By Suzie Siegel
Wednesday, July 12, 2000
Well-known feminist writer on racism and sexism has embarked on writing a trilogy about love, saying we live in a time of cynicism and misunderstanding about love. Book One: New Visions.
Editor's Note: bell hooks, a pseudonym is used by the author to honor her great grandmother and to reclaim her own voice and identity. The lack of capitalization and the pseudonym de-emphasize the author's personal identity in favor of her ideas.
TAMPA, Fla.-- bell hooks loves love.
And she is not writing about it in what is a decidedly hotter climate. She now resides in a bungalow here when she is not in her home in New York's Greenwich Village.
Heat and humidity don't deter her: she grew up in rural Kentucky. "In New York, all the people said Florida is swampland. I said, 'I like swampland.'"
And, in fact, hooks has waded into the most-human of morasses. In her 18th book, the feminist author celebrates love's many facets, from the love of parents to the love of angels. "All About Love: New Visions," William Morrow, calls for "a culture where love's sacred presence can be felt everywhere," she says.
On a recent evening, the transplanted author welcomes her visitor with a soft accent that betrays her Southern roots--and a playful attitude.
"I'm totally flirtatious," she confides. Like many others, she came for the sun. Light streams through the windows of the room where she works, warming her upturned face.
But she also felt the heat of racism while house hunting, she says, and she expects a cool reception here for her feminism. "To me, Tampa is a lot like the place I grew up in, for good and bad."
Her 1920s bungalow has a Mediterranean faÃ§ade and a terra-cotta porch. She painted the stucco "bone white," clearly enjoying the word link to her memoir, "Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood." Inside, she has covered the walls in paint named "heavenly light." Although she has a small room for meditation, she says, "I want every room in my house to be a sanctuary."
Christianity and Buddhism have inspired her, hook says, and she prays and meditates every day. She notes that all the major religions believe in the transformative power of love. But she warns against the kind of spirituality that focuses too much on self-improvement--especially monetary gain--and not enough on love for the community.
Renowned for her writing on sexism and racism, hooks doesn't see her book on love as a departure from her basic themes. "Any time you talk of ending domination, you're talking about love in action."
Love is defined by hooks as care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility and respect. She also likes M. Scott Peck's definition in "The Road Less Traveled." Peck says that love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.
"There's a danger in focusing only on romantic love, especially because we see how that feeds domination," hooks adds. People who abuse their children or spouses may say they love them; they may even say their actions stem from love. Those who are abused may console themselves with the idea that they are loved.
"Love and abuse cannot co-exist," hooks says. She elaborates in her book: "All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm's way."
As we become more aware, as we learn to love ourselves, she says, we are less likely to fall into relationships that lack real love.
hooks has taught at Yale and Oberlin and currently is on sabbatical as distinguished professor of English at City College of New York. Atlantic Monthly has called her one of the country's leading intellectuals; Utne Reader listed her among its top 100 visionaries.
Before hooks tackled the topic of love, she read extensively, from writings of St. Teresa of Avila to John Gray's "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus."
Too often the burden falls on women to adapt, hooks says. Women get this message from some self-help books, such as Gray's, that hold out little hope of men changing their ways--and so women change theirs.
For years, she writes, she chose men who were "emotionally wounded, who were not that interested in being loving even though they desired to be loved." She feared surrendering to trust and intimacy, but with these men she could keep those issues at bay.
In fact, hooks has dedicated her latest book, the first in a trilogy on the subject of love, to a former lover who wondered what love was.
The answer? Action. Humans have feelings they may not be able to control, but they can control their actions, she says.
The first step for her, she says, was to love herself. She recalls how she felt after she passed 40; she gained weight and watched aging take its toll on her body. She longed for someone who would love her for who she was.
"It is silly, isn't it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself?" she writes.
She now lives alone, she says, but not without love. She loves family and friends. She loves her communities. She loves justice.
Yet when she travels, she says she finds too many people cynical about love.
"I think we're in a time of emotional famine," hooks says. "We're seeing a hardening of the heart."