“Talking Back: The Genius of bell hooks” symposium to celebrate, honor legacy of influential Black feminist scholar


To celebrate bell hooks (pictured) and discuss her works and influence, Dr. Régine Jean-Charles organized a full-day symposium with panelists from across the greater Boston area. Photo available through public domain.

Grace Comer, campus editor

One of Black feminism’s most prolific and influential scholars, bell hooks, née Gloria Jean Watkins, died Dec. 15, 2021 at the age of 69. To celebrate her life and honor her legacy, Dr. Régine Jean-Charles, the Dean’s Professor of Culture and Social Justice and the director of Northeastern’s Africana Studies Program, organized a symposium Feb. 11 with panelists from across the greater Boston area. 

“I think in our community of Black feminist scholars especially, [bell hooks’] death was just really a shock and really sad, especially in a year that already had so much loss,” said Jean-Charles, a professor of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “I’m the type of person who, if I can channel my grief into an action, it makes me feel so much better. … Because of my role at Northeastern as the director of Africana Studies, I had resources available to me to be able to pull something off, and I have a great team that is really good at handling logistics and planning events.” 

Over her lifetime, hooks published nearly 40 books, including both scholarly works and poetry collections. Her lowercase pen name both honors her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and encourages readers to focus on her writing, instead of her as an author. This writing explored a broad range of topics such as feminism and gender identity, environmental racism and teaching philosophies, as well as the intersection of these issues and more. 

Academics in these fields and beyond have been influenced by her work for decades, with her writing inspiring new studies and impacting the way these subjects are taught. 

“I was first introduced to bell hooks’ work when I was coming from my undergraduate to graduate experience, so I was kind of growing into Africana Studies and feminist studies, and I was also teaching,” said Dr. Melissa Pearson, Northeastern’s director of Student Diversity and Success and an associate teaching professor in the English department. “Not only was I leaning into my Black feminist power, but I was also leaning into what my teaching would mean. It was very significant because I tapped into her theory about liberatory education, and that has been a guiding part of all that I do in teaching.” 

One series of books by hooks, which includes “Teaching to Transgress,” “Teaching Critical Thinking” and “Teaching Community,” explores her personal teaching philosophies and how students of all ages and identities can be engaged and encouraged in the classroom. “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy,” she wrote in “Teaching to Transgress.”

“It’s not enough that we just teach students to toe the line or do this work in the interest of institutions, but that they do it for their own liberatory purposes,” Pearson said. “That’s something that I have used as a mantle in my teaching philosophy and my personal philosophy about how I want to go after the things that matter to me. [hooks] is a big influence in both my development and my continued work.” 

Much of hooks’ writing centers around not just Black feminism, from an academic lens and from her personal perspective and experiences, but also around the formation of loving communities and the healing power of self-actualization. Her book “Sisters of the Yam” is one such work. 

“I think for me, ‘Sisters of the Yam’ as a book, as a way of life, as an understanding, and I think really as a spiritual guide,” said Grace Assogba, a senior at Boston College majoring in international studies. “She talks about, at the end of it, that this is about spiritual solidarity, the purpose of this writing was to add to a growing body of literature that helps enable us to value ourselves and also understanding how do I value myself within that context of selective healing when there is much normalized violence of society?”

hooks’ work directly addresses the struggles that Black women in particular face due to structural and systemic barriers. 

“We exist in a world where there’s almost this myth of meritocracy, and constantly working hard and constantly giving yourself, you’re constantly questioning, in these structures of capitalism and patriarchy, and really all the ‘-isms’ that will bring anyone down, how do you survive in that? How do you continue to thrive? How do you continue to preserve yourself when it seems like every aspect of your life is political?” Assogba said. 

This idea of a community as a defense against these oppressive power structures is one that is prevalent in many of hooks’ books. “​​No level of individual self-actualization alone can sustain the marginalized and oppressed. We must be linked to collective struggle, to communities of resistance that move us outward, into the world,” she wrote in “Sisters of the Yam.” 

“I try to buy copies of [‘Sisters of the Yam’] everywhere I find it. I try to give it to young Black women whom I meet in academia, because it is both a reflection and a map for understanding how to maintain your own wellness as a Black woman or a Black femme, or even someone who is otherwise othered, in the academy,” said Dr. Meredith Clark, the founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change and an associate professor of journalism and communication studies. 

In other essays and books, hooks discusses the importance of the environment and the lack of intersectionality in environmental movements, including in the book “Belonging.”  

“bell hooks was the one who introduced me to the concept of environmental racism,” said Dr. Shawn McGuffey, an associate professor of sociology and African and African diaspora studies at Boston College. “People don’t really think about that part of hooks’ work, but [she] oftentimes talked about the environment and how we need to think about the environment in context to the politics of race, class and gender.” 

These books, along with many of her other works, will be among the topics discussed in the three panels scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 11, featuring professors and students from Northeastern University, Boston University, Boston College, Wellesley College and Tufts University. 

“[Jean-Charles] did not want to see the moment pass that we didn’t pay some kind of clear homage to [hooks],” Pearson said. “So with her vast social networks and influence, she pulled together women across the Boston network, African American women who do work in teaching and research and activism, in such a way that we could reflect on what bell hooks gave to us.” 

The day-long event, which can be attended in person at East Village or virtually through Zoom, is split into three different panels, “A Culture of Place,” “An Engaged Pedagogy” and “A Sacrament of Love,” inspired by hooks’ work and influence. 

The first panel features professors who are originally from Kentucky, in honor of hooks’ experience growing up in Kentucky. 

“With Black women being so underrepresented in the academy, and then having this Black woman who was from the same state where I was from where the Black population was so low anyway, [hooks] has always been an intellectual figure who was really close to my heart,” Clark said. 

hooks’ philosophies were influenced by growing up in Kentucky, a state that is still only 8.07% Black or African American, according to recent census data

“I’ve always been intrigued by, as a Black feminist from Kentucky, how my place, this cultural place, has shaped my Black feminism, but also how it shaped bell hooks’ Black feminism,” McGuffey said. “I don’t think that hooks’ feminism would look the same if bell hooks was born and raised in a different state. There’s something about the specificity of Kentucky that has shaped bell hooks’ feminist approach.” 

hooks wrote explicitly about her experiences being born and raised in Kentucky. 

“The pieces that I think that do not get enough talk when people discuss bell hooks and that I’m going to talk a lot about on Friday are, she wrote a book called ‘Bone Black’ about growing up in Kentucky, and another piece called ‘Appalachian Elegy,’ which is a book of poetry,” McGuffey said. “I think those really center Kentucky in a way that people don’t really do for bell hooks.” 

The second panel, “An Engaged Pedagogy,” features undergraduate and graduate students from several universities to discuss how hooks’ teaching philosophies shaped the way they were taught throughout their time in school. 

“I knew I wanted to do something about teaching and pedagogy, but not from the perspective of professors, but from the perspective of students, so what did bell hooks teach these students? Or how did their professors use methods that bell hooks uses in the classroom?” Jean-Charles said. 

In this panel, students from around the Boston area will have the opportunity to share the impact that hooks has had on them and their studies. 

“For me, I think that my educational background is two parts,” Assogba said. “One part is understanding that no level of self-actualization alone can sustain the marginalized and oppressed. … Having all these academic tools and theories and historical analysis of what we’re actually engaging with — that’s amazing — but it means nothing if it doesn’t mean that we can apply it to the people who are also on the front lines of the issues we’re talking about. And the idea, on the second hand, that we must be linked to a collective struggle, to communities of resistance, and also redefining what that means in a Black feminist context.” 

Following a lunch break, the symposium will resume with the third and final panel, “A Sacrament of Love.”

“What a sacrament of love really means to me is that I am trying to delve into the passion that I believe she gave to me and somehow give that back to the world,” Pearson said. “[To] put that out in some kind of way that pays the right kind of respect to who she is, that I can lift her up that way.” 

In organizing this symposium, Jean-Charles hopes to create a space for scholars to talk about hooks’ work and legacy. 

“I want people to see that this way of thinking or looking at the world that she had is applicable to a wide range of fields and subjects, number one,” she said. “Number two, I hope that people who don’t know bell hooks will come with curiosity and start reading her books and also read other Black feminist scholars and take classes in African studies and Black feminism. And lastly, I wanted to create a space that would be a holding space, a place where we could come together as a community to mourn and talk about, what are some of the gifts bell hooks left us? What are some of the legacies [she] left us?” 

Panelists hope to spread the powerful messages behind hooks’ work, while actively engaging with her theories and considering how to apply them in a modern world. 

“I think on the digital end, when we’re constantly seeing these issues of digital trauma exist over and over again, and we’re seeing Black death every other year, or we’re seeing police brutality, or we’re seeing gender-based violence in the United States and all over the world, there’s an aspect of us that becomes desensitized,” Assogba said. “We have to break through denial, and I think it starts with walking away with this understanding, what are the things that we are in denial about, that [bell hooks] talks about, that she so passionately wrote about, that she worked so hard to do so in a dialogue that was always accessible. That’s what I loved about bell hooks.”

The panelists also hope to share hooks’ work and legacy with a broader audience, including those who may not have been introduced to her prior to the event. 

“My advice is that everyone would take advantage of learning about bell hooks in these ways, even if they’d never heard of her before, even if they cast any kind of doubt around what feminism really means,” Pearson said. 

This symposium will carry on hooks’ legacy by allowing panelists to teach more people about the issues hooks wrote on and help others apply her work to their studies and lives. 

“The central takeaway for me for any sort of academic event like this is for it to be like an intellectual appetizer,” Clark said. “You come, you learn about someone that you may not have known about, you learn about work that you may not have known about, you hear about perspectives that perhaps you hadn’t heard or considered before and you go away from that hungry for more. You leave and you’re ready to do some seeking and some reading and some talking and some living using that work on your own and in community with others.” 

The symposium will take place Friday, Feb. 11, with the first panel beginning at 9 a.m. Northeastern students can attend the symposium in person at East Village and anyone can join the panels virtually through Zoom. Attendees can register online here