bell hooks on Love

bell hooks, image via Elle Brosh

Like most of us, I was introduced to bell hooks‘s writing early in my teaching career.

I’m one of the many teachers whose pedagogy has changed for the better since reading Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. I’m one of the many women whose perception of intersectionality, feminism, and race has been sharpened by her canonical texts–Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Regrettably, though, I read hooks’s meditation on the concept of love only a few months ago.

Although All about Love: New Visions is often viewed as non-canonical compared to hooks’s other texts, her reflection on the meaning of love is inspirational (and enlightening, as the current events remind us once again).


Image by @TheSocReview

What exactly does it mean to love? How do we experience and practice love in the current sociopolitical climate? Can love help us overcome various forms of oppression?

These are some of the interlocking questions raised in the book, as hooks calls attention to the state of lovelessness that has insidiously infiltrated modern American society.

She writes:

“All the years of my life I thought I was searching for love I found, retrospectively, to be years where I was simply trying to recover what had been lost, to return to the first home, to get back the rapture of first love. I was not really ready to love or be loved in the present. I was still mourning –clinging to the broken heart of girlhood, to broken connections. When that mourning ceased I was able to love again.

I was awakened from my trance state and was stunned to find the world I was living in, the world of the present, was no longer open to love. And I noticed that all around me I heard testimony that lovelessness had become the order of the day. I feel our nation’s turning away from love as intensely as I felt love’s abandonment in my girlhood. Turning away, we risk moving in a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to wear witness both to danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love.

Redeemed and restored, love returns us to the promise of everlasting life. When we love we can let our hearts speak.”

The return to love needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency because love as a concept still remains ambiguous. “Only love can heal the wounds of the past,” hooks notes, “However, the intensity of our woundedness often leads to a closing of the heart, making it impossible for us to give or receive the love that is given to us”:

“To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice. We must face the confusion and disappointment that much of what we were taught about the nature of love makes no sense when applied to daily life.”

And then?

Then, we must go inward and embrace, what hooks calls, a love ethic in order to cultivate self- love, as well as love and compassion for others. This, of course, is an arduous process–one that requires deconstructing the essence of love and its broader implications in the private and public spheres.

In an ideal world, hooks argues, we would learn what it means to love ourselves and others at an early age:

“We would grow, being secure in our worth and value, spreading love wherever we went, letting our light shine. 

However, this isn’t the ideal world; we are often taught to fear honesty and vulnerability. The good news is that there’s still hope:

“The light of love is always in us, no matter how cold the flame. It is always present, waiting for the spark to ignite, waiting for the heart to awaken and call us back to the first memory of being the life force inside a dark place waiting to be born-waiting to see the light.”

Yes, there’s still hope –so long as we are willing to take action. hooks suggests that we cannot understand love if we don’t put any effort into being honest with ourselves and with others.

She explains:

“In today’s world…We are encouraged to see honest people as naive, as potential losers. Bombarded with cul- tural propaganda ready to instill in all of us the notion that lies are more important, that truth does not matter, we are all potential victims. 

Consumer culture in particular encourages lies. Advertising is one of the cultural mediums that has most sanctioned lying. Keeping people in a constant state of lack, in perpetual desire, strengthens the marketplace economy. Lovelessness is a boon to consumerism. And lies strengthen the world of predatory advertising.

Our passive acceptance of lies in public life, particularly via the mass media, upholds and perpetuates lying in our private lives. In our public life there would be nothing for tabloid journalism to expose if we lived our lives out in the open, committed to truth telling.

Commitment to knowing love can protect us by keeping us wedded to a life of truth, willing to share ourselves openly and fully in both private and public life.

“Commitment to truth-telling lays the groundwork for the openness and honesty that is the heartbeat of love. When we can see ourselves as we truly are and accept ourselves, we build the necessary foundation for self-love.”

Love, hooks reiterates, is not only about romance and passion, but it is also about incorporating the ethics of love–knowledge, compassion, respect, trust, and care– into all spheres of life:

“…politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relations- should and could have as their foundation a love ethic. The underlying values of a culture and its ethics shape and inform the way we speak and act. A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.”

To bring a love ethic to our lives, we also need to cultivate self-love and awareness.

bell hooks, Artwork by Monica Ahanonu for TIME

hook believes that self-acceptance and awareness is the prerequisite to loving others. Once we “give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others, we are on our way to embracing a love ethic that can transform life, as well as the society:

“Embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all the dimensions of love-‘care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge’-in our everyday lives. 

We can successfully do this only by cultivating awareness. Being aware enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn. 

Understanding knowledge as an essential element of love is vital because we are daily bombarded with messages that tell us love is about mystery, about that which cannot be known.

Image via Stephanie Newman

hooks further emphasizes the intimate link between resisting fear and embracing a love ethic:

“Fear of radical changes leads many citizens of our nation to betray their minds and hearts. Yet we are all subjected to radical changes every day. We face them by moving through fear. These changes are usually imposed by the status quo. For example, revolutionary new tech- nologies have led us all to accept computers. Our willingness to embrace this “unknown” shows that we are all capable of confronting fears of radical change, that we can cope. Obviously, it is not in the interest of the conservative status quo to encourage us to confront our collective fear of love. 

An overall cultural embrace of a love ethic would mean that we would all oppose much of the public policy conservatives condone and support.”

Society’s collective fear of love must be faced if we are to lay claim to a love ethic that can inspire us and give us the courage to make necessary changes. Writing about the changes that must be made, Fromm explains: ‘Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true as I have tried to show that love is the only sane and satisfactory response to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.’

In other words, we fear “love” in itself because:

“To love fully and deeply puts us at risk. When we love we are changed utterly. Merton asserts: ‘Love affects more than our thinking and our behavior toward those we love. It transforms our entire life. Genuine love is a personal revolution. Love takes your ideas, your desires, ‘ and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is a new you.’ We often are in flight from the ‘new you.’ Richard Bach’s autobiographical love story Illusions describes both his flight from love and his return.

To return to love he had to be willing to sacrifice and surrender, to let go of the fantasy of being someone with no sustained emotional needs to acknowledge his need to love and be loved. We sacrifice our old selves in order to be changed by love and we surrender to the power of the new self.”

“Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear is the primary force up- holding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat. 

When we choose to love we choose to move against fear-against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect-to find ourselves in the other.”

hooks reminds us that understanding love is as crucial as understanding power and domination.

To choose and understand love–to choose to understand love– takes courage and effort.

As she writes beautifully:

“To live our lives based on the principles of a love ethic (showing care, respect, knowledge, integrity, and the will to cooperate), we have to be courageous. Learning how to face our fears is one way we embrace love. Our fear may not go away, but it will not stand in the way. Those of us who have already chosen to embrace a love ethic, allowing it to govern and inform how we think and act, know that when we let our light shine, we draw to us and are drawn to 

other bearers of light. 

We are not alone.”

What are your thoughts on hooks’s notion of “a love ethic”? Can love lead us in the right direction?

Recommended readings:

“Tough Love With bell hooks”: An interview

“Love as the Practice of Freedom” by bell hooks

bell hooks in Conversation with Sharon Salzberg – What Is Love?

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