Work Makes Life Sweet

bellhooksWhen I was searching the internet for information on “right livelihood,” a Buddhist term about finding the right work for yourself, I  came across bell hooks’ essay “Work Makes Life Sweet” from her 1994 book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery (republished in 1999 and 2005) . The whole book is about the emotional health of black women faced with daily racism and sexism and covers topics like work, beauty, trauma, addiction, sexuality and nature.  In it she intertwines discussion of her own life and family, with information from self-help and other books she has read, and snippets from interviews with black women. (You can read parts of it online on

“Work Makes Life Sweet” covered a lot of questions I’ve been wondering about.  She doesn’t talk directly about working for social justice or social change, but she does talk about challenging the capitalist, neoliberal culture of work (though not using those words),and about how individual healing is linked to community healing.  Race, gender and class, she explains, influences peoples attitudes towards and expectations of work.  In the end she says that even though black women (especially those without class privilege), have to overcome a lot, its worth dreaming big.

Based on her own experience and her interviews, she says “most of us [black women] did not enter the workforce thinking of work in terms of finding a ‘calling’ or a vocation.  Instead we thought of work as a way to make money” (43).  She explains that many black women end up in jobs they don’t like and “don’t [feel] we have a lot of options” (44).

She advocates that black women “learn how to think about work and our job choices from the standpoint of ‘right livelihood’” (45).  Growing up she was surrounded by older black folks who felt “work makes life sweet” and did their work with pride,  joy and presence, whether it was ironing, teaching,  or gathering worms for fishing –despite being confronted by racism and sexism everyday.  “Even though I was raised in a world where elderly black people had this wisdom [about right livelihood],” says hooks, “I was more socialized by the get ahead generation that felt how much money you were wormsmaking was more important than what you did to make that money” (46).

“Many of us must work hard to unlearn the socialization that teaches us that we should just be lucky to get any old job, ” she adds (47).  One of the obstacles is the financial stress of not having a family safety net, and often having to provide for older family members and extended family.  As a result, “it feels very frightening to think about letting go of financial security, even for a short time, to do work one loves but may not pay the bills” (50).

Ultimately, though it may be difficult, she insists that “’right livelihood’ can be found irrespective of our class position, or the level of our education” (52).  Even though this chapter (and the book) are focused on individual healing and personal growth, she is very clear that as individual black women grow stronger and more fulfilled, it helps make black women as a whole more emotionally healthy because folks can form communities of support.  She goes in to this even more in her next chapter on “Knowing Peace: An End to Stress.”

I’m going to write more in a later post about about what Parker Palmer, a white class privileged man, says about “right livelihood” in his book Let Your Life Speak.  He says that for him, growing up so privileged, he always expected his career to be meaningful, but that ended up creating another kind of pressure for his job to be all of who he was.  He was taught that all doors should be open to him, and if they weren’t, he had done something wrong. Its interesting how different folks get different messages about work based on race, class and gender – hooks is saying that black women get the message they should be happy to have any job and shouldn’t expect to enjoy their work, which really limits them and makes it harder to have a fulfilled life.  Palmer is saying that as a white man, he got the message that he should be able to do whatever he wanted and if he couldn’t, he was a failure.  So folks get very different societal messages about work — but niether black women nor white men are getting messages that are very helpful or healthy.  Does this sound about right?  What do other folks think?

hooks talks about how some of the older women she knew did unpaid work in their homes, but doesn’t explore how “right livelihood” could be related to unpaid work — in other words, what if someone does one job for money that they don’t feel passionate about, then does what they really love the rest of the time.  I’d be curious what she would think abut that.

Has anyone else read “Work Makes Life Sweet”?  What did you think?


2 responses to “Work Makes Life Sweet

  1. Interesting post love! It makes me think about Jacqui Alexander’s idea of spiritual labor. What do people understand their vocations to be and what rewards earthly and supernatural do they get from doing this work?

  2. thanks for posting…interesting…do you know of a link to anywhere that she’s written about that? or can you send me an article? would love to check that out!

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