In the first collection of her essays I read, Black Looks: Race and Representation, she argued for alternative ways to look at blackness and whiteness. Each essay in the book analyzed the ways blackness and black people are viewed and experienced in mainstream culture, especially popular culture. As she described it, “The essays in Black Looks are meant to challenge and unsettle, to disrupt and subvert.” This is exactly what I experienced!
For instance, like everyone else in the 1990s, I was a big fan of Tina Turner and Madonna without thinking much about how either of them might represent womanhood or stereotypes about women or what impact their images might have on me. But hooks argued that black women in film and music are often seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relationships, especially in how black women view themselves: they either oppose the sexist pop-culture image or quietly absorb the stereotypes. She cited Tina Turner as an example of a black woman who must be represented as sexually free-spirited and driven by lust in order to be successful in entertainment and demonstrated how this representation creates paths of abuse and violence against black women. She compared Madonna’s self-representation as a “mother figure” to people of color (“Madonna” denotes the Virgin Mary, after all) to the way white colonialists saw themselves as saviors and parental figures to supposedly inferior races. Worse still, she argued, Madonna appropriates black culture for popular entertainment. Her analysis was unsettling but convincing. I understood the point: such images of black and white women strongly influence people’s perception and treatment of people of color.
However, it was her thoughts on “revolutionary love” that left the most profound and long-lasting impression. She took seriously the idea that social change had to center love and that this was as much about transforming ourselves as it was about changing the world. In her 1999 book All About Love: New Visions, she focused on the importance of love, community, and self-care, not as escapism or distraction but as an essential part of changing the world. She argued that we cannot continue to hurt, undermine, and belittle each other and simultaneously build a better society. “Whenever domination is present love is lacking,” she wrote in her 2000 book Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.
bell hooks had a big vision for humanity. She believed that we are all connected but also that we cannot ignore our inequalities and privileges. “The soul of our politics,” she said, “is the commitment to ending domination.” She insisted that all of our relationships must be built on a foundation of mutual respect. She diagnosed that our societies are lacking in love and the only way to heal this situation is with forgiveness, compassion, and community. She expressed this intention and vision in her book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. “This is a book about reconciliation,” she wrote. “It is meant to serve as a map, charting a journey that can lead us back to that place dark and deep within us, where we were first known and loved, where the arms that held us hold us still.” As a young black woman living through a tumultuous time in South Africa, I soaked up her wisdom and perspective.