Beloved poet, author, feminist and professor — bell hooks — has died at the age of 69. She passed away in her home after an “extended illness,” according to representatives.
Berea College, the university at which she taught, released the following statement:
“Berea College is deeply saddened about the death of bell hooks, Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies, prodigious author, public intellectual and one of the country’s foremost feminist scholars.”
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks took her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. She opted to lowercase her name so readers would focus on the “substance of books, not who I am,” she said.
The focus of hooks’ writing was the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she described as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She published more than 30 books and numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures. Her work addressed race, class, gender, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism. In 2014, she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.
She was born on September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in Kentucky, to a working-class African-American family. Watkins was one of six children born to Rosa Bell Watkins (née Oldham) and Veodis Watkins. Her father worked as a janitor and her mother worked as a maid in the homes of Caucasian families.
An avid reader, Watkins was educated in racially segregated public schools, later moving to an integrated school in the late 1960s. She graduated from Hopkinsville High School before obtaining her BA in English from Stanford University in 1973, and her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976. During this time, at 24 Watkins was writing her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which was published in 1981.
In 1983, after several years of teaching and writing, she completed her doctorate in English at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1987, with a dissertation on author Toni Morrison.
Ms. hooks’ academic career began in 1976 as an English professor and senior lecturer in ethnic studies at the University of Southern California. During her three years there, Golemics, a Los Angeles publisher, released her first published work, a chapbook of poems titled And There We Wept, written under the name “bell hooks.”
She taught at several post-secondary institutions in the early 1980s and 1990s, including the University of California, Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, Yale (1985 to 1988, as assistant professor of African and Afro-American studies and English), Oberlin College (1988 to 1994, as associate professor of American literature and women’s studies), and beginning in 1994, as distinguished professor of English at City College of New York.
In 1981, South End Press published her first major work, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, though it was written years earlier while she was an undergraduate student. In the decades since its publication, Ain’t I a Woman? has been recognized for its contribution to feminist thought, with Publishers Weekly in 1992 naming it “One of the twenty most influential women’s books in the last 20 years.” Writing in The New York Times in 2019, Min Jin Lee said that Ain’t I a Woman “remains a radical and relevant work of political theory. Hooks lays the groundwork of her feminist theory by giving historical evidence of the specific sexism that black female slaves endured and how that legacy affects black womanhood today.” Ain’t I a Woman? examines themes including the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, devaluation of black womanhood, media roles and portrayal, the education system, the idea of a white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, the marginalization of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism.
Ms. hooks also became significant as a leftist and postmodern political thinker and cultural critic. Her writings ranged in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help; engaged pedagogy to personal memoirs; and sexuality (in regards to feminism and politics of aesthetics and visual culture). Reel to Real: race, sex, and class at the movies (1996) collects film essays, reviews, and interviews with film directors. In The New Yorker, Hua Hsu said these interviews displayed the facet of hooks’s work that was “curious, empathetic, searching for comrades.”
Ms. hooks argued that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are necessary for
In 2004, she joined Berea College as Distinguished Professor in Residence. Her 2008 book, belonging: a culture of place, includes an interview with author Wendell Berry as well as a discussion of her move back to Kentucky. She was a scholar in residence at The New School on three occasions.
She was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2018.