Hannah Drake is a writer and activist.
A day before bell hooks died this week, I was leaving the grocery store when a man stopped me so he could read my shirt. I stood with bags in hand as he read out loud, “Ain’t you tired, Black Girl?” It is a line from a poem I wrote that challenges how Black women are told to shrink and be silent — until we are needed to repair the world around us:
Fix it, Black Girl. Fix us, Black Girl. Nurse us, Black Girl. Teach us, Black Girl. Be the help, Black Girl. Clean up our messes, Black Girl. Vote for us, Black Girl … Ain’t you tired, Black Girl?
The man outside the store said, “You aren’t tired. You are a Black woman, and Black women are strong.”
I smiled because I knew that was the expectation. In his mind, he was complimenting me, a compliment that has been placed on the shoulders of so many Black women. But as bell hooks wrote in 1981’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” “Usually, when people talk about the ‘strength’ of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.”
The man might not have understood this, but I did. It’s one of so many truths hooks dispensed over her life that equipped me and countless other Black women to navigate both the world and ourselves. hooks may be gone, but her writing will continue to guide us for a long time.
I discovered hooks, who died Wednesday at 69, about two decades ago when I was in my early 20s. She was a poet, and I was an aspiring one; she was, like me, a Kentuckian; and she was one of the first Black female writers I was introduced to. Growing up, I never read books by women who looked like me or understood me. What I struggled with never translated onto the page.
I craved books that reflected me back to me, and hooks created them. She wrote for Black women. Most of all, she understood the enormous effort required to bear the double crosses of Blackness and womanhood.
I wanted to tell this man I was tired. I am tired of existing in a world that demands everything of Black women and gives us so little in return. I am tired of fighting. I have spent more than half my life writing about racism, trying to get this nation to see we are in a dreadful condition. And for what? Along the way, I have paid for it, too, in my humanity, and in my peace. There is the temptation to give in to anger or hatred, or to put yourself on the back burner of life.
But bell hooks had words for this, too. She chose not to hate. She chose another, greater form of resistance: love. “The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression,” she wrote in her 1994 essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” “The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
Love is sacred wisdom we often overlook. And it always begins with self. Love does not require I shrink as a Black woman. It doesn’t demand that I remain silent. Love allows me to rest. “The light of love is always in us, no matter how cold the flame,” hooks wrote in 2000’s “All About Love: New Visions.” “It is always present, waiting for the spark to ignite, waiting for the heart to awaken.”
Through hooks’s words, I came to understand that I can be tired as I continue to work against racism, but I do not have to be overwhelmed. I can rest. I do not have to choose between being Black and being a woman. I do not have to alter who I am. I can resist and not lose my humanity. I can do this work and not be bitter. I can do this work with love at the foundation.
When a giant leaves footprints, you take notice. And hooks did what every great writer should aspire to do: She left breadcrumbs to lead us on our path. The work she dedicated her life to is a light in this world guiding many Black women back to ourselves.
Now it is my prayer that, as a Black woman, bell hooks finds rest, too, knowing she planted seeds that will blossom for the next generation, all rooted in love.