By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
As the president of the National Women’s Studies Association, I sent out a letter to our members mourning the passing of Dr. Gloria Jean Watkins, Ph.D./bell hooks: genius, scholar, cultural critic, author, professor, truth speaker, a lover of words and of us. She challenged us, taught us, spoke to and sometimes for us. She gave us the words to say and the courage to say them. bell hooks never gave up. She never gave in. She was more than we could have asked for and gave us more than we could have ever imagined. As someone said, our heroes are dying, and our enemies are in power.
When I first heard, read, finally accepted and understood that bell hooks was gone, all I could do was sit down and catch my breath. It is sometimes hard to imagine being in a world where the geniuses of your time are no longer in it. I started thinking about how I could honor her and mark this moment. Years ago, when I lived in Nairobi, my host mother told me that when someone in their family dies, everyone comes together to say that person’s name over and over again. She said that you can shout it. You can whisper it. You can cry or moan or shake while adding your voice to the collective of love. I had so many questions, but my host mother told me that it would not make any sense until I was there to witness and experience it for myself. When her cousin died, we traveled outside the city to the village for the funeral. After a long, more formal program at the church, we arrived at the gravesite and it finally started. Her aunt went first, and voice after voice joined in: some were moaning, some were crying, some were angry that she had left them. It just went on and on, and by the end, I was exhausted and spent, but I felt whole. It was cathartic. It was healing. It was a moment to recognize her life and contributions and give voice to it. My Nana, when I shared this with her, said that when people die, they run on ahead to see how the end is going to be, and maybe when we say their name, it marks the moment that their journey begins, or perhaps it marks the moment that this journey has ended.
I think about that whenever someone I know, or I know about, passes away. I said my Nana’s name, my nephew’s name and my grandfather’s name. I have said my mother-in-law and my father-in-law’s name. I said Breonna’s name, Tamir’s name and Trayvon’s name. I said Maya Angelou’s name and Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde and Toni Cade Bambara. I said their names over and over again. Sometimes, I spoke their names into the wind; sometimes, I said it as I wrote it down. I did it to remember them, to mark the moment, and add my voice to the collective of love. bell hooks, our shero, has run on ahead to see how the end is going to be and when I finally accepted it, I stopped and did what was most cathartic and healing for me: I simply said her name.
On Dec. 15, we lost a giant. A genius. A fire. A brilliant incandescent spirit. For those of us who knew her or knew her work, we lost our radical intellectual spirit guide who helped us to find our way. I am not ok. Black women are not ok. None of us, feminists, scholars, activists, truth seekers, survivors, who sat at the feet of her work are ok. Not today. Not at this moment and not for a minute. It is not enough to say she saved me from cutting off my tongue because unless you know her genius, you will think that this is just about violence and not about salvation. It is not enough to say that she saved me from burning it all down because unless you know her brilliance, you will never understand how her words taught me how to come through the fire and be better and stronger on the other side. Because she wrote and published extensively, “bell hooks” will never leave us, but Gloria Jean Watkins did. The sun is not shining as bright as it was when she was still with us.
We speak her name.
We tell our stories.
We lift her up.
We do this to remember.
We do this to mark the moment.
We do this to thank her for loving us, for teaching us, and for reminding us.
It is mourning in America but like our sista bell hooks taught us, we will get through this and come out stronger on the other side.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award- winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is the president of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA,) and lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their dog, BellaReds.
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