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With the death of bell hooks, a generation of feminists lost a foundational figure

Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on December 16, 1996 in New York City, New York.
Karjean Levine
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Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on December 16, 1996 in New York City, New York.

"We black women who advocate feminist ideology, are pioneers. We are clearing a path for ourselves and our sisters. We hope that as they see us reach our goal – no longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid – they will take courage and follow."

bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman

There are well-worn bell hooks books scattered throughout my library. She's in nearly every section – race, class, film, cultural studies – and, as expected, her books take up an entire shelf in the feminism section. I doubt I would have survived this long without her work, and the work of other Black feminist thinkers of her generation, to guide me. I've retrieved every bell hooks book today, and the unwieldy stack comforts me as I assess the impact of her loss.

If you ever heard hooks speak, it would come as no surprise that she first attended college to study drama, as she recounted in a 1992 essay. In the 1990s she blessed my college campus for a week, and I was mesmerized by lectures that were deliciously brilliant yet full of humor. Her banter with the audience during the Q&A floated easily between thoughtful answers, deep questioning and sly quips that kept us at rapt attention. Her words garner just as much attention on the page. She was a prolific writer, and her intellectual curiosity was boundless.

Discovering bell hooks changed the lives of countless Black women and girls. After picking up one of her many titles – Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center; Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics; Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism – the world suddenly made sense. She reordered the universe by boldly gifting us with the language and theories to understand who we were in an often hostile and alienating society.

She also made clear that, as Black women, we belonged to no one but ourselves. A bad feminist from the start, hooks was clearly uninterested in being safe, respectable or acceptable, and charted a career on her own terms. She implored us to transgress and struggle, but to do so with love and fearlessness. Her brave, bold and beautiful words not only spoke truth to power, but also risked speaking that same truth to and about our beloved icons and culture.

Discovering bell hooks changed the lives of countless Black women and girls.

As we traversed hostile spaces in academia, corporate America, the arts, medicine and sometimes our own families, hooks not only taught us how to love ourselves, but also insisted that we seek justice. She helped us to better understand and, if necessary, forgive the women who birthed and raised us. She claimed feminism without apology, and encouraged Black women in particular to embrace feminism, and to do more than simply identify their oppression, but to envision new ways of being in the world. She called on us to honor early pioneers such as Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, who first claimed the mantle of women's rights.

The lower-case name bell hooks published under challenged a system of academic writing that historically belittled and ignored the work of Black scholars. She also used language that was as plain and as clear as her politics. While her writing was deeply personal, often carved from her own experiences, her ideas were relentlessly rigorous and full of citations—even though she eschewed footnotes, another refusal of the academy's standards that endeared her to those of us determined to remake intellectual traditions that denied our very humanity.

Rejecting footnotes seemed to symbolize the fact that the knowledge hooks most valued could not fit into those tiny spaces. Her writing style hinted at the fact that her ideas were always more expansive than even her books could hold. While there were no footnotes, her books were love notes to a people she loved fiercely.

No matter where she taught or lived, bell hooks always kept Kentucky and her family ties close. She frequently claimed her southern Black working-class background and an abiding love for her home. Although she was educated at prestigious schools, she always spoke with the wisdom and wit of our mothers, grandmothers and aunties. Her return to the Bluegrass State and Berea College towards the end of her career has a narrative elegance. A generation of feminists has lost a foundational figure and a beloved icon, but her legacy lives on in her writing, which will provide sustenance for generations to come.

Lisa B. Thompson is a playwright and the Bobby and Sherri Patton Professor of African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her @drlisabthompson on Twitter and Instagram.

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Lisa B. Thompson