On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which this year falls on January 17th, we would like to pay homage to the life and work of the writer, activist, and black feminist, Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks , who passed away on December 15th, 2021.
Born in Kentucky in 1952, bell hooks would travel to the west coast for an undergraduate degree at Stanford, and go on to have a successful career as a writer (she published over a dozen books) and as an educator and activist (she taught at numerous prestigious universities, including Stanford and Yale, and engaged with audiences as a speaker throughout her life). But bell hooks was more than a scholar. Her ideas are original and radical, and they continue to impact the lives of people who’ve read her and find themselves at the margins of society. This is so because bell hooks did more than write about oppression, marginalization, feminism, capitalism, and black liberation. She also managed to tie all of these struggles, histories, and experiences together in such a way that, no matter who you are, what she has to say speaks to you because she shows you how they have impacted – and continue to impact – your life.
Writing as a black woman, who had lived through the terrors of the Jim Crow South, bell hooks was most concerned with critiquing and dismantling what she would later call the dominator culture in the United States – “the system of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” . In a nutshell, the struggles against racism, sexism, and economic inequality are interwoven together, and we can’t understand or liberate ourselves from any one of these struggles alone without also understanding and liberating ourselves from the other two struggles. These struggles are all of our struggles because we were all born into, or now live in, the same dominating and violent American culture. This idea is the main insight of bell hook’s thought, and it is what makes her such an original, radical thinker and writer. It is what makes her relevant today.
As a celebration of MLK Day, and as a celebration of bell hook’s life, we recommend you visit a local bookstore or go to your local library to read the following books.
Ain’t I a Women: Black Women and Feminism (1981) is bell hook’s classic work. She talks about the history of the black liberation movement from a feminist lens, including about the patriarchy in the black liberation movement and how the feminist movement, led by mostly white women, often excluded or marginalized their black sisters.
Another book, which any residents of Kansas or Missouri who have ever questioned whether they belong in their home state may find interesting, is Belonging: A culture of place (2009). In this book, bell hooks recalls her experience of returning home to Kentucky after living on the east and west coasts. She talks about how she dealt with returning to the place where she experienced trauma in her childhood and how she rediscovered an independent, non-conformist, anti-racist “culture of anarchy” exemplified by “Appalachian black folks” which had been suppressed by the culture of white supremacy.
A more gentle introduction to bell hook’s ideas is her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionte Politics (2000). In this book, she explains what feminism is and why anyone should care, no matter who you are, and she does so using compelling and non-academic language.
Finally, in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., who preached love and understanding instead of hate and fear, we recommend bell hook’s book, all about love (2001). In this book, bell hooks talks about the healing power of love – of self-love, sexual love, romantic love, of letting yourself be loved – even after experiencing trauma and the hatred and violence of others. By coming to accept ourselves, and accepting love into our lives, which is something Martin Luther King Jr. would also suggest we do, we can allow ourselves not to live in fear and not to meet violence with violence. As bell hooks says:
“The transformative power of love is not fully embraced in our society because we often wrongly believe that torment and anguish are our “natural” condition. This assumption seems to be affirmed by the ongoing tragedy that prevails in modern society. In a world anguished by rampant destruction, fear prevails. When we love, we no longer allow our hearts to be held captive by fear. The desire to be powerful is rooted in the intensity of fear. Power gives us the illusion of having triumphed over fear, over our need for love. ”
How You Can Make Impact
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day of remembrance and celebration. Remembrance of the legacy of four hundred years of the slavery of black men and women and the legacy and accomplishments of the civil rights movement. It is also a day of celebration. A celebration of a great man and of black history, black culture, and black achievements. The death of bell hooks is a great loss, but her thoughts and words remain with us. We just need to find the time to sit down, read, and listen to what she has to say.
One way to celebrate MLK Day is by giving back to the Kansas City community. Uncover KC would like to invite you to spend MLK Day and the weekend volunteering. Some organizations that could especially use your help during the winter are Restart Inc. and City Year Kansas City, which is holding a Martin Luther King Jr Day of Service this weekend.
Take a few moments out of your day to schedule a volunteer consultation with us so we can help you find a volunteering opportunity that matches your interests and a time and place you can volunteer this January or February.
- No, that isn’t a typo: bell hooks intentionally spelled her name uncapitalized to honor her great-grandmother and as a way to find her own identity. For example, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/12/15/bell-hooks-real-name/
- “Kentucky is My Fate”, Belonging: A culture of place. Routledge, 2009.
- All About Love, New Visions. 2001, pgs. 220 – 221.