaking or profound, while that same author is incredibly heavy handed when describing the Black woman who has brought feminism to young people who may never engage with it otherwise.
Despite my disagreements about the heavy handed criticisms of Beyoncé’s work, I appreciate that we can have debates about the art and intellectualism of Black women, rather than see them as a monolithic group.
It’s also valuable to remind ourselves that our public figures, no matter how beloved, could never be everything to everyone. The aim of intersectional feminism is not to find a leader who perfectly represents the interests of every marginalized group, but to hold ourselves and one another to account as we learn and struggle together.
bell hooks remains a leading visionary feminist of our times.
Her work is firmly grounded in the concrete constraints of our present reality, while simultaneously imagining the possibilities beyond that reality. Her work speaks to academics and non-academics alike, of all classes, genders, and racial identifications.
hooks’ writings reach out to all of us who have been dehumanized within dominator culture.
When I read hooks’ writings, I am lifted higher.
She gives me the vocabulary to speak of my wounds that society bids me keep silent.
By following in hooks’ steadfast intellectual integrity and emotional honesty, we may cultivate a visionary feminist practice that names the violence inflicted by the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and find redemption, healing, and love.
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The bell hooks Institute is located at Berea College in Kentucky. The mission of the Institute is to 1) teach critical thinking, 2) remember the past, 3) explore hooks’ work, and 4) celebrate hooks’ legacy.
Maria del Guadalupe Davidson and George Yancy (2009) Critical Perspectives on bell hooks is an edited volume that offers contributions by various scholars on the theories of bell hooks.
The video I shared above of bell hooks in conversation with Laverne Cox was recorded while hooks was a scholar-in-residence at Eugene Lang College at The New School for Liberal Arts between 2013–2015. A series of her recorded panels and dialogues are available on The New School YouTube Channel.
This blog post is adapted from a book chapter I wrote called ‘Decolonising organizations with bell hooks’.
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Featured image from Denison University