bell hooks, groundbreaking feminist thinker, Kentucky native dies at 69

Published 5:26 am Thursday, December 16, 2021

bell hooks, the groundbreaking author, educator and activist whose explorations of how race, gender, economics and politics intertwined helped shape academic and popular debates over the past 40 years, has died. She was 69.

In a statement issued through William Morrow Publishers, hooks’ family announced that she died Wednesday in Berea, Kentucky, home to the bell hooks center at Berea College. Additional details were not immediately available, although her close friend Dr. Linda Strong-Leek said she had been ill for a long time.

“She was a giant, no nonsense person who lived by her own rules, and spoke her own truth in a time when Black people, and women especially, did not feel empowered to do that,” Dr. Strong-Leek, a former provost of Berea College, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “It was a privilege to know her, and the world is a lesser place today because she is gone. There will never be another bell hooks.”

Starting in the 1970s, hooks was a profound presence in the classroom and on the page. She drew upon professional scholarship and personal history as she completed dozens of books that influenced countless peers and helped provide a framework for current debates about race, class and feminism. Her notable works included “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” and “All About Love: New Visions.” She also wrote poetry and children’s stories and appeared in such documentaries as “Black Is … Black Ain’t” and “Hillbilly.”

Rejecting the isolation of feminism, civil rights and economics into separate fields, she was a believer in community and connectivity and how racism, sexism and economic disparity reinforced each other. Among her most famous expressions was her definition of feminism, which she called “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

Ibram X. Kendi, Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom and others mourned hooks. Author Saeed Jones noted that her death came just a week after the loss of the celebrated Black author and critic Greg Tate. “It all feels so pointed,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Hooks’ honors included an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, which champions diversity in literature. She taught at numerous schools, including Yale University, Oberlin College and City College of New York. She joined the Berea College faculty in 2004 and a decade later founded the center named for her, where “many and varied expressions of difference can thrive.” One former student at Yale, the author Min Jin Lee, would write in The New York Times in 2019 that in hooks’ classroom “everything felt so intense and crackling like the way the air can feel heavy before a long-awaited rain.”

hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 in the segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and later gave herself the pen name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother, while also spelling the words in lower case to establish her own identity and way of thinking. She loved reading from an early age, remembering how books gave her “visions of new worlds” that forced her out of her “comfort zones.”

Her early influences ranged from James Baldwin and fellow Kentucky author Wendell Berry to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Martin Luther King was my teacher for understanding the importance of beloved community. He had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way,” she said in an interview that ran in Appalachian Heritage in 2012.

She majored in English at Stanford University and received a master’s in English from the University of Wisconsin. It was the 1970s, the height of second wave feminism, but hooks — “this bold young black female from rural Kentucky” — felt apart from the movement and its “white and female comrades.” She was still in college when she began writing “Ain’t I a Woman,” named for a speech by Sojourner Truth and a now-canonical look at how the “devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery.”

Over the following decades, Hooks examined how stereotypes influence everything from music and movies (“the oppositional gaze”) to love, writing in “All About Love” that “much of what we were taught about the nature of love makes no sense when applied to daily life.” She also documented at length the collective identity and past of Black people in rural Kentucky, a part of the state often depicted as largely white and homogeneous.

“We chart our lives by everything we remember from the mundane moment to the majestic. We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering,” she wrote in “Belonging: A Culture of Place,” published in 2009.
“I pay tribute to the past as a resource that can serve as a foundation for us to revision and renew our commitment to the present, to making a world where all people can live fully and well, where everyone, can belong.”