I think I was working on my Masters in English when I first learned of bell hooks, noticing first that she chose not to use capital letters in her name. The English department at UMass Boston was full of professors who were intent on introducing us to people who changed the way we thought about language and communication. I met Pablo Freire, Toni Morrison, and Jimmy Santiago Baca on the page there as well, among others.
I was taking care of a sick friend and out of the news loop and didn’t find out until the weekend. Though I read a good bit of her stuff in graduate school, it was years later–in the spring of 2015–that I really dug in. I was working on my book This Must Be the Place: Reflections on Home and someone pointed me to her book Belonging: Building a Culture of Place, where she tells her story of leaving Stanford to return to rural Kentucky where she grew up to teach at Berea College. I listened as she talked about going back to her roots, to the soil–the ground–that made her. And I realized I that place did not exist for me. And yet, when she talked about home, I understood.
All my life I have searched for a place of belonging, a place that would become home . . . . Home was the place where the me of me mattered. Home was the place I longed for, it was not where I lived.
Even as she talked about the ground that grew her, she offered a bigger sense of what it means to belong.
In my childhood I dreamed about a culture of belonging. I still dream the dream. I contemplate what our lives would be like if we knew how to cultivate awareness, to live mindfully, peacefully; if we learned habits of being that would bring us closer together, that would help us build beloved community.
Some of the obituaries have painted her as a trailblazer and activist, which she was, but what is missing in many of the tributes is the tenacious love that fueled her activism. Three Christmases or so I was wandering through the Strand Bookstore booth at the Bryant Park Holiday Market and I found her book All About Love: New Visions. Her words made the train ride home go quickly.
A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers – the experience of knowing we always belong.
An exercise I learned from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book In the Shelter is to think of the first sentence of your autobiography. We did the exercise with a group one night and the sentence I came up with was, “He was just trying to find his way home.”
bell hooks was not consumed with only finding her way home. She was convinced we need to all know we belong if we are going to survive this thing called life. She helped me feel like I belong, and helped me learn how to pass that along.
I am grateful.