bell hooks Taught Us to Transgress

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on January 12, 2022

bell hooks addressing an audience (public domain, 2009).Like many people of my generation who cut their teeth on the critical insights of bell hooks, news of her passing in December unleashed a wave of reflection for me about the ways she’s impacted me as a person and public scholar. Beyond the many moments of resonance I experienced while reading her writings over the years, her impact on me is most powerfully encapsulated in an experience I had in 2008 when I met her.

Nearly fifteen years ago, I was an undergraduate student at Swarthmore College where I was passionately immersed in my studies and making calculated mischief as a cofounder of the college’s extant Women of Color Collective. Amidst an unending queue of readings and discussion circles, activity ground to a halt when someone among us realized that one of our s-heroes, bell hooks, would soon visit the University of Pennsylvania and deliver a lecture a mere ten miles from our dormitories. 

On the day of the lecture, we raced to Penn by regional rail and, determined to get into what we believed would be a packed event, arrived more than two hours early. Charging into a still-vacant auditorium, we were perplexed to discover that, apparently, the other attendees did not share our same level of enthusiasm. Undeterred by this anticlimactic entrance, we set up shop in the front row of the auditorium and waited for the magic to unfold. Suddenly and out of nowhere, an administrator appeared and indicated that we had to move back a row because “bell” would be sitting where we were. We did as the person asked and then, as if by magic, it happened: bell hooks was standing right in front of me. 

1929924_506122843642_4634_nFrozen and starstruck, I did not know what to say. “Hi,” she said to me. The only reply I could muster was a “hi” in return, along with a full-bodied smile that I hoped communicated much more. After she sat down in her chair in front of me, I attempted to regain my composure and surreptitiously snapped a photo of the back of her head, too embarrassed to request a more formal photo op. Nevertheless, I wanted to bring home a clear token that we had met her—and that a Black woman of her vision, erudition, and quiet power really did exist beyond the pages of our seminar texts in a world that is constantly telling us that such Black women do not.

Born Gloria Watkins in 1952, hooks was a towering scholar and cultural critic whose work spanned multiple fields of inquiry including Black Studies, feminist thought, and progressive education in which she worked to demystify the complex workings of oppression as well as the transformative power of love. hooks is said to have taken the name of her maternal great-grandmother, insisting that it remain uncapitalized as a way to heighten the focus on her ideas rather than her personage while acknowledging the generations of Black women whose names, voices, and insights have been—both literally and metaphorically—relegated to the lowercase and to the margins when they were included at all

Grounded in this vision of scholarship, hooks’ body of work challenged the assumptions of the feminist movement and helped to further develop intersectionality as a valuable framework for helping us conceptualize self, community, and the multiple meanings of freedom. An example of this is found in Marlon Riggs’ 1995 documentary Black Is…Black Ain’t where hooks explores the ways in which patriarchy resulted in the Black Power movement privileging Black men and masculinity to the detriment of Black women and the transformation of the Black community at large. There, she argues for a type of community based not on the enforcement of a false “uniformity” that obscures these enduring problems but on a sense of “communion” that makes space for the full texture of Black humanity. A prolific writer, she penned more than 30 books spanning a wide array of subjects including various everyday phenomena ranging from the tender uniqueness of Black girlhood to gangster rap—and why popular forms of culture are just as worthy of rigorous reflection as canonical literature.

In addition to hooks’ scholarly work targeting her academic colleagues and students within her primary fields, hooks’ educational vision also encompassed engaging people from other communities who were new to her ideas and even slow to explore them. In the hours that preceded hooks’ lecture in 2008, the audience quickly grew from my posse of five to a group of 500—among them, Daily Pennsylvanian reporter Alesha Jackson who captured the following quotation from hooks’ talk:

"Some old, old white woman came up to me last Friday at an art show, and she said, 'I'm reading [author] Zora Neale Hurston… Now, I could be annoyed, or I could celebrate the fact that at 70-something she's reading her first black woman writer. Change is a process."

Out of a belief in the transformative power of education for all, hooks taught for many years at Berea College in Kentucky which offers free tuition to all of its admitted students. As a Kentuckian herself, hooks said: “I felt very much that I wanted to give back to the world I came from… I grew up in the hills of Kentucky, and I wanted these students to see you can be a cosmopolitan person of the world but still be connected positively to your home roots.” This commitment lives on through the bell hooks center at Berea College—a space dedicated to preserving hooks’ legacy by cultivating the next generation of social justice leaders. Though hooks also taught at Yale, Stanford, and the City College of New York, her commitment to these general principles of helping those like her younger self see themselves more expansively is a legacy that she leaves far beyond the walls of any one particular institution.

For my group of friends and countless others who came of age in the world of ideas hooks helped to create, it is not hyperbole to suggest that her scholarly life announced a kind of revolution. I don’t merely mean a revolution in thought, though she certainly did that. I also mean a revolution in the ways of being made available to us through her example as much as her insurgent scholarship. In the years that have elapsed since this encounter with hooks, my friends and I have taken her fundamental lessons into numerous spheres of influence—from scholarship and K-12 teaching to community organizing and medicine—buoyed by an expanded sense of who we were and who we could be. 

A core insight from hooks’ 1994 book Teaching to Transgress is that we ought to approach education as a “practice of freedom” that helps students engage in this “transgressive” process of development beyond the narrowly circumscribed roles assigned to them according to their race, gender, class, and other markers of social identity. At Facing History, we invite educators to dive deeper into modes of transformative education by attending our Teaching for Equity and Justice events, as well as by exploring our curricular resources.

Facing History invites educators to use Black Is…Black Ain’t to explore the critical insights of bell hooks and her contemporaries on the complex nature of Black identity and community with students.

Access Resources
Large photo: bell hooks addressing an audience (public domain, 2009).
Small photo: bell hooks at the University of Pennsylvania (Kaitlin Smith, 2008).

Topics: Social Justice, Black History, Equity in Education

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