Understanding abolition through bell hooks

bell hooks might not have described herself as an abolitionist. Others might not as well. I am not preoccupied with proving she was one. What I want to consider is how hooks’s thinking is relevant to abolition, as she grappled with addressing harm, violence, and trauma in non-punitive ways. Here I consider insights hooks offers abolition in her discussions of two topics: confessional writing and healing. 

The political is not just the personal

hooks often told personal stories. She recounted in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, “When I first began writing feminist theory, I did not include personal confession. I began to use confessional anecdotes as a strategy to engage diverse readers. Coming from a black working-class background, I was especially concerned with the importance of creating liberatory feminist theory that would speak to as many folks as possible. Through lectures and conversations, I found that audiences across race and class were quite willing to engage complex theoretical issues if they were presented in ways that were accessible. Using an anecdotal story to illustrate an idea was one way to bridge the gap between feminist thinking emerging from university settings and the more common discourses of gender taking place in everyday life.”

Examining how the confessional was debated in literary and feminist circles, hooks noted, “within feminist circles, individuals began to critique and ridicule any emphasis on personal confession.” Despite this criticism, hooks valued personal confession for creating space for women to be writers. “More women than ever before could explore the terrain of writing. More voices could be heard. Many of us were inspired. Our confidence in ourselves was strengthened…”

Acknowledging the power of personal confession, hooks nevertheless remained vigilant about its uses. For example, in Teaching Critical Thinking, she considered the purpose of personal confessions in the classroom. While she pedagogically valued the sharing of personal stories (from students and herself), hooks nevertheless concluded students should be taught “how to integrate and use personal confession as a means to learn more about assigned material. When this skill is lacking, personal confession can simply become a form of exhibitionism, or even a competition where students actively compete to be the one telling the best or most memorable story.”

Whether in the classroom or in her writing, hooks considered personal confession as the beginning, not the end. In other words, we might confess, or articulate how we personally relate to an issue, but it’s not all about us. hooks wrote, “I am most interested in confessional writing when it allows us to move into the personal as a way to go beyond it. In all my work I evoke the personal as a prelude. It functions as a welcoming gesture, offering the reader a sense of who I am, a sense of location.”

This sense of location seemed less a fixed place but more an articulation of where hooks was coming from and where she hoped to go, interpersonally and politically. Thus, hooks distinguished between the act of personal confession from what was being expressed politically. As she stated in Remembered Rapture, “Even though women from all backgrounds continued to tell their stories, eventually there was little or no critical recognition of the ways writers deployed the confessional narrative with diverse intentionality. Writers who valued confession narratives whose work was most linked to feminist politics and feminist theory could not count on critical readers, especially reviewers, to take note of issues of style, content, or purpose.” Our confessions are not all saying the same thing and our intentions for telling personal stories can differ. 

For hooks, the sharing of “private life as exhibitionism and performance is not the same thing as a politicized strategic use of private information that seeks to subvert the politics of domination.” hooks reminded us that while telling our truths can be powerful, our politics still matter. Or, as Adrienne Rich raised in a lecture interrogating personal narratives: “With any personal history, what is to be done? What do we know when we know your story? With whom do you believe your lot is cast?”

 hooks’s critical analysis of confessional writing is relevant to abolition, as personal stories are often weaponized by the state to marshal support for criminalization and carceral punishment.  Many politicians spotlight an individual with a harrowing story of being violently victimized to promote “tough on crime” measures as the resolution. That there is political debate among those who have been victimized regarding how to explain and address the harm or violence they experienced is often denied by those seeking a carceral form of justice. Those who tell stories of surviving violence but don’t seek forms of accountability that bolster the carceral state are not as politically amplified, and at times are outright dismissed.

As individuals, we exist socially, in relation to each other and the world we want to either maintain or build, which means we’re going to have to sort things out politically. We must grapple with our personal feelings when determining the policies we call for because policies impact everyone. Abolitionist worldmaking challenges us to hold whatever we feel––including, possibly, hatred and a thirst for revenge––while not promoting carceral systems. As Mariame Kaba and Rachel Herzing provocatively state, “Abolitionism is not a politics mediated by emotional responses…abolition is not about your fucking feelings. Of course, everything involves feelings, but celebrating anyone’s incarceration is counter to PIC abolition.”

 Healing without creating more harm

hooks made it clear she was searching for healing and refuge from harm. Her 1991 article “Theory as Liberatory Practice” opens with, “Let me begin by saying that I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.” Later, on the same page, hooks revealed that experiences in her home were some of her earliest sources of pain.

Her quest for healing informed her writing about love, which, she reported, had people saying, “‘bell hooks is turning soft ‘cause she’s focusing on love.’ And I think, Oh, no, not the love I’m talking about—because I’m really talking about a love that’s grounded in a vision of mutuality and communion and sharing; to me that is so deeply related to feminism, because I feel like as long as we have gender inequality and inequity and sexism and patriarchy, we can’t have mutuality. What we have is a constant paradigm of domination, a constant sense that in the world, there’s always a top and bottom in our relationships, there’s always a subordinated person and a person who is dominant.”

For hooks, love and healing were simultaneously deeply personal and social processes that could have political implications. As Joy James recently wrote of hooks, “With a firm hand on the wheel, she wrote to safeguard the personal and therapeutic from disintegrating into fetish.”

Relevant to abolition, hooks, throughout her life and career, did not shy away from addressing how harm and violence can be enacted by anybody, including those who claim to love us. While attending to where we are socially positioned in hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and economic status, hooks underscored we can all enact domination in some form or another. Some might consider this a flaw in her analysis, a version of “all sides-ism.” Yet it is an important point to consider in terms of abolition, as too many oppose criminalization and caging for only people they deem innocent or unfairly charged with a crime, while those they think are guilty can rot in hell. As suggested by hooks, healing is less about sorting out the innocent from the non-innocent; it is about actively working against the pervasive desire for dominance, and not equating healing with violent retribution. In this sense she was grappling with what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017) discusses as “the problem of innocence.” 

I am not as invested in love as hooks seemed to be. Nor do I consider love a necessary condition for doing politics or being in political struggle with others. But I find hooks’s meditations on healing and love useful for grappling with questions Gilmore notes are explored by abolitionists: “So one question that we abolitionists ask ourselves is: What are the conditions under which it is more likely that people will resort to using violence and harm to solve problems? This is a question we ask ourselves. What can we do about it so that there is less harm?”

This is not to suggest that healing means no accountability. hooks explored accountability a lot, but in many cases differentiated it from harsh punishment. hooks also understood, as pointed out by Toni Morrison (whose first two novels she wrote her dissertation on), “There is a difference between vengeance and justice. But justice itself has some unpleasant consequences. We have to assume that if we want justice for some bad activity by a bad person, we want punishment, we want restraint, we don’t want rehabilitation. And that assumes that there is something called the other, there’s a stranger, that’s your neighbor or the criminal or the so-called criminal, is some other thing, is an other.” 

In a 1998 conversation with Maya Angelou, hooks examined how to hold someone accountable without othering them: “I think this is a difficult question, how we deal with the question of forgiveness. For me forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” hooks recognized that figuring this out is not easy. 

 Years later, in a conversation with George Brosi on Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community, hooks considered what it means to have healing and accountability without creating more harm. In response to Brosi’s statement, “Central to the notion of beloved community is the idea that there can be reconciliation as opposed to victory,” hooks replied, “Exactly, and so we accept both of those concepts of restorative justice and reconciliation, because restorative justice does take away a notion of blame and replace it with an accountability vision means that we can be mutually accountable for healing even though there might be a person who is ‘a victim.’”

In the conversation, hooks referenced “many eastern martial arts” and underscored that they “don’t involve wanting to hurt your opponent, but involve wanting to get into balance with your opponent so that you’re learning how to protect yourself without causing someone else harm.” She treated as legitimate the desire to avoid harm, what some might call safety. Yet hooks did so consistent with Kaba’s point that safety is not something we can possess, “Because I don’t think safety is a thing. I think safety is a relation.” hooks approached safety in a manner that, as Gilmore conceptualizes abolition geography, involves making “lives better” but “not at the expense of other vulnerable people, places, or things” and reveals the possibility of how “radical consciousness in action resolves into liberated life-ways, however provisional, present and past.”