bell hooks/Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021)

Bell Hooks, November 1, 2009
Photo by Cmongirl, public domain

Writer, teacher, and cultural critic, bell hooks, was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to a working-class family.  Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a janitor for the local post office, and her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, was a homemaker, raising Gloria and her six siblings.

Gloria Watkins attended racially-segregated public schools in Hopkinsville as a child.  She performed poetry readings for her church community and was heavily influenced by her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, who was known for her sharp opinions.  As a writer, she chose the pseudonym “bell hooks” in tribute to her mother and great-grandmother.  She decided not to capitalize her new name to place focus on her work rather than her name, on her ideas rather than her personality.

Watkins attended Stanford University on scholarship.  She graduated in 1973 and went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature in 1976.  In 1983, she obtained her Ph.D. at the University of California-Santa Cruz, having completed her dissertation on the work of novelist Toni Morrison.

Frustrated by the lack of interest in race issues by white women scholars and gender issues by black male scholars. Her first published book was a collection of poetry, And There We Wept, in 1978.  In 1981, she published Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which was perhaps her most significant scholarly work.  In this book, she centralized the intersection of race, sex, and class at the core of black women’s lives.  She argued that each identity has the ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination.  The book established her as a formidable critic and intellectual and set out some of the central themes that have characterized her later work.

hooks accepted a joint appointment in English and African American studies at Yale University in 1985.  In 1988, she began teaching at Oberlin College in Ohio.  In 1989, she published Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, which focused on the impact of white imperialist, patriarchal domination in daily life.  In 1994, she accepted the prestigious Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature post at the City College of New York.

A passionate scholar, hooks was among the leading public intellectuals of her generation.  She published over forty books and scholarly articles, on topics such as masculinity and patriarchy, self-help and engaged pedagogy, feminist consciousness and community creation, and representation and politics.

In 2004, she returned to her home state after accepting a faculty position at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where she was appointed Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies. Berea College created the bell hooks Institute in 2013 to preserve her legacy and opened the bell hooks Center in September 2021.

After a long illness, bell hooks died from renal failure at her home in Berea, Kentucky on December 15, 2021. She was 69 years old.