BELL HOOKS (copy)

In this photo, bell hooks, a trailblazing author on feminism and race, speaks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

“Radical love anchors a new politics,” suggested bell hooks, the University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who became one of the most influential thinkers of her time. “It creates a starting point for every conversation. It recasts the values underpinning every debate.”

The intersectional worldview that hooks brought to the dozens of books and essays she wrote after earning a master’s in English from the UW in 1976 was much noted last week, when word came of her death at age 69.

I encountered her first book, “Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” not long after it was published in the early 1980s and came to recognize the brilliance of her vision. It was clear that this remarkable writer and thinker, who chose a lower-case name in hopes that it would focus attention not on her but on her ideas, was framing the argument for a more hopeful and invigorating politics.

Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King's declaration that “I have decided to love,” hooks reflected in one of her most important essays — “Love as the Practice of Freedom” — on the fact that, “King believed that love is ‘ultimately the only answer’ to the problems facing this nation and the entire planet. I share that belief and the conviction that it is in choosing love, and beginning with love as the ethical foundation for politics, that we are best positioned to transform society in ways that enhance the collective good.”

“It is truly amazing that King had the courage to speak as much as he did about the transformative power of love in a culture where such talk is often seen as merely sentimental,” hooks observed. “In progressive political circles, to speak of love is to guarantee that one will be dismissed or considered naive. But outside those circles there are many people who openly acknowledge that they are consumed by feelings of self-hatred, who feel worthless, who want a way out. Often they are too trapped by paralyzing despair to be able to engage effectively in any movement for social change. However, if the leaders of such movements refuse to address the anguish and pain of their lives, they will never be motivated to consider personal and political recovery. Any political movement that can effectively address these needs of the spirit in the context of liberation struggle will succeed.”

Far from being naïve, hooks recognized a need to go deeper in our political discourse. That recognition resonated with a rising generation of political activists and leaders who rejected the narrow language of the past.

I wasn’t surprised that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, was among those mourning hooks when the news came of the author’s death on Dec. 15.

When I interviewed Omar about her foreign policy views several years ago, she spoke of “advocating for radical love around the world.”

I asked the representative what she meant by that.

“Radical love?” she responded. “It means to aggressively and unapologetically deeply love, without needing a reward or quantifiable things for that love.”

It was just such a vision that bell hooks imagined as a young working-class woman from Kentucky who came to the University of Wisconsin to study English literature. She arrived at a moment when students on the campus, and the best of their professors, were demanding a new way of expressing their political ideals.

Instead of incremental progress, hooks and her contemporaries recognized that another world was not just possible, but necessary. That understanding informs the best of today’s politics, and our hopes for a future that is so much better than the past.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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