bell hooks made significant contributions to the theory and practice of social justice. This article summarises three key concepts and provides a guide to her many writings as well as videos and audio of presentations and interviews.
bell hooks (1952-2021) chose this name, and styled it in lower-case, in an effort to focus attention on the substantive ideas within her writing, rather than her identity as an isolated individual. To situate those ideas, bell hooks drew on academic scholarship and popular culture as well as her relevant personal perspectives: especially as a Black woman living in America; as an educator and activist; and as the first in her family to gain a university education.
Many of the ideas articulated by bell hooks have resonated widely. Of these, my reflection focuses on her contributions to three concepts that have been influential in social justice movements:
- Intersecting structures of power
- Practising love, a verb, is a pathway to justice
- Teaching/learning as activism
To help contextualise the broader impact of these and other ideas within bell hooks’ 40+ books and other writings, I’ve included a selection of additional resources, sorted by type:
- Resource collections featuring bell hooks
- Presentations, interviews, & conversations
- Additional references
But first, a sample of memorials to honour the range and depth of appreciation for bell hooks’ contributions to social justice movements:
- Tributes flow for ‘giant, no nonsense’ feminist author, educator, activist and poet bell hooks, ABC News (Australia), 2021
- Remembering bell hooks & Her Critique of “Imperialist White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy” video report by Democracy Now, 2021
- We’ll Never Be Done Learning From bell hooks, article for The Cut by Bindu Bansinath, 2021
- For bell hooks, beloved scholar, remembrance article for the Gay City News by Nicholas Boston, 2021
- Memorial notice for bell hooks in the Daily Nous, 2021
- bell hooks passes, leaving legacy of activism and progress, article for ArtCritque by Brandon Lorimer, 2021
- The Revolutionary Writing of bell hooks, article in The New Yorker by Hua Hsu, 2021
- What bell hooks taught us, the Giro, 2021
- bell hooks, We Will Always Rage On With You, article for Truthout by George Yancy, 2021
- In case it helps – bell hooks asé , blog post by adrianne maree brown, 2021
Exploring bell hooks’ contributions to three social justice concepts
Intersecting structures of power
bell hooks often wrote about how race, class, capitalism, and gender function together as interdependent power-structures. This included developing an influential analysis of how these interlocking power structures converge to produce and perpetuate the dominance of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-heteropatriarchy.
Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle. – Love as the Practice of Freedom, in Outlaw Culture, 1994
As part of this approach, bell hooks challenged assumptions within second-wave feminism (~1960s – 1980s) that focused on patriarchy as isolated from, or as a foundation for, other forms of oppression. In doing so, she helped create space to explore the challenges of navigating power structures that are relational depending on where we are each located within the dynamic matrix of class, race, and gender.
Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. – Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 2000
This approach was influential, with many of the ideas she articulated further developed by those examining, and agitating against, interdependent oppressive structures – debates that paved the way for intersectional feminism. For instance, bell hooks frequently detailed examples of overlapping identities uniquely impacted by multiple systems of oppression in ways that resemble the concept of intersectionality as articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Meanwhile, bell hooks also drew attention to the historical contingencies of instances of oppressive structures in specific local situations. This approach highlights our collective responsibility for challenging the interconnected structures of power these local instances each perpetuate. Building on bell hooks ideas offers avenues for accepting this responsibility and helping to build new pathways forward.
For examples of bell hooks writings that explore these interconnected structures of power, see:
- Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981 (2nd edition, 2015)
- Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 1984 (2nd edition, 2000; 3rd edition, 2014)
- Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, 1989 (2nd edition, 2015)
- Where We Stand: Class Matters, 2000
- Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, 2013
For additional reflections on this aspect of bell hooks’ contributions, see:
- How Do You Practice Intersectionalism? An Interview with bell hooks, an interview by Randy Lowens, 2009; re-published in 2019 for Black Rose – Anarchist Federation
- How bell hooks Paved the Way for Intersectional Feminism, article for them by Elyssa Goodman, 2019
Practising love, as a verb, is a pathway to justice
bell hooks also helped to articulate the notion of love as a verb — a concept that shifts attention away from love as an abstract sentiment and onto the concrete manifestation of will demonstrated by intentional actions (such as care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust).
For bell hooks, love is an act of a transformative labour that offers an important pathway for communities surviving and challenging the imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-heteropatriarchy systems of oppression.
Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective, is a necessary stage for personal and political growth. This is usually the most painful stage in the process of learning to love. – Love as the Practice of Freedom, in Outlaw Culture, 1994
This approach presents love as an act of communion with the world rather than between individuals alone. Drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King and others, bell hooks rejected the comodification of love as the passive indulgences of isolated romances.
To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds. – All About Love: New Visions, 1999
Building on this, bell hooks helped to articulate how the work of cultivating love can be transformative for both individuals and communities. With this insistent theorising of love, bell hooks helped resist the dismissal of love as ‘too soft’ a topic for serious scholars – opening up space to examine the central role of love in almost every political question.
bell hooks exploration of the transformative power of love for communities has been particularly influential within social justice movements. For instance, her ideas are frequently referenced within activist resource lists, such as in efforts to develop transformative justice practices and community-led design.
For examples of bell hooks explorations of the concept of love as a verb, see:
- Sisters of the Yam 1993
- Love as the Practice of Freedom – in Outlaw Culture, 1994; (2nd edition, 2006)
- Homemade Love – one of bell hooks’ children books, illustrated by Shane W Evans, 2017
- All About Love 2000
- Salvation: Black People and Love, 2001
For some additional reflections on bell hooks’ account of love as a pathway to justice, see:
- How bell hooks Theorised Love, article on Live Wire by Stuti Roy 2021
- Loving Ourselves Free: Radical Acceptance in bell hooks’ ‘All About Love: New Visions’, article for Arts Help by Shakeelah Ismail, 2021
Teaching/learning as activism
According to bell hooks, teaching should be an engaged practice that empowers critical thinking and enhances community connection.
Viewed in this way, teaching and learning become revolutionary acts that position classrooms as sites of mutual participation that cultivates joyful transformations (for students and teachers alike).
As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence. – Teaching to Transgress, 1994
While initially focusing on tertiary education, bell hooks’ explorations of the activist potential of teaching practices extended to all educational activities – not just those occurring within educational institutions, but also teaching/learning within our communities more broadly. Combined with her ideas on love as a pathway to justice, this view positions teaching/learning an important way of contributing to our collective liberation from intersecting oppressive systems.
Along with others, such as Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, and Audre Lorde, bell hooks’ ideas about the transformative potential of engaged teaching helped to establish the field of radical pedagogy – which, in turn, contributed to respectfully engaged teaching practices, variously known as participatory teaching, active learning, progressive education, etc.
Education as the practice of freedom affirms healthy self esteem in students as it promotes their capacity to be aware and live consciously. It teaches them to reflect and act in ways that further self-actualization, rather than conformity to the status quo. – Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003
The following books offer some of bell hook’s explorations into the details of how and why the practice of teaching can, and should, be treated as a form of activism.
- Theory as Liberatory Practice, 1991
- Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, 1994
- Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003
- Teaching Critical Thinking, 2009
For some further reflections on bell hooks’ ideas about teaching, see:
- Teaching to Transgress Today: Theory and Practice In and Outside the Classroom – video recording of a lecture by Imani Perry, followed by a discussion with bell hooks, Karlyn Crowley, Zillah Eisenstein, and Shannon Winnubst, 2014
- To bell hooks & not being happy till we are all free, reflection by Folúkẹ́ Adébísí, 2021
Contextualising bell hooks’ contributions
Resource collections featuring bell hooks
- A list of bell hooks’ books, by Shippenburg University Library, 1981 – 2021
- The catalogue of bell hook’s 13 appearances on the C-SPAN network, 1995 – 2005
- IMBD – bell hooks, list of appearances and credits for documentaries, 1994 – 2017
- A play list of the 22 videos collected from bell hooks’ lectures and conversations at The New School, New York City, 2013 – 2015
- Nothing Never Happens: A Radical Pedagogy Podcast – bell hooks archive, 2017 – 2018
- List of article authored by bell hooks for the Buddhist publication Lion’s Roar, 1998 – 2021
- bell hooks – tagged writings in the adrianne maree brown’s blog, 2014-2021
- To Read bell hooks Was to Love Her, a Vulture Media Network reading list by Tao Leigh Goffe, 2021
- Guide to Source Material for Anti-Racist Activists and Thinkers – bell hooks, by Shippenburg University Library, 2021
- Black History Month Library
Presentations, interviews, & conversations
- Video recording of an interview for the release of All About Love: New Visions by John Seigenthaler, broadcast by Word on Words, 1990
- Tender Hooks — Author bell hooks wonders what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding, interview by Lisa Jervis at Bitch Media, 2000; re-published in 2021 as Remembering bell hooks in Her Own Words
- A Conversation with bell hooks, video recording of the 2004-05 Danz Lecture Series by University of Washington. This talk focuses on concepts of ‘family values’, heterosexism, and the distinction between patriarchal masculinity and masculinity; talk includes bell hooks reading two of her children’s books and is followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
- Challenging Capitalism & Patriarchy, an interview with bell hooks by Third World Viewpoint, 2007
- bell hooks in dialogue with john a. powell, a video recording of the keynote event for the Othering & Belonging Conference, 2015
- Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh, 2017
- Archive of bell hooks’ Papers, held at Berea College, including correspondence, writings, academic work, and video recordings
- Encyclopaedia of feminist icons: The Essential bell hooks, introductory article by Stephanie Newman published on the blog Writing on Glass
- Big Thinker: bell hooks, article for the Ethics Center by Kate Prendergast, 2019
- bell hooks speaks up, article in The Sandspur (Vol 112 Issue 17, pp.1-2) quoting bell hooks, by Heather Williams, 2013
- Critical Perspectives on Bell Hooks, collection of academic articles edited by George Yancy, and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, 2009
- The Teaching Philosophy of Bell Hooks: The Classroom as a Site for Passionate Interrogation, academic text by K.O. Lanier, 2001
- Critical thinking
- Gender studies
- Social justice
- Theory of change
- Women activists