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 hooksTeaching 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.

While I couldn’t be sure that hooks had accomplished the Herculean task of changing higher education, she had definitely changed me.

From hooks, I learned the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” as she described the ways these institutions will exploit our labor and knowledge without committing to “transformative politics and practice.” I learned what it means to navigate college as an “institutionally marginalized other” and why my college life up until that point had felt like both an intellectual exercise and a failing social experiment. She gave us tactics and techniques to make the classroom a more equitable space. More importantly, though, she articulated so many of the feelings I had been silently carrying with me for most of my adult life.

Encountering hooks’ reframing of the classroom as a place of political possibility shifted my own ethics and orientation to Black Feminist work. This was a call for me to show up differently amongst my predominantly white, well-to-do peers who frequently mixed me up with other Black women and interrupted me when I spoke. Rather than shrink, hide, or diminish myself for their comfort, I felt called to challenge them and my institution. I chose to love myself publicly rather than allow the system to eat me alive (as Audre Lorde once wrote).

So, when I heard on Wednesday that bell hooks had passed at the age of 69, I was gutted. Not just because she was a luminary but because I realized how I had taken her being earthside for granted. Knowing that she was still here, giving talks, and, sometimes, pissing people off with her commentary, made me comfortable. At least more comfortable than I should have been, especially in a time that has been relentless and filled with grief.

Now, I write this article as a eulogy. I honor hooks as an ancestor whose commitment to Black Feminist writing and pedagogy often placed her in a backseat. In many respects, she wanted it that way. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks’ desire to elevate the work led her to write her books under a pen name with lowercase letters. She wanted the focus to always be on our collective struggle for liberation and communal justice rather than her, the person holding the pen.

bell hooks’ work is more than pathbreaking. It’s been life saving, I imagine for Black women and girls all over the world. Her texts have been a balm for me in my lowest moments, teaching me language to describe my social experiences and validating my perspectives when the larger world gaslights them. All About Love, Ain’t I A Woman, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, Black Looks, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center all introduced me to a form of Black Feminism that was accessible, familiar, and rooted in a simple rule of love. Many will talk about how they learned the importance of self-love, empathy, and community healing from hooks. They’ll share how her works encouraged them to turn towards one another rather than away. It’s fair to say that hooks made a generation of feminists.

My sincerest hope for us all at this moment is that we don’t become inundated with toxic positivity posts about hooks’ perfect life or quotes decontextualizedfrom her larger political agenda. I hope that we always remember that she wanted the work to be the first thing. She wanted us to build movements rooted in an ethic of love.

bell hooks taught us how.