The Buddhist-Christian Love Ethics of bell hooks

Jun 18, 2023 9:00:00 AM / by Nadra Nittle


I met bell hooks for the first and only time as a teenager in the 1990s. Too unfamiliar with her work to have a substantive conversation about her efforts to make feminism more race and class conscious, I sat next to her mostly in silence and awe. She’d given a speech in my school auditorium, and I was part of a group of students chosen to dine with her afterward. 

A feminist theorist, cultural critic, scholar, and writer, hooks defined feminism in simple terms—as a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”1

She also pushed for feminism to recognize the lasting impact of enslavement on Black American women. In her groundbreaking 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, hooks writes, “A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.”2 

When I met hooks, I had yet to read that work or any others she’d written. But I did have enough sense to bring a copy of her latest book at the time, 1995’s Killing Rage: Ending Racism, to the meet-and-greet. She signed her name on the title page in the all-lowercase style that became her trademark. Her decision not to capitalize it derived from hooks’ desire to direct attention to her work rather than herself.3 For the same reason, hooks did not author books under her birth name, Gloria Jean Watkins. Instead, she used a nom de plume that honored her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, “known for her snappy and bold tongue.”4 In my copy of Killing Rage, she wrote her pseudonym with flair, the stems of the letters elongated in elegant but exaggerated lines. 

Since I met hooks, I have lived in more than fifteen residences, three states, and briefly in another country. There, I pulled one hooks book after another off the shelves of my university library to abate the culture shock and loneliness I experienced during my first weeks as an exchange student. It felt comforting to read the words of a Black American feminist when I was the rare Black American woman in my orbit. Today, I still have my signed hardcover copy of Killing Rage

Featuring a monotype by artist Emma Amos of an American flag with an X on the stripes and a group of Jim Crow–era Black children in place of the stars, the jacket cover is now smudged and frayed due to the book’s many moves. Although I’ve been careful not to lose Killing Rage, I haven’t consulted the book often over the years. Upon learning that hooks died of renal failure at the premature age of sixty-nine on December 15, 2021, I immediately sought it out. 

Unaware that she had been ill, the news stung. I recalled my brief meeting with her, wishing I had been sufficiently acquainted with her work then to say and ask more, and that the encounter had been more recent, so I could remember more. While I don’t recall much of the speech she gave to the student body on the day we met, snippets of her lecture are embedded in my memory. At the core of her address to the school, and her interactions with students afterward, was love—a subject she devoted a chapter to in Killing Rage and dedicated entire books to later. It was not widely known then that hooks championed love as a remedy to the world’s social problems due to a spiritual practice steeped in Buddhism and Christianity. hooks would discuss her faith in depth in the years to come, revealing the crucial role spirituality played in her politics, personal, and professional life. 

Like so many influential Black women born before her, including Toni Morrison and Mary McLeod Bethune, both of whom hooks admired, a unique spiritual vision inspired her to foster social change. hooks believed that love could defeat the intersecting forms of oppression that targeted women, children, people of color, the poor, and the otherwise marginalized. In doing so, she echoed the beliefs of one of her spiritual heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote, “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”

Long credited for her contributions to political thought, hooks’ contributions to spiritual thought have been underrecognized even though her diverse body of work includes a love ethic informed by faith and activism. This book reframes the work of hooks to better reflect her identity as both a radical feminist and a believer—motivated by love as a force for revolution.

When hooks discussed love, she was not referring to a sentimental definition of the term. In fact, it disturbed her that so many people conflated love with the passion and infatuation one feels at the start of a courtship. In search of love’s true meaning, hooks found a favorite in the definition that psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck provides in his bestselling 1978 self-help book, The Road Less Traveled. Also heavily influenced by Buddhism and Christianity, Peck describes love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”6

Moreover, he states, “love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”7

hooks agreed that love is an action and viewed her writing, teaching, and speaking as loving acts. When she visited my school, hooks showed love for a type of family subjected to widespread hatred during the 1990s: low-income single women and their children. She challenged problematic narratives circulating in the media about these families, specifically the conventional wisdom that a man was all they needed to thrive. Mind you, welfare reform was a top political issue in the 1990s. Single mothers, particularly low-income single Black mothers, were vilified as “welfare queens” stemming from sensationalistic press reports and Ronald Reagan’s use of this stereotype while campaigning for president years earlier.8

Initially, the media reports on so-called welfare queens focused on a mixed-race Chicago woman named Linda Taylor, who was convicted of welfare fraud in 1974.9 She had also been accused of other crimes, including kidnapping and murder, but politicians left out this information and, eventually, Taylor herself when demonizing women on welfare. Rather than discussing her as one woman linked to various crimes, politicians used Taylor to suggest that all women on welfare were immoral, irresponsible, and, thus, undeserving of help.

Politicians also exploited the welfare queen trope to attack households headed by Black women, and to blame them for the social ills—juvenile delinquency, truancy, teen pregnancy, gang violence, the crack epidemic—that became talking points on both sides of the partisan aisle. In 1996, then First Lady Hillary Clinton said while discussing her husband’s 1994 crime bill, “But we also have to have an organized effort against gangs. . . . We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels; they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”10

These remarks would come back to bite Clinton during her failed 2016 presidential campaign, when both Black Lives Matter activists and Republicans dug up these comments to criticize her record on racial justice. Clinton apologized for calling children superpredators, arguing that she regretted using the term and no longer felt comfortable with that characterization of troubled young people. 

In the 1990s, Clinton may not have been interested in discussing how such youth “ended up that way,” but both liberal and conservative pundits of the time were; they cited absent Black fathers as the major factor. This thinking was not new. It echoed the conclusion politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan made in his 1965 report on “The Negro Family,” which drew on the 1930s work of Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. hooks, though, questioned the idea that the simple presence of a man in a household would heal families. 

During her talk at my school, hooks did not discount the important role that fathers play but emphasized that just any man in a home would not do. The presence of abusive and neglectful men in a household would in no way benefit families, she said. She brought up her own father during this discussion, pointing out that he had never loved her and that her mother validated her perceptions after years of denials. In several books, including her 1996 memoir, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, and during speaking appearances well into the last decade of her life, hooks would revisit her fractured relationship with her father. 

Hearing hooks say that her father didn’t love her was shocking—unsettling, even—but I found her openness about the matter incredibly brave. It is taken for granted in society that all parents love their children—unconditionally so—and taboo to state otherwise except in the most egregious cases of abuse. hooks, however, was unafraid to challenge this taboo by publicly acknowledging her experience with an unloving parent was hardly an anomaly. Loving parents, she stressed, were what families needed. 

The welfare queen myth originates from the social structure that hooks described then as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Later, she would modify the phrase to “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” The messaging about welfare recipients targeted women of color by using the crimes of one mixed-race woman—who reportedly appeared to be Black, Latina, Filipina, and even white, depending on how she styled herself—to brand all Black women reliant on the social safety net as corrupt.11 It blamed single Black mothers for the nation’s economic and social woes, ignoring that the vast majority of federal funds go toward the nation’s defense budget and a fraction of that is spent on social service programs like welfare. It promoted patriarchy by emphasizing the need of men in the home and not the role systemic discrimination played in devastating Black communities and keeping Black women specifically at the bottom of the social hierarchy. 

hooks, then, was not interested in whether men were in or out of the home but in dismantling imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. During a 2015 interview, hooks explained why she began to use that phrase in her work: 

We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. Significantly, this phrase has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another. For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters, that domination only came into the world because of rape. Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, “Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.” So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked—an interlocking system.12 

hooks believed that love was the one force that could put an end to this system of domination, for it is the source of true connection with others, she said, underscoring how important it is to lead one’s life as “a sacrament of love.”13 Given hooks’ philosophy, the presence of a father, or a mother, in the home did not matter as much as having love in the home to heal broken families and a broken world.

bell hooks' Spiritual Vision

This is an excerpt from bell hooks' Spiritual Vision: Buddhist, Christian, and Feminist by Nadra Nittle.

Topics: Excerpt, Women's History Month, Black Scholarship

Nadra Nittle

Written by Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been a staff writer for Vox Media, Digital First Media, and the Gannett/USA Today network. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic. The Guardian, Salon, and religious magazines. She is the author of "Recognizing Microaggressions" (2019).