Following the death of renowned cultural critic and feminist scholar-activist bell hooks on December 15, 2021, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Kamilah Majied, Lori Perine, and Zenzele Isoke reflect on her profound life, legacy, and visionary message of love.
Bowing to and for Professor bell hooks
by Pamela Ayo Yetunde
I was raised to be an obedient Black girl, and I was. I was polite, learned to monitor and tamp down my sexuality, kept my mouth shut when I wanted to speak, learned to mock white female aesthetics, and gave all elders respect some of them did not deserve. Moreover, I was taught to never openly question anyone or anything that had power over me. To be pleasing, I strategized, would ensure my safety, popularity, and lovability. That is what I believed and how I behaved when I entered college, as a good girl, but by the time I was 20, I was sick and tired of being caged in by others’ expectations and need for cultural control so they could feel comforted in my contrived Black girl presence. The time had come for me to explore what it meant to be a grown woman, so I took a Women’s Studies course where I first encountered the writings of bell hooks. The year was 1983 and we read Ain’t I a Woman, written in 1981. hooks, a young Black woman herself, blew my mind and sense of self to pieces!
hooks gave me permission to rebel, question, be authentic, speak my truth, love myself and others, and be unapologetically critical as a Black woman. —Pamela Ayo Yetunde
What I remember learning from hooks was that I could choose to be who I wanted to be and the reason I had not made that choice is because of racism, patriarchy, and the inability to name and critique why oppression is what it is. There are so many words I could use to describe the sound of a bomb exploding, but none of them would aptly describe the shock and surprise I felt recognizing the unapologetic, fierce, and intelligent truth-telling of this young Black woman scholar’s work. She was the first example in my college life of a young Black feminist scholar analyzing the ways Black women were oppressed. Reading hooks gave me permission to rebel, question, be authentic, speak my truth, love myself and others, and be unapologetically critical as a Black woman. hooks helped me become a woman. As a grown woman, I got up the courage to write her after reading Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000), and sent her some of my writings.
When I learned of hooks’s death, I was in shock. The previous week I had a conversation with a Lion’s Roar editor about reaching out to hooks about Buddhist practice. (The major news sources did not mention she was a Buddhist practitioner). The news came to me from Black dharma sister Aishah Shahidah Simmons (see her dedication below) via text “bell joined the ancestors. I am devasted…” and attached the obituary. I responded, “No!!!!!!” She wrote, “I am devastated, sister”. We were devastated. I hope this short dedication to bell hooks (short relative to her many contributions) lets readers know what she meant to us, and that even though there will be no more books authored by her, hooks’s intellectual and heart power is still with us through her published words. Read up!
Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D., is a Lion’s Roar Associate Editor who wrote her dissertation on the psycho-spiritual lives of African-American lesbians in the Insight tradition and published those findings in Object Relations, Buddhism, and Relationality in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
by Aishah Shahidah Simmons
The last time I saw bell hooks in person was on Friday, October 21, 2016, at the Black Women Writers Symposium: Writing the Natural World, Appalachia & Beyond at Berea College in Kentucky. Poet, author, educator, and sister-friend Crystal Wilkinson envisioned and organized the herstoric gathering. I was in Kentucky visiting drummer, filmmaker, activist, and my quarter of a century-long dear sister-friend Joan Brannon. Joan was a presenter at the symposium, and I joyously accompanied her. The symposium was intergenerational and intimate. There wasn’t a boundary between presenters and attendees, which created a magical opportunity for heartfelt, meaningful engagement. bell was generous, accessible, and sisterly toward all of us.
The last time I read bell hooks’ words was in November 2021 in preparation for the final class in the six-week online Buddhism and Black Feminist course that I co-taught with my dharma sister-friend Rima Vesely-Flad at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Rima and I explored how Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and bell hooks’ writings serve as gateways to the dharma. bell hooks’ writings were the focus of our final class. Rima gave a dharma talk on bell’s self-defined “Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Love.” Quoting from bell hooks’ Salvation: Black People and Love, Rima shared how bell defined an ethic of love as extending oneself to nurture one’s own and another’s spiritual growth, “a combination of care, knowledge, responsibility, respect, trust, and commitment.” Little did we know that bell would join the ancestral realm one month after our class ended.
Whenever I could hear bell speak publicly, I did everything I could to attend in person. —Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Joan reached out to me to share the devastating news about bell’s passing. I’m grateful I learned through a dear friend and not a social media post. I needed time to process and grieve. I reflected on how much I learned from bell since I first encountered her words when I was a teenager at my mom’s house in the 1980s. I devoured her debut book Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. Ain’t I A Woman, and Paula Giddings’ When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, were some of my literary guiding lights. However, it was Talking Back: Thinking feminist, Thinking black that rocked my world as an emerging Black feminist lesbian media-maker. Bell articulated my unarticulated sentiments about popular culture at the time, specifically Spike Lee’s landmark film, She’s Gotta Have It. I was so moved by bell’s analysis, that Talking Back is one of the prominently featured books in Silence…Broken, my first independently produced short experimental video conceived in a Toni Cade Bambara scriptwriting workshop at Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia in 1993.
Bell was a prolific writer. Over the years, I read and re-read many of bell’s thirty-plus books on a wide range of topics. Several of her titles are in my personal library. Whenever I could hear her speak publicly, I did everything I could to attend in person. I didn’t know her personally, but I know several—spanning generations— who were her close friends, comrades, and mentees. So, I felt a personal kinship to her through overlapping concentric circles. Without question, bell’s radical Black feminist anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist thinking, writing, and speaking directly informed my cultural work. And as a practicing Buddhist since 2002, I always found comfort and guidance knowing that bell, a Black feminist, was a committed traveler on the Buddhist path who wrote and spoke openly about her Buddhist orientation and practice for decades. She was a pathbreaker and mapmaker.
bell hooks, ¡Presente! You are not forgotten. Your words are with us in all ways. Your presence is with us in new ways as a beloved ancestor. May your Spirit be fully liberated in the ancestral realm. Ashé.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons (she/her) is the producer/director of the 2006-released, Ford Foundation-funded film, NO! The Rape Documentary, and the editor of the 2020 Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology, love WITH accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse (AK Press 2019). Presently, she is a Soros Media Fellow.
Black Woman Free: bell hooks, Buddhism and Absolute Freedom
by Kamilah Majied
Brilliant writers enlighten us through words that illuminate not only their spirit, their Buddha nature, but ours as well. bell hooks’ vast spirit, heart and mind helped light my way to an interior spaciousness, to freedom.
Through her work I perceive how liberation can be established and reinforced by words; the voice doing the Buddhas’ work. Her essays guided me to a knowing of myself and the world that kicked down the doors of misogynoir, racism, and heteropatriarchy.
When I was a teenager, not many families were encouraging their baby girls to be lesbians, bisexual or any other kind of queer. bell hooks told me it was radical, liberating, and transcendent to venerate women. There is space for loving women without limits in my life because bell opened my mind, emboldened my heart, and helped me retrieve my body from the patriarchy.
bell hooks’ work is the developmental skeleton, the very bones of my intellectual and cognitive schema for life as a free black woman. —Kamilah Majied
Through her trailblazing artistry, I experienced a breathtaking landscape of critical thought, drew blueprints for my own Black feminist life and began to write myself free as she did. bell hooks’ work is the developmental skeleton, the very bones of my intellectual and cognitive schema for life as a free black woman.
My Buddhist teacher, Daisaku Ikeda said “Freedom doesn’t mean the absence of all restrictions. It means possessing unshakable conviction in the face of any obstacle.” bell hooks modeled freedom through her unwavering commitment to human liberation from oppressive ideas and ways of being. Her cultural criticisms stung sometimes because she was so often right and encouraging us to release the trappings of internalized racism, sexism, and hedonistic consumerism. Each of the paramitas is evident in bell hooks’ life and work.
The generosity with which she gave of herself
disciplining her heart and mind
her enduring, diligent love made visible through writing
her focused concentration on defeating oppression
the determination that reflects her bodhisattva spirit
the knowledge she accrued and interpreted,
the skillful means by which she conveyed her insights
leading multitudes to wisdom
May her boundless life force feel my infinite gratitude.
Kamilah Majied, Ph.D. is a mental health clinician, educator and internationally engaged consultant on building inclusivity and equity using meditative practices. Dr. Majied is a social work faculty member at California State University, Monterey Bay. To learn more visit KamilahMajied.com
bell hooks before Nonduality
by Lori A. Perine (True Harmonious Dwelling)
Before the concept of duality entered my consciousness, before the reality of interbeing entered my awareness, before the embodiment of engaged Buddhism entered my practice, there was bell hooks.
As an ardent young black feminist studying at a predominantly-white women’s college, I had the luxury of reading broadly among a rich offering of feminist writings. Thus I first encountered the wonder that was bell hooks: an elder sister who wrote incisively and insistently about transforming the profound pathologies within our collective consciousness which devalue Blackness and female-identified persons.
I resonated with bell hooks’ determination to be truthful about the root causes leading to manifestations of intersectional suffering. I was also drawn to her generous cultivation of love that cuts through illusions about race and gender, so that we all might be liberated from attachments to dualism and domination. In her lived example of social engagement deeply informed by Buddhist practice, bell hooks became an inspiration and guide. I welcomed her references to Buddhist teachings and teachers. They introduced me to skillful means and opened new doors of awareness, paving a path to my current practice of engaged Buddhism within the Plum Village tradition.
I was drawn to her generous cultivation of love that cuts through illusions about race and gender. —Lori A. Perine (True Harmonious Dwelling)
A simple statement in a 1992 interview about bell hooks’ practice with engaged Buddhism has stayed with me throughout the years and remains foundational even today:
If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on … a path about love.
These words initially spoke to me as a spiritual seeker across traditions and invited a deeper practice of dissolving dualities and misperceptions in my consciousness. Over time, I have come to recognize and seek to emulate bell hooks’ clear awareness of interbeing and her non-attachment to views, even Buddhist teachings, when acting for social change. I am grateful for her simple daily invitation to engaged practice: ‘ So, every day, I’m challenging myself, “What are you doing, [Lori], for the creation of the beloved community?”
Lori Perine (True Harmonious Dwelling) is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing and a core member of the ARISE (Awakening through Race, Intersectionality, and Social Equity) Sangha. Her practice of engaged Buddhism manifests in her work as a college educator and mentor to black, Latinx, and immigrant youth and as a policy-maker, advocating for inclusion and progress of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM education, research, and industry.
bell hooks was a Mighty, Mighty Visionary
by Zenzele Isoke
My heart dropped when I heard that bell hooks had made her transition to the worlds of the ancestors. And at the same time, I smiled because I understood that she had done the work that she had come to do in this world, and left us with a 30+ volume manual on how this work can continue. Throughout her life and the entire corpus of published works bell hooks taught us how to move and act against oppression through critical thinking and fierce truthtelling. She modeled how our words and actions can be used to burn down the delusions of white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchy, while at the same time help to forge the bonds of a beloved community rooted in mutuality, care and a profound love of Black women’s healing culture.
bell taught us that the moment that we choose love is the moment we choose freedom. —Zenzele Isoke
bell hooks was my first black feminist teacher, helping me to find my own voice as educator and writer. She taught me how to see, deconstruct and reject the white gaze, and through her own life, how we can live a social and intellectual life grounded in the ethics of compassion and liberation. She taught us that the moment that we choose love is the moment we choose freedom: her words. As a result of her principled and hard-hitting critiques of many well-established cultural leaders, bell hooks had many detractors and naysayers who rejected her bold embrace of feminism. Instead of looking away she leaned in, with full and loving engagement on topics as complex as internalized racial superiority, intra-racial chauvinistic violence and how to bring Buddhist spiritual ethics into a secularized world.
A mighty, mighty visionary has made her transition into the world of the ancestors where she can be remembered and called on daily to protect and guide us and to inspire us to learn to be better versions of ourselves with each breath that we draw.
Zenzele Isoke, Ph.D. Zenzele Isoke is a black feminist theorist, urban ethnographer, and political storyteller. She is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota and the author of Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (Palgrave 2013). Zenzele leads meditation groups through Common Ground Meditation Center and Yoga Room in North Minneapolis.