Date February 19, 2023
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In tribute to pair of late Black women thinkers, scholars and leaders urge the pursuit of justice

A symposium commemorating the legacies of Lani Guinier and bell hooks, two of the last century’s most influential Black women thinkers, convened discussions on their outsize influence on education, law and society.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — If bell hooks had one lesson to teach the world, it’s this: Celebrity isn’t everything.

In a panel discussion held at Brown University on Saturday, Feb. 18, scholars from Brown, Harvard University and Spelman College pointed out that the boundary-breaking feminist writer never won a MacArthur Fellowship, never held an endowed chair at an elite college, never landed a book deal at a major publishing house and never collected handsome fees for her speaking engagements. 

Yet despite the lack of conventional fame, they argued, hooks had become an indisputable icon before she died in 2021 — a writer whose work will be remembered and referenced for centuries to come.

Cornel West embracing bell hooks
Cornel West, right, embraced bell hooks during his 2016 visit to the bell hooks Institute. Photo: Angeletta K. Gourdine/Berea College

“She didn’t care that she was not on television or being interviewed in certain [publications],” said Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women’s studies at Spelman College. “That’s one of the things we need to have much more cross-generational talk about: What is really important in life? What’s not important is all the things this culture convinces you will make you happy… things that have really seduced young people in the U.S.: celebrityism, individualism, materialism, being seen.”

Guy-Sheftall spoke at the end of a two-day symposium at Brown honoring the legacies of hooks and Lani Guinier, two intellectual giants whose revolutionary ideas have touched generations of lives and shifted national paradigms. One of the last century’s most prominent feminists, hooks wrote fearlessly about race, class and gender; Guinier, a lawyer and scholar, shaped national discussions on civil rights, affirmative action and systemic racism. Both women died recently — hooks in December 2021 and Guinier in January 2022.

The symposium, hosted by Brown’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and Department of Africana Studies, drew prominent scholars and higher education leaders from across the country and touched on a variety of topics, including law, race and education. Yet as wide-ranging as it was, one idea pervaded many conversations over the two days: That eschewing the traditional trappings of success, and instead dedicating oneself to the pursuit of justice, was the best way to carry on hooks’ and Guinier’s legacies.

“ ...[Y]ou can’t stop bringing the truth to the fore just because people are going to oppose it. ”

Crystal Williams President, Rhode Island School of Design

After a symposium welcome from Brown President Christina H. Paxson on Friday, Feb. 17, Ruth Simmons — Paxson’s predecessor, who served as president of Brown from 2001 to 2012 — was the first of many speakers who argued forcefully that it was educators’ responsibility to model a life dedicated to justice for the next generation of leaders. Simmons made national headlines this week after stepping down early as president of Prairie View A&M University, having learned that she would not be able to appoint senior leaders in the final months of her presidency.

“I had a choice between accepting that decision and enjoying [hugging] my students in May [at Commencement], or [showing] my students what it was like to live a life that was well integrated with your values,” said Simmons, who joined the symposium virtually. “And so I chose the latter. I sent a letter to my students… giving them advice about how it is possible to move through life protecting your convictions, acting in the interest of justice, and being able to accept who you are even in the moments of greatest challenge.”

Lani Guinier posing with Rosa Parks
Lani Guinier, right, posed with Rosa Parks at the 1993 March on Washington. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a Friday, Feb. 17, panel discussion inspired by Guinier, Simmons and Crystal Williams, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, touched on topics Guinier was passionate about, including the role of standardized testing in college admissions. Long before more than 1,800 colleges and universities stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, Guinier argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education that standardized test scores don’t accurately predict the success, impact and happiness students will have later in life — and that race- and class-conscious admissions has been shown to better produce classes of effective future leaders. 

Williams said that rather than judging a prospective student’s capability using standardized tests, she prefers an admissions process that evaluates applicants’ capacity for empathy, among other things.

“One of the things I think is important for all of us, particularly [educators], to help young people understand is that humility and compassion and curiosity are not [just] nice things to have,” Williams said. “They are requirements for a life that is fulfilling, meaningful, [that] engages effectively with a broad diversity of people.”

“ [I]t is possible to move through life protecting your convictions, acting in the interest of justice, and being able to accept who you are even in the moments of greatest challenge. ”

Ruth Simmons President Emeritus, Brown University

Late on Saturday, Sylvia Carey-Butler, vice president for institutional equity and diversity at Brown, moderated a panel that emphasized the need to raise awareness of hooks’ and Guinier’s generation-defining work.

Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana studies at Brown, described hooks’ profound influence on her doctoral dissertation on the politics of Black hair — a topic that once wasn’t considered worthy of study until hooks wrote, “our feminism is in our hair.” Evelynn Hammonds, a professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies at Harvard, said hooks’ writing helped her articulate the importance of studying Black Americans’ significant contributions to medicine through the centuries. And Williams said that it’s thanks to previous generations of Black leaders, like Guinier and Simmons, that she feels empowered to speak frankly and fight for equity at work.

“I recognize that I have that kind of freedom, that kind of power, because I stand behind people like Dr. Simmons [and Guinier],” she said. “There is a direct line between my freedom and their work. [They taught me that] you can’t stop bringing the truth to the fore just because people are going to oppose it.”