Speak On It is a Teen Vogue column by Jenn M. Jackson, whose queer Black feminist perspective explores how today’s social and political life is influenced by generations of racial and gender (dis)order. In this column, they explain what lessons they have learned from bell hooks’ legacy and what they will be taking with them in the future.
Nobody tells you how hard it is to go back to school as a 30-year-old mother of three. Tack on being Black, queer, and radical, and you might as well be a one-eyed flying purple people eater walking on campus amongst wealthy, white 18 year olds and their frisbees. Impostor syndrome, the general feeling of a lack of belonging, is what I remember most about that moment. Fear that someone might find out that I wasn’t supposed to be there, that I had snuck into my graduate program, and somehow gamed the whole system.
And, then there was my discovery of bell hooks.
During my first year in graduate school, bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress fell into my lap. It was an ornate, yellow book with an image of a ladder leaning up against a wall. The subheader was “Education as the Practice of Freedom.” I was so intrigued by the title because, up until that point, I had only experienced higher education in the United States as a strict, anti-Black, and harmful environment where I rarely felt free to be my full self. I was hopeful that she had cracked the code. Maybe she had somehow figured out how to be a whole Black woman while navigating higher education in the United States.
Fortunately, hooks wasn’t concerned just with how we navigate higher education. Rather, her goal was to fundamentally change the structure and organization of the classroom from the inside out. In the process, we were to be changed, too.
In the book, hooks relied on her experiences as a young Black girl growing up in what she referred to as the “apartheid South” to outline the ways that teaching is inherently political for Black people. She wrote, “For Black folks teaching — educating — was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle.” For hooks, the radical political exemplars in her life were the Black women who, at her segregated schools, taught her “a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance.” Her teachers had essentially used their classrooms to build politicalpower amongst young people. It’s obvious why, for hooks, the classroom was a site of political action and engagement. These early lessons in hooks’ life became the container within which her own pedagogical and scholarly works developed.
And, I found her when I needed her most.
I nearly dropped out of graduate school that first year. I was convinced that the emotional and psychological damage couldn’t possibly be worth it. More than anything, I was tired. I was tired of defending my ideas, explaining myself, and being dismissed over and over again. I was desperate to find my way in a world that seemed to prefer me quiet or invisible.