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Choosing to love is heroic: A tribute to bell hooks

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

bell hooks has died. That was the news I woke up to on 15 December. Jarred by the unexpected announcement, I accepted that her body might be gone, but her spirit and teachings live on through her seminal work. It has shaped many a feminist, particularly black feminists, who often have to navigate the intersectionality of race, capitalism and gender as means of oppression.

In an interview on Speaking Freely, bell hooks once said something I found poignant, which was that “Living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic”. So simple, yet how many of us would think that the answer to domination is love?

Being a woman, particularly a black woman in South Africa, is a richly fortifying experience, informed by the intersectional nature of the systems of oppression we exist within. If not carefully and constantly examined, it can engulf you in despair, isolation and an acceptance that pain is part of the package. It is therefore critical that you surround yourself with people and literature that seek to encourage, challenge and nurture you so that you emblazon your existence by thriving. hooks created the space to think about what this truly meant.

Growing up, I was always drawn to feminist women who were charting their own paths, women who were often labelled difficult, unfeminine, sometimes crazy. Identifying and calling yourself a feminist was not du jour.

In fact, people often tried to distance themselves from the term, using words such as “I’m not that kind of feminist” or “I don’t hate men”. So strong was the reach of patriarchal conditioning that one had to assert that one’s belief in the equality of the genders did not mean that women sought to dominate men.

The assumption that equality meant the ground was laid fertile for one to dominate the other highlights the malignant nature of patriarchy, which sustains itself through subjugation and violence. It says that life is about the struggle to survive by oppressing another. hooks rejected this and offered an ideology based on inclusion and mutual love.

Interestingly, the words I would use to describe the women I was drawn to growing up are fierce, tenacious, strong, independent, troubled, outliers. I would describe only one as soft and loving, a clear marker that being a woman who marched to the beat of their own drum, being soft was not considered part of the package. After all, revolutions are not known to come from places of tenderness. hooks challenged that theory by asserting the heroism associated with choosing love over domination. Love and care were not the primary focus of the women I looked up to, and they often denied themselves this because it was considered weak and effeminate and made them vulnerable to domination. This is why hooks’ assertion was so radical; she dared to imagine a world that did not need women to be hardened to identify with or aspire to love.

hooks talked of “moving from pain to power”, examining how oppressed and exploited people find joy and healing. She urged society not just to accept a life of pain but to try to live a joyful life by aspiring to justice for all members of our society.

A question she asked during a talk at the Eugene Lang College of the Liberal Arts was: “How do we use our imaginations in the service of our wellbeing?”

The question is not to accept that subjugation is a way of life because it is a malaise that makes us ill at ease with ourselves. Instead, we should be looking at creative ways of self-actualisation that are not at the cost of the next person. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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