/ 2 February 2022

A spirit guide to ethical black feminist thinking and praxis

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Epitome of ethics: Author and cultural critic bell hooks insisted that care, love and spirituality were the core of black feminist practice and freedom. Photo: Karjean Levine/Getty Images

bell hooks lived a complex and ethical life that insisted that (liberatory) care, love and spirituality were the core of black feminist practice and freedom. She is in the company of a rare group of thinkers who are aware of the importance of consistency in how one writes, teaches, relates with others, converses, dreams, loves and “transgresses” — and know that to insist on these is to craft authentic spaces for healing, self-actualisation and radical socioeconomic and political transformation.

  For this reason, hooks refutes what I call “pocket popularity”, a condition in which an intellectual’s work is compartmentalised into easily digestible themes and soundbites while obscuring their full representation. 

hooks’s work demands that we engage ethically in all moments in our quest for liberation and, when we fall short, she doesn’t hesitate to call us out on our shit — whether that be the complicity of black men and women in engendering black patriarchal cultures of domination, black filmmakers and artists in perpetuating racist and misogynistic representations or black intellectuals’ internalisation of liberal individualisation and elitism. hooks loved black people so much that she refused to accept that we deserved anything less than the best of ourselves and others.    

Learning to read and see myself and the world through the words of bell hooks often makes me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. I’ve come to learn that these two affective states are the beginning of an honest, radical pedagogy and/or transformative activism.

Starting at the root

I first encountered hooks through her writing on pedagogy in her books Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. So, where most may have first grappled with a hooksian world view and analysis through the pioneering texts Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, my relationship with her began with her manifestos on how to make education a practice of freedom. 

My introduction to hooks was as a critical black feminist pedagogue, who understood teaching as a vocation rooted in understanding the classroom as a communal space, taking care of souls (not students), centring pleasure and excitement, the recognition of everyone present and, most importantly, the commitment to teaching and learning as vehicles for healing and self-actualisation. 

One of the consistent values at the core of hooks’s work is that healing (in the pursuit of and commitment to spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing) is the foundation for any type of collective liberatory agenda. The classroom, for her, was not neutral, apolitical or devoid of emotion. It was an erotically charged space of contestation that could be used for either liberatory or dominatory ends. 

At the time of this encounter, I was becoming acutely aware of South African tertiary institutions and their deep investment in keeping the classroom as a place of docility that maintained the status quo of imperial white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy (to use that beautiful hooksian phrase). I was desperately looking for places in which the classroom featured as an ethical and radical space of love, care and possibility. 

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed still circulated as the go-to text for people on the left who were interested in thinking about how we take seriously the ways in which educational practices foster particular types of consciousness that then enable or disable particular forms of activism and being. Between that and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, there was a deafening silence on black feminist critical praxis as it relates to theorisations of the classroom and teaching for personal and collective liberatory aspirations. 

Feminist pedagogies seemed to emerge as remedy, after the critical analysis provided by a predominantly masculine and male theorisation of the problem. Feminist pedagogies were a method one could employ to decolonise the classroom, rather than a fundamental tool of understanding what the problem was to begin with. I was deeply dissatisfied with the type of epistemic architecture I felt emerging, which mirrored the very canonical and pedagogic prejudices I felt students were demanding be ruptured.

Education as a counter-hegemonic act

At a moment when I felt myself spiralling through deep personal frustration and fatigue in the academy, and riddled with insecurities around my own liberatory conceptions, praxis and their limitations, I opened up Teaching to Transgress and read hooks affirm that “my falling was related to challenging myself to move beyond limits … it was the limits of being tired — what I call bone weary”. 

  Okay, bell: If this falling, this bone-weary fatigue was an invitation to transgress border thinking and being, what next? How does one regroup in that moment of emotional instability and vulnerability to transcend the limits of fear? I kept reading. “Foster spaces of radical openness and critical thinking even though this work is taxing to the spirit … your commitment to engaged pedagogy is political activism.” 

 It was challenging during the student protests of 2015 and 2016 to face the criticism of Fees Must Fall as a bourgeoisie movement, in the ivory towers of particularly former white universities, divorced from the everyday struggles of the majority of black South Africans, whose exploitation seemed unrelated to issues of representation, institutional culture and curriculum. What I was hearing bell hooks affirm is that our contestation over curriculum, the classroom and hegemonic culture in the university was deeply political and important, and deserving of care and attention.

  After being affirmed of the significance of the work, I wondered about both the costs for this type of subversive political commitment, particularly in the context of the academy’s insistence on its cultural and epistemic neutrality and objectivity. Perpetual insecurity, frustration and fatigue do not a healthy person make and I refused to believe that choosing the life of an intellectual meant conscripting one to a long tradition of black women scholars who passed prematurely and suffered mental and physical illness. 

As always, bell hooks was honest about the sacrifices required: “The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences … What we do is not considered intellectually rigorous … We are often overworked, our classes are often overcrowded … Work that deeply unsettles means that being liked and admired are not on the agenda.”

  hooks was clear: This type of work would require a relinquishing of the type of narcissism that marks most of academia, but also an adoption of a differing temporal and pedagogic frequency, wherein the heartbeat of one’s work and worth was not registered by popularity, promotion and publication outputs unrelated to the wellbeing of self and community. The life-giving force of what hooks called “engaged pedagogy” emerged through the habits adopted by students who passed through our classrooms.

  I understood  hooks to be saying that we needed to change the imperatives and priorities of how we understood our work and value systems, so that building critical students with integrity fostered intimate relations of care, ecstasy and love; that this trumped an artificial wellness marked by tenure and promotion at the expense of care for one’s soul. To encounter feminist work — ethically — is a painful, difficult and rigorous job, but the rewards are fulfilling.

Black women deserve ecstasy

 In my journey of figuring out how to show up for myself and others in ways that minimise harm and maximise ecstasy, I am guided by hooks’ avowal that we (black women) deserve spiritual and sexual ecstasy. In practice, so much of what has emerged as decolonising practices has meant that black women disproportionately absorb the woundedness and trauma of others (white women, black men et cetera). 

  What I love about a hooksian praxis of black feminist being, is that it always begins with an ethical commitment to prioritising healing oneself. In a deep sense that requires care and reflection. The transgressive acts in her classroom included caring about whether everyone had a meal to eat, noticing which students were silent and, in the background, disallowing patriarchal domination between students and insisting that a critical reflection of self was required for a mastery in all intellectual practice. bell hooks indeed pioneered the mantra that self-healing is political resistance.

From the lower-case homage to her grandmother in choosing the name “bell hooks”, to her fearless confrontation of the dangers of aesthetic and performative forms of black value and representation, hooks refused to compromise on the integrity of her work. 

  In a loving and playful conversation with her longtime friend and co-author of Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, Cornel West, hooks recounts sharing with him that she was conflicted by her attraction to a man who didn’t exhibit a critical consciousness. West advises her not to require critical consciousness in a romantic partner, because black men are generally not interested in introspecting about their existential crisis, specifically not within the intimate space of their relationships with women. He adds that he does not look for intellectual conversations in romantic relations — he has bell for that. 

  Steadfast in her values and principles that insisted on the caring and loving habits of being, including emotional and sexual intimate relationships with men, bell decides to remain celibate rather than to conform to practices that work against the type of world-making she wants to be involved in. Hers is the struggle of a black woman’s refusal to “get in formation”, regardless of how solitary and devalued that ethical position towards black liberation has become.