How bell hooks taught us to transgress



The recent passing of bell hooks hurt our hearts. Though she has transitioned, her words and their impact will always remain with us, alongside the many ways she inspired new thought. The outpour of appreciation since her passing demonstrates how much love and power she sparked within our communities. We wanted to write this piece to commemorate her as she was one of many thinkers who taught SHY to transgress.


To transgress is to go beyond a limit. In some definitions, it is read as negative, but in fact, it can be radical. It means challenging a limitation, speaking back and changing it. For us as individuals and friends working together, it was her work that challenged, educated and inspired us to create something for ourselves and our community. bell hooks not only captured the difficulties of being a Black intellectual and confronted them, but she made the space desirable, important, and possible.


Image from bell hooks Institute

Fez: The first time I came across bell hooks’ work, I was sitting in a seminar at university. I was fed up with university at the time and didn’t understand the theories and concepts or didn’t get why it wasn’t clicking. Third-year had just started, and I was studying Education and had no desire to be a teacher until I heard the name bell hooks.


Coincidentally, it was also the first time I had been taught by a Black woman during my whole 3 years at uni - shout out Ya Asare! A chapter from Teaching to Transgress was set as our weekly reading. I read the chapter over and over, partly because I’m dyslexic and partly because my mind was blown. I still have the copy with my cute illegible notes scribbled all over it. For the first time at university, I felt extremely seen and heard and had a sense of what I wanted to do. Before coming across hooks’ work, I had never considered ‘education as the practice of freedom’. The way it can transform you, help you better understand yourself and others, and help you to reimagine a world that is safe for us all.


I remember asking my lecturer where I could find more papers like this, and she shared so many exceptional Black scholars with me. hooks’ ideas on community, pedagogy, freedom, resistance, and love are what have driven me to pursue a career in academia. I often contemplate the point of this goal, but hooks often illustrates that the point is not always clear. I can’t wait to include her work on my own reading lists in years to come.


Image from NY Times

Holly: I found university a challenging experience because there were many ways in which I felt I didn’t fit in. Academia initially felt like a bad choice, a lonely one, a luxury. Arriving at a ‘prestigious’ university in Brighton I felt disconnected from where I had come from - a very working-class background - and a school where going to a good university wasn’t the norm.


It was difficult for me to connect to my learning and everything was overwhelmingly white: my classmates, my lecturers, and our subject matter. But it was through my learning and endless hours of searching online for something more that I found Black scholarship and Black Feminist Theory. And from that moment, writers like bell hooks and Audre Lorde became my two great loves.


I didn’t know how to explain my intentions because I guess it was hard to define at the beginning of university. My degree didn’t connect to a specific profession, so I was constantly asking myself why I was there, whilst people constantly asked me what I wanted to do. I found the classroom an uncomfortable space.


One of the reasons we both love bell hooks so much is because her work is accessible and honest and has a way of speaking to those who felt they stood outside of academia. She avoids complex academic jargon so that her words never speak over you, but rather understand with you. hooks wrote in a style that quickly introduced you to her ideas and her life. Her conclusions invited discussion as she strongly believed in her community also having access to revolutionary ideas.



Image from Black Women Radicals

It is hooks’ words that have supported us as Black intellectuals, Black femme intellectuals, young Black students. She helped us to reimagine new sites of learning, where knowledge can be exchanged and developed. hooks showed us how to see the purpose beyond initial experiences of discomfort and exclusion:


“Moving through this pain to work with ideas that serve as a catalyst for the transformation of our consciousness, our lives and that of others is an ecstatic and joyous process - it is fundamentally life-enhancing.”

- bell hooks*



Image from bell hooks Institute

When you’re a young Black mind in a white institution, it's difficult at times to feel valued, it’s hard to speak up or even resist the hegemony within the space. hooks taught us to think critically, challenge hegemony and not accept things as they are.


This inspired us both to take up space and resist as much as possible, as we now had language which allowed us and our siblings to think deeper, question everything and not fade into the background or margins.


hooks aided our understanding of what it means to transgress a confining space and create your own. She championed communal thinking, and the importance of every mind coming together and moving together towards collective understanding and knowledge.


bell hooks by Karjean Levine 1996 (from NY Times)

In the development of SHY, the name was birthed from what we had to overcome within the intellectual space. That feeling of isolation, a lack of support, being one of a few in your class that think and look like us, and navigating the dichotomy of 'being smart but not too smart'. It was also born out of our love of Black scholarship.


SHY was started to resist the white, male, middle and upper class, eurocentric, heteronormative and elitist space that is academia. Our goal with SHY is to provide an engaging alternative to education and academia - discussing social issues to create a collaborative community and inclusive learning platform. Our philosophy of education centres marginalised perspectives and rejects normative ways of knowing. Importantly, the language we use in our practice was passed down to us by thinkers such as hooks, and for that, we are forever grateful.


*Quote from Black Women Intellectuals in Breaking Bread- Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1992) bell hooks and Cornel West


Written by Fez & Holly (SHY Collective)
Read more about them here

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