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Op-Ed: bell hooks was a mighty fire

Author bell hooks, who died Wednesday, in a portrait taken in 1996.
Author bell hooks, who died Wednesday, in a portrait taken in 1996.
(Karjean Levine/Getty Images)

bell hooks was one of the mighty fires in which I was forged, the first person to say I was a real writer, to tell me I had something urgent to share with the world. I had grown up with serious tutelage on all things race, class and gender, but bell taught me more: how to read, how to see, how to discern what lay beneath. bell was my mentor, my friend, my sister in struggle.

We met when I was her student at Yale, but she taught me for the next 30 years. We were outsiders together in her bare New Haven, Conn., studio, the heat cranked against the blistering cold. A decade later we talked story over Indian takeout in her West Village apartment, with its wall of books facing her bed. In my 40s, I drove for hours in the rain to see her new house at the top of a hill in Kentucky, and back down for tea in her “main” house near Berea College — modest, full of Buddhas and African sculptures, magic chests with tiny drawers bursting with packs of Juicy Fruit gum.

A glorious painting of poppies.

We talked about real estate and Buddhism, about what we wanted in our lovers. We talked about people we knew and whether they could be trusted, about people we didn’t know and whether they were as brilliant or ignorant or fascinating or uninteresting as they seemed. We talked about family and strife, survival and spirit, going away and coming home.

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We talked about art and politics. A film about Black love was also about the sublimation of female desire. A television show about slavery was also about white supremacy’s endless fascination with the brutalization of Black bodies. A book about Black female empowerment was also an ode to late-stage capitalism.

We laughed and laughed because even though I cannot tell a joke to save my life, bell was funny, impish, quick to find humor in absurdity. Her laughter was her salvation. Was ours.

But there are other things I need to tell you.

bell hooks was a free woman. She saw racism in feminism, classism in progressivism, and white supremacy in a lover’s kiss. bell didn’t speak truth to power because bell was power; bell left the margins way back before she taught us that we were all in them. She stormed the center like a general: without permission, or the faintest idea that it might not be hers to claim. Her mind, free and unfettered, unafraid of knowing its own velocity, galloped ahead to take her rightful place, far beyond the mediocrity of the status quo.

bell hooks was both demon and demon slayer. On the page, at the lectern, chatting on the phone or sofa: bell shredded illusions of segregation and solidarity, dismantled ideologies of exclusion and inclusion, eviscerated purveyors of hypocrisy and truth. No idea was too sacred, no comrade too cherished. bell burned it all to the ground, and when we asked why, she told us that criticism was a form of love, an expression of hope, an act of faith. Some winced, and some left her side, but most of us came to accept her coda: If you want a better crop, you might have to raze the one that came before.

bell hooks was a genius. She could read a book in an hour, two or three books in a day, and tell you which mattered and which did not. bell beat the Ivy League at its own game: Taking refuge in the ivory tower, she taught her students to transgress. When the gatekeepers tried to tamp her fire, she took their accolades and rode them all the way home. bell turned Black rage into Black love, transformed a wound of passion into a quest for communion, and elevated outlaw culture to high art by changing the definitions of both. Her mind was a diamond. Sharp, penetrating, clear, relentless.

bell lived as a radical Black woman, a fierce intellectual in these divided United States for over 60 years. She published more than 30 books and mentored countless students. At her death she was revered by many, beholden to none.

if bell sounds like a superhero, it’s because she was one: indomitable and flawed, beautiful and bewitching. She was generous and full of need, and her friends and foes were often indistinguishable. She came with an origin story, always kept a secret lair, and appeared invincible to the untrained eye. But there was always kryptonite, because like every great superhero, bell was a lover.

Beneath the armor, on the other side of the sword, beat a mighty heart that believed in people, in our collective goodness and ability to change, evolve, grow. bell believed the world could be saved, if only we would all wake up and reject the stories that keep us separate, and embrace the ones that make us whole. This, then, is bell’s greatest gift: her unshakable faith that we can all be free.

Rebecca Walker is an author, producer and cultural critic. Her 10th book, “Women Talk Money: Breaking the Taboo,” will be published in March 2022.


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