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Black History Month – those that influenced us – Bell Hooks

Date posted: 2 November 2020

During Black History Month our lawyers have been reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career.


Our Laurie Vose, a caseworker in the Public Law department, pays tribute to bell hooks.


I was introduced to the writing of bell hooks whilst at university. I was studying for a degree in Film Studies and her feminist theory and cultural criticism had a huge influence on me. Her teaching on the significance of representation and the importance of critical thinking as a tool that people can use to transform their lives expanded my narrow perspective and gave me a greater understanding of the world and the ways that existing power structures maintain their dominance.


bell hooks is a black feminist writer, teacher, professor, cultural critic, artist, and social activist who has written and spoken extensively on the intersection of race, class and gender. She grew up in a working class family in a segregated town in Kentucky, USA and spent much of her education in segregated schools.


She was influenced by her great grandmother Bell Blair Hooks and chose the pseudonym bell hooks in tribute choosing not to capitalise it in order to try and place the focus on her work rather than her personal identity. She has explored in her work how best to use intellectual privilege to empower others to transform their lives.


In 2014 she set up the bell hooks institute at Berea College, Kentucky with the aim to “promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation”.


In her first book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism published in 1981, she explored the double impact of racism and sexism on the lives of black women at various points in American history. The intersection of race, gender and class, and the ways in which they come together to produce and perpetuate a system of oppression would come to be a defining feature of her work.


In Cultural Criticism and Transformation (available on YouTube) bell hooks talks about her phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”:

“I began to use the phrase in my work “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality…a sort of short cut way of saying all of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives ..”

In the series hooks also cites critical thinking as a key tool in dismantling the systematic oppression and that teaching students to think critically was the best way to use education as a way to achieve freedom and justice for themselves. She has written extensively on pedagogy notably in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope.


Her work taught me the importance of education not as a way for people to simply learn information but to become able to think critically about their own lives and their place within society. In her collection of essays Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations she wrote about the importance of popular culture as a reference point for teaching and learning about race, gender and class.


For me legal practitioners can take much from hooks’ work about the potential power in thinking critically and ensuring that we use that analysis to challenge the system which causes such suffering and injustice for our clients without reproducing it.


hooks’ work has an enduring legacy which remains as relevant as ever:

In today’s world we are taught to fear the truth, to believe it always hurts. We are encouraged to see honest people as naive, as potential losers. Bombarded with cultural propaganda ready to instil in all of us the notion that lies are more important, that truth does not matter, we are all potential victims. (All About Love: New Visions, 2000)