By Beth Feagan
In bell hooks’ last days, a stream of people took turns sitting with her. Her sisters organized the schedule of hospice workers, trained caregivers, and ordinary folks like me who loved bell. We didn’t want her to be alone when she made her transition. And we knew that time was coming fast. Friends and neighbors showed up with food, poems, songs, and prayers. We kept vigil by bell’s bedside, making sure she was comfortable and at ease.
bell hooks was a trail-blazing Black feminist from western Kentucky. She grew up poor and became one of the world’s most brilliant writers and theorists, with over 40 books to her name. All About Love is number 10 on the New York Times bestseller list as of this writing. Yet she remained playful and humble in her interactions with those of us who were in her beloved community. On her penultimate day, my dear friend Adanma read her the lyrics to the song Mister Rogers sang, “It’s You I Like,” which bell loved. bell had sung that song to so many of us, looking at us gently, and we could feel her love for us as she sang those words. Adanma said she knew that as close to the end as bell was, she was still there, still herself.
On bell’s final day, I went for a morning hike at Anglin Falls with my dear friend Qrescent. We needed to get out in the Appalachian hills to prepare our spirits for the next phase of bell’s life. It was a gorgeous day in mid-December, cool in the woods, and warm up at the falls. Qrescent sat near the falls on a blanket and gazed at the rainbows dancing in the spray for an hour. I hiked around behind the boulders and meditated, pausing to eat snacks and write haiku. I thought about how bell meditated every morning, arriving again and again in a place of peace: her in-breath, her out-breath. I was seeking that same peace in the middle of my grief, sitting deeply rooted in each living moment.
Lush moss hugs the rock
Quartz bits glitter in the sun
Ferns nod in the breeze
When we felt satisfied, we hiked back down and rejoined society, chatting along the way about the plants we passed: downy rattlesnake plantain, puttyroot, liverwort, round-lobed hepatica. We were fortified, prepared to hold space for bell.
My shift with bell began at 3 p.m. When I arrived, the person sitting with bell was playing a Buddhist chant for her. Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, had started playing this chant earlier in the day, and every subsequent person who sat with bell played it for her. The chant was “Namo Avalokiteshvara,” performed by a group of monks led by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh of Plum Village. He explained what the chant means: by getting in touch with our suffering, the suffering of our parents and ancestors, and the suffering of the world, we can open our hearts to love and compassion. This is a deeply transformative practice. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of bell’s greatest teachers; in fact, she once told me that if there’s one book she could get the whole world to read, it’s his The Art of Living. It’s a profoundly liberating book, and his teachings are part of why bell was unafraid to die. So, on her final day, this Buddhist chant swirled around her.
After about 45 minutes, I felt like singing to bell. I sang “Freight Train,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Go Down Moses.” My voice quavered and caught at times. It was not easy — I kept crying. But I wanted to sing, so I kept trying to calm myself and focus on the songs. I wanted her to have familiar spirituals. She turned her head toward me several times; she tried to open her eyes. But the medicine they gave her to ease her pain and help her breathe kept her under, and I guess that’s a blessing. Some part of her heard the music, and I hope it carried her like a boat through those last hours in this plane of existence. She had been walking from room to room in her inner house, in and out of consciousness, and soon she would open the front door and step out into the sunshine.
After I had my hour to sit with her, I kissed her on her forehead through my cloth mask. I told her I love her so much. And then it was Qrescent’s turn. The caregiver needed a minute to attend to bell. So, we sat on bell’s stoop, and I just cried and cried. Qrescent held me. I felt so sad that bell was leaving us and so grateful I got to know her and spend so much time with her. I’m going to feel this mixture of sadness and gratitude for a long, long time. Her body had been such a limitation to her spirit for so long, and now she was ready to fly free. Her spirit will keep getting bigger, expanding and expanding forever like the universe.
bell talked a lot about dying in her final years. In Bone Black, she writes about how death intrigued her as a child, yet she was not afraid. Writing about her girl self in the third person, she muses: “She had found it all satisfying, simply fulfilling, this thing called death. Afterward she slept deeply — convinced that death need never be feared.” Part of what drew bell hooks back to her Kentucky roots was the desire to live in a familiar place, where she could grow old and die.
She grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in racial apartheid, as she told us during her induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2018. In her speech, she said, “...we grew up in a culture of fear, a culture completely overdetermined by white supremacy. And that culture of fear was like a little fever, burning all the time, so that in part when I left Kentucky, I left to escape that culture of fear and to fully find my voice.” As much as bell loved the Kentucky hills and the country life of her early girlhood, she felt frightened and stifled by white supremacy. In calling out the racial apartheid of her youth, bell hooks demands that we engage in the resistance of remembering. The time for truth-telling is now.
Wherever she went, bell found white supremacists. She talked about discovering how white supremacist dominator culture was nationwide. Yet she also found white people fully committed to love and justice wherever she went. So, after many years of writing, teaching, lecturing, and enjoying being a “Kentucky cosmopolitan,” she decided to return to her Kentucky home, to be close to her aging parents, to grow old. And at her induction ceremony, she said, “I see my presence here as both a celebration and a victory, a celebration of all of those Black folks in Kentucky who made it possible for me to move out of racial apartheid into a world of hope and beauty and promise.”
I recently asked my former teaching assistant, Jay Stringer, what it meant that bell hooks was from Appalachia. Jay is Appalachian, and they remembered speaking with bell in her home about how she always felt like an outsider. Jay told me: “...what I love about her is that instead of going to these places and thinking how much better it is, she really saw the beauty in where she was from, and she wanted to be here.” Jay talked about listening to a recording on YouTube of bell reading an excerpt from the chapter “Kentucky Is My Fate” in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place:
If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live. Choosing to return to the land and landscape of my childhood, the world of my Kentucky upbringing, I am comforted by the knowledge that I could die here. This is the way I imagine ‘the end:’ I close my eyes and see hands holding a Chinese red lacquer bowl, walking to the top of the Kentucky hill I call my own, scattering my remains as though they are seeds and not ash, a burnt offering on solid ground vulnerable to the wind and rain -- all that is left of my body gone, my being shifted, passed away, moving forward, and on and into eternity.
“I never heard that until after she passed away,” Jay said. “And I just stumbled upon it.” They talked about how much it meant to them that bell found beauty here, that she was “really loving this place and wanting to make it better, and wanting everyone to be proud of where they are from and who they are.” Jay teared up, thinking about this, and then said softly, “And I miss her.” Also, Jay spoke about the impact bell had on them as a queer Appalachian: “I feel like I went to the school of bell hooks,” Jay said. “I feel like her work lives on, not just on paper, in text, but in people’s hearts and minds. Because of her, … I don’t say that I’m transitioning gender, … I’m trans in that I’m transgressing gender. I feel like that’s her in me, and that will live on as long as I live and in the people that I tell, and she will just continue and continue to live on that way…”
In choosing to return to Appalachia, her first and final home, bell hooks affirmed and uplifted those who are marginalized because of their race, gender identity, and sexuality. In her induction speech, she issued a call to action: “Imagine, if you will, a renewed democracy in our culture, based on the principles of love and mutuality.” Her commitment to radical truth, love, and justice invites us all to imagine a new Appalachia where there is a place for everyone at the table.
Beth Feagan is a lecturer of general studies at Berea College and friend of bell hooks.