As soon as news spread of the passing of acclaimed feminist theorist and activist bell hooks this week, tributes to her transformative legacy started pouring in. Especially among feminist thinkers, activists and academics who have followed her work, the impact of hooks’ work seems immeasurable.
“For me, bell hooks was a towering voice in American academia and intellectual life,” said Myriam J.A. Chancy, chair in the humanities department at Scripps College and author of “What Storm, What Thunder.”
“She made certain concepts on the subjects of race, feminist, gender, class and love accessible to a public beyond academia while being unrelenting in her advocacy for Black people and particularly for Black women in the pursuit of a better, more just society for everyone.”
In 1981, hooks published her first major book, “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism” where she grounded her feminist theory in the struggles of Black women specifically. In the groundbreaking text, hooks highlights the wounds of Black female slavery and how they affect Black women in the present. This work was and continues to be affirming to Black women across the world, as hooks provided language to describe their marginalization and ways of thinking to combat it.
For Chancy, “Ain’t I a Woman?” carved a path toward her own writing in the field of Caribbean women’s literature. As a Haitian Canadian woman, coming across hooks’ work gave Chancy the language to understand her experiences of racism and sexism and helped her recover the value of her own Haitian identity and as a member of the African Diaspora.
“Her work is transformative because it speaks in a vital and personal way about the need to treasure Black lives, history and culture while investing in the decolonization of our institutions in the U.S., which have benefited from the devaluation and exploitation of Black lives,” Chancy said.
A prolific writer, hooks published 40 books, which have been translated into 15 languages, reaching a global Black diaspora with her messages of resistance, feminist revolution and love. The Black Brazilian writer and artist Vinícius da Silva translated hooks’ book “Salvation: Black People and Love” into Portuguese and studies her work within Brazilian academia. Da Silva said hooks built an immense legacy around critical pedagogy, love, feminist theory, cultural and art criticism, and several other themes that cut across her body of work.
“Since I started studying hooks’ work, I have learned the power of critical consciousness, of feminism as a project for social justice, and of understanding the systems of domination so that through revolutionary mutuality, as she says, we can collectively transform society,” da Silva said. “Receiving the news of her passing, with the understanding that death is not the end, means understanding that hooks now becomes an ancestor, someone who will continue to guide us through adversity.”
Da Silva’s scholarship is dedicated to understanding and expanding hooks’ scholarship on Black feminism and revolutionary love. An expert on her work and how it reverberates across borders, da Silva said the most important teaching hooks leaves behind for movements of liberation is her perspective on revolutionary love.
“For me, one of hooks’ most important views, present in ‘Writing Beyond Race,’ is the notion that every movement for social justice is based on the ethic of love,” da SIlva said. “And it is important to always say that the love of which hooks speaks is a political category, not a shallow mobilization of romantic affections. In this sense, I think that much of her contribution to political movements, especially Black movements, is in the notion that mutuality is revolutionary and that it is only made possible through love.”
hooks’ contributions to feminist theory and activism influenced generations of women, men and nonbinary people who seek to abolish gendered violence, misogyny and sexist discrimination. hooks pioneered the use of feminism as a lens in the analysis of pop culture, and convinced many of her readers that feminism is for everybody.
Marina Watanabe, senior social media editor for Bitch Media, a feminist magazine that critiques pop culture, said hooks helped her understand the importance of education and writing as essential components of feminist liberation.
“I don’t consider myself an activist in the traditional sense, but bell hooks helped me understand the importance of education and writing as essential components of feminist liberation,” she said. “We need as much feminist education as possible in as many formats as possible so that it can become truly accessible to everyone. So even though I’m not a traditional activist or grassroots organizer and I’m not Judith Butler, I can still engage in feminist advocacy work in ways that suit my skills and interests.”
Watanabe said she went into her current career because of hooks’ “Feminism Is for Everybody,” which was foundational to how she engages in feminist advocacy work. When Watanabe started reading hooks in her late teens and early 20s, it helped her name instances of injustice and discrimination she was experiencing.
“It was the most formative time for my politics and understanding of the world,” Watanabe said. “I had all these inklings about injustice and discrimination, but hooks’ writing finally helped me articulate my feelings and experiences. I’m not exaggerating when I say that bell hooks changed everything for me. I will never be able to thank her enough.”
hooks’ work has defined the life path of many women, particularly Black women who were seeking their place in the world of academia. Cassie Osei, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said hooks’ work is the foundation of her pedagogy as a teacher and how she conducts herself in her private life.
“Finding her work as a young adult felt like the opening of the world to me,” Osei said. “It gave me language to my experience in eastern Kansas as a Black dark-skinned daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who navigated the barriers of colorblind discourses and erasure her entire childhood. Reading hooks for the first time felt like an incredible intervention.”
For Chancy, hooks showed the importance of writing Black women into history and visibility. “She taught us that one voice speaking for and among the many can make a difference,” Chancy said. “Simply put, her legacy is that there is no liberation without the liberation of Black women.”