In her nearly 70 years of life, bell hooks never gave birth but she did have many children. The author, professor, and speaker mothered multiple generations of thinkers, writers, and feminists who read her expansive series of books covering a variety of topics: Blackness, womanhood, masculinity, and much more. At times, she even broadened her talents into writing poetry. With all of her work, she made it with a certain notable intent — to be in service of a better, more liberated world. Everyone from Angela Davis to Roxane Gay has cited hooks as a foundational voice in shifting the public discourse when it comes to feminism, while artists like Childish Gambino have even name-dropped her work (“Got the All About Love, on some bell hooks,” he raps on “12.38”).
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks later changed her name to honor her maternal great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks, choosing to stylize it with lowercase letters to bring focus to her words and not herself. The desire to decenter herself from the glory and acclaim of the work she did only affirmed her commitment to the communities she occupied and sought to bring them closer together, resulting in her becoming one of the most important Black authors of our time.
There is something both singular and communal about hooks’ writing. She was a writer whose books brought the experience of being a Black feminist to the forefront. In doing so, she made room for everyone to be invited into the community that she built with her words. However, hooks’ status as a literary behemoth whose illustrious works span decades has understandably left newcomers daunted by the task of approaching her writing. Where does one possibly begin when there’s so much important ground to cover, and so many bell hooks books out there? The answer is that there is no wrong place to begin when it comes to reading bell hooks’ work, but here’s a brief guide to help you along your journey into her literary world.
hooks on Feminism
hooks’ work discussing feminism pulses throughout all of her writing, but for new readers it’s best to start at the beginning. In her inaugural work, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, hooks focuses on the oppression of Black women, a foundational text that predates the now ubiquitous phrase “intersectionality.” hooks takes a look at how factors like slavery, white feminists, and Black chauvinists play in the continued societal degradation of Black women.
“If women want a feminist revolution — ours is a world that is crying out for feminist revolution — then we must assume responsibility for drawing women together in political solidarity,” hooks writes. “That means we must assume responsibility for eliminating all the forces that divide women.”
Then, there is her Feminism is for Everybody, the perfect introductory text for the budding feminist reader. “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” hooks writes. “It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy.”
For further reading on hooks’ thoughts about feminism, readers can also see the following Black feminist books: Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.
hooks on Masculinity
It was hooks’ deepest belief that both women and men are negatively impacted by the patriarchy, and that breaking free from gender roles was an imperative for us all to live fuller lives. In her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, hooks writes about the ways that patriarchal expectations impact Black men specifically.
“Showing aggression is the simplest way to assert patriarchal manhood. Men of all classes know this,” she writes. “As a consequence, all men living in a culture of violence must demonstrate at some point in their lives that they are capable of being violent.”
In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, she tackles head-on the ways the patriarchy affects men’s ability to experience the full breadth of their humanity, and from accessing any emotion that doesn’t work in service of male domination.
“Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist,” hooks writes. “Male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. Feminist activists should acknowledge that hurt, and work to change it — it exists.” She continues: “It does not erase or lessen male responsibility for supporting and perpetuating their power under patriarchy to exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.”
hooks on Love
All About Love is perhaps hooks’ most celebrated work, a book that brings together her extensive knowledge of class, gender, and race to discuss how all these systems of domination interfere with our ability to commune with one another. In this book, she gives the readers a succinct definition of what love is, giving us notable bell hooks quotes like: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
She would continue on in two other books as a part of a Love trilogy: Salvation: Black People and Love, and Communion: The Female Search for Love. In the former, hooks writes about the ways love has been a transformative and radicalizing tool in Black communities both presently and throughout history, being a connective tissue through even the most harrowing of periods. “Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth,” she writes.
In the latter, hooks gives readers insight into how women’s desire to love and be loved has been shaped by the ongoing tensions between cultural shifts made by feminist movements, and patriarchal media that feed into women’s anxieties around lovelessness.
“Women have greater freedom than ever before, and yet it is not clear whether that freedom has given us greater access to true love,” hooks writes. “It is not clear how that freedom has changed the nature of romance and partnerships.”
hooks on the Media
hooks knew the role that media played in shaping our ideas around white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of domination. In Reel to Real, she takes her knowledge of the world to the movie theaters to unpack how films by Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Julie Dash, and others shape the way we view ourselves and society writ large.
“A distinction must be made between the power of viewers to interpret a film in ways that make it palatable for the everyday world they live in and the particular persuasive strategies films deploy to impress a particular vision on our psyches,” she writes. “The fact that some folks may attend films as ‘resisting spectators’ does not really change the reality that most of us, no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention, are usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen. They have power over us and we have no power over them.”
In Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks looks into the way Blackness is interpreted and conceptualized across media forms including literature, film, television, and music. She writes: “Black people/people of color, who are daily bombarded by a powerful colonizing whiteness that seduces us away from ourselves, that negates that there is beauty to be found in any form of blackness that is not imitation whiteness.”
hooks on hip-hop
Although this could’ve been placed in the media section, it feels important to separate because hooks actually had a few notable works centered around hip-hop, whether that be interviews with prominent ‘90s rappers, or essays on gangsta rap and the sexism and misogyny rampant in it.
“People presume that because I’m a feminist thinker they know I’m gonna trash rap, especially gangsta rap,” hooks said in a 1994 Bomb magazine interview. “I can challenge the sexism and misogyny of it, but I can embrace the rage that is implicit in it and the sense of powerlessness that undergirds it.”
That binary is present in both an essay hooks wrote, “Sexism and Misogyny: Who Takes the Rap?” and an interview she did with Ice Cube for Spin magazine in 1993. In the former, she makes sure to hold Black men accountable for their sexism, but also highlights how, “The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” She also comments on white-dominated mass media and its role in turning gangsta rap into a spectacle, making for an essay that is insightful and thought-provoking, like most of hooks’ work.
The latter is an interview where it’s clear that both hooks and Cube are coming from a place of respect, resulting in a rather open conversation between the two, where everything from white supremacy’s role in oppressing Black women to Cube’s own remarks on Black women are discussed.
Lastly, there’s hooks’ 1994 Paper magazine interview with Lil Kim, where the two speak candidly on sex, sexuality, and the double standard Kim faces in explicitly rapping about those topics in her music, as well as through her artistic persona. Like her interview with Cube, hooks’ interview with Kim is an open one. It’s clear that hooks takes what Kim has to say seriously, making for a handful of insightful moments that show who Kim is beyond the artist many know her as.
hooks wasn’t as known for her poetry, but in collections When Angels Speak of Love and Appalachian Elegy, she showcases her lyrical skills in a way she wasn’t able to do in her other work. In both books, she chooses to approach all the same topics she’s come to be known for — love, the haunting memories of her childhood in the South, and both the sweetness and bitterness that life has to offer — in a poetic medium.
Below are selections from both books.
after slow death
love must clean house choose memories to keep and memories to let go give each lamentation an ear to hear
a heart to lay rest
let no soul forget an eternity of desire awaits
– From ‘When Angles Speak of Love’ (2005)
small horses ride me/ carry my dreams/ of prairies and frontiers where once the first people roamed claimed union with the earth no right to own or possess no sense of territory all boundaries placed by unseen ones here I will give you thunder shatter your hearts with rain let snow soothe you make your healing water clear sweet a sacred spring where the thirsty may drink animals all
– From ‘Appalachian Elegy‘ (2012)
Hanna Phifer is a culture writer and journalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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