Bell Hooks, a pioneering African-American college activist, recently died of kidney failure at the age of 69. She has published 40 books, mostly on the intersection of gender, race, and class. Hooks was a versatile writer and incisive essayist who also wrote about psychology, pedagogy, art, music, and spirituality. A Renaissance woman, she published poetry, memoirs, literary reviews, film reviews and children’s books, while making documentaries. She was an organic intellectual who believed in speaking in the colloquial idiom of working-class black Americans, so that her work could reach and represent the marginalized communities whose self-confidence and sense of purpose she sought to build. identity.
A Southern Rural Childhood
Gloria Jean Watkins – bell hooks – was born on September 25, 1952 in the small working-class town of Hopkinsville, rural Kentucky. Her father, Veodis, was a postman, while her mother, Rosa, was a housewife. Gloria – the fourth of seven children – adopted the pen name, bell hooks, in honor of her outspoken great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Gloria wrote the name in lowercase to emphasize the need for readers to focus on her text rather than her person: a stark contrast to the shameless self-promotion of the contemporary social media narcissistic generation.
Intellectually gifted and a prodigious reader, Hooks grew up in racially segregated schools, soaking up the poetry of William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Browning, as well as African Americans Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. She attended an integrated high school in Kentucky as the American civil rights movement gathered pace in the 1960s.
The Evolution of a Radical Black Feminist: Stanford, Wisconsin and Santa Cruz
Hooks won a scholarship to Ivy League, Stanford University, California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1974. It was her first time leaving rural Kentucky, and Stanford was a culture shock. . She took refuge with a group of local working-class black women while working as a telephone operator. Hooks received a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976 and completed her doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz seven years later, with a thesis on the work of the African-American Nobel laureate from literature, Toni Morrison.
Having acquired a top-notch education in these predominantly white-dominated institutions, Hooks was ready to take on the world. She was not afraid to say radical things that many thought, but did not dare to express. She wore her hair in natural African braids and played the role of a contemporary Joan of Arc ready to be burned at the stake for her heretical views. Launching a sustained assault on what she described as the system of “capitalist imperialist white supremacy patriarchy”, her lifelong credo was uncompromising: “A devaluation of black womanhood has occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that hasn’t changed in the course of hundreds of years. She also denounced the powerlessness of black people to combat the pervasive negative stereotypes of their image in white-dominated American media, cinema and society.
The cultural warrior
Hooks’ work was courageous, confrontational and critical. She resisted the elitist label of “public intellectual”, preferring instead to think of herself more as a grassroots scholar-activist. She was a pioneering iconoclast and unabashed cultural warrior who set out to slaughter feminist holy cows and orthodox shibboleths. the hooks gave black feminists the confidence to find their own voice and tell their own stories. African-American feminists like Angela Davis and Alice Walker forced the establishment of Black Women’s Studies into American university curricula in the late 1970s, successfully arguing that their narratives had been marginalized in Black studies curricula. Studies. hooks was their heir.
Her first book was a collection of poems, And There We Wept, published in 1978 while she was teaching at the University of Southern California. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by Hooks in 1981 has become an iconic feminist text. It dealt with the historical and contemporary oppression of black women, based on the brutality of slavery and the imperialism of patriarchy. She was unfazed by some of the hostile reviews of her work, continuing to condemn “acts of persecution, torture – terrorism that breaks spirits…” She insisted that black women must pass from imperial objects to liberated subjects, and resisted efforts to silence strong black radical voices. Her 1984 Feminist Theory: From the Margins to the Center was a scathing critique of mainstream white feminist theory which she argued erased the experiences of black women and privileged those of middle-class white women. Hooks thus called for the centering of marginal black and brown women, and the recognition of socio-economic inequalities in the construction of a more inclusive feminist movement.
In 1989 Hooks published Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Two years later came Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, a collaboration with famed African-American theologian Cornel West, who described the brackets as “an intellectual giant.” The 1993 Sisters of the Yam called for political resistance and self-healing by black women throughout the African diaspora. Three years later, Hooks published Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood and, the same year, Reel to Reel: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. In 2004, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity emerged. She was critical of black patriarchy, but also sympathetically acknowledged the historical victimization and oppression of black men, whose inclusion she consistently promoted in the struggle to defeat patriarchy. His books have been translated into 15 languages and continue to be used in school curricula around the world. By the 2000s, Hooks had become a famous scholar whose work was to be read on every continent. Often wading through popular culture, she criticized the phallocentrism of Spike Lee’s films and the ideological inconsistencies of Beyoncé’s art.
The sweetness of the hearth
Hooks returned to her close-knit Kentucky community in 2004 and lived there for the last 17 years of her life. She taught at Berea College and had the foresight to establish the Bell Hooks Institute at the university in 2014, which now houses all of her archives and collected works. By this time, the self-proclaimed “Buddhist Christian” had reduced her teaching load and spent time meditating, visiting family and friends, and writing about the Appalachian foothills. She had softened somewhat, emphasizing the importance of love and community in healing America’s deep racial and gender wounds. As she noted, “I wholeheartedly believe that the only way out of domination is through love.” Hooks was the ultimate iconoclast who constantly challenged conventional orthodoxy and charted his own original path. In the process, she did much to force black feminist narratives into the intellectual mainstream.
Prophetic to the end, Hooks had imagined the consequences of his own demise: “This is how I imagine ‘the end’: I close my eyes and see hands holding a bowl of Chinese red lacquer, walking up to atop the kentucky hill call mine, scattering my remains as if they were seeds and not ashes, a burnt offering, on solid ground vulnerable to wind and rain – all that remains of my body has disappeared, my being has changed, passed away, advancing and into eternity.”
Professor Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.