A lifework: the entire or principal activity over a person’s lifetime or career. To be a feminist is to make feminism your lifework. I am deeply indebted to bell hooks for teaching me this – and so much else, besides. I write this post in dedication to bell.
When bell hooks died, I couldn’t bring myself to write about her, what her work meant to me, to the students I have taught over many years, to those with whom I share a political project and community. I read what others wrote, grateful that for some of us grief does not take away the capacity for description. For me, it takes time for words to come, to get to a point when I can say something about losing someone. You can lose someone with meeting them. Or, you can meet someone through what they gave to the world.
Words are coming out because of what you gave to the world. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black, hooks wrote of writing as “a way to capture speech, to hold on to it, keep it close. And so, I wrote down bits and pieces of conversations, confessing in cheap diaries that soon fell apart from too much handling, expressing the intensity of my sorrow, the anguish of speech, for I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life. I hid these writings under my bed, in pillow stuffings, among faded underwear” (1988, 6-7). In writing, by writing, bell hooks refuses to be confined. She spreads her words, herself, all over the place.
All that intensity, it goes somewhere. The pages fall apart from “too much handling.” The paper is cheap, the material she has available. She makes do; she gets through. The pages wear out because of how they matter. To write is how she spills out, spills over, the intensity of sorrow, filling it up, stuffing it where she can, where she is, the places she has, under the bed, in the pillow cases, among her underwear, under, in, among; hidden with delicates, her other things. In putting her writing there, her thoughts and feelings tumbling out, what she hears, “bits and pieces of conversations,” she exceeds the space she has been given, the concerns she is supposed to have, allowed to have, the corners, the edges of the room.
We are asking the wrong questions when we question a world that gives us such little room.
There is much beauty in bell hooks’s writing about writing, in her description of what is wearing about the work, about the words. And, there is pain, too.
hooks writes of how you can be caught out by others who think they have found something out about you by finding your words. She mentions how her sisters would find her writing and end up “poking fun” at her (7). She describes leaving her writing out as like putting out “newly cleaned laundry out in the air for everyone to see” (7). Note she does not talk about dirty laundry, that expression often used for the public disclosure of secrets. This is cleaned laundry; it is hanging out there because of labour that has already been undertaken. When writing is labouring, it is what we do to get stuff out there, to get ourselves out there. There is still exposure of something, of someone, in the action of airing, making your interior world available for others to see.
To spread yourself out can be to go back in time, to pull yourself out by pulling on those who came before. hooks describes how as a Black girl she had to stand her ground, defy parental authority, by speaking back. She also describes how she claimed her writer-identity, “One of the many reasons I chose to write under the pseudonym bell hooks, a family name (mother to Sarah Oldham, grandmother to Rosa Bell Oldham, great-grandmother to me” (9). Penning your own name can be how you claim a Black feminist inheritance. Defiant speech, too. Elsewhere, hooks describes how her grandmother was “known for her snappy and bold tongue” (1996, 152). Writing can be writing back but also writing from, to be snappy as to recover a history.
In Talking Back, hooks also writes about memory, sharing a memory of how her mother remembered, “I remembered my mother’s hope chest with its wonderful odour of cedar and thought about her taking the most precious items and placing them there for safe keeping. Certain memories were for me a similar treasure. I want to place them somewhere for safe keeping” (158). Smell can travel through time; we remember something by smelling it. And an object can hold our memories, keep them for us, so we can return to them. For hooks, memories are not always clear or even true. She tells us she remembers “a wagon that my brother and I shared as a child” (158). But then she tells us her mother says, “there had never been any wagon. That we had shared a red wheelbarrow.”
A wagon, a red wheelbarrow. The question isn’t which one was it. Objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. And writing too; how objects acquire different colours and shapes, depending. You might be a red wheel barrow or a wagon. The question isn’t which one. Sometimes, in loosening our hold on things, also ourselves, we bring them to life. In a conversation with Gloria Steinem, bell hooks describes how she is surrounded by her own precious objects, feminist objects. They are the first things she sees when she wakes up. She says “the objects in my life call out to me.” And then she says she has “Audre Lorde’s ‘Litany for Survival’ facing me when I get out of bed; I have so many beautiful images of women face me as I go about my day”.
Feminism becomes how you create your own horizon, how you surround yourself with images that reflect back to you something precious and true about the live you are living or that life you have lived.
A story of survival, of persistence, also love.
Writing, too, hooks shows us, can be how we surround ourselves.
We write ourselves into existence. We write, in company. And we write back against a world that in one way or another makes it hard for us to exist on our own terms. When I think of what it takes to write back, who it takes, I think of how many came before us who laid out paths we could follow. And I think of you. It can be good hap to find you there. Sometimes, it takes my breath away when I think of how easily we can miss each other.
We write because we are missing something. We write to help us find each other. In reflecting back on her life-saving book Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks tells us how her commitment to feminism grew over a lifetime. The preface to the second edition begins, “Engaged with feminist theory and practice for more than forty years, I am proud to testify that each year of my life my commitment to feminist movement, to challenging and changing patriarchy has become more intense” (vii). I like how you didn’t write “the feminist movement,” but “feminist movement.” Without the “the,” we can hear the movement. I think of the encouragement you give us in sharing this testimony. You teach me that we can find a way through the violence of this world by sustaining our commitment to changing it. To sustain – even intensify – our commitments to feminism is a political achievement given that what we try to challenge and to change, others defend, others who have the resources to turn their defence into an instruction. To express your feminist commitments has life implications – you end up at odds with so much and so many. You also taught me that to be “at odds” is not simply about what is painful and difficult – it is also an opening, an invitation even. That is how you defined queer after all, “being at odds.” What might seem like the negative task of critique, naming what we oppose, showing how violence is implicated in the most cherished of cultural forms, is thus an affirmative task of creating room so that we can live our lives in another way.
In telling this story of her lifelong commitment to feminism as a politics of changing the world, bell hooks addresses us, her audience. She notes that her books were “rarely reviewed,” but still “found an audience.” She describes how she is “awed” that her work “still finds readers, still educates for critical consciousness” (viii). When feminist books are not reviewed by the newspapers with wide circulation or displayed in the front of the bookshops because they are too dissident, how do we find them? hooks suggests her own books were found by “word of mouth” and through “course adoptions.” I found bell hooks through the latter. Her work was assigned in a class I took in 1992 (the teacher who assigned bell hooks was Chris Weedon, thank you Chris for that assignment). Any so by word of mouth or by being taught in feminist classrooms, bell hooks’ books found their readers and saved our lives.
How we find bell hooks is not unrelated to what she has to teach us. Finding feminism is not about following the conventional paths that lead to reward and recognition. Your definition of feminism is “the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” (2000, 33). From this definition, we learn so much. Feminism is necessary because of what has not ended: sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression. And for hooks, “sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” cannot be separated from white supremacy and capitalism. That is why, you keep naming it, what you oppose. In Outlaw Culture, hooks made use of the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” an impressive eighteen times! No wonder you have given me so much killjoy inspiration! You named it, nailed it, every time!
There can be costs to nailing it. I think again of hooks awe that her books found their readers. There is a story we can glimpse here of what bell hooks did not do to “find” her audience. In a public dialogue with Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch and Janet Mock at the New School in 2019, hooks says, “I say to my students: Decolonize. But there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not gonna have the wealth. You’re not gonna be getting your Genius award funded by the militaristic, imperialist MacArthur people.” hooks clarifies that she is not speaking against those individuals who accept these awards but rather pointing to how to decolonise our dependency is to create our own standards for living. To receive funding or prizes or fellowships from organisations whose power derives from the system you critique is to accept a limitation. Even if you think of yourself as working the system it can be hard not to end up working for the system.
You taught me that to change the system we have to stop it from working. I think of that price, the price we pay for the work we do.
Feminism too can end up being the avoidance of that price. We have to find another way through feminism. I think of how bell hooks’s critiques of white feminism gave us so many tools, for instance, her critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, the “problem that has no name” (except of course, you named it). You write, “She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2). And you taught me how to “do feminist theory” by reflecting on what happens when we “do feminism.” You write, “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel they are bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of colour enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000, 56). In this description there is so much insight into everything. A woman of colour just has to enter the room for the atmosphere becomes tense. Atmospheres – they seem intangible mostly. But when you become the cause of tension, an atmosphere can be experienced as a wall. The woman of colour comes to be felt as apart from the group, getting in the way of a presumably organic solidarity.
There are many ways we can be removed from the conversation. That removal creates a feeling of unity. That some feminist spaces are experienced as more unified might be a measure of how many are missing from them. You taught me to notice who is missing, which is how we become killjoys, getting in the way of the occupation of space.
You taught me to be willing to get in the way.
You taught me to teach.
Teaching is how we learn, but also how we do the work of transformation. You write of teaching as how we model social change, and as “the practice of freedom…that enables us to live life fully and freely” (1988, 72). I always taught your work. I taught your work in every year I taught, watching students be transformed by your work. We often read your article, “Eating the Other.” I had drawn upon it in one of my first books, Strange Encounters, in an oddly titled chapter, “Going Strange, Going Native.” This is your description, “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (1992, 21). Ethnicity becomes spice is perhaps one of the most perfect descriptions of how racism operates in consumer culture! You taught me in this piece how to theorise whiteness, how it becomes not only absence but neutral, a dull dish, how people of colour become spice, adding something, flavour even, added on, that goes on.
I kept being taught by you.
Did I tell you that?
I did not communicate directly with bell hooks. I did send bell hooks a message once by writing to her publishers South End in 2009. I wrote, “I know you have published works by one of our contemporary scholars and activists whom I most admire: bell hooks. I myself am a feminist of color working in and from the British and Australian context. I have been very influenced by bell hooks’ work, especially in my book Strange Encounters (2000), which drew on her wonderful critique of the exoticizing of otherness. It has been such a privilege and pleasure to work with her work.” They told me they passed this letter on to you, but I don’t know for sure if they did. And I wished I had written to you again. But then I think there was a sense in communicating to you through writing not addressed to you but to “feminist movement.”
We are that movement.
It was when I wrote Living a Feminist Life that I felt the fullness of my debt to you. That book had your handprints all over it, signs of what I could do because of what you had laboured to show, what you had left out for us to see. I remember putting your name on the top of the list of scholars who I would love to endorse that book never imagining you might say yes. When I first saw your words about my work I almost fell out of my chair. I was profoundly moved to know that you had read my work let alone that you had endorsed it.
And then my publisher put a sentence from you on the front of the book!
It said, “everyone should read this book.”
I still feel overwhelmed when I see the cover of Living a Feminist Life. Because I see it and I see your name. I see it and I see you. I am about to send out another book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, also addressed to feminist movement. You appear all over this book, in the chapter on surviving as a killjoy, the feminist killjoy as poet, the feminist killjoy as activist. I dedicate that last chapter to you.
There are many ways we communicate in writing our love for the world we are bold enough to want for each other.
Thank you bell, for what you helped me to see.
To be bold enough to want.
In killjoy solidarity,
hooks, bell (2014). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Second Edition. London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (2006). Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.
hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (1996). “Inspired Eccentricity: Sarah and Gus Oldham” in Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (eds), Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (ed.), New York: Vintage Books.
hooks, bell (1992). Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.
hooks, bell (1988). Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.
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Thank you, Sara Ahmed.
I remember studying bell hooks’: FEMINIST THEORY: from margin to center. She and Margaret Atwood gave me the courage to leave a violent domestic situation & to find my own voice, to rely on my own internal compass.