bell hooks did not write for me. She did not write for white women. White people were not excluded–her spirit and intellect were too capacious for that. We could learn from her, and many did. But we weren’t the priority in any way. Her priority, her great love, was Black women.
When I read the outpouring of grief from Black women on Twitter at the news of her death, this was very much brought home to me. My own memories revolved around a story I’ll tell below, but it’s clear that as a white person, my encounter with her work, while utterly transformative at both an academic and a personal level, does not occupy the same universe as Black women’s, who are speaking of spirit, heart, and soul as these intersect with intellectual and pedagogical praxis.
The fact that I was not the priority of her work, however, was itself a revelation for me. Because encountering her book Black Looks in 1992, my second year of graduate school at University of Hawai’i, coincided with my simultaneous encounter with the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and my encounter with my now ex-husband, an MA student in Pacific Island Studies, who was the devoted advisee of none other than Haunani-Kay Trask.
So while I chose U of Hawai’i initially to do a “standard” PhD in Japan anthropology, what I ended up in was an utterly destabilizing confrontation with my own identity as a white person on colonized land, as a student in a colonizing discipline (Said’s Orientalism was huge and new at the time), the white partner of a BIPOC man (my ex-husband is Japanese), and an emerging scholar confronting the global circulation of fetishized whiteness globally and its centrality to economies of attraction in Japan and elsewhere.
And, naively, I brought this to my anthropology department, and to my old school empiricist Japanese anthropology advisor, actually expecting enthusiasm and engagement. Oh my.
What I got was outrage. That’s the point of the story, which I’ll now tell.
I began grad school in 1991. In 1992, bell hooks’ Black Looks came out just as I began my doctoral examination of representations of white people in Japanese popular culture. My doctoral project emerged from my taking up surfing in Waikiki, and seeing a very public encounter–very much the subject of local chatter and extensive Japanese writing – between Japanese women tourists and local white men on the local beaches.
hooks gave me language to talk about fetishizing whiteness, how white people smugly invite fetishization, all the while concealing their structural power in language of apolitical individual “attraction” (ie, the heart wants what it wants).
I was utterly dumbfounded, especially, as I said, reading it in context of Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and grappling with the reality that both I as an individual white person, as well as my anthropology department and the University as a whole, were viewed by Native Hawaiians as manifestations of colonizer violence.
OF COURSE I didn’t get it right away. My now ex-husband shouldered the burden of battling with me to make me see my whiteness and my racism. Like all white people, I kicked and screamed and resisted and rationalized.
But over time, I did start to get it. And I embarked on a journey of anti-racist effort that continues to this day.
hooks’ work revealed to me how whiteness seeks to dictate the contours of the imaginable, while working endlessly to silence anything that challenges it (ie, critical race theory).
Nothing was ever the same after that. How could I look at Japan as a white person without reference to this white will to power? How could I proceed in light of what Said was writing about Orientalism? That he said, directly to anthropologists, “we are not saying to do a kinder gentler anthropology. We are saying, ‘Stop. Just stop.'”
hooks’ work also set me on a profound and ultimately irreconcilable conflict with my advisor, a Japanese woman who many decades before had entered the department as the spousal hire of a prominent, much older, white male anthropologist, and who was entirely devoted to the cold war empiricist “village studies” model of Japan anthropology.
When I chose hooks’ work for a report in a graduate seminar, my advisor turned on me. With cold fury in her voice, she hissed,
“What. Is. This?
According to her, what am I?
Some kind of ‘Woman. Of. Color?'”
her voice dripped with contempt.
She went on,
“I am so disappointed in you, Karen. I thought you were so sophisticated. So cosmopolitan. And now… this? This narrow minded… what even is it? ‘Identity politics’?
Setting one group against another?
This has no place in anthropology.”
I was devastated. I had – at that time – no idea. I knew the conflicts been the old and the “new” anthropology (engaging with “partial truths” [Clifford] and the subject position of the anthropologist) were deep and angry. But I did not know that my Japanese woman advisor would reject it so entirely.
It was terrifying. I was a second year graduate student. I had no capital, no defenders.
But I did not stop. I continued on, to everyone’s dismay. One day, my advisor’s pet PhD student cornered me in the hallway. “you know, Karen, this topic of yours,” she smirked, “I mean, really? Sure, it’s interesting, but it’s not really anthropology now, is it? It’s only journalism. You know you’ll have to change it.” Turning away: “I’m just thinking about YOU and your well being, of course.”
In the end my advisor actually tried to prevent me from getting my PhD. Despite my already having a tenure track job offer in hand. I ended up needing our department head and graduate school Dean to intervene and secure my ability to defend and finish. My advisor and I never really spoke again. Looking back, I understand that her proximity to whiteness–through the liberal discourse of race-blindness – was her place of safety. I judged her before, but I don’t now. She had her own battles to fight, as an Asian woman in a white institution and discipline.
For my part, my journey continued at my first job, at University of Oregon, where I encountered a dedicated community of Native American graduate students working on using archaeology and anthropology to recover their own histories and cultures. And then my second job at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where I encountered Latinx students fighting against the campus valorization of Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” thesis, and of course Native American students and other BIPOC students and faculty fighting desperately to combat the vile Chief Illiniwek mascot.
At Hawai’i and UIUC I saw anthropology departments do nothing but stonewall, deny, gaslight.
At University of Oregon, I saw some white faculty make good faith efforts to engage with BIPOC critique of the discipline’s history, theory and methods, and to make anthropology’s resources available for Native American cultural survival.
At UO I continued to learn and change.
At UIUC, I reached a level of disillusionment I could not overcome, and I did in fact, just “stop.” I left, and have not looked back.
However, when I left academia, I also left the chance to really engage with things like hooks’ later work. I didn’t keep reading, and I missed her writing as she moved further into writing out of her Buddhist practice, and build a practice of love, grief and joy in political work. I missed how Black feminist thought has been shaped by her, finding spaces outside white violence, opening a language for Black women to speak to and love one another away from the all encompassing white gaze. I wish I’d understood sooner that the kind of rage-motivated action that is my default is not necessarily helpful or trustworthy. I also didn’t know her words about raising children. As I struggled through decades of trying to raise my own children, I grieve that I missed her wisdom.
Reading the twitter memorial as it emerges, I discover all the things I did NOT learn from bell hooks. Here is a small selection.
I could have continued reading her of course. One thing about bell hooks is, her work is absolutely not abstruse or segregated in academic debate. With great intentionality, she wrote for everyone. Even without an academic “project” of my own, I could have kept reading.
When I went back yesterday even to Black Looks, I think one of her least impactful works despite it being revelatory to me, I discovered to my shock that it opens with a discussion of Nell Larson’s Passing – which is on Netflix right now, which I watched just a week ago. I am startled at how pertinent her 30 year old writing is to this moment.
So, with sadness at her loss, I will read on, and keep learning from her incalculable wisdom. It’s a wisdom that encompasses grief and grieving, on a scale that has become urgent with covid losses and the escalating racist violence of recent years.
As we grapple with our multi-leveled individual and collective grief, I find this mediation by Adrienne Maree Brown–written after hooks’ death– powerful, and perhaps it will help you too.
in the past two months there have been
five six seveneight deaths that impacted my life, including that of bell hooks, which i learned about from my beloved friend toshi reagon as i was finishing up this writing.
when the big hits come, all that new and unexpected grief pouring into my overflowing heart, i have a small and sacred ritual i want to share with y’all, in case it helps.
first i sit with the true emotion – shock, tears, denial, anger, absence.
for bell hooks, i had a long cry of deep gratitude.
then i let the memories come, and i say them aloud.
when i met bell hooks, she delighted me so much that i couldn’t linger in the fangirl realm. i got to thank her for the permission to write my name the way i wanted to, to attempt to center my work over my recognition. i got to thank her for reshaping feminism. the fire in her eyes was that of someone willing to stand in her truth, uncompromising. i learned so much from her writing, her thinking, her critical mind. because of her i have restructured my life to be a writer who is able to read voraciously.
i light a candle for the transition, the journey my loved one is on, the path i have not yet traveled.
the candle for bell hooks joins the greg tate candle, and all the burnt down candles of dead friends and family on our ancestor altar.
if there is material support needed for the funeral or family, i make the donation with tears drying on my face, letting the felt sense of impermanence guide my giving.
finally, i gather with other grievers – telling stories over the phone and on text threads, sending messages with memories to those who i know also grieve, lingering phone calls where we tell the stories and honor the impacts. what i used to love most about funerals, the laughter of both honest and embellished stories, i now mostly do in a nonlinear and immediate way.
there is no sentence that can sum up or quantify everything bell hooks taught me. all about love alone gave me the keys to open my own heart. but i think that is the highest honor i can pay to her life, that her impact is beyond measure or expression.
if you are feeling more than you can contain, i just want to say yes to that.
if you need to cry, yes.
if you can’t cry, it doesn’t mean you aren’t feeling. my therapist reminds me that even when we sit perfectly still, our hearts beat and our blood rushes through our veins – emotion is that kind of underground river.
if you know the feels are there but are struggling to let them move through, or if you don’t have people nearby who can hold you the way you need, write yourself a letter of compassion and permission to survive. if you tell no one else, at least be honest with yourself about what you are holding, and affirm to yourself that it is ok to feel overwhelmed by an overwhelming time.
Rest in Power, bell hooks.
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