Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.
Growing up in the South, my exposure to black women writers in an academic setting was far and few between. Though late in my academic career, I distinctly recall three instances that led me to uncovering the absolute importance and prolific writings of black women. It was not until a Women and Literature class in college first led me to the poetry of bell hooks. It was not until some free time during a gap year and a used bookstore’s 50% off sale led me to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. And it was not until a Master’s level course on women’s history led me to the historical fiction novel, Beloved written by Toni Morrison. In each of these experiences, I found myself enveloped by the masterful writings of black women who, prior to a few years earlier, I had little to no knowledge of.
Reflecting on this absence gives an easy to find but troubling answer: the writings of white men are predominantly taught from kindergarten through college. This form of institutional racism and sexism is not necessarily a surprise to many, especially those studying race and gender, but it is frustrating nonetheless. Outside of two classes specifically focusing on women and women writers, and a stroke of luck in a bookstore, my exposure to black women writers was abysmal. The lack of available classes covering women and African American Studies were in large part to blame. But even then, this was at the collegiate level. What about the lack of black women writers in elementary through high school?
With that information in mind, this blog post aims to present the works of bell hooks, one of the most influential feminist writers of the past forty years, as one possible author whose work can be used by educators from kindergarten onwards. It is the hope that these examples will help educators integrate bell hooks, and other black women authors, into their curriculums in order to foster a more holistic and representative educational experience.
Something especially exciting about bell hooks’ work is that she also wrote children’s books in addition to writing poetry and feminist theories. Published in 1999 and illustrated by Chris Raschka, Happy to Be Nappy shows all of the exciting ways in which girls with “nappy” hair can wear and be proud of their hair styles. Published in 2002, Homemade Love is a story which helps children understand what it means to be unconditionally loved. Both books promote representation for black girls and are easily accessible for kids of all backgrounds. These books can easily be integrated into the story times of pre-K and kindergarten aged students, further broadening kids’ horizons.
Moving into upper elementary and middle school, much of hooks’ poetry, which can be found in her book And There We Wept, can be taught to students as an entry point in their exposure to poetry. Often a part of the Language Arts portion of learning, students begin learning about poetry as early as the first grade and continue through high school. Some of her more academic works, such as Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, published in 1981, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, published in 1984, are both books which can be as educational tools to inform students on the social importance and implications of feminism, as well as some of the earlier writings on intersectional feminism. Students in high school and college can be challenged to broaden their views of the world and on culture through her writings. hooks is especially accessible for students in this age range because many of her books, articles, and other published works do not rely on overly formal or academic writing.
Looking back, I feel a deep sadness about my lack of exposure to black women writers. I wonder what my life might have been like had I read the works of Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, or Angela Davis much earlier. I truly believe that they would have changed my perspective on everything from politics to representation to feminism. With bell hooks specifically, her writing has been the most understandable and tangible for me to read and comprehend. Her theory is not bogged down by unnecessarily big words, and her writing is a critique of everyday life. This exposure can put many more on the path toward an intentional critique of culture and of self, opening the doors of activism for young people everywhere.
Educating students of all ages through the writings of black women is integral to a more whole and intersectional education, an education which teaches the ideas of many rather than a select few. School boards can be persuaded by those in the community to change their reading lists. School boards can also be voted out of office when they are not pushing for the best educational experience for students. As a citizen, you can use your power to advocate and vote for the inclusion and representation of black women writers in your school’s curriculum. For more information about your state’s educational requirements, visit your state’s Department of Education web page or contact your school district directly to find out what students are being taught.