bell hooks, a visionary Black feminist, passed away last week. Her writings on race, gender, and love changed many people’s lives.
She wrote about loving ourselves and our communities as a “practice of freedom,” saying:
“Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective, is a necessary stage for personal and political growth. This is usually the most painful stage in the process of learning to love… Moving through the pain to the other side we find the joy, the freedom of spirit that a love ethic brings.”
I want to try that with you now. Let’s acknowledge a painful truth, and dig deep in it to find places of freedom and hope.
The painful truth is that we’re experiencing a white backlash following the progress we’ve built toward racial justice.
There are many examples, but I want to highlight an event from this weekend. A major right-wing conference featured Kyle Rittenhouse, who recently got cleared of charges after he joined a group of armed vigilantes and killed multiple Black Lives Matter protesters.
The creators of the conference described it as a gathering for “freedom-loving patriots.” Clearly, this is a different conception of freedom from what bell hooks envisioned. It seems to mean the freedom to kill people protesting for Black life. That’s certainly how many neo-Nazis see it, as they’ve been celebrating in online forums.
The painful truth is that Rittenhouse represents the culmination of violent right-wing fantasies to do harm to those of us on the left, like me and you.
My Republican colleagues, including Paul Gosar, who was recently censured by the House of Representatives for posting a depiction of killing AOC, have been publicly jostling to try to get Kyle Rittenhouse to serve in their offices as an intern. Again, his only qualification is getting away with killing protesters who were defending Black life.
The painful truth is that by lionizing Kyle Rittenhouse, conservatives in the media and in politics are encouraging white supremacist violence against all of us who fight for Black liberation.
It’s scary that Rittenhouse is getting elevated as an American hero and positioned as a role model for others to follow. This could supercharge the widespread white supremacist violence that infects our nation.
The right-wing adoration of Kyle Rittenhouse embodies what bell hooks described as the “worship of death” within our systems of domination.
bell hooks advocated for resisting this worship of death by loving and liberating ourselves individually and collectively. She wrote that we must move from a domination ethic, or a culture that negates human value, to a love ethic, which “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.”
We are living that love ethic when we show up for our communities. We saw that love ethic on full display last summer as people joined together on the streets in the largest uprising our country has ever seen—an uprising for Black life, for Black safety, and for Black liberation. Creating a more equitable society depends on centering this love ethic in our government.
But it’s going to be a struggle. Especially since our policing system is set up to enforce domination and oppression. Last summer, local and federal police forces attacked protesters with the violent tactics we were protesting against. And at the same time, armed right-wing vigilantes started showing up at Black Lives Matter protests.
We’ve seen police partner with vigilantes, as with Kyle Rittenhouse’s group. (The police handed them water bottles, said “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” and then refused to arrest Rittenhouse after he shot and killed people.) It’s clear that these agents of violence want to inflict harm on our communities, stomp on our rights and on our bodies, and instill fear.
Following the 2020 uprisings, Republicans have been introducing bills in 36 states to crack down on our right to protest, as well as to give legal protections to those who shoot or run over protesters. (In my hometown of Detroit, police drove into Black Lives Matter protesters, in addition to other violent attacks that hospitalized our community members.)
The glorification of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters is rooted in fear. Every day, right-wing outlets like Fox News stoke fear in their audience with racist lies, claiming that they’re under threat from the left-wing and people of color.
That’s how we end up with people like Kyle Rittenhouse: Right-wing people with powerful platforms are telling an armed and afraid base that the Black Lives Matter movement is an existential threat to their lives.
As bell hooks wrote: “Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination.”
This fear is a fear of being oppressed, powerless, poor, and ignored in our country. Many of us are already living this reality, but people in our movement recognize that this is a country of massive wealth and there is more than enough for everyone. By coming together, we build our power.
We can redistribute our country’s abundant resources and create a society where we all have enough to thrive.
That scares the ultra-wealthy and corporations who hoard resources while most of us live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t want us to come together to change the unjust status quo. So they use racism to divide us and keep us fighting each other for scraps.
Conservatives are instilling fear among their white base, all while lauding people like Rittenhouse to try to keep the rest of us too scared to gather together and demand better.
But everyone deserves to feel safe, and to thrive. We all have the right to exist (and to protest) without fear of violence. We are human, and we deserve to live. When we stay rooted in these values, we make a better future possible.
As bell hooks wrote, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.”
In this overwhelming time, the best way to get through this is together with our communities. bell hooks knew that through love, we can heal and we can liberate ourselves and each other from the prison of fear. Let’s hold our loved ones close as we move into the new year. Let’s hold ourselves with compassion. Let’s hold onto the hope that enables us to stay fighting for a better world.
Remember: We are human beings, as much as powerful right-wingers try to deny that truth. You are worthy of life and love, as are we all. You belong here. We all belong here. And we’re in this together.
In love and solidarity,