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The Breakthrough Voice 18th February, 2022

Reading As Liberation: bell hooks & Radical Loving.

I’ve never understood why so many people considered reading to be an intellectual act. It’s stimulating, sure, in ways that very few hobbies are, and curls the wingspan of your attention neatly into its little fist. But it is an act that’s, regrettably still regarded solely as academic, enigmatic, shrouded in mystery and surrounded on all four walls by a fierce ribbon of barbed wire. Everyone I interacted with likened someone who enjoyed reading to a highbrowed scholar, someone who could never be relatable. On the other side of the spectrum, reading fiction makes you too idealistic. No one wanted to be the girl with her head stuck in the pages of a book. 

But one of the fundamental joys of reading is that it is not purely a cerebral practice. Readings stir revolutions, as prominent writer and activist Arundhati Roy is famously quoted as saying. Prose lives in the body, poetry transcends borders and lineages, and it is language that so brightens up our world. While seas of thinkers have been deliberating upon the power of the written word since we managed to record time, it is one thinker’s words that have stayed with me till today, a thinker who left us at a tumultuous, scary time. That thinker is bell hooks, whose very name resists the structures of colonial grammar. No capitalisation in it. Her work can speak for itself. 

Prose lives in the body, poetry transcends borders and lineages, and it is language that so brightens up our world.

Born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks was no stranger to the vagaries of modern living. Her parents were African-American and working-class, employed as a janitor and a maid, relegated to the homes of the wealthy and the white. She knew the world was not made to keep her in mind. But she was defiant, and notably so. 

The segregated southern United States was not an easy place for a young Black woman to grow up in, but hooks has described her childhood as being central to her life’s work (see the memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood), even though it was far from ideal. Excelling throughout high school, she attended Stanford on a scholarship, where hooks wrote the first draft of what would later become the seminal Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Originally published in 1981, the text has since become an important manifesto detailing the intricacies of black womanhood, white supremacy, modern imperialist structures, and the misrepresentation of marginalised women in the media. It’s also an incredibly adept piece of political theory, and has been the introductory text for scores of free thinking intellectual women since. 

After her matriculation from Stanford, hooks went on to have a prolific, dedicated career in academia, holding teaching positions at Yale, the University of Southern California, and the City College of New York. Simultaneously, she wrote and published several books including Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (a biting critique of white feminism, and how it continues to fail women of colour), Talking Back, and Wounds of Passion, in which she reflected on her writing life. 

Arguably her most influential theory was that of the “oppositional gaze”, a way of looking back at the oppressor. It was inherently rebellious, as was the nature of the depth of her life’s work. She proposed a silent resistance, one that subverted typified systems of power. Here was a way for a Black person to reclaim their right to look, and everything that came with it. 

She proposed a silent resistance, one that subverted typified systems of power. Here was a way for a Black person to reclaim their right to look, and everything that came with it. 

But perhaps the most timeless of her work was also the most unconventional. All About Love: New Visions, first published in 2000 has remained an exemplary treatise on how to love with intention in a world that is pitted against you. hooks’ style of writing was simple, clear, concise. It was so easy to understand and reproduce that she was often shunned by academic institutions for this radical clarity. It’s odd, I’ll admit, for an institution to be so held against someone who wanted to open the floodgates of literary criticism. But here was a woman willing to forgo the validation of the establishment for the nourishment of the community. 

hooks’ style of writing was simple, clear, concise. It was so easy to understand and reproduce that she was often shunned by academic institutions for this radical clarity.

hooks often wrote about how capitalist notions of love placed too much emphasis on the individual as the sole propagator. This is reflected in many ways: the supposed imperviousness of Western psychotherapy, the individualism beheld by the American dream, why we’re so compelled by the early success of gifted children. “Love is an action, never simply a feeling,” she stressed. hooks also endeavoured to move the focus from singular, heterosexual exclamations of love, and maintained that loving well was “the task of all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds”. 

hooks also endeavoured to move the focus from singular, heterosexual exclamations of love, and maintained that loving well was “the task of all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds”. 

hooks returned to her home state in 2004, to fulfill a teaching position at Berea College, where she remained till she died of kidney failure on the 15th of December, 2021.

 

*Featured image is for representational purposes only.

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