Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


bell hooks: An Intellectual Who Walked the Talk

Who was she, and what gifts did she bestow through her writings and personhood?

Key points

  • bell hooks theorized the importance of intersectionality long before the term entered popular culture.
  • She offered up genuine feminism as an emancipator for all, and compellingly and persuasively argued why this is so.
  • She believed that love is an action, never simply a feeling.
Denison College
Source: Denison College

Prominent intellectual, professor, activist, and feminist bell hooks passed away this week from end-stage renal disease. She was a trailblazer in black feminist thought, publishing 40 books, receiving many awards and accolades, and introducing millions of readers to the concept of intersectionality well before it became a buzzword. Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name was bell hooks (in honor of her maternal great grandmother), inspired and impacted many in the fields of women’s studies and black studies and in the helping professions. She was a beautiful writer who gently and creatively challenged the beliefs and assumptions through which we view the world. Her words spoke to the personal pain and oppression in our country that too many still attempt to whitewash and deny even exists.

In memoriam, I share below just three of her groundbreaking ideas that expanded readers’ consciousness around race, sex, class, and their intersections, and reflect on her compassion and genuineness.

“Feminism is for everybody.” A colleague shared on social media that she named a course on feminism and therapy after this title of one of bell hooks’ books. Feminism is about everybody’s empowerment by escaping the delimitations placed on all of us by patriarchy, classism, racism, and color caste hierarchies of all kinds. Feminism is about being able to be, without fear of domination or coercion, or of not measuring up. It’s about not having to fear rejection for not fitting into society’s cookie-cutter standards. A feminist politics “always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” Further, bell hooks wrote about the experience of queerness “as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” I find this idea quite compelling and meaningful.

“True resistance begins with people confronting pain…and wanting to change it.” If we acknowledge and engage with our pain, and decide to do something about it, we can effect change in our lives. Resisting patriarchy and white supremacy, for example, entails an examination of the ways in which these ideologies shape what we see as desirable and possible, and what is (and is not) presented and represented in popular media, and why. Do we feel like we’re enough? Do we feel beautiful? Or do we need to cover up (e.g., with make-up), or bulk up (e.g., engage in extreme workouts, or inject steroids), in order to feel like we’re subjects worthy of respect and love?

Reclaiming the concept of love as ethic and justice in action. bell hooks wrote, “Love is an action never simply a feeling.” She spoke of love “not as an abstract, all-embracing fantasy but as a set of ethics, principles, values, and behaviors….To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.” What does this look like? bell hooks also wrote, “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” Rather than love being ups and downs in a feeling, it can be the foundation of an ethic, and of action. Love is about being in community, and in communion, with others who are seeking to heal and be cared for.

I was blessed to have met bell hooks and to have had two conversations with her over the years. Her humaneness was unsurpassed. For her and those around her, the personal was political in the present moment. This wasn’t a mere slogan, but a relational ethic that she lived by passionately in real time. She was an extraordinary intellect who was astoundingly productive. But over and above her breathtaking intelligence and insight, she was also kind and magnanimous. There was never a hint of arrogance, bravado, or egotism. Unlike other well-known people, she was an anti-diva, down-to-earth and right there with you. (When she spoke at an event we hosted in Houston, she asked and proceeded to hold our youngest child). When she spoke truth to power and called out perpetrators of abuse, her voice was calm and clear without a trace of resentment, hostility, or contempt. She embodied all of the qualities one could hope for in an ally. Her soulfulness was wonderful to experience. She’ll be missed tremendously, but her wisdom is available in her writings. Click here to find some of them. Rest in power, and peace, bell.

More from Kyle D. Killian Ph.D., LMFT
More from Psychology Today