bell hooks with students at The New School, 2014. Photo credit: Shea Carmen Swan for The New School Free Press
Like many of her admirers, I was deeply saddened by the passing of feminist public intellectual, writer, and professor bell hooks. I had gotten to know her well in my role as the Director of Civic Engagement and Social Justice at The New School’s Eugene Lang College through the bell hooks scholar-in-residence program from 2013–2016. One of my roles was to accompany bell hooks to and from meetings and events—a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Walking up and down Sixth Avenue, two Black feminist flaneurs, we moved through New York City’s West Village arm-in-arm. She talked to me about her sisters, how much she loved writing children’s books, and her affection for Jo Malone perfumes. It was on those walks that I got to know her, not as bell hooks, but as Gloria Jean Watkins: as we talked and laughed, the self-described little Black girl from Hopkinsville, Kentucky opened up to me.
This is when I learned just how much Gloria was amazed that people were reading the work of bell hooks.
Talking about bell hooks in the third person, Gloria would let me know when someone she’d met had “read their bell hooks.” One morning I met her at the hotel and she exclaimed in her soft Southern Black girl vernacular, “Laverne has read her bell hooks!” She was referring to actress and LGBTQ advocate, Laverne Cox, who she was to be in conversation with during her residency. I saw how excited Gloria was about Cox engaging her ideas. This is a memory that I hold dear to me but it left me wondering: what does it mean to “read one’s bell hooks?” How was I reading my bell hooks?
What did we as a New School community do to “read our bell hooks” through the many events Gloria led over the years?
Reading bell hooks: An Action
A prolific writer, bell hooks left us with more than 30 books, as well as numerous scholarly articles and essays. In the week following her death on December 15, 2021, the tributes from academics, writers, journalists, and even nonprofit professionals, demonstrated her influence across academic fields and institutions.
When I considered these tributes, I realized that “reading bell hooks” is akin to how this influential critic and essayist discussed the concept of love in her book, All About Love (2000). She described love as “an action, a participatory emotion.” And just like love, reading bell hooks is an action. I think about the Black woman executive who told me that she nearly took her life twenty years ago, but that reading and applying the lessons from All About Love was the turning point in her choosing life over death, self over others. Today, this woman is head of research for a major television network and the founder of a Black maternal health foundation.
This is why I think reading bell hooks is not a passive act of knowledge consumption. Instead, it is an invitation to seriously consider the extent to which our ways of being and doing uphold the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (an expression often used by hooks in her work) that can subtly destroy us. If this woman executive had not read her bell hooks, and understood that act as a call to participation, would she have survived to impact the lives of so many?
Reading my bell hooks: A personal reflection
The way Black women experience the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy was a theme in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery (1994), the first bell hooks text I encountered. I read passages over and over again, highlighting them in bright yellow, because hooks’ words gave language to the pain of my Southern Black girl upbringing while simultaneously providing me with a roadmap to healing from a broken marriage.
This book, along with Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989) were essential to my formation as a Black feminist. Talking Back gave me a voice when I felt I was not worthy of writing and sharing my ideas. hooks reminded me that it is important that we, Black feminists, speak because “when we end our silence, when we speak in a liberated voice, our words connect us with anyone, anywhere who lives in silence.” In conversation with bell hooks at the Fall 2013 residency, professor and journalist, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, aptly put it this way: “None of us come to Black feminism except through you.”
A statement never felt so true to me. Not only was my feminism born from “reading my bell hooks” but my teaching was, too. Over the past decade in the classroom, I’ve embraced principles from Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994). And I have ended most semesters gifting my students these words from bell hooks:
“[t]he learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”
Through hooks, I have come to understand that teaching is my sacred vocation, and connected to another one of her ideas: “work makes life sweet.” In chapter three of Sisters of the Yam, hooks invites us to find work that enhances our well-being so that we “become more fully aware of our reality, of the labor we do and of the way we do it.”
Teaching at The New School was an especially sacred and sweet experience for me because it was a place where my engaged and feminist pedagogies were embraced by students and faculty alike. I finally found myself in a community with others who, like hooks, sought education as the practice of freedom.
Reading our bell hooks: A Community Experience
A highlight of my career at The New School was working closely with Stephanie Browner, then dean of Eugene Lang College, to produce the bell hooks scholar-in-residence program for three years. I felt a particular enthusiasm in the hallways during the residency weeks. Colleagues would ask who would be in conversation with hooks this time, and how they could get tickets for a loved one or friend.
These visits were a time that brought together members of The New School community and the general public to “read our bell hooks.” As a community of learners, we explored topics like transgression, masculinity, speaking truth to power, critical thinking, and decolonizing the imagination. Through these living room–style public conversations, we witnessed bell hooks dialogue and debate with academic luminaries like Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Dr. Cornel West; creative geniuses like Shola Lynch, Theaster Gates, Laverne Cox, and Arthur Jaffa; and feminist icons like Gloria Steinem, Janet Mock, and Chirlane McCray, the first Lady of New York City.
Sometimes these conversations sparked a debate online like the time hooks called Beyoncé a terrorist. But most of the time, these conversations were a salve that was sorely needed to survive another semester in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Recognizing the power of gathering, we also coordinated a few smaller events for students, faculty and alumni that would enable conversations with bell hooks to go deeper. One student master class discussed the margin as a space for radical openness; at another gathering, graduating seniors explored critical thinking beyond the academy. Students were able to engage and exchange ideas with bell hooks in a way that could not have been accomplished in larger public events.
By creating these more intimate classroom spaces, we had hoped to create “a place that is life-sustaining and mind-expanding, a place liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership,” as bell hooks writes in the introduction of Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. But to me, the most powerful of these intimate events was the off-campus Sister Circle I created in the fall of 2013. Inspired by the support group bell hooks wrote about in Sisters of the Yam, we invited a group of scholars, artists, and practitioners from within and outside of The New School community for fellowship, support, and dialogue.
Twenty women of various social identities gathered in a tiny apartment and broke bread. We went around the circle sharing perspectives about life, grief, love, sexuality, and professional ups and downs. After the banter, laughter, tears, and dancing, we left several hours later nourished and ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow.
The Sister Circle and the student seminars at The New School were deeply impactful because we not only “read our bell hooks” but we also read with bell hooks. We sat with her and engaged in genuine dialogue about the ideas she presented in an intimate way that remained with us for a long time to come. A former student reflected on social media recently about these student seminars. “I didn’t realize it then, but those spaces really transformed my understanding, and to have reread her works now in architecture school has been really full circle. This is not to idolize but to recognize a powerful moment.”
In looking back at what we accomplished, I now see that I co-created a successful intellectual project that put into practice bell hooks’ pedagogical, feminist, and radical ideas of love, healing, and transformation.
On stage in 2013 with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, bell hooks remarked, “Sometimes I do feel like wow, there is this audience that reads bell hooks and that tells me how my work has affected their lives. And I think as a Black woman writer that is so amazing. And I think that to be a Black woman of non-fiction and to be read is to be blessed and highly favored.”
bell hooks was blessed, and I believe that she transitioned to the land of milk and honey knowing how important her work was for so many people’s lives. Reading bell hooks is an action and a step towards personal and social transformation. Reading bell hooks changed my life and the outpouring of love I saw on social media outlets shows that she had a similar impact on the lives of many around the globe.
In an effort to keep her words, ideas, and memory alive, I invite you to read your bell hooks or to keep reading your bell hooks. I wonder what will you find? How will you be transformed? And most importantly how will you continue the struggle for justice and find joy and healing in the throes of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?
Thank you, Gloria, for your love, wisdom, and solidarity. ¡bell hooks Presente!
Judy Pryor-Ramirez is the assistant dean and faculty member in leadership at the Bard College MBA program in sustainability where her teaching and scholarship focus on the intersections of race, gender, and class. She contributed an essay to the Public Seminar series on New School Histories in 2019.