bell hooks and Charles Blow teach radical self-love

(Photo Credit: Mila Stieglitz)
(Photo credit: Mila Stieglitz)

Earlier this fall, on Thursday, October 8, I attended bell hooks and Charles Blow’s discussion on radical sexuality at the New School. Walking inside, I felt the anticipation and excitement of the people already in the theater. The audience was comprised of trendy people under 25. The few exceptions were various groups of fashionable middle aged women. There were many friends greeting each other and chatting.

While we were waiting for the talk to start, video clips from hooks’ talks earlier that week played in the front of the room. Speakers on the screen used terms like “liberatory feminist sexuality,” “fatal pleasure” and “sexual transgression” which flew over my head. I was worried I would not understand anything in the upcoming talk because I did not know the vocabulary. Luckily, this was not the case.

After waiting and waiting, the room fell silent and bell hooks walked onstage. There was an immediate applause, she needed no introduction! However, she still was given one as was her guest speaker, Charles Blow. Blow is an African American writer who grew up in the South. Racism and sexual abuse were markers of his childhood. Overcoming the trauma of his early years played a large part in his growing up. Yet, after so much hardship, Blow is not cruel or bitter. He is loving, open-minded, and wise. His chemistry with hooks was phenomenal. I loved listening to them build off each other’s ideas as they debated and shared personal experiences.

One moment which stood out to me was when Blow and hooks disagreed on using the word “radical” to describe their sexuality. Blow felt that “radical” othered “the being of oneself.” He said, “everything is on the spectrum of humanity” so how could he, as a person, be outside that spectrum? Blow then described how his daughter loves her natural hair. He posed another question, how is loving her hair the way it grows out of her head radical?

hooks countered. She said that “constructing oneself in an environment of love” as Blow’s daughter is doing, outside the culture of domination–which is a capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist society–is one of the most radical things a person can do. This made me think about the power of self-love and self-expression. I wish everyone grew up in an environment of love, then the world would be more peaceful. If everyone felt secure and happy with who they are, we would all be free. Loving communities would disregard the limiting social constructs that presently cause so much anxiety and unhappiness.

Going into the talk, I expected hooks and Blow to talk about the different categories of the LGBTQPIA+ sexual identities and how they compare and contrast. I am glad they did not. It was refreshing not to be bogged down by names and definitions.

To hooks and Blow, sexual fluidity was their norm. It was a state of feeling that I had not known existed. I was used to feeling like being queer was being part of a cool/alternative club, like the gender and sexuality alliance in my school.

I am jealous of how sexual fluidity and attraction regardless of gender were truths that came naturally to hooks and Blow. For me, it is so hard to look past my internalized heteronormativity. hooks and Blow made sexuality personal as well as straightforward. People should be able to love who they want to love. However, I realize that loving freely is not always possible.

When Daniella Zalcman, a journalist and photographer, visited our feminism class, she talked about how coming out and expressing a non-hetero sexuality in Uganda was potentially fatal. The Ugandan newspaper, Red Pepper, published personal information of alleged gay people, calling for them to be executed. In a situation like this, being sexually fluid or a member of the LGBTQ+ community is not safe.

hooks and Blow brought up another point which blew my mind: sexual practice is not necessarily the same as sexual orientation. For example, someone may be gay but could be married with kids and have a “straight” life. 

Throughout the talk, hooks and Blow made many points that resonated with me and made me look at the world differently. They spoke of the courage needed to be oneself. Courage and resiliency are needed to love oneself and overcome pain. Blow declared that “this life belongs me” and I found this phrase to be very powerful for understanding my own identity development.

I have to say yes to myself when I try to limit aspects of my identity and personality. This life is mine. I am not going to hide my queerness because I am worried about what some straight boy will think of me. I am not going to be silent in class because I do not want to come off as bossy. I am not going to say “sorry” every time I begin to speak. I am not going to be silent or sorry. This life is mine and I am not hiding.

Saying yes to oneself is also way to combat hyper-masculinity. Men and boys are forced to hide under a mask which represses self-expression and discourages the wearer from seeking comfort and love. Blow explained how those who hold on the most to the hard/strong man archetype are usually the ones who are hurting the most because of it: “there is an inverse correlation between toughness and pain,” Blow said.

The two boys in our feminism class, Adrian and Henry, also feel suffocated by toxic masculinity. In Henry’s response to gender expectations, he writes “Maybe if I played some sports. Maybe if I fucked some girls. Maybe then I’d fit closer to his definition of a man.”

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Henry sharing his piece on toxic masculinity. (Photo Credit: Steve Neiman)

For the same assignment, Adrian wrote:

“So there he was.

Incredibly alone and filthy inside.

He thought it would make him accepted,

but all it did was make him feel fake.

He lives as an actor;

a guise over his true self.

And no one really cares.


Keep it all inside, don’t show them you’re afraid.

Just show them you can take it and can fight at any place, any time.

Don’t you fucking cry.

Men don’t cry, faggot.”

These pieces are a part of a larger piece which was performed during our feminism class’s International Day of the Girl assembly and it elicited a roaring response from the audience. I think that the students in our school had only known about these stereotypes unconsciously. Adrian and Henry were able to show how gender expectations took away personal freedom for boys and men.

Hyper-masculinity has a hold on so many men around the world. They need to hear Charles Blow’s words that their lives are their own. To dismantle internalized oppression, they must affirm themselves.

You start by saying yes.


6 thoughts on “bell hooks and Charles Blow teach radical self-love

  1. Your discussion of how hooks and Blow did not go into the different categories of LGBTQPIA+ during their conversation on the radical really intrigued me. I was very interested in the ways in which we say “yes” or “no” to ourselves depending on who we are. Your analysis of sexual fluidity and heteronormativity has really helped me understand and has definitely opened up my ways of thinking about these labels and categories we are handed.

  2. this piece was very interesting to read. I was not able to go to one of the bell hooks talks and the one you talked about (radical sexuality) was definitely the one I would’ve wanted to go to. while they were speaking about the definition of radical I would say that I agree with both of them.

  3. I really liked how you explored how important it is to be able to say yes to oursleves and how it is related to hyper-masculinity. I completley agree that it hyper-masculinity hinders males from saying yes to themselves because of the rigid gender rules that are enforced in society. Based on this, I wanted to ask if you believe that hyper-masculinity also plays a role in the ability of girls saying yes to themselves.

  4. I loved reading your analysis of sexual fluidity! I too have felt very restricted by labels but I still fall victim to the comfort provided by identifying as something. Last year, I had a bit of a breakdown because I did not belong anywhere on the allosexual spectrum, nor did I feel completely asexual and I felt robbed of existence because I did not know which label fit me. I now understand that sexual fluidity can even be applied to minimal amounts of sexuality and sexual attraction. I wish I had been able to embrace this idea sooner! This blog post would definitely benefit anyone looking to rid themselves of the pressure of labels.

  5. I find this idea of ridding oneself of labels as a way of saying “no” to limiting all aspects of our identity is truly revolutionary. Through the pressure of trying to fit into the labels we feel we have to go into we subconsciously or very consciously deny our full identities. This as you said also translates into the big problems with hyper-masculinity. Great topic and beautifully written!

  6. Julia, I love the way in which you interlock and analyze your own personal narrative of self-love with the events and poems you cited. Your piece is very clear and concise and I adore that you speak your own truth and own your own queerness within this piece. The part where you talk about wishing you had grown up in an environment that promoted self love was beautiful yet saddening. Maybe that is the very reason why translating feminist theory into action is so challenging.

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