This essay is part of our online special issue honoring bell hooks
To Be a Feminist: In Honor of bell hooks
By Zakiya R. Adair
The first book that I read by bell hooks was Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984). It was in the first year of my doctoral program in Women’s and Gender Studies. Her book was one of many assigned in the Feminist History course, but it was the only book on the list that I enjoyed reading. The class covered a general history of feminism, women’s liberation movements, and academic feminism. I was the only Black student in the class and the only Black student in my entering cohort. I felt like an imposter. Unlike my peers, I had not graduated from a prestigious undergraduate institution, I earned my B.A. in African American Studies, I had only taken one undergraduate course on women and poverty, and I wasn’t even sure if I was a feminist. I had associated that word with whiteness and privilege.
My hopes for collaboration and friendship with my cohort were dashed in the first few weeks of courses when I learned that the three of them (all cis straight white women from affluent backgrounds) had organized weekly meetups without me. Feeling isolated and overwhelmed, I was excited to finally read something from a Black author. It was the first book I read that provided a theoretical framework for my experiences as a Black American woman, especially as a Black woman who had entered academic feminism. I devoured every word. I no longer felt isolated. I felt charged for battle, armed with a framework to articulate how my lived experiences were crucial to understanding the ways race, gender, and class intersected. After I read Feminist Theory, I no longer felt ashamed about my background. Hooks’s words affirmed my experience and confirmed that I was, in fact, a feminist.
My mother was the first feminist I ever met. She would never have used the word herself but her life embodied hooks’s belief that, “Feminism in the United States has never emerged from the women who are most victimized by sexist oppression; women who are daily beaten down, mentally, physically, and spiritually-women who are powerless to change their daily life. They are the silent majority” (1984, 1). She became a ward of the state at fifteen and was shuffled around from one abusive foster home to the next before her biological father finally claimed her. When she became pregnant at seventeen, she was forced to drop out of high school and marry my sister’s abusive father. By twenty-one she had escaped her first husband and met my father, and by twenty-two she was a single mother of two. She worked a series of dead-end jobs, never quite making ends meet. She moved from one violent relationship to the next. A poor, Black, single mother on welfare in the turbulent Ronald Regan 1980s, she struggled to keep a roof over our heads. My mother did not benefit from neoliberal feminist reforms. She was a woman on the margin, the type hooks described as left out of feminist theory: “feminism has its party line and women who feel a need for a different strategy, a different foundation, often find themselves ostracized and silenced” (1984, 9). My mother was adamant that I have a voice, and she believed that college was the way to get one. But with limited access to resources and no experience, my mother could never really help me actualize the plan.
When I first entered college, I majored in Philosophy and French with the intention to go to law school and become a lawyer. I did not have a specific passion for the law; I just wanted a career that would ensure financial stability. As a first-generation college kid my career choices were limited to the fields of medicine, engineering, or law. Biology and science were never my strong suits, so I went with the law. I believed that it was my responsibility to, in my mother’s words, “put my degree to good work” to earn a good living and to give back to my family. My mother’s push for financial stability was really her way of protecting me, of trying to ensure that I didn’t have to go through what she went through. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided that I was going to become a professor. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew I would have to go to graduate school. This meant that I would need more time before I would be in a stable career. My mom was far less enthusiastic about this plan and even less so when I informed her that I had accepted a spot in a Ph.D. program in Women’s Studies. But she was the reason I wanted to become a professor, especially a professor in Women’s Studies.
Bell hooks’s Feminist Theory got me through my first year of graduate school. In my second year, I read hooks’s Wounds of Passion and I wept. This bold, vulnerable meditation on a writing life mirrored my experience. I felt seen in hooks’s words and soothed and comforted by our emotional similarities. Hooks writes, “Books were my ecstasy and… I wanted to curl up in my tiny attic room bed and be transported far away” (1997, ix). Hooks was a complex and bold intellect. She played with prose and form and was unafraid to state her beliefs.
Her death in December 2021 came over a year and a half into the global Coronavirus pandemic and over a year after the murder of George Floyd. Her works, especially Feminist Theory, are relevant to dire twenty-first-century socio-political and economic conditions. Hooks was a radical Black feminist. Her theory was grounded in the belief that feminism should be critical of capitalism. She understood the dangers of twentieth-century American feminism’s investment in neoliberal social and cultural gains prevented real and lasting radical change. She writes, “although liberal perspectives on feminism include reforms that would have radical implications for society, these are the reforms which will be resisted precisely because they would set the stage for revolutionary transformation were they implemented.” (hooks 1984, 21). I didn’t agree with everything she said or wrote, but everything she wrote made me think. She made me think about my mother, my sister, and what it meant for me to take a different path.
hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston, MA: South End Press.
___. 1997. Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life. New York, NY: Holt.
Zakiya R. Adair is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The College of New Jersey. Her research revolves around Black American cultural history in the areas of Black internationalism and trans-Atlantic Black expressive culture. Additionally, Adair works in the area of feminism and neoliberalism in higher education. She is the recipient of many grants and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Schomburg Scholars-in-Residence postdoctoral fellowship and NEH Summer Institute awards. She has also held a visiting professorship in American Studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.