Professor Akwugo Emejulu (on the right) describes her first encounter with bell hooks (on the left) at university as a ‘revelation’.

The radical politics of intimate spaces: Akwugo Emejulu on bell hooks

Dialogues with the past. Professor Emejulu discusses bell hooks’ lasting influence on pedagogy, solidarity and resistance.

15.11.2022

bell hooks, scholar and activist, was widely recognised as an ‘intellectual colossus’ whose death in December 2021 was felt as an ‘incalculable loss’. Her lasting influence is undeniable, ranging from contemporary approaches to care to radical discourse and activism, seen recently in the Black Lives Matter movement.

She is best known for her contributions to the fields of race, feminism, class, queerness, and perhaps uniquely, how and to what effect these spheres intersect. However, her contributions to pedagogy and education cannot be ignored. In her publication entitled Teaching to Transgress, she endearingly called the profession ‘the sacred vocation’.

Professor Akwugo Emejulu invited Elm to the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin to discuss the lasting influence of bell hooks and the impact hooks has had on her own work. Emejulu is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and her research interests include racial and gender inequalities and the grassroots activism of women of colour in Europe.

Akwugo Emejulu’s most recent research project with Leah Bassel is Women of Colour Resist, which explores the activism of women of colour in six European countries. In 2019, she co-edited a collection of works from feminist activists, academics and artists across Europe entitled To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe. Moreover, in October 2022 her new book entitled Fugitive Feminism will be released by Silver Press.

Akwugo describes her first encounter with hooks at university as a ‘revelation’. As part of a Black feminist literature class, hooks was one of the first Black scholars she read as part of her curriculum, and her writings were inspirational because she was ‘talking about very different things’ from the usual topics covered in her undergraduate political science degree.

Akwugo did not return to hooks again until her first teaching job at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland where she was in need of some inspiration.

“This is where I came across Teaching to Transgress,” she says with a smile,

Engaged pedagogy

It is in Teaching to Transgress that bell hooks first conceptualises her idea of ‘engaged pedagogy’, which she defines as the ‘interplay of anticolonial, critical and feminist pedagogies’.

An engaged pedagogy promotes an ‘ethic of care’ in the classroom setting. The moment we choose to love, hooks states in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations  “we begin to move against domination, against oppression”. The moment we choose love, she continues, we begin “to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others”.

Yet engaged pedagogy is ultimately interested in ‘self-actualisation’ for its pupils. Although aligned with other theories of pedagogy, one distinct aspect of hook’s approach is that she focuses on the experience of marginalisation in her theories whilst consciously rejecting victimhood. For hooks, marginality is a ‘site of radical possibility, a space of resistance’.

One of the conclusions I’m coming to is that the very nature of utopian ideas of solidarity can only be ephemeral and deeply temporary.

hooks’ embrace of love and care as a tool to instigate self-actualisation should not be placed within the realm of self-help – her engaged pedagogy is inherently political. It is born out of the understanding that our educational institutions are continually involved in acts of domination. It was bell hooks who popularised the term ‘white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’.

“University is an unequal system. It’s important not to buy into the lie of meritocracy and not to buy into the lie of equality,” Akwugo warns.

“This is where bell hooks’ classroom becomes a real possibility,” she continues.

bell hooks saw the classroom as a place of healing. In a definitive statement in Teaching to Transgress, she proclaims:

“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin”.

In this sense, she was a catalyst for contemporary approaches to teacher-student dynamics and arguably laid the groundwork for trauma-informed classrooms.

Private troubles but public issues

“By the time they get to me in their final year at university,” laments Akwugo, “particularly Black and Asian students, you can see that they have been beaten down. It’s because they have been overlooked, disrespected and have become disillusioned.”

“There’s a deeply racist culture in universities that goes unacknowledged. If that’s the reality,” she continues, ‘then those of us who give a damn are obliged to interrupt that process of being disillusioned and to engage with students differently.”

Our education system, with its insistence on winners and losers, can often wound many students’ sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Akwugo insists on “resisting the temptation of thinking that these experiences are an isolated problem when they are a structural problem”.

Drawing on the sociologist C. Wright Mills, she sees these experiences not as “private troubles but public issues”.

Her two solutions to resisting the harm of these experiences are undeniably hooksian: organising and narrating. Helping students to organise their own study, discussion and reading groups, and/or joining and forming societies are essential for building community, combatting isolation, and allowing people to think of themselves as agents, advises Akwugo Emejulu.

bell hooks

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, bell hooks moved from her hometown in Kentucky to study English at Stanford University. At the age of 19, she began writing her first book Ain’t I A Woman? She went on to teach at Stanford University, Yale University and the City College of New York, eventually settling back in Kentucky, where she opened her own research foundation at Berea College. She published more than 30 works in her lifetime, including Feminist Theory, Where We Stand and The Will to Change.

“However”, she continues, the central aim of this organising is also “to narrate and produce a counter-narrative of what’s happening’. hooks formulates this as “engaging in acts of recognition” and collective participation and dialogue.

Engagement as resistance

bell hooks was deeply engaged in institutions and industries that she vehemently resisted. She taught at elite universities but simultaneously criticised their complicity in perpetuating racism and sexism.

hooks also continuously found herself brawling with Hollywood and MTV, slamming Tarantino’s oeuvre as “multiculturalism with a chic neofascist twist” and quite famously taking aim at Beyoncé for her problematic invocations of feminism.

When asking Akwugo Emejulu about this idea of both engaging and resisting, she responds confidently,“I think perhaps the only way of holding that contradiction is with a question about engagement; engagement with what and with whom?”

Akwugo emphasises that engagement in these traditionally white spaces, be they universities, media or politics, should not always be the end goal.

We can think about resistance in these kinds of grand ways – the old plots, demonstrations and celebrations, all of this work.

“I’m more interested in these underground spaces. A lot of women of colour are engaging in ways that make them invisible to the white gaze, in spaces that aren’t as vulnerable to harm and hostility.”

Akwugo is less interested in abstract forms of resistance and instead focuses her attention on “real material concerns”. This too is undeniably hooksian: theory and practice need to be aligned; ideas should be accessible, relatable and usable.

In this sense, Akwugo values direct community involvement over more abstract cultural or political discussions.

“It is stopping the local library, community centre or swimming pool from closing. One of the conclusions I’m coming to is that the very nature of utopian ideas of solidarity can only be ephemeral and deeply temporary.”

Loud and quiet

Akwugo Emejulu finishes the conversation by describing her Friday night, when she was invited to a grassroots community space in Schöneberg, Berlin.

“It’s 20 Black women. First of all, when have you ever seen 20 Black women together? A mix of generations: some who are just starting out, but also long-standing members. And it’s like we’re sitting at the feet of those who have struggled, receiving and sharing knowledge, and it just might behove us to do something with it.”

She leans forward: “We can think about resistance in these kinds of grand ways – the old plots, demonstrations and celebrations, all of this work. But for me, it’s these intimate spaces that are often overlooked. That is for me the radical politics, that is for me resistance.”

For those with a basic footing in bell hooks’ oeuvre, it may be easy to glaze over her contributions to pedagogy and education. Her ethic of care, love and self-actualisation may seem too quiet; her critiques on the “white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy” too loud.

But this would be a mistake. bell hooks is simultaneously loud and quiet, and this is perhaps what makes it such a transformative pedagogy.