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bell hooks, author who brought Black women’s perspectives to feminism, dies at 69

A woman in a yellow blouse standing behind a windowpane
Author bell hooks, photographed in 1996, has died.
(Karjean Levine / Getty Images)

In the fall of 1993, a scholar and feminist who went by the pen name of bell hooks participated in a panel discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” organized by Harvard theologian the Rev. Eugene Rivers.

Regina Austin, a law professor and one of the panelists, posed the question: “Do African American intellectuals have special responsibilities to address the crisis of the American inner cities? I take that as a foregone conclusion, yes.”

For hooks, next to speak, had something to say about that. “I think that a lot of what we’re talking about when we discuss ‘elite Black intellectuals’ is a select group of Black men,” she said. “If we all had documents about our salaries and the money we make and what we do, we’d see exactly who comprises that ‘elite group of Black intellectuals.’”

The audience hooted, applauded and stomped their feet.

“I don’t come here as an intellectual who’s been estranged from her community,” hooks continued. “In fact, I think that a lot of the kinds of bridges that have been built between various Black communities have been formed by Black women thinkers. But our work does not receive attention. So when people say there is a lack of intellectual leadership, part of that lack is the refusal of the masses of people to take on the work that many Black women have already done, and raise us to the level of leaders.”

It was classic hooks — confrontational, direct, challenging conventional ways of thinking and being while illuminating, instead, the everyday lives of women.

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Over the course of her life, the bestselling writer, feminist, poet and cultural critic who popularized intersectionality went far deeper than any single intellectual concept; she wrote more than 30 books, published in 15 languages, exploring the nature of love and the convergence of race, class and gender. Her work was credited with expanding a feminist movement long criticized for centering white women in the middle and upper classes.

Gloria Jean Watkins, known professionally by her lowercase pen name, died Wednesday at her home in Berea, Ky., after an extended illness, according to a family statement from William Morrow Publishers and Berea College in Kentucky, which houses the bell hooks Institute. She was 69.

“We will always remember Gloria as having a great thirst for knowledge which she incorporated into her life’s work,” her family said. hooks is survived by her siblings, including sisters Gwenda Motley and Valeria Watkins.

Roxane Gay, Ibram X. Kendi, Clint Smith and Cornel West were also among those who mourned hooks’ death on Wednesday.

“bell hooks was an extraordinary writer, thinker, and scholar who gave us new language with which to make sense of the world around us,” wrote Smith, author of “How the Word Is Passed,” on Twitter. “Her work was imbued with a deep commitment to truth-telling, but also with a profound sense of care and love for community. She was a treasure.”

Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, bell hooks, Atria Books: 226 pp., $23

West, the longtime racial justice scholar and activist, remembered hooks as “an intellectual giant, spiritual genius, and freest of persons” on Twitter. “We shall never forget her!”

hooks published her first book, “And There We Wept,” in 1978, using her pen name to honor her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and signaling in the lower-case that readers should focus on the substance of her work rather than who she was. (She was often told as a child that her quick thinking and outspokenness reminded relatives of Granny Bell.)

She went on write some of the most celebrated works in feminist literature, including “Ain’t I a Woman,” “All About Love,” “Bone Black,” “Feminist Theory” and “Communion: The Female Search for Love.”

hooks was a voracious reader of psychology, spirituality and self-help books about self-esteem; love was at the heart of her work — particularly its transformative power in the lives of Black Americans.

“Love redeems,” hooks wrote in her 1999 book “All About Love: New Visions.” “Despite all the lovelessness that surrounds us, nothing has been able to block our longing for love, the intensity of our yearning. The understanding that love redeems appears to be a resilient aspect of the heart’s knowledge.”

Hooks followed that book in 2001 with “Salvation: Black People and Love.” Through historical and cultural lenses, hooks writes about love as embedded in such disparate American forces as slavery, Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the film “As Good as It Gets,” hip-hop and the novels of Terry McMillan and Omar Tyree.

In her 1992 book “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” hooks explained the purpose of her cultural criticism: “It struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify.”

The fourth of seven children, Gloria Jean Watkins was born September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Ky. to Veodis and Rosa Bell Watkins, a janitor and housekeeper, respectively. Her love of reading and writing began in early childhood. Her sisters, who shared an upstairs bedroom with her, said she would keep the light on well into the night. The sounds of her writing or turning a page would distract them from sleep until they appealed to her mother to get her to stop.

“There were many summer days that Gloria led the walk to the public library to checkout books,” her family said in a statement. “While Valeria and Gwenda would find one or two Nancy Drew or other fun books, Gloria always had at least ten books of a more serious nature (Shakespeare, ‘Little Women,’ and other classics). With her intense love for information, her ability to speed read was perfected.”

But their mother, keenly aware of her intelligence, kept her bright daughter in check.

“I was a gifted child in a household that didn’t care for distinctions,” hooks once said. “When I was a kid, my mother used to say that being smart didn’t make you better.”

hooks attended segregated schools in Kentucky’s Christian County, then went on to Stanford University in 1973. It was there, as a 19-year-old undergraduate student working as a telephone operator, that hooks wrote the first draft of “Ain’t I a Woman,” taking the title from Sojourner Truth’s now-famous speech.

The demands of school and work made it difficult for the young scholar to find time to write, but the job brought her a community of working-class Black women.

“They provided support and affirmation of the project,” she once wrote, “the kind of support I had not found in a university setting. They were not concerned about my credentials, about my writing skills, about degrees. They, like me, wanted someone to say the kinds of things about our lives that would bring change or further understanding.”

Some 10 years later, in 1981, after receiving a master’s in English from the University of Wisconsin and a PhD in literature from UC Santa Cruz, “Ain’t I a Woman” was published. It has since become a classic work of feminist scholarship on the nature of Black womanhood.

Min Jin Lee, author of the National Book Award finalist “Pachinko” and a former student of hooks’ at Yale, was deeply affected by her professor’s book.

“For me, reading ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind,” she wrote in a 2019 essay for the New York Times. “I am neither white nor black, but through her theories, I was able to understand that my body contained historical multitudes and any analysis without such a measured consideration was limited and deeply flawed.”

Novelist Min Jin Lee discusses leaving her legal career, expressing Asian pride at a time of hate crimes, dealing with people whose stances you dislike and working to change the world, five minutes at a time.

From the mid 1970s until around 2011, hooks lectured at various colleges and universities across the country, including USC, UC Riverside, Occidental College, San Francisco State University, UC Santa Cruz, Yale University and Ohio State University.

At Berea College, where she served as a distinguished professor in residence in Appalachian studies, she founded the bell hooks Institute, which “celebrates, honors, and documents the life and work” of its namesake.

In 2017, she dedicated her papers to Berea College so that future generations would know her work and the effect she had on the intersections of race, gender, place, class and sexuality, the school said. The following year, she was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

hooks was also involved in film and TV documentaries, including IFC’s “BaadAsssss Cinema” (2002), about Blaxploitation in the 1970s, and HBO’s “Happy to Be Nappy and Other Stories of Me”, a 2004 adaptation of some of her children’s books that she wrote and appeared in as herself.

She wrote often about the life experiences that fostered her outspokenness and her ideas. At a young age, hooks took after her great-grandmother, a woman who talked back and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.

“Folks who know me in real life and in the unreal life of books can bear witness to a courageous openness in speech that often marks me, becomes that which I am known by,” she wrote in her 1989 collection “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.”

“I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life.”

COMMUNION The Female Search for Love By bell hooks William Morrow 256 Pages, $24.95 A philosopher, intellectual and writer, bell hooks has never been afraid to tackle difficult subjects, whether they be the differences in feminist thought and practice between white women and women of color, the convergence of race, class and gender in the movies or her difficult childhood.


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