bell hooks remembered: ‘She embodied everything I wanted to be’ | Books

Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Reni Eddo-Lodge. Photograph: Suki Dhanda / The Observer

Reni Eddo-Lodge: ‘When I tried to develop my own writing, I read hers’

British journalist and author of the bestselling Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

It was bell hooks who planted the seed of a book in my brain. In a 2013 in-conversation event with Melissa Harris-Perry, she said she didn’t trust the internet, that a plug could be pulled at any time and that everything we put there could one day be lost. I was writing for the internet at the time – ephemeral articles that often got swept away on busy timelines. Hearing her musings persuaded me to slow down on putting my work online, and instead seek to put my political energy towards writing something physical that could be held and referred to, handed to someone, used as a tool.

But long before being influenced by her conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, I had read her work voraciously. I first discovered it in my early 20s when I was navigating the whiteness of British feminism. Her writing wasn’t in print in Britain at the time, so PDFs of her work, such as Ain’t I a Woman, would circulate among activist groups. It served as a balm to those of us seeking refuge from white feminist hostility.

bell hooks in New York City, 1996.
bell hooks in New York City, 1996. Photograph: Karjean Levine/Getty Images

But her writing wasn’t only on feminist fractures. She was prolific, writing dozens of books across subjects – race, feminism, class, capitalism, masculinity, academia, children’s rights, spirituality and love. Her writing on love, in particular, served as a guiding light for me and so many others. Hers was an expansive analysis, with an intelligent feminist practice shining through, mooring those of us who had lost our way. Her first book was written when she was an undergraduate, but her entire body of work held an ancestral wisdom. She reminded feminist dissidents of the better world we were working towards.

When I tried to develop my own writing, I read hers. She embodied everything I wanted to be, writing with a compassion, care and clarity that I aspire to emulate in my own work.

Upon the news of her passing, I cried under my mask on a London bus, the gravity of her influence on me hitting like a gut punch. I wish I’d credited her more. But after the initial shock has subsided, I felt gratitude: for the work she’d given all of us and for it reaching me at the right time. For both of our times on this planet overlapping in such a way that I got to watch her holding court on a stage in New York from a box room in London. For the seed that was planted.

David Olusoga.
David Olusoga. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

David Olusoga: ‘She urged me to broaden my horizons’

British historian, broadcaster and author of Black and British: A Forgotten History

I met bell hooks just once. It was the early 2000s and I was producing a television documentary about how African Americans had, since civil rights, created a unique intellectual culture that had generated a great pantheon of black public intellectuals. hooks, one of the stars of that phenomenon, was inevitably one of the key interviewees. I can remember very little about my interview with her, carried out in a Manhattan brownstone belonging to one of her friends. But I remember a great deal about what happened next. After the interview we all went for drinks and the real questioning began. hooks interrogated me about my background, my education and above all my ambitions. She suggested books I should read, people I should meet and over a couple of hours was ceaselessly encouraging – as well as clever and funny.

She urged me, a young black TV producer she had only just met, to broaden my horizons and not limit my ideas of who I might become. Her urging was inflected with that sense of drive that highly educated African Americans so often possess and that Black Britons are so often in awe of. At a time in my life when the TV industry seemed so determined to assign me a pigeonhole and place limits on my expectations, her warmth and generosity was almost overwhelming. We finished our drinks, she smiled, wished me luck and was whisked away in an oversized American car, heading off to her next appointment. I always hoped I would see her again, but never did. To my shame I never got the chance to let her know how much our meeting had meant to me.

Jay Bernard.
Jay Bernard. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Jay Bernard: ‘She passed on the deceptively simple idea that to love is to think, and to think is to love’

Writer, artist and activist from London whose poetry about the New Cross Fire has won them the Ted Hughes Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award

I first read bell hooks after I graduated from university, a very lost and depleted person. I moved to the other side of the world and found Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community, which helped me begin to unlearn the problematic, and frankly racist, liberalism I had picked up during my degree. For me, bell hooks’ influence can be felt in that she passed on the deceptively simple idea that to love is to think, and to think is to love.

bell hooks during an interview for her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work in 1999.
bell hooks during an interview for her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work in 1999. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

It is very difficult to put this into practice and her books hold nothing back in telling us to try. She is now done speaking. Whether we do it is entirely down to us.

Johny Pitts.
Johny Pitts. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Johny Pitts: ‘She taught an entire generation that we weren’t there simply to be commodified’

British presenter, photographer and author of Jhalak prize-winning Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. He is the curator of The Eyes issue 12: The B-Side, which features black photographers and quotes from bell hooks

As well as focused rage, true activism involves innovation. bell hooks had it all, but it was particularly her outstanding interventions around the notion of the “oppositional gaze” that powered me up as a black writer and photographer. The idea that not only did I have the right to exist as a documentarian, but the very fact of my looking back was an act of resistance. She taught an entire generation that we weren’t there simply to be gawped at and commodified, but could – should – participate in the production of images.

Jeffrey Boakye.
Jeffrey Boakye. Photograph: Jeffrey Boakye

Jeffrey Boakye: ‘Her words will remain vital, stirring and rooted in compassion’

Author of Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored and Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime

In times of such division and ideological polarisation, it feels like we need, more than ever before, the clarity of thought and passionate integrity that bell hooks so completely embodied in her work. Generations of thinkers owe a debt to her legacy of thought in areas of racism, feminism, marginality and their various intersections. Her words will remain vital, stirring and ultimately rooted in the soil of compassion. A salute to a towering figure of criticality, whose (lowercase) name is now synonymous with the most serious and incisive interrogations of who we are.

Margaret Atwood.
Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Jeremy Chan/Getty Images

Margaret Atwood: ‘Her dedication to the cause of ending “sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression” was exemplary’

Twice Booker-winning author of more than 50 books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin and The Testaments

bell hooks embodied amazing courage and deeply felt intelligence. In finding her own words and power, she inspired countless others to do the same. Her dedication to the cause of ending ‘sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression’ was exemplary.

Her impact extended far beyond the United States: many women from all over the world owe her a great debt.

Candice Carty-Williams.
Candice Carty-Williams. Photograph: Suki Dhanda / The Observer

Candice Carty-Williams: ‘The legacy she leaves behind is monumental and enduring’

British author of the bestselling novel Queenie. She won the book of the year the 2020 British Book Awards, becoming the first black woman to do so

bell hooks was a writer whose scope of sensibilities taught me, nourished me, engaged me. But it was her writing on love that changed my life after a friend forced me to read All About Love, a book that I knew would contain so much power and truth that I was afraid of its contents. bell hooks will be missed, but the legacy she leaves behind is monumental and enduring, much like the ideals of love she put to the page.

Aminatta Forna.
Aminatta Forna. Photograph: PR

Aminatta Forna: ‘She took care to put me at my ease’

Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer of the memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water and four novels: Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love, The Hired Man and Happiness

I met bell hooks as a young reporter when I was sent to interview her for the BBC’s Late Show. This was back in the early 90s. She took care to put me at my ease, played music, made tea for us and complained about not being able to find anyone to braid her hair where she lived in Greenwich Village. In the ensuing interview she predicted the so-called “culture wars”, which I guess now, looking back, had already begun in the US. She said that one day the centre would have to shift. And she was right.

British Blacklist lunch - BFI London Film Festival 2021 Afua Hirsch
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Afua Hirsch: ‘She exploded the false binary between the personal and the academic’

British journalist, former barrister and bestselling author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

Reading bell hooks was an experience of profound relief. She had powerfully identified and articulated, with characteristic intellectual rigour, phenomena which I instinctively perceived but had never seen vocalised. Her writings on the crushing of black women’s sexual integrity, on the foundational racism of the “women’s movement”, and on the narratives that continue to divide and conquer black gender norms are searingly contemporary, in spite of the fact she began writing them decades ago.

And yet as a young black woman, it was bell’s generosity in sharing her own experience of love, sexuality and gender that provided the conduit for her work to reach me in such a personal and direct way. She exploded the false binary between the personal and the academic through her truth-telling, and it continues to inspire me to this day.

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