On December 15, 2021, the Dean of Students at the school where I teach sent a community-wide email announcing the death of bell hooks. My heart broke, my limbs were suddenly heavy, and I had to teach in five minutes. So I did what was expected of me; I compartmentalized my feelings and went on with my lesson. Upon returning home that night, I spent some time with Wounds of Passion, which I’d gifted my sister about 20 years ago. She lent it to me after reading it, and it was never returned.
While bell hooks is widely known as a Black feminist theorist who has given us a framework for critiquing the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, in my heart and mind, she is first and foremost a Black feminist radical educator. She influenced and inspired my work as a community youth educator, and I had the opportunity to lead a seminar on Teaching to Transgress as a grad student. She sees the classroom as the “most radical space of possibility” and discusses the practice of teaching as liberatory. The act of remembering bell hooks is recognizing our responsibility to the younger generations, to teach them to aspire to freedom.
In the first essay in the collection, “Engaged Pedagogy,” hooks stresses that “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” It is interesting to imagine my own manifestation of this process, as I have suffered from sometimes debilitating anxiety and uneven practices of self-care over the years that I have been an educator. In many ways the fact that I am an educator has been integral to my process of self-actualization. A sense of responsibility to the youth in my community made me strive, perhaps unwittingly, toward healing. hooks generously emphasizes the process of self-actualization, she doesn’t insist that an educator must heal before leading the learning space. She advocates a union between the mind and body that is so often expelled from the classroom. I wonder how she would feel about the way I compartmentalized the knowledge of her passing. I wanted to be present for my students, and I did not have enough time to think about a way to integrate my emotions and her legacy. I think an awareness of my body and feelings is what allowed me to move them to a place where I could engage with my needs later. I see that as practicing engaged pedagogy.
bell hooks was one of the early voices advocating for anti-bias teaching methodologies. Anti-bias is a term that has gained a lot of traction in the milieu of liberal independent schools, the industry in which I currently teach. It is thanks to her work, and many like her, that the emphasis on diversity and inclusion has become mainstream. In “Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World,” she documents the efforts of untenured women of color faculty at Oberlin College who intervened to build a curriculum that reflected the world. At an initial meeting with other faculty members, Chandra Mohanty, a Women’s Studies professor, and hooks shared the names of writers who influenced their “pedagogical practices.” hooks underscored the influence of Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire on her teaching practice and notes:
The professors present at the first meeting were disturbed by our overt political standpoints. Again and again, it was necessary to remind everyone that no education is politically neutral. Emphasizing that a white male professor in an English department who teaches only work by “great white men” is making a political decision, [they] had to work consistently against and through the overwhelming will on the part of folks to deny the politics of racism, sexism, and so forth that inform how we teach.
When I am in my queer, avant-garde, poet bubble, and with certain colleagues at work, I think that society has progressed far beyond this conversation, but then time slips and this moment hooks describes is present, emboldened, and grotesquely distorted. White supremacist thought is a vortex so many educators cannot extract themselves from, and as we move into an era of anti-bias initiatives, it is imperative to critically engage with these well-intentioned but deeply misinformed practices that have spawned from the inspired and groundbreaking praxis established by late-twentieth century radical feminists. The pedagogical shift toward diversity and inclusion is, in my opinion, about keeping up appearances more than a deep desire to create change. Pseudo-fixes in the name of equity have become popular professional development offerings, and the focus is predominantly on the single space: the classroom; and the single dynamic: the teacher-student. The larger context of white supremacist imperialist culture is not interrogated. In an effort to look good, many institutions and educators buy into anti-bias propaganda that offer no solution to oppression. As prison abolition scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore proclaims, we cannot undo racism without undoing capitalism. Sadly, diversity, equity, inclusion has become a consumer product. Let us look to hooks for a way forward.
In “Holding My Sister’s Hand: Feminist Solidarity,” hooks addresses the history of racial tensions between Black and white women and the current manifestations of that tension within the feminist movement. There is a line in the essay that resonates deeply for me regarding present tensions within the lucrative diversity industry. I will share it and replace “feminist” with “inclusion” and “women” with “people”:
Within the increasing institutionalization of [inclusion] work focused on the construction of [inclusion] theory and the dissemination of [inclusion] knowledge, white [people] have assumed positions of power that enable them to reproduce the servant-served paradigm in a radically different context. Now black [people] are placed in the position of serving white… desire to know more about race and racism, to “master” the subject.
The appropriation of racial justice in the feminist movement has visceral parallels to the appropriation of racial justice in the inclusion movement. In fact, many job titles for this leadership position in independent schools exclude the term diversity from the list: equity, inclusion, social justice, belonging. Diversity wasn’t enough, now it’s been replaced with a plethora of other words that don’t immediately evoke race. However, the solution hooks suggests is one that I feel initially resistant to, while agreeing it is the right and righteous one. It was painful for Black feminists to see their scholarship appropriated and mishandled by white feminists who were all too ready to examine the effects of white supremacy on Black lives rather than their own lives. Likewise, it is difficult for anti-capitalist educators to see the diversity industry claim equity and become a boom industry. I turn away, and I know others who turn away. When a wealthy white scholar was paid more than my school’s annual diversity budget to present a virtual anti-bias slideshow that put students to sleep, I literally had to walk out of the room. But according to hooks, walking out is not the answer. She proclaims, “Without our voices in written work and in oral presentations there will be no articulation of our concerns . . . What do we do to further the development of an [anti-capitalist inclusion] theory and practice? . . . Withdrawal is not the answer.”
bell hooks has moved on at a turning point in a history for which she laid integral pieces of the foundation. Teaching to Transgress provides a decolonial framework that predates the colonization of radical pedagogy. Let’s reread it for a necessary dose of inspiration in trying times. In “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words” she closes with an offering. I will follow suit:
To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.