Jonathan Rowson
6 min readDec 16, 2021


Bell Hooks (1952-2021): The Cultural Politics of Love

“My students tell me, we don’t want to love! We’re tired of being loving! And I say to them, if you’re tired of being loving, then you haven’t really been loving, because when you are loving you have more strength.”

– bell hooks.

It might seem strange for a regular white guy like me to want to mark the passing of bell hooks, a black feminist icon. It might even seem inappropriate, because ostensibly her work is not about me, or my kind of experience. Yet I do feel moved to share why people like me — and here I suppose I mean straight white men — might find value in her work. My awareness of bell and appreciation of her work comes from a different place than most of her appraisals, and is fitting in the context of her work because mine is a particular view and a minority view and it is expressed through the practice of writing.

In all honesty, I came to know of bell hooks just over a year ago, on the suggestion of a Perspectiva colleague Minna Salami, but I quickly devoured several books and articles and videos and quite quickly I asked myself: why did it take so long for me to become aware of this person? Why are the pathways to knowledge such that I did not encounter her writing before? I can only assume it’s becuase I wasn’t looking for it, and becuase it’s not imagined by epistemic and cultural gatekeepers that perspectives like hers would be of interest to people like me.

But they are. I have spent enough time with her work to be deeply impressed by her intellectual and spiritual formation and her political and educational commitments, and I understand the inspiration it gave to so many people. I cannot say she helped me escape an abusive relationship, or to find myself, or anything of that nature, but I did admire how she spoke and thought and wrote. What follows is a brief description of what seemed most profoundly valuable to me about her life’s work, and it is mostly written for those who don’t know her, to help them understand why she was so widely admired and adored, and why she’ll be missed.


Gloria Jean Watkins was born in 1952 into a family of six children and attended a segregated school, read and questioned voraciously and later became a tenured professor at Yale. I was struck by the depth, agility, and fluency of her scholarship. She has authored over thirty books across disciplines and genres and established her own institute in Kentucky, and her public intellectual leadership is legendary. Her achievements amount to both publicly engaged scholarship and opinion-formation on fundamental questions of human nature and character, the meaning of spiritual growth, and the reality of love.

In the acuity, tenor, volume and accessibility of her teaching, writing and speaking, bell hooks’ work has provided underappreciated but invaluable emotional and epistemic under-labor of the kind that has allowed many thousands of people to even have a chance to alight on the kinds of big questions that are the central concern for many, but a kind of luxury for those struggling to survive. I came to her work in a societal context where questions of race and gender are increasingly salient, and my privilege here is to draw attention to the way that her work has converged on the nature of love and the challenge of loving. Moreover, my opportunity is to highlight — in a way that is not self-evident — that the arc of her intellectual development and public engagement illuminates the idea of spiritual progress.

Watkins is known by her pen name, bell hooks, written in the lower case to distinguish herself from the grandmother of the same name who inspired her, to acknowledge female ancestry, and by drawing attention to message rather than messenger, to promote intellectual humility. A profile in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar in 2017 says that for bell hooks, an idea is like a basketball. She doesn’t want to hold it up to be admired, she wants to “throw it to you and let you experience it for yourself.”

Many awards and job adverts these days say that ‘every consideration’ should be given to women and people of colour. I believe anyone inspired by bell’s work on critical thinking might ask, in good faith, what does that actually mean? When a prospective prize winner of some kind is a black woman and when her scholarship and leadership is grounded in a critical reflection on those features of identity and their relationship, the injunctive features of ‘every consideration’ must be more reflexive, revealing how atypical candidates help us see prizes of all kinds from new perspectives. If an award’s glory is, for instance, to reward spiritual progress, the social value of the award might also be that ‘every consideration’ in the choice of awardee represents an opportunity to make that spiritual progress.

That is the basis on which I think bell hooks was worthy of the highest awards. Her life’s work stands out for me through the way her critical scholarship in the humanities grew within a grounding in Christian liberation theology and later through a commitment to Buddhist contemplative practice. By continuing to grow as a person and refine her message, she succeeded brilliantly in transcending and including the ‘considerations’ in question, developing authority on a universal message of love that is wholehearted but undeceived.

For instance, when asked to reflect on responses to the Rodney King case in the early nineties, where there was a clear and public injustice, hooks said it was important for Black people to realise that they were indeed being victimized. But she asked whether rage is the only or the most appropriate response: “What would people have thought if rather than black people exploding in rage about the Rodney King incident, if there had been a week of silence? Something that would have just so unsettled people’s stereotypes about black people.”

With thinking of this kind of reflective nature on many other public incidents over decades, hooks has helped to fulfil the mission set out by Theologian Paul Tillich and later Martin Luther King Jr., namely to bring questions of love and power together in the service of humanity. As hooks put it in an interview in Tricycle magazine in 1992: “To commit to love is fundamentally to commit to a life beyond dualism. That’s why love is so sacred in a culture of domination, because it simply begins to erode your dualisms: dualisms of black and white, male and female, right and wrong.”

From an unreflective standpoint, bell could be seen as a very different kind of phenomenon from most major prize winners and household names. The terms used to describe her work, especially her earlier work, might include ‘feminist’, ‘activist’ and even ‘dissident’. And even though she wields them with ferocious acuity and precision, her emphasis on ‘the oppositional gaze’ and ‘sisterhood’ and the words “imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” do not, at first blush, sound like the terrain of the mainstream.

And yet, if we back up away from the political heat and geographical and historical context of such terms, and ask instead, with every consideration, from a spiritual perspective: What was bell really up to all those years? It looks to me like she was bringing love from the margins to the centre of life, conceptually, experientially and culturally. By helping the relatively powerless find their personal power and the relatively voiceless to find their distinctive voice, she has been highlighting the structural and cultural barriers to love and loving that are experienced by millions, perhaps billions.

Indeed, as bell hooks has noted, if we ask why the civil rights movement was such a wonderful movement it is because the heart of it was love — loving everyone. This is a fundamental consideration not least because, as Sir John Templeton put it in his 1912 book, Pure Unlimited Love “Unlimited love means total constant love for every person with no exception.”

When bell’s life’s work is seen as a whole, what could be underplayed as dissent at the margins of society is better understood as a passionate life of service to divine love, and a necessarily inclusive understanding of it.

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Jonathan Rowson

Philosopher, Chess Grandmaster and Father. Founding. Director @Perspecteeva. Scottish Londoner,