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Opinion | It Was bell hooks Who Taught Me How to ‘Talk Back’

Growing up, parents, teachers or elders sometimes scolded me for speaking when not called on, for not instinctively accepting what they said about me or the world around me. In other words, for talking back. “Rude” is what they called it.

That didn’t deter me. I had the audacity to believe my voice not only mattered but was at least of equal value to those around me, if for no reason other than my own youthful enthusiasm. Still, I felt a certain guilt in talking back.

That contradiction ran deep. You must understand, I’m Nigerian — Urhobo. Although my family and I lived stints in countries between Africa and the West, I was still raised in an ostensibly Nigerian way: with a spoonful of “speak when spoken to” and a deference to authority.

When I encountered the work of the feminist, scholar and cultural critic bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins), who died at 69 on Dec. 15, I was in graduate school and 22 years old. The first book of hers I read was the 1989 collection of essays, “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.” It was only then that my habit of talking back to adults took on a new meaning for me. As a child, it felt like a personal act of necessary disobedience. As an adult, it became a politic worth abiding.

In the collection, a young Ms. hooks dissected and pushed back on existing conventions that insisted she speak only when spoken to. She situated her work primarily in her experience as a Black woman who belonged, in particular, to the American South and Kentucky, where she was born. Yet like many other Black women of a different generation, nation and experience from Ms. hooks, I found a home in her work.

She gave me language to understand the shame and triumphs of Black girlhood through describing her own childhood in which she was punished for talking back, or “speaking as an equal to an authority figure.” Children, and especially girls, were not supposed to have this audacity. The triumph, in part, was having it anyway.

She also considered it necessary to do. Ms. hooks noted that when girls became women, they would be allowed more room to speak, but that their words would be “audible but not acknowledged as significant.” Women could say the right, socially acceptable things in everyday conversation, but if their ideas called into question the structure of patriarchy, they would often be dismissed. That’s a reality that won’t change unless we reject it.

Indeed, the mere act of speech isn’t enough; we must also speak truth to power, sometimes even within our own communities. Ms. hooks understood what this looks like for Black girls and women who are often socialized under a “cult of privacy” — the belief that it breaks a certain code to openly discuss the things that take place within our homes and personal relationships. She made it clear that talking back in your own communities can be a radical act.

As a writer and cultural critic, I’ve found this to be true. For example, I’ve found that when I call out the ways that art, films and stories about Black cultures in Africa are filtered through the mostly white gaze of industry gatekeepers to people who look like me, we often agree. And yet when I direct such critiques at them for upholding that same white gaze, I am accused of being divisive.

Yet I know both realities can be true. In a society not designed to take our pains seriously — where it can be difficult for us to even see ourselves as the inflicters of pain — I’m learning and re-learning how to use my speech. Ms. hooks understood that voice and language are how marginalized people humanize themselves to themselves.

“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side,” Ms. hooks wrote, “a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of ‘talking back,’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject — the liberated voice.”

She was tough yet compassionate, and ahead of her time in how she talked about feminism and representation, whether in the casts of Hollywood films or in the workplace. These discussions are incomplete if they don’t consider history, race, class and gender together. In the light of this truth, the guilt I attached to speaking out as a child fades away.

On the day Ms. hooks died, I returned to the first chapters of “Talking Back” after some years. I felt familiarity, a restoration of the rawness of reading her still revolutionary ideas.

Her passing is a sorrowful occasion for multiple generations of women whose voices took shape through her work. For us, Ms. hooks was a lighthouse, and talking back was how we found our way.

Kovie Biakolo (@koviebiakolo) is a journalist who writes about culture and identity and is the author of the forthcoming “Foremothers: 500 Years of Heroines From the African Diaspora.”

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