To live fully we would need to let go of our fear of dying. That fear can be addressed by the love of living. – bell hooks
Even though death is normal and inevitable, it is not easy for me to acknowledge that bell hooks is no more amongst us. I know that professional academicians and scholars are trained to restrain their emotions, and even when a colleague dies, they merely issue formal condolence messages, and write yet another scholarly paper on the academic achievements of their late colleague. Yet, I fail to fit myself into this rationale of cold academics. In fact, on December 15,2021, I was looking at the Guardian, and then I came to know about the death of bell hooks. It shattered me; I felt like crying, touching her books, and sending my prayers to the infinite sky. I have never met her; yet, I am possibly one of those who have experienced her magic—the enchanting power of her ideas, the rhythmic flow of her books, and above all, her conviction, passion and courage to write in a way that, instead of being reduced into a narcissistic play of the intellect, touches the soul of the reader. Seldom does one find a scholar like her in the university circuit who can generate such intense feeling of love, wonder and religiosity.
Is it some kind of mystic connection? In recent times, I was reading her books repeatedly, listening to her talks, and sharing her ideas—particularly, on engaged pedagogy and redemptive power of love—with my nearest ones. Yes, I was communicating with her and talking to her—the way an unknown reader invokes his favourite poet at the moment of pain and love, or ecstasy and turmoil. In fact, bell hooks—although largely known as a feminist scholar continually questioning patriarchy and racism—reminds me of the beauty and depth of a broad moral/intellectual landscape she portrayed through her writings, teaching and life-practice. She reminds me of Paulo Frieire—the art of critical pedagogy; she reminds me of Erich Fromm—the art of loving; and she also reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh—the art of engaged religiosity. From gender to racism, from cultural theory to feminist politics, from spirituality to classroom teaching: her horizon was amazing—beyond the narrow/fragmented notion of academic specialization. Possibly, she too felt the trauma of the politics within the academia. Her immense popularity amongst students, her alive/vibrant/dialogic/experiential lectures, and her non-jargonized/lyrical prose, I can feel, must have annoyed those scholars who think that the academic culture ought to be devoid of emotion, reflexivity, personal experience and politics, and ‘scholarly’ writing is not for public consumption. Let me quote bell hooks:
Students at various academic institutions often complain that they cannot include my work on required reading lists for degree-oriented qualifying exams because their professors do not see it as scholarly enough. All of us who create feminist theory and feminist writing in academic settings in which we are continually evaluated know that work deemed ‘not scholarly’ or ‘not theoretical’ can result in one not receiving deserved recognition and reward.
Imagine the language through which many scholars—including Marxists, poststructuralists, cultural theorists and feminists—seek to silence their audience, and erect a wall of separation between theory and poetry! In an academic culture of this kind, bell hooks demonstrated extraordinary courage to write her books with a creative blend of brain and heart, objectivity and reflexivity, and personal and political. I have no hesitation in saying that her art of communication has always appealed to me, and renewed my conviction that an academic culture devoid of love is spiritually impoverished.
As a teacher, I have learned a great deal from her marvelous book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Yes, she took Paulo Freire seriously, redefined the classroom culture, generated the spirit of critical thinking and dialogue, interrogated the politics of patriarchy and racism, and encouraged her students to regain their voice and agency. Education, for her, was not merely an intellectual exercise; it was a life-transformative experience; it was about freedom. Yes, only a teacher like bell hooks could touch the soul of her students. Here is an illustration. In her class, there was a black woman who was initially unsure whether or not she could convey the complexity of her thought in black vernacular speech; but eventually, she found her voice, and expressed her feelings that she had always kept to herself. And this experience was therapeutic. To quote hooks:
She gave thanks that our meeting, our theorizing of race, gender, and sexuality that afternoon had ceased her pain, testifying that she could feel hurt going away, that she could feel a healing taking place within. Holding my hands, standing body to body, eye to eye, she allowed me to share empathically the warmth of that healing. She wanted me to bear witness, to hear again both the naming of her pain and the power that emerged when she felt the hurt go away.
Love, bell hooks realized deeply, heals. Her politics was radical and emancipatory; her feminism was a life-affirming project—a politico-spiritual struggle to resist and overcome patriarchy, white male supremacy, and brute power characterized by hyper-masculine aggression. And she knew that without love there could be no emancipation. True, we live amid a culture that normalizes violence, brutalizes human consciousness, promotes greed and selfishness, adores narcissism, and disrupts the language of mutuality and reciprocity. Yet, bell hooks didn’t allow herself to grow cynical. All About Love—her yet another path-breaking book assures us, and makes us see and feel the healing power of redemptive love. As I read this book time and again, I feel her deep religiosity. ‘To truly serve’, as she wrote, ‘we must always empty the ego so that space can exist for us to recognize the needs of others and be capable of fulfilling them’. And this is precisely what compassion is all about; it ‘opens the way to feel empathy for others without judgment’. This is also the beginning of forgiveness.
At a time when we—including the academic intelligentsia—are becoming increasingly arrogant, emotionally deserted and spiritually impoverished, the wisdom and positive vibrations of bell hooks, I pray, would give us the strength to echo with her:
Without hope, we cannot return to love. Breaking our sense of isolation and opening up the window of opportunity, hope provides us with a reason to go forward. It is a practice of positive thinking. Being positive, living in a permanent state of hopefulness, renews the spirit. Renewing our faith in love’s promise, hope is our covenant.
Let it be a tribute to her.
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.