Gloria Jean Watkins, known as bell hooks, died at the age of 69, leaving an outstanding legacy behind to inspire the next generations. As an African and a woman, she was a double-marginalized figure and a rebellious voice counterarguing the oppressive discourses. During her lifespan, bell hooks penned over 40 works in various genres, ranging from a memoir (Bone Black), essays (Killing Rage), poetry (And There We Wept), children’s books (Happy to Be Nappy), and self-help books, which probably wasn’t even much for her. As she said in Remembered Rapture (1999), “No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’ … No woman has ever written enough.”
hooks’ contributions to literary theory are invaluable for many reasons. First, her writings investigate the “intersectionality” of race, gender, and class to create a solid background for the marginalized groups of society. Secondly, she strategically targets different groups in her books with a passionate desire to reach everybody, some being exclusively addressed to men (The Will to Change), whereas some are devoted to women (Communion), and some to educators (Teaching to Transgress). Even more importantly, she brought black women and their experiences into the mainstream discourse and underscored love as the ultimate healing power to unite people regardless of their racial, gender, and class differences. This blog will introduce you to bell hooks’ life, some of her works, and also what differentiated her works in the feminist movement.
bell hooks’ Life
Gloria Jean Watkins was born to a working-class African-American family on September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in Kentucky. They were six siblings born to Rosa Bell Watkins, a maid serving the White family, and Veodis Watkins, a janitor. She got her education in a public school, growing up witnessing racial segregation.
As a child, she loved reading. Her favorite poets were William Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Embracing literature and writing from a very early age, she felt secure and believed in the power of words that could make a difference. So, it was not surprising that she was an English major. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976, and finally, her doctorate in English from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the City College of New York during the 1980s and 1990s.
Why Watkins chose bell hooks for her pen name evoked curiosity. Behind the reason why she chose it lied her desire to pay tribute to her great-grandmother of the same name, a lady who always said what was on her mind. She also preferred bell hooks stylized in the lowercase to draw attention to her works rather than her persona.
A distinguished professor referred to as an African American feminist trailblazer, she was challenged by her two conflicting desires. As she says, “I wanted most to be a writer, but also an academic. While these two conflicting desires created tensions and anxiety, the longing to be a writer enabled me to rebel against the academic status quo.”
In short, she read, wrote, and taught a lot.
Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
Ain’t I A Woman examines the relationship between racism and feminism by challenging that they are separate. Starting from slavery, she investigates black womanhood by referring to misguided representations of black women. Simultaneously, she largely talks about the demasculinization and dehumanization of black men. One of the points she makes refers to the 1950’s civil rights movement gaining another identity for her, which is “black male patriarchy”(5).
As bell hooks furthers investigation, she points to how white womanhood and the feminist movement failed to cover non-white women and grew subordinate to the patriarchy. More, it was sexist and classist, in her opinion. From that standing point, black women had oppressors from three categories: white women, black men, and white heterosexual men, which later she would name “heteropatriarchy.”
Two quotes cited from the book embody what lies at the heart of Ain’t I A Woman:
“The sisterhood that is necessary for the making of a feminist revolution can be achieved only when all women disengage themselves from the hostility, jealousy, and competition with one another that has kept us vulnerable, weak, and unable to envision new realities.”
“To me, feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels–sex, race, and class, to name a few–and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984)
In Feminist Theory, bell hooks criticizes the feminist movement that failed to propose a solid foundation encompassing all non-white women. In particular, she draws on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and other feminists to demonstrate how the earlier phases of the feminist movement are one-dimensional and limited in their scope. She identifies a classist bias pervaded in their works, which fails to cover the experiences or needs of women without men, children, homeless, non-white or poor.
Responding to this lack, hooks puts emphasis on class as one of the most determinative barriers to prevent women from uniting. So, she touches upon the issue of class and how it affects one’s sense of self, which, consequently, leads to how you place yourself in society. As she says,
…much more than Marx’s definition of the relationship to the means of production. Class involves your behaviour, your basic assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a future, how you understand problems and solve them, how you think, feel, act (2000, 3).
The third important aspect of her Feminist Theory is a call to sisterhood and solidarity as the mere solution to go forward. She believed that union, if once achieved, consequently, would bring acknowledgment of oppressive structures and social institutions. Above all, she wrote this book with the hope of forming a collective mindset that aims for united womanhood. This book is a continuation of Ain’t I A Woman, taking up from where she discussed the fallacies of the feminist movement. She opens a new page in the evolution of the feminist movement by integrating the lived experiences of black women and how they challenged these norms.
All About Love (1999)
bell hooks’ All About Love showcases the different aspects of love, which she sees as a necessity to form an “ethical foundation.” Each chapter dwells upon the different aspects of love, ranging from friendship to romance, forgiveness, and many more. As Michael J. Monahan states, “What makes hooks’ discussion of love so interesting and compelling is in large part the way that it transcends the strictly theological and offers what is ultimately a kind of conceptual analysis of love” (104).
Also, in her essay, “Love as Practise of Freedom,” she states, “as long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation, we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.” Above all, hooks points out the emancipatory aspect of love “as the nurturing power for spiritual growth.”
Feminist pedagogy and bell hooks
In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks saw the classroom as “a space for radical political action” and was aware of how it was subversive and difficult to make the university a site for education, for critical consciousness, for politicization” (dailyjstor). Coming from a background where she was oppressed for being a black female and having racist professors, she noticed many misapplications in the classrooms. And she wanted to fix what was broken with love and inclusive classroom activities and discussions. Perhaps one of her most revolutionary proposals was “whiteness” be “studied, understood, discussed-so that everyone learns that affirmation of culturalism, and an unbiased, inclusive perspective, can and should present whether or not people of color are present” (43).
Furthermore, bell hooks disapproved of academic language, which was hard to comprehend. She was “motivated by the desire to be inclusive, reach as many readers as possible in as many locations” (Teaching 71). Like one of her favorite writers, the English Romantic Wordsworth advocated using common language to reach everyone. It was a deliberate choice on her part not to stick to the conventional academic writing style. She wanted her works to bring two different edges together and unite the theory with practice.
According to bell hooks, theory only made sense when it could be integrated into lived experiences. She prioritized the class discussions and communicative approach and fought to create a liberatory educational practice exercised with a passion for injecting the same excitement and enthusiasm into the students. Also, she believed that as long as one ” speaks directly to the pain that is within folks, and offers healing words, healing strategies, healing theory” (75), the foundation principles of the feminist movement would be more accessible.
bell hooks Institute
Born and raised in Kentucky, she re-bonded with her hometown by becoming a professor at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, in 2004. And in 2014, the bell hooks Institute was established at the college of Berea. The mission of the institution is that:
“The bell hooks Institute documents the life and work of an acclaimed intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer of books. The Institute strives to promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect through critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation.”
In other words, the bell hooks institution honors bell hooks’ legacy, celebrating her teachings and thoughts on love for an inclusive future. Besides this institution, her efforts to unite women while reaching out to everyone got recognition and acknowledged her as an influential and public intellectual. For instance, in 2002, she earned her place on the TIME100 Women of the Year list. And The Atlantic Monthly chose bell hooks as one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals.
Additionally, bell hooks has a rich collection of awards, including the American Book awards/Before Columbus Foundation award for Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (1990), The Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace- Reader’s Digest Fund (1994), and The Bank Street College Children’s Book of the year (2020) for Happy to Be Nappy.
bell hooks in the words of her friends
Women Studies’ Professor, Beverly Guy Sheftall, a close friend of bell hooks, emphasizes her identity as a teacher more than anything else: “She was always the teacher… she was a teacher and believed that her audience was broader than the academy. She wanted to reach the largest number of people, regular people, young boys, and children… She was merciless in her critiques but also unrelenting, audacious. But she was also gentle. Always trying to tell the truth from her perspective.”
“She was a southern countrywoman to her core. She never lost touch with that. There is a kind of intimacy with that identity she held on to through her pen name.” Imani Perry- Prof. African American Studies, Princeton University
Cultural significance of bell hooks’ books
A teacher to the core, bell hooks was not only an intellectual figure who rejected speaking in big abstract words but also very radical in applying her theories. She merged them with personal anecdotes, giving them life, which she cared about most. In addition to focusing on the interrelationship between gender, race, and class, she pointed to the fallacies of the feminist movement with her bold stance.
It was a very strategic move on her part to address long-accepted normative groups, e.g., “men,” “women,” to point out the problems she had observed. She also penned 5 children’s books and curated different meanings of love in a large body of works. Instead of using sterile language, she preferred bold words like “white-supremacist-patriarchal capitalism.” She consistently referred to phrases such as “white supremacy, the imperialism of patriarchy,” and in her later works, “heteropatriarchy.” The aim was to remind us of the system’s brutality, for which she was often criticized. For the same reasons, she had trouble with publishing houses. Against all odds, she has inspired many with her teachings flooded with a passion. To end on a note about the unifying power of love, taken from hooks’ All About Love:
‘To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”