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bell hooks pushed us to think harder about feminism, Black women and Beyoncé

Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait in 1996. (Karjean Levine/Getty Images)

When a powerhouse like bell hooks dies, it is a shock. You know they’re human, they tell you that, in word and deed, and yet you expect them to live forever. She was an icon whose legacy will outlast her life; she was also a person who ate, drank, told stories and was — as we all are — sometimes wrong.

Trailblazing Black feminist and social critic bell hooks dies at 69

For many young feminists, hooks’s work was the entry point to theory, shared in a language they could understand without an advanced degree. Her ideas were present in academia, integral to the foundation of the next generation of feminist thought, but they were also approachable. She spoke to those who might never feel welcome in the ivory tower as well as those who carved a place for themselves there. Reading “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance,” in “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” gave me the confidence I needed to assert myself in the academy as a young, newly single mother.

The writer, who died Wednesday at 69, reminded the world that no one needs permission to write, that there are never too many artists or thinkers. Women, especially Black women, need to write themselves into history so that the world can change, can become something better for those who would otherwise be forgotten. As she said in “Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work”: “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’ . . . No woman has ever written enough.”

Why bell hooks didn’t capitalize her name

She embraced actress and activist Laverne Cox and by proxy trans womanhood publicly and enthusiastically. During a 2014 panel discussion, Cox explained how hooks had affected her life. “You were moving away from these ideas of essentialized womanhood that held feminism back,” Cox said. “I found myself there, as a gender-nonconforming college student. I was not quite able to accept my womanhood, but I was able to say, ‘Maybe there’s a space for me here.’ . . . I love that you talked about pop culture, the space that I longed to be in — but not uncritically.” In fact, during that same discussion, hooks was critical of “Orange Is the New Black,” the show that made Cox famous, and reproachful of the way the actress presented herself. While Cox said she felt empowered by her traditionally feminine aesthetic choices, she also wondered, “Am I feeding into the patriarchal gaze with my blond wig?” Without missing a beat, hooks responded, “yes.” She was known for a razor-sharp wit accompanied by an infectious smile.

And yet, hooks was in many ways as susceptible to the perils of misogyny and respectability politics as anyone else. She famously leaned into critiques of Beyoncé, calling her award-winning visual album “Lemonade” “capitalist money-making at its best.” And on a panel in 2014 with Janet Mock, she said Beyoncé was “colluding in the construction of herself as a slave. I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls.”

Beyoncé and ‘Lemonade’ are giving these feminist scholars so much to debate

For many, these words were shocking. Beyoncé’s feminism may be imperfect — and it’s certainly open to analysis and critique — but should her monumental creation be so easily dismissed? Should Beyoncé’s, or any young feminist’s, exploration of what feminism means to them be curtailed by respectability politics or the expectations of others who, while certainly revered, were also imperfect? hooks had specific ideas of what Black feminism should be and could callously dismiss those outside of her vision.

It’s easy to look at our heroes retroactively and only see the best about them, but the things they got wrong can also teach us where we can do better, where we can set aside our biases and respond to the person in front of us as a fellow human. In hooks, for instance, some may find contradiction between her words and her behavior. She was anti-capitalist and a landlord. She struggled with the public expression of sexuality by Black women such as Beyoncé and yet, in a 1996 article, she wrote about a romantic relationship she had with a former student. In that piece she laid out an argument for the best ethics of conducting such relationships, but fundamentally it is clear even in her own writing that there was a power imbalance that could do harm.

She taught us how to live, to laugh, to write and to fight. She also taught us an unforgettable lesson, that even those who do some of the hardest work to make change possible will have missteps. The myths that will arise around her as time passes, as those who knew her as a person and not just an icon also fade from the public consciousness, will probably erase her complexities. In the way of all icons, eventually the person will be forgotten by most, and what remains will be a monument to her accomplishments. But she was more than her successes, and the best way to honor her would be to remember the full, complicated person she was and learn from it. As hooks herself said, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

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