grief, as heavy as it feels to carry, calls forth the deepest gratitude. i’m feeling a lot of both today on my birthday because bell hooks passed away this wednesday, december 15, 2021.
while i had another piece that i planned to post for this week, i pushed it back to make space for what has been called forth since i saw the announcement a couple days ago.
on this day, celebrating my 25th birthday, i remember the great gifts that bell hooks has offered me through her writing, which i now choose to celebrate with you.
bell hooks was brilliant. rooted in her experience and the black radical feminist tradition, hooks’s writing and testifying and yearning chart the path of healing our relationships with self, other, community, ecosystem and world.
it’s nothing short of a miracle that i have been able to enjoy the sooth and the sting of her books, utterly transformed by her truth-telling. who knows all of the love, empowerment, communion, and critical thinking that she will continue to bring into our relationships and experiences moving forward.
all about love: new visions found me in the fall of 2018. it was there, in the airport, in my hands, open and pouring itself into my life. my first feeling was shock. wait when was this book written? twenty years ago? it could have been written yesterday.
my second, third and fourth feelings were also shock, with increasing awe. i had never read so powerful a blend of personal narrative, cultural reference, critical analysis, and emotional urgency all together in one book before. hooks has such a clear voice in her writing that it feels like she’s talking directly to me. the quotes that she incorporates come from a diverse range of thinkers, which only strengthen her voice further rather than drown it out.
and with all of the love that could be felt through the pages of a book, bell hooks encouraged me in all of the places where i was off to a good start while calling out the ones where i wasn’t. fifty pages in, i was reminded that i had been out of touch with my feelings and past experiences. it was time to stop denying myself care, kindness, honesty and healing, and start regarding myself as a person worthy of loving and being loved.
a hundred pages in, all about love reminded me that i was hurt and mistaken to defend the old practice of whooping children. a year prior, i got into a long, tense argument with one of my closest friends Derrick because he said beating kids was wrong and i said it was right. out of touch with my own feelings and past experiences, i said, look at us, we turned out okay, so it’s okay! but reading bell hooks’s book in the airport that day, i sent him a picture of the page i was reading, apologized, and told him that i now believed that he was right all along.
i probably opened the book in the first place because i had fallen in love with someone, and so directed my reading obsession to improving my romantic relationship with her. all about love affirmed that yearning, but more importantly pointed me to all the heavenly glory of love embodied within myself and shared in all of my relationships. i came to the book with one definition of love and left with a hundred, including the many forms of self-love hooks described.
the urgency of it was real because bell hooks made it so clear that my “personal” problems, like everyone else’s, were rooted in the culture which she courageously called out by its government name: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. this is how i learned that black women’s liberation would necessarily liberate all people. bell hooks blended theory and practice and reminded me that her own well-being was tied up in mine, and ours were caught up in the health of our communities, culture and society. all about love showed me that the personal is political is poetic.
when i first started school in california, i had a teacher who was a black woman named miss joan hopkins. she helped me feel comfortable and curious in the classroom and library, while also keeping me on my best behavior because she knew that i knew that she talked with my mom. i’m grateful for her because receiving her love at such a vulnerable, critical moment in my growth has had an immeasurable effect in my life. from then on, my school teachers were white and or male, and i didn’t have an experience similar to those with miss hopkins until that november day that i stepped off my college campus and into the homeplace of bell hooks.
those feelings of comfort and curiosity returned stronger than ever as i read all about love. for the last ten years i had navigated what felt like a million moments of uncertainty, pain, fear, anxiety, shame, rage, depression and disconnection. halfway through college i found myself in another vulnerable, critical moment in my growth, where my heart would have frozen into an ice box if not for the loving warmth of spaces in dc, created by my girlfriend and her girlfriends, and bell hooks.
but there was something else here in this book that felt new: courage. it was like bell hooks had given me permission to self-correct, seek help, attend to my feelings and communicate them, set boundaries, heal childhood trauma, learn how to give and receive admiration, and show my friends and family more of how much i love them, all at once.
i practiced all of these things and more over the next two years. i didn’t read any bell hooks over that time period, but followed the feelings i had while reading her words into even more books. there was so much in this one book that never got talked about in school that it made me wonder: how much treasure is out there, in the books of others’ insight and imagination, which could bring even more treasure out of me and my relationships?
bell hooks reminded me that this was the real education that i had been missing. the desire to share her ideas and others like it is what led me and my brother miles to start a blog and post a hundred book reviews to it, then officially start our project as real ballers read.
bell hooks always stood in her Truth, no matter who tried to knock her down. i am learning how to do the same by following her example, and it’s been a blessing to find her in some of my favorite moments of this year.
right when we got on instagram, we found a fellow black book-lover who was hosting an ig live conversation about all about love. for the first time, in a virtual room of total strangers, i got to share my appreciation for bell hooks and listen to how she has helped other people as well.
as my brother and i watched the marlon riggs film black is black ain’t, we admired and listened to bell hooks in her full presence, testifyin’ to the need for communion in black communities across differences of gender, sexuality, class, age and ability.
after i finished the color purple by alice walker for a podcast interview, and proceeded to have the deepest, longest, bell-hooks-filled conversation that i’ve ever had with someone i’ve never met before, our podcast guest mentioned that she had just had tacos at bell hooks’s place in berea.
when my sister and i got deep this summer, laughed, took care of two puppies and read tarot cards at 2 in the morning, we fantasized about our dream to finally meet her and fangirl in berea. it was only a drive across the river, if not for the pandemic.
even over the last couple of days, as i feel the weight of grief, gratitude, humility and love, it is the voice of bell hooks, laced with those of nina simone, aretha franklin, stevie wonder, bob marley and more, that has me dancing the pain away on my birthday.1
i am privileged and humbled to regard bell hooks as the biggest educator of my life for the last three years. she once said that, “your heart has to be ready to handle the weight of your calling”, and i am beyond grateful for her commitment to getting our hearts ready.2
i mostly focused this piece on my story with all about love because that was the first book of hers that i read. however, in the last year, i’ve read five more books written by bell hooks – belonging: a culture of place, we real cool: black men and masculinity, teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom, the will to change: men, masculinity and love and salvation: black people and love – all of which continue to surprise me, challenge me and call me to act. sisters of the yam: black women and self-recovery is next, then teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. she has deeply influenced my thinking on everything, including water, so i am excited to share all of that with you in my writing.
thank you for being you, here with me, today.
(1) DJ Lynnée Denise did this mix called Soulful Critical Thought: bell hooks and the Making of a DJ Scholar. It’s fire and I listened to it on repeat while writing this piece. Here’s the link: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/djlynneedenise/episodes/2014-04-20T10_38_19-07_00
(2) quoted from this link right here^