/ 4 February 2022

bell hooks and the return to radical love

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bell hooks’ books, articles and quotes emphasised our need to use love in the fight against the complex issues which affected Black women, queer and trans communities. (Photo: Karjean Levine/Getty)

I have always unconsciously looked at the world from a feminist perspective, but it was until I studied Gloria Jean Watkins, who wrote under the pen name of bell hooks, that I began to refer to myself as a feminist. I first discovered bell hooks on Twitter and from then onwards, she became my anchor and voice of reason in deciphering the ways in which feminist theory radicalised my understanding of injustice and inequality. 

In my undergraduate years, hooks served as the focal point of our feminist debates and discussions on the need to adopt a stance that used radical love as a tool against patriarchal and racial domination. In our imagination of a transformed and inclusive society, my peers and I shaped our collective radical thinking by adopting hooks’ pedagogy, which espoused a politics of compassion towards our woundedness as Black people. 

Our lecture hall interactions as young feminists further included an exchange of bell hooks’ books, articles and quotes, which emphasised our need to use love in the fight against the complex issues which affected Black women, queer and trans communities. 

hooks’ ideas on our resistance against class oppression, love, belonging, patriarchy and our incessant need to fight against homophobia transcended the institution of learning; rather, she pervaded our gadgets and screens. Through social media, I further began to understand what it meant to act against societal oppression in ways which were beneficial to both our online and offline subjectivities as marginalised subjects, and hooks played an integral role in my adoption of this political orientation.         

As a Black woman in the Global South, bell hooks’ work shaped my experiences in a country that continues to grapple with the psychological and sociopolitical aftermath of apartheid. By incorporating a love ethic into my approach towards our national and gendered politics, I began to make sense of the ways in which hooks’ feminist theory and critical work shaped my ideas about the kinds of relationships I formed with those around me. 

The more I accessed her works on social media, the more I thought about the kind of feminist I wanted to become. In this way, her intentionality in using a writing style that was not conventional to academic formats was foregrounded in what she acclaims as her “desire to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations”. It is for this reason that her cultural impact saw an adoption of an intersectional feminist approach to race, class and gender by a breed of contemporary young Black feminist scholars and thinkers who began tweeting and organising against what hooks regards as an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.

hooks’ accessible pedagogy provides a language for the convolutions experienced by oppressed people in their pursuit of decoding difference, masculinity, class elitism as well as the myriad of violences which continue to riddle their daily lives. hooks gave a voice to our voiceless forms of struggle and the adoption of social media functioned as a modality of her expression against racial and gendered injustice. Her role in online activism is thus evident in the ways in which her work was central to the rise of digital feminism during the 2014 Tumblr era.

In reflecting on the new luminosity of feminism in popular culture, I refer to feminist scholar Rosalind Gill, who writes that “feminism has a visibility in media culture that it did not have even a few years ago, and we are currently witnessing a resurgence of feminist discourse and activism as well as a renewed media interest in feminist stories.” Much of this resurgence of contemporary feminist discourse is arguably due to hooks’ impact on feminist subjectivities and articulations in online spaces.

More than that, as a queer, Black feminist scholar, hooks was intentional about unravelling the intensity of our trauma as an oppressed people. Hence, she prescribed radical love as a catalyst of our revolution. For instance, All About Love is an ode to Black people all over the world and in decoding this said trauma, the book invites us to reflect on the shame that exists in relation to naming our wounds as both individuals and as a collective. In the book, she mentions the hindrances that accompany the notion of naming our trauma. 

During the Fees Must Fall movement, students, taking a leaf from bell hooks among other scholars, put the concept of radical love into practice in 2016. (Photo: Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

hooks acclaims that there exists a mean-spirited cultural backlash that mocks our expression of our woundedness and says that “the belittling of anyone’s attempt to name a context within which they were wounded, were made a victim, is a form of shaming. It is psychological terrorism.” 

Considering our expressions of digital subjectivities on social media, it is vital to note the ways in which Black queer and trans people, Black women and Black cis- heterosexual men have often been shamed and sometimes cyberbullied for naming their wounds. It is for this reason that many Black women and Black queer and trans people have been driven to silence, while Black cis-heterosexual men have been conditioned to perceive themselves as incapable of love. It is this notion of shame that continues to perpetuate cycles of gendered, sexual and racial oppression. The very idea of othering is rooted in discriminating against difference, particularly difference amongst Black people. 

hooks thus invites us to confront this shame by acknowledging the impact of expression on our radical understanding of love not only in relation to women, but also in relation to the male figure, particularly our fathers and our brothers. 

By cogitating on our ideas about radical love, hooks invited us to construct healthy masculinist perspectives and realities by imagining the ways in which the men in our diverse cultures can “move to a space where they can have that healthy masculinity that is not the patriarchal dominating masculinity, but one that allows them the space to claim their own hearts.” It is for this reason that hooks further summoned everyone to identify as a feminist as she recognised the fact that at the heart of the fight against domination was the fight against toxic masculinity, and as a result she recognised that “Black women cannot speak for Black men, we can speak with them. And by so doing, embody the practice of solidarity wherein dialogue is the foundation of true love.” 

Through bell hooks’ legacy, we realise that love is not only a woman’s issue but is rather an important factor in constructing healthy and autonomous radical Black feminist communities. 

Her impact on Global South feminist perspectives is evident in the ways in which her scholarship has fostered our personal and familial relationships through a call to centre radical love in our dialogue of communal liberation. hooks therefore widened her audience by accompanying us into our township homes, in our conversations with our parents, in our protests during FeesMustFall and even during our arbitrary moments at social and intimate spaces.

Her impact is evident in that we are now able to position her work in our use of digital platforms as tools of mobilising against a myriad of gender-based violences and systematic oppression. 

Even with the mounting lovelessness in our culture and the despair it evokes in our hearts, hooks made visible her faith in love by mentioning that “everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.”

By positioning ourselves into a place that calibrates us towards a return to love, we can sustain a transformed and inclusive society which loves, respects and nurtures its children while allowing its men to be vulnerable and its women and queer and trans people to be free.