bell hooks, We Will Always Rage On With You

I was stunned when I heard the news about bell hooks’ passing. But, I felt a sense of closure. It was an answer to a question which had been weighing heavily on my mind for the past few months. You see, bell, who left us on December 15, 2021, wasn’t just a public intellectual to me, a prominent writer; she was a friend. I was fortunate to have been one the people she trusted with her personal telephone number. When we last spoke, she stated that she wasn’t feeling well. She mentioned that she had pain in both her hands and that it prevented her writing. This was an extremely prolific writer, and it was clear that her body is attempting to stop her from engaging in the most important and rewarding activities.

Bell was upbeat and still spoke with the same soft voice as before. Despite bell mentioning the pain in her hands it did not seem to have any effect on her ability to read books. I was always able to find something when she called me on different occasions. “I’m reading trash literature,” she would say. “Send me some books. I need more books to read!” By “trash literature,” bell didn’t mean this in some elitist fashion. Bell seems to have had a hunger for everything, which is atypical among scholars. This partly reflects her depth of knowledge and her ability to critically engage deeply philosophical issues. This was a great article about bell.

Bell was so down-to-earth that I had similar experiences to others. I didn’t just read bell hooks; I got to spend time with her, to get a glimpse of someone who was gentle, funny and familial. She was approachable and showed deep respect for me. For example, bell invited me to give a talk entitled “A Conversation with bell hooks” at the bell hooks Institute at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky in 2016. I was hoping that I would ask the majority of the questions and that bell would respond. Instead, I was the guest-of-honor. So there I was, the room packed and ready to answer all the complex questions from bell. I was thrilled. She would later publicly describe my visit there as having “rocked the house!” I was humbled.

There is something about bell’s down-to-earth quality that has deep importance for me. I have had the opportunity to speak with many distinguished intellectuals, scholars, and academics. For many scholars, once they have “achieved some status,” they become seduced by a poisonous neoliberal sense of “success.” They tend to have such an inflated sense of themselves, ruthless in their attempt to protect the little that they’ve acquired — money, endowed chairs, endowed professorships, media connections, insider cronyism and all the goodies of their academic institutions. This is what I know from personal experience. I’m sure that I have had a few occasions where my own “success” as a scholar was perceived as a territorial threat to others. And by “others,” I mean scholars across gender and racial divides. Bear in mind that I am not unaware of just how powerful the temptation is to give in to these notions of “success.” I am not immune, but I am acutely aware of the power of neoliberalism and its impact on scholars who fail to understand their arrogant pettiness, and how they are still linked into capitalist structural power. Should scholars not be ashamed?

You see, I wasn’t a threat to bell and she wasn’t a threat to me. She was aware of how neoliberal views of success can poison intellectuals. She writes, “Within a capitalist consumer society, the cult of personality has the power to subsume ideas, to make the person, the personality into the product and not the work itself.” She sees this as “a narcissistic focus on self” that can “lead to soul loss.” My experience with bell was filled within that lived space of sociality, a space where the gloated ego doesn’t deny otherness. Bell took me shopping places while I was in Berea. We walked together and became old friends. She took me to a beautiful thrift-store, which she highly praised. As we walked around, the locals didn’t idolize bell as the prolific, nationally and internationally known scholar and writer. She was a neighbor, a good friend. I was moved. Bell shared with me stories that she would never have told me during our walk together. We talked about our families and scholars, and she shared some her most intimate experiences. This wasn’t scuttlebutt. Each story was informative and filled with humor and Black humor. It was trust. Her honesty left me blushing, I have to admit. Bell spoke so lovingly about the places she considered home, there were no long silences. It was an honor to have walked alongside her through the streets of Berea. There was no pretense. Just this feeling of being together. On another occasion, I remember sitting with a bell and eating popcorn. Talk about a surreal moment. I am not the only one who was allowed to see certain aspects of her private life. I’m just honored that I was accorded this privilege.

I imagine her criticizing me in her witty style as I would call her on occasion to get her to say hello and introduce myself to a friend. I remember visiting Queen Mary University of London, where I gave a keynote speech. The lead presenters of a session on Black Feminnism had mentioned bell. I told them after their presentation that bell would be so excited about their work. Minutes later, bell said, “Hello.” I had called her from the U.K. Both presenters were shocked, open-mouthed, and trying to understand what had just happened. Speaking of ego, I am so delighted that bell didn’t tell me off. That is the person whom I refer to as bell hooks.

So, calling bell was a routine. It was a joy to hear her answer. She would often end with, “Love you, George.” Even if she didn’t answer the phone, it was great to leave a message as you got to hear bell’s recorded message: “All awakening to love is spiritual awakening.” It was this message that I listened to for the last few months. I suspected that her inability to answer her phone was the reason she shared with me her feelings of not feeling well. I called her number immediately after learning that she had died. Unfortunately, there was no recorded message. I wanted to hear bell’s voice again communicating her wisdom in that powerful connection that she made between the process of awakening to love and the process of spiritual awakening.

Bell taught me so many things. Maria del Guadalupe Davidson and I were inspired by her critical corpus to co-edit a book about her work. Critical Perspectives on bell hooks (2009). I recall sharing with bell the news about this edited book on her work and feeling a sense that she didn’t appreciate what we had done. I was wrong. This was, I now believe, bell’s sense of herself — her sense of humility. Bell was awkwardly expressionless when I told her about the book. And then she mentioned how she doesn’t think about such accolades. Her facial expression was initially misinterpreted as a lack appreciation. It was actually a sign of humility. Bell had a healthy capacity to love self-critique. This sense of vulnerability that leads us to hesitation is what I believe is important. It is this kind of self-criticism that allows us to let go of our superiority complex and hubristic self-certainty. Given her understanding of the deep connections between pedagogy, spirituality and love, I’m not surprised.

Many are perhaps unaware of bell’s emphasis on spirituality. In my conversationI was able to conduct for her The New York Times (“The Stone”), she locates the importance of spirituality in her life. She said, “Feminism does not ground me. My life is built upon the discipline that comes from my spiritual practice. When we talk about how disciplined I have been as a writer and how I hope to continue that discipline, it starts with a spiritual practice. It’s just every day, every day, every day.” It is important that we emphasize bell’s spiritual praxis as a Buddhist Christian and how it informs and is inextricably tied to her other identities.

Reflecting on bell, it is clear that I was touched by her personal journey and her profound influence on my teaching. In Teaching to Transgress, bell writes, “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. That field of possibility offers us the opportunity to work for freedom, and to demand of our fellow classmates, an openness in mind and heart that allows to face reality while collectively imagining ways to transcend boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”

“Education as a practice of freedom” is how I think about my own work within the classroom. Bell is also influenced, as I was by Paulo Freire’s emphasis on critical dialog, a love for the marginalized, colonized and oppressed, and how practice is essential to liberation. Theory is associated with suffering and pain for me, just as bell. We are required to doYou can’t do anything without theory. We must, as she says, “direct our theorizing towards” a liberatory or revolutionary end. Theory is not something we do in abstract, it is fundamentally tied to our suffering. In my own work, I have come see philosophy as a form suffering. That suffering was what brought me to philosophy or made it possible for me to find it. I needed and still need to understand why we are here in the universe, God’s existence, the meaning of death, and why God exists. These are not abstract issues to me. They are deep personal and existential questions that have brought me to tears. As bell writes, “I came to theory because I was hurting — the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me.”

My own teaching style has been to communicate to students that education is a place of radicality. It should speak to their souls. It should make them feel vulnerable and awaken to the reality of human suffering and the desire to change it. How else will they learn how to transgress, to disrupt problematic boundaries and hegemonic orders that sustain what bell famously terms, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”? Another way to say that students must learn how to love. Many students fail to see the connection between education and love, especially when they are held captive by marketization, commodification, and a cruel form of entrepreneurship. Facing one’s soul, one’s vulnerability, is the last thing that they desire to do. The rotting smells of deceit might be exposed if the masks of deception are removed. As hooks notes, “Consumer culture in particular encourages lies. Advertising is the cultural medium that most encourages lying. The market economy thrives when people are in constant need and perpetual desire. Lovelessness is a boon to consumerism.” Indeed, the idea that our raison d’être is to achieve mMore material success, accolades, and distinctions, breeds backstabbing and self-aggrandizement.

My favorite classroom moments are those where students sit silently because of the gravity or question. Tears are not uncommon in my classroom. It is a sign of something happening, such as an edifying transgression or a painful realization. I would like to believe that I can show the students in the classroom, through my own modeling, what vulnerability and being on the brink of tears looks like when faced with honesty and self-criticism. I believe that such a space is a sign of love. As bell writes, “To know love we have to tell the truth to ourselves and to others.”

Through courageous speech, my objective is to get my students to see behind the façade that fuels their pretentiousness. It is to call into question what my “function” is within the classroom. So, we transgress against those hierarchies that place me in the position of the “all-knowing professor,” the disembodied abstract mind. We discover that education is designed to contain, create, and maintain safety that takes form of conformity for those in power. My students are encouraged to be honest about themselves, to examine the lies, deceptions, and posturing.

As bell writes, “Creating a false self to mask fears and insecurities has become so common that many of us forget who we are and what we feel underneath the pretense.” In my classroom spaces where un-suturing, which is a form of laying bare the self, is a premium, I would like to think that I contribute, to some degree, to a process of unburdening of my students. She also writes, “When an individual has always lied, [they have]This heavy burden can be lifted by truth telling, but it is not something that we are aware of. To learn more [they] must let the lies go.” In Passionate Wounds, bell writes, “I wanted to care for the soul and to let my heart speak.” That very process, that care and honesty, are dangerous in a world predicated upon distortion, deception and neofascism, which are precisely the dynamics playing themselves out in the U.S. As bell clearly states, “When this collective cultural consumption of and attachment to misinformation is coupled with the layers of lying individuals do in their personal lives, our capacity to face reality is severely diminished as is our will to intervene and change unjust circumstances.”

The passing of bell hooks — the Black feminist, the cultural critic, the philosopher, the gadfly, the storyteller, the love warrior — has, unfortunately, removed some of the righteous and necessary rage from of our world. If we sit silently (without the necessary rage), in the face violence, injustice, or assault against other human beings, then we are, for all bells, complicit. Even though it may seem counterintuitive, rage can be a source of healing, responsibility and growth. Bell shared another profound insight with me during our interview at The New York Times (“The Stone”) involves Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh suggested to bell that she use her anger, her rage, to create. He said to bell, “Well, you know, hold on to your anger, and use it as compost for your garden.” This is a powerful process of recycling anger and rage, of deploying it for the purpose of personal and collective evolution.

My students should feel rage against injustice, deception, and inhumanity. Rage is a beautiful thing and a desideratum in this context. It is necessary because there is so much hatred. It is essential because there is so much hatred. Killing Rage, bell writes about how Black rage is seen “as always and only pathological rather than as a just response to an unjust situation.” As bell would say, the real and present danger is violence against humanity. If we want to end rage, we must also talk about ending violence against the earth and humanity. For bell, we must take control of “rage and move it beyond fruitless scapegoating of any group, linking it instead to a passion for freedom and justice that illuminates, heals, and makes redemptive struggle possible.”

Bell will be missed by me. The world will miss her presence and uncompromised voice. Yet, her work will live on, and we will be sure to engage what she calls “working with the work.” She explains, “So if somebody comes up to me, and they have one of those bell hooks books that’s abused and battered, and every page is underlined, I know they’ve been working with the work. And that’s where it is for me.”

We rage on with bell, working with your work and teaching to transgress for freedom.