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bell hooks, We Will Always Rage On With You

We rage on with you, bell, working with the work, and teaching to transgress for liberation.

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

When I received the news of the passing of bell hooks, I was stopped in my tracks. Yet, there was a sense of closure, an answer to a question that had weighed heavily upon me in the last few months. You see, bell, who left us on December 15, 2021, wasn’t just a public intellectual to me, a prominent writer; she was a friend. I was fortunate enough to have been one of the people she entrusted with her personal phone number. The last time that we spoke she said that she had not been feeling well. She mentioned that she had pain in her hands and that this prevented her from writing. Hearing this from someone so prolific, from someone who takes deep pleasure in writing as a mode of heartfelt communication and radical resistance, there was a sense that the body attacks in ways that incapacitate us from engaging in our most treasured and edifying activities.

As we conversed, bell was still upbeat and spoke with the same beautiful soft voice. Though bell mentioned the pain in her hands, this did not apparently impact her capacity to devour books. When I would call on various occasions, she was always reading something. “I’m reading trash literature,” she would say. “Send me some books. I need more books to read!” By “trash literature,” bell didn’t mean this in some elitist fashion. Unlike many scholars, bell seems to have had an unquenchable appetite for reading everything. I think this partly speaks to her breadth of knowledge, being able to critically engage deep philosophical issues as well as issues that were pregnant with rich cultural titillation and quotidian impact. I enjoyed and admired this about bell.

Perhaps others may have had different experiences, but, for me, bell was so incredibly down-to-earth. I didn’t just read bell hooks; I got to spend time with her, to get a glimpse of someone who was gentle, funny and familial. She was not just approachable, but there was also a sense of deep respect that I received. For example, bell invited me to give a talk entitled “A Conversation with bell hooks” at the bell hooks Institute at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky in 2016. I thought that I would ask most of the questions and bell would talk. Instead, I was treated as the guest of honor. So, there I was, the room packed, addressing all these complex questions from bell. I was thrilled. She would later publicly describe my visit there as having “rocked the house!” I was humbled.

There is something about bell’s down-to-earth quality that has deep importance for me. I have had the rare privilege of speaking with lots of well-known intellectuals, scholars and academics. For many scholars, once they have “achieved some status,” they become seduced by a poisonous neoliberal sense of “success.” They tend to have such an inflated sense of themselves, ruthless in their attempt to protect the little that they’ve acquired — money, endowed chairs, endowed professorships, media connections, insider cronyism and all the goodies of their academic institutions. I know this from personal experience. I’m sure that I have had a few occasions where my own “success” as a scholar was perceived as a territorial threat to others. And by “others,” I mean scholars across gender and racial divides. Bear in mind that I am not unaware of just how powerful the temptation is to give in to these notions of “success.” I am not immune, but I am acutely aware of the power of neoliberalism and its impact on scholars who fail to understand their arrogant pettiness, and how they are still linked into capitalist structural power. Should we, as scholars, not be ashamed?

You see, I wasn’t a threat to bell and she wasn’t a threat to me. Indeed, she was also aware of how neoliberal ideas of success can poison an intellectual. She writes, “Within a capitalist consumer society, the cult of personality has the power to subsume ideas, to make the person, the personality into the product and not the work itself.” She sees this as “a narcissistic focus on self” that can “lead to soul loss.” My experience with bell was filled within that lived space of sociality, a space where the gloated ego doesn’t deny otherness. While in Berea, bell took me to places where she shopped. We walked together and spoke as old friends. She took me to a beautiful thrift store, which she spoke of highly. As we walked around, the locals didn’t idolize bell as the prolific, nationally and internationally known scholar and writer. She was a neighbor, a friend. I was moved. During our walk together, bell shared stories with me that I would never dare to disclose. We spoke of our families, scholars, and she shared some of her most intimate experiences. This wasn’t scuttlebutt. Each story was instructive and laced with wit and deep Black humor. That was trust. I must say that her honesty often left me blushing. There were no long moments of silence as bell spoke so lovingly about the spaces that she considered home. I am honored to have walked with her through those streets in Berea. There was no pretense; just this sense of being-togetherness. I recall on another occasion sitting with bell eating popcorn. Talk about a surreal moment. Of course, I am not by any means the only one who bell allowed into certain private aspects of her life. I’m just honored that I was accorded this privilege.

I imagine that she probably critiqued me in her witty way as I would, on occasion, call her to get her to say hello to a friend or a colleague of mine. I recall visiting Queen Mary University of London where I gave a keynote address. While attending a session on Black feminism, the lead presenters had mentioned bell. After their presentation, I told them that bell would be so excited by their work. Minutes later, bell said, “Hello.” I had called her from the U.K. The two presenters were stunned, open-mouthed and trying to comprehend what had just taken place. Speaking of ego, I am so delighted that bell didn’t tell me off. That is the person who I know as bell hooks.

So, calling bell was a routine. Having her answer was such a delight. She would often end with, “Love you, George.” Even if she didn’t answer the phone, it was great to leave a message as you got to hear bell’s recorded message: “All awakening to love is spiritual awakening.” It was this message that I listened to for the last few months. Given that she had shared with me news about not feeling well, I suspected that this was tied to her not answering her phone. Moments after I found out that she had passed, I immediately called her number. Sadly, there was no recorded message. I wanted to hear bell’s voice again communicating her wisdom in that powerful connection that she made between the process of awakening to love and the process of spiritual awakening.

I have learned so much from bell. My appreciation of her critical corpus led me, along with a colleague of mine, Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, to edit a book on her work: Critical Perspectives on bell hooks (2009). I recall sharing with bell the news about this edited book on her work and feeling a sense that she didn’t appreciate what we had done. I was wrong. This was, I now believe, bell’s sense of herself — her sense of humility. When I told bell about the book, there was an awkward expression on her face. And then she mentioned how she doesn’t think about such accolades. I initially mistook her facial expression as a lack of appreciation, when in fact it was one of humility. My view is that bell possessed a healthy capacity for loving self-critique, that sense of rich vulnerability that leads to hesitation, that forgoes hubristic self-certainty, which is often infused with the trappings of a superiority complex. Given her understanding of the deep connections between pedagogy, spirituality and love, I’m not surprised.

Many are perhaps unaware of bell’s emphasis on spirituality. In my conversation with her that I conducted for The New York Times (“The Stone”), she locates the importance of spirituality in her life. She said, “Feminism does not ground me. It is the discipline that comes from spiritual practice that is the foundation of my life. If we talk about what a disciplined writer I have been and hope to continue to be, that discipline starts with a spiritual practice. It’s just every day, every day, every day.” It is important that we emphasize bell’s spiritual praxis as a Buddhist Christian and how it informs and is inextricably tied to her other identities.

As I reflect on bell, I was not only touched by how I came to know her personally, but her work has also had a profound influence on my pedagogy. In Teaching to Transgress, bell writes, “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”

“Education as a practice of freedom” is how I think about my own work within the classroom. Of course, like bell, I am also influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, especially his emphasis placed upon critical dialogue, a love for those who have been marginalized, colonized, oppressed, and how praxis is indispensable to liberation. Like bell, for me, theory is linked with pain and suffering. We are required to do something with theory. We must, as she says, “direct our theorizing towards” a liberatory or revolutionary end. In this way, theory is not simply something that we do in the abstract; it is fundamentally linked to our suffering. Therefore, in my own work, I have come to think of philosophy as a form of suffering. It was because of that suffering that I found philosophy, or it found me. I needed, and continue to need, to know why we are here in this universe, whether God exists or not, why there is something rather than nothing, and to know the deeper meaning of death. These are not simply abstract issues for me, but deep personal and existential conundrums that have led to tears. As bell writes, “I came to theory because I was hurting — the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me.”

In my own teaching practice, I have tried to communicate to my students that education is a site of radicality; it ought to speak to their souls. It ought to leave them vulnerable and aware of the weight of human suffering, and the desire to do something about it. How else will they learn how to transgress, to disrupt problematic boundaries and hegemonic orders that sustain what bell famously terms, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”? This is another way of saying that students must learn to love, and how to love. Many students fail to make the connection between love and education, especially as they are held prisoner by the forces of marketization, commodification and a callous form of entrepreneurship. Facing one’s soul, one’s vulnerability, is the last thing that they desire to do. Removing the masks of deception, after all, might reveal the rotting smell of mendacity. As hooks notes, “Consumer culture in particular encourages lies. Advertising is one of the cultural mediums that has most sanctioned lying. Keeping people in a constant state of lack, in perpetual desire, strengthens the marketplace economy. Lovelessness is a boon to consumerism.” Indeed, the idea that our raison d’être is to achieve more and more material success, accolades and distinctions, breeds backstabbing, smugness, self-aggrandizement and one-upmanship.

Some of my best classroom experiences are when students sit in silence because of the gravity of a problem or a question, especially one that implicates them. Within the context of my classroom spaces, the shedding of tears is not atypical. It is a sign that some boundary has been crossed, that there has been some edifying transgression or painful realization. I would like to think that I am able to generate within the classroom space, through my own modeling, what vulnerability looks like, what being on the verge of tears looks like in the face of honesty and self-critique. I would argue that creating such a space demonstrates a form of love. As bell writes, “To know love we have to tell the truth to ourselves and to others.”

Through courageous speech, my objective is to get my students to see behind the façade that fuels their pretentiousness. It is to call into question what my “function” is within the classroom. So, we transgress against those hierarchies that place me in the position of the “all-knowing professor,” the disembodied abstract mind. We uncover the fact that for so many in power, education is designed to contain, to create those who follow, to maintain safety that takes the form of conformity. I encourage my students to see themselves (as best they can) with honesty, to look at the lies, the ugliness, the deceptions and the posturing.

As bell writes, “Creating a false self to mask fears and insecurities has become so common that many of us forget who we are and what we feel underneath the pretense.” In my classroom spaces where un-suturing, which is a form of laying bare the self, is a premium, I would like to think that I contribute, to some degree, to a process of unburdening of my students. She also writes, “When an individual has always lied, [they have] no awareness that truth telling can take away this heavy burden. To know this [they] must let the lies go.” In Wounds of Passion, bell writes, “I wanted to care for the soul and to let my heart speak.” That very process, that care and honesty, are dangerous in a world predicated upon distortion, deception and neofascism, which are precisely the dynamics playing themselves out in the U.S. As bell clearly states, “When this collective cultural consumption of and attachment to misinformation is coupled with the layers of lying individuals do in their personal lives, our capacity to face reality is severely diminished as is our will to intervene and change unjust circumstances.”

The passing of bell hooks — the Black feminist, the cultural critic, the philosopher, the gadfly, the storyteller, the love warrior — has, unfortunately, removed some of the righteous and necessary rage from of our world. When we stand in silence (without that necessary rage) in the face of various forms of assault, violence and injustice against other human beings, we are, for bell, complicit. Rage, though counterintuitive, can function as a site of healing, responsibility, growth and love. Another profound insight that bell shared with me during my interview with her at The New York Times (“The Stone”) involves Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. When bell complained of being filled with anger, Hanh suggested that she take her anger, her rage, and use it generatively. He said to bell, “Well, you know, hold on to your anger, and use it as compost for your garden.” This is a powerful process of recycling anger and rage, of deploying it for the purpose of personal and collective evolution.

I want my students to experience rage against injustice and all forms of deception and inhumanity. Within this context, rage is a beautiful thing, a desideratum. It is necessary because so much hatred exists. In Killing Rage, bell writes about how Black rage is seen “as always and only pathological rather than as a just response to an unjust situation.” As bell would say, the real and present danger is violence against humanity. If we are to talk about ending rage, then we must talk about ending violence against humanity and the earth. For bell, we must take control of “rage and move it beyond fruitless scapegoating of any group, linking it instead to a passion for freedom and justice that illuminates, heals, and makes redemptive struggle possible.”

I will miss my phone calls with bell. The world will miss the gift of her existential presence, her uncompromised voice. Yet, her work will live on, and we will be sure to engage what she calls “working with the work.” She explains, “So if somebody comes up to me, and they have one of those bell hooks books that’s abused and battered, and every page is underlined, I know they’ve been working with the work. And that’s where it is for me.”

We rage on with you, bell, working with the work, and teaching to transgress for liberation.

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