December 16, 2021

bell hooks (1952–2021)


bell hooks, December 16, 1996. Photo: Karjean Levine.

BEREA, KENTUCKY—Writer and activist bell hooks, whose lowercase pseudonym belied her towering achievements as an architect of what came to be known as intersectional feminism, died today at age sixty-nine at her home in Berea, Kentucky. The news was announced by her niece, Ebony Motley. hooks, whose work addressed the systems of oppression spawned by the overlapping of race, class, sexuality, and gender, gained wide acclaim for Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), which explored the impact of racism and sexism on Black women in relation to the feminist and civil rights movements that had recently reshaped American society. Just nineteen when she began work on the volume, she went on to become one of the country’s most influential feminist thinkers, publishing more than thirty books.

hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 to a father who worked as a janitor and a mother who worked as a maid. She grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and as a child attended segregated schools. Encouraged by her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, she frequently gave poetry readings in church. Following a rocky transition to the predominantly white Hopkinsville High School, an experience that would prove transformative, Watkins attended Stanford University on a full scholarship and went on to obtain her MA in English in 1976 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received her doctorate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983, after completing her dissertation on the works of Toni Morrison.

Assuming the pen name bell hooks in honor of her great-grandmother and lowercasing the name to direct attention to “the substance of [my] books, not who I am,” hooks published her first volume of poetry, And There We Wept, in 1978. Aggravated by the lack of attention paid to race by white feminist scholars and that paid to gender by patriarchal elements of Black nationalist movement, hooks had begun penning the text that would become Ain’t I a Woman while still an undergraduate. The book’s unflinching examination of the continued effects of historical slavery on the status of modern Black women was radical at the time of its publication and remains relevant today. So, too, does her definition of feminism: “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

hooks went on to author volumes across range of topics. Among these are Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989), Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery (1994), Killing Rage: Ending Racism and Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (both 1995), Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000), and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004). Her writing additionally won her numerous awards, including the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the National Book Award. She brought her formidable intellect to bear in a number of documentary films in which she appeared as a speaker, including Marlon Riggs’s 1994 Black Is… Black Ain’t and Isaac Julien’s BaadAsssss Cinema (2004).

In addition to remaining a lifelong prolific writer and speaker, hooks was a highly sought-after professor, in the ’80s teaching at Yale University and Oberlin College, and in the ’90s being named to the coveted post of Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York. In 2004, she accepted a position as Distinguished Professor in Residence at Kentucky’s Berea College, one of the country’s few free higher-learning institutions. She was teaching there at her death, and in 2017 bequeathed her papers to the college.

As a child, hooks dreamed of being a painter but found little encouragement. “Life taught me that being an artist was dangerous,” she would later write in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. Seeking to help remedy the dearth of critical discourse surrounding Black artists, the collection includes incisive essays on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Isaac Julien, Carrie Mae Weems, and Romare Bearden, among others. hooks also contributed to Artforum throughout the 1990s, publishing pieces on Lorna Simpson, Spike Lee, the Hill-Thomas hearings, and an essay about the role of cultural critic in which she decried the dispassionate stance often taken by writers. “The criticism we were encouraged to write as students, the kind that won affirmation and approval, sounded dead,” she reflected. “I write to live.”

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