Bell Hooks, a pioneering cultural theorist and activist, public intellectual, teacher, and feminist author who died of kidney failure at the age of 69, has authored some 40 books over a career spanning more than four decades. Examining the intersecting oppressions of gender, race, and class, her writings also reflected her concerns about issues related to art, history, sexuality, psychology, and spirituality, with love ultimately being at the heart of community healing.
She used storytelling as effectively as social theory and was creatively agile across a range of genres including poetry, essays, memoirs, self-help and children’s books, appeared in documentaries and worked in academia. However, her outstanding legacy may be her central contribution to black feminist thought, first articulated in her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and feminismwhich examined both historical racism and sexism and drew on the treatment of black women out of slavery to provide context for ongoing racial and sexual injustice.
The daughter of Veodis Watkins, a postal worker, and his wife Rosa Bell (née Oldham), she was born Gloria Jean Watkins in the small rural town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and her upbringing was influenced by being part of a working-class African-American family in the southern United States, which was initially taught in segregated schools. As a gifted child, she enjoyed the poetry of William Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gwendolyn Brooks, and was encouraged to write her own verse long before she reached her teens. Scholarships enabled her to study at Stanford University in California, where she earned a BA in English in 1973, and in 1976 an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
That year she began teaching at the University of Southern California, and while there her first publication, the poetry collection And There Wept (1978), was published under the pen name Bell Hooks—a name she gave in honor of her maternal great-grandmother assumed. Grandmother framing it in lower case to keep the focus on her work and not her own personality.
She had begun writing her major work, Ain’t I a Woman – the title of which referred to a famous 19th-century speech by black abolitionist Sojourner Truth – as a student. Harshly criticized by some quarters, the book eventually achieved influential status as a classic dealing with black womanhood. Another key title, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), is a critique of mainstream feminist theory in which black women exist only marginally, with the women’s liberation movement structured primarily around issues relevant to class-privileged white women are.
Journalist and media consultant Joan Harris recalled the historical context when “if you’re black it was almost an abomination, almost a traitor, to also be a ‘feminist'” and joining a group of white women was not an option given the divergent causes was then. Harris said, “Bell’s work clarified things … Her work, her presence has given me and so many others a sense of validation at a really strained time.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, Hooks taught at a number of educational institutions, including Yale University, Oberlin College, and the City College of New York. In 2004, she joined the faculty of Berea College in her native Kentucky, where she received her graduate degree in 2014 Ring Hook Institute was founded. She received the American Book Award/Before Columbus Foundation Award for Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (1990) and was nominated for a 1999 NAACP Image Award for her children’s book Happy to Be Nappy.
A proponent of anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist politics, she produced radical writings that shaped popular and academic discourse. Her books have covered a wide range of subjects, as evidenced by only a selection of the titles: Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989); Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West, 1991); Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992); Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class in Cinema (1996); We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004); and Soul Sister: Women, Friendship and Fulfillment (2005).
Her writing has resonated well beyond the United States, and her work has been translated into 15 languages. Invited to the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in London in 1991, she spoke and participated in debates and readings, and engaged with local activists. In my 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa, I included the cover essay from her collection, Talking Back, which in many ways encapsulates the origins, motivation, and inspiration that drove her from a young age.
“In the Southern Black community world I grew up in, ‘back talk’ and ‘talking back’ meant speaking on an equal footing with an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree, and sometimes it meant just having an opinion,” she explained. To a child, speaking unspoken was an invitation to punishment, as was a brave act, a risky and daring act. In that world, a desire was born within her to “have a voice, and not just any voice, but one that could be identified as belonging to me… Certainly our struggle for black women was not to come out of the silence of speech, it was the.” To change the nature and direction of our speech, to give a speech that compels the audience, a speech that is heard.”
Her spirit would not be crushed by the somewhat harsh reception her first work received, and significantly she wrote: “Now, as I reflect on the silence, the voices that are not heard, the voices of the wounded and/or oppressed, who are not heard speak or write, I think about the acts of persecution, about the torture – the terrorism that breaks spirits, that makes creativity impossible. I write these words to testify to the primacy of resistance in any situation of domination (even within family life); to the strength and power that comes from continued resistance, and the deep conviction that these forces can heal, protect us from dehumanization and despair.”
For Hooks it was “that act of speaking, of ‘talking back’ that is not just a gesture of empty words, it is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice”.
She is survived by four sisters, Sarah, Valeria, Angela and Gwenda, and a brother, Kenneth.
Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), writer, born September 25, 1952; died December 15, 2021