bell hooks: radical education and empathy

Adam Zucker, bell hooks (from the series The Educators), 2019, watercolor and ink on paper.

Above is a portrait of bell hooks that I painted for my ongoing series, The Educators.

The quote, which is from her 1994 book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge), reads: “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

hooks’ death has understandably shocked and shaken the global community. She has inspired people of all backgrounds to discover profound and effective ways of liberating themselves from negative social, cultural and emotional forces (see the reading list at the end of the post for just a few of the many examples). As a writer, intersectional feminist scholar, activist and educator, the words and actions that hooks expressed have fostered environments of hope, transformation, love and trust. She has inspired generations of educators to build non-hierarchical classrooms in collaboration with their diverse student bodies. In these classrooms, dialogue and action among teachers and students is uplifting, compassionate, responsible and honest. hooks helps us see that the classroom is a community, and in order to experience mutual understandings for one another we need to truly teach and learn from a place of love and respect. These insights on empowerment and empathy also carry on beyond classroom environments, and can be implemented in all community and domestic settings.

hooks also provides sincere thoughts on the arts, such as “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is-it’s to imagine what is possible” (from Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York, Routledge, 2006). This notion falls directly in line with her pedagogy of “teaching to transgress.” Contemporary art is increasingly difficult to canonize because artists are working in modes and with mediums that extend beyond what is traditionally and widely considered to be aesthetic. An example is social practice art, which involves the artist working in tandem with a specific population or even a community at large. In this artistic practice, there is a literal blurring of the lines between art making, activism and education. The process involves person-to-person interaction and a collaborative effort, which seeks to find visual and experiential solutions to communal values.

hooks’ theories on art often intertwine with her intersectional views on race and gender. Many of which are published in a collection of essays called Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press). She begins the essay “Art on My Mind,” with a memory of making art in her newly desegregated high school. Her white art teacher praised her work and called her an artist. His classroom became a sanctuary for Black students to express themselves and become self-determined. While hooks’ experience with art had been positive, she describes the general disconnect many Black Americans have with it.

Through a combination of her own experiences and conversations with contemporary artists, hooks’ writing illustrates how art can be a powerful tool for resisting oppressive people, structures, forces and systems. Additionally, she reveals how art is a means of asserting social and cultural identities, which liberate us from the confines of the hierarchical cultural legislation that has colonized our minds. She states that “As we think and write about visual art, as we make spaces for dialogue across boundaries, we engage a process of cultural transformation that will ultimately create a revolution in vision.”

Regarding the incredible legacy of bell hooks, what can really be expounded upon that cannot be more eloquently described through her own written and spoken words? In a time where uncertainty, fear and mistrust are rampant and causing divisiveness, it behooves us to reflect upon the following quotes and conversations:

  • “When teachers teach with love, combining care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, we are often able to enter the classroom and go straight to the heart of the matter, which is knowing what to do on any given day to create the best climate for learning” (from Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Routledge, 2004).

  • “It is essential to our struggle for self-determination that we speak of love. For love is the necessary foundation enabling us to survive the wars, the hardships, the sickness, and the dying with our spirits intact. It is love that allows us to survive whole” (from All about Love: New Visions, New York: William Morrow and Company, 2000).

  • “When we commit to love in our daily life, habits are shattered. We are necessarily working to end domination. Because we no longer are playing by the safe rules of the status quo, rules that if we obey guarantee us a specific outcome, love moves us to a new ground of being. This movement is what most people fear. If we are to galvanize the collective longing for spiritual well-being that is found in the practice of love, we must be more willing to identify the forms that longing will take in daily life. Folks need to know the ways we change and are changed when we love. It is only by bearing concrete witness to love’s transformative power in our daily lives that we can assure those who are fearful that commitment to love will be redemptive, a way to experience salvation” (from “Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love,” Shambhala Sun, July 2006. Reprinted by PBS with permission on 3 June 2010).

  • “One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places we know we are not alone” (from Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, New York: Routledge, 2014, p. 227).

  • “When we, as educators, allow our pedagogy to be radically changed by our recognition of a multicultural world. We can give students the education they desire and deserve. We can teach in ways that transform consciousness, creating a climate of free expression that is the essence of a truly liberatory liberal arts education” (from Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 44).

  • “Most children are amazing critical thinkers before we silence them” (from “bell hooks: Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness,” a dialogue between bell hooks and George Yancy, New York Times, 10 December 2015).

  • “Without a doubt, if all Black children were daily growing up in environments where they learned the importance of art and saw artists that were Black, our collective Black experience of art would be transformed” (from Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, New York: The New Press, 1995, p. 3).

While hooks’ words are enough on their own, below are some strong and efficacious responses to her enduring presence and influence on this world:


  1. “She has inspired generations of educators to build non-hierarchical classrooms in collaboration with their diverse student bodies. In these classrooms, dialogue and action among teachers and students is uplifting, compassionate, responsible and honest.” This is so different from the grade school atmosphere I grew up with. I distinctly remember my eighth grade teacher lining us up in the classroom according to our scores on an IQ test. Talk about demeaning! I can’t even imagine the state of mind of the last kid in that line…and for what purpose? Absolutely none whatsoever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alli, that’s awful and the antithesis of what any trained educator should be doing! I’m sorry that was your experience in grade school. Horror stories like that is especially why it is important for teacher training programs (and PD for in-practice teachers) to both incorporate the theories and practices put forward by people like bell hooks, John Dewey, Paolo Freire et al.

      Liked by 1 person

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