With her iconic name deliberately spelled in lowercase letters, it’s sometimes easy to gloss over the bell hooks and her nickname. Nevertheless, the woman, her prose and her presence in academia are far too important to ignore.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, Bell Hooks was a bonafide black feminist author, teacher, poet, and public intellectual. She chose her name as a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks: a fitting choice for a woman who wrote eloquently about identity and what it meant specifically for black women to live and survive. at the intersections of racism, sexism and classism, and to do so without getting lost. She has written prolifically about the connections between race, gender and class and has in fact begun work on her first comprehensive book, Am I Not a Woman: Black Women and Feminism at the age of 19.
hooks was born and raised in Hopkinsville, a remote town in Kentucky, USA, by a working-class family. She was one of six children, born to Rosa and Veodis, a maid and janitor respectively. Hooks named Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks as her favorite poets to read when she was young. She would grow up teaching and writing, studying at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. Her doctoral dissertation in English from the University of California, Santa Cruz focused on the work of another iconic black woman, Toni Morrison.
Apart from Am I not a womanbrackets also wrote Feminist theory: from the margins to the center (1984) and teach to transgress (1994) and, of course, one of his most iconic books, all about love (1999). Through her writing, Hooks would become known as a prolific cultural critic, taking a sharp knife to the curtain that is drawn on how popular culture and the media have perpetuated oppression against the most marginalized, cutting it through so that we all witnessed it.
The first and considerably powerful “truth” that Hooks’ work explored was the idea of a “universal female experience,” applying the matrix of intersectionality from black feminists before her and pushing it a step further to include the ways in which class and the media affect women’s lives. Her analysis was interpreted as radical at the time since the idea that all women share a common past was understood as the foundation of mainstream feminism. Yet the brackets highlighted the complexity of women’s lives and identities and how this further complicated the concept of sisterhood within feminism. In a 2013 essay on Sheryl Sandberg for The Feminist Wire, she clarified her analysis, writing about how the politics of representation has its limits and how “the formation of true female solidarity” depends “on a solidarity based about awareness of difference as well as the all-too-common gendered experiences that women share.
Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, established the theory of the “male gaze” to illustrate how ways of viewing and interpreting images, especially in mainstream cinema, are produced with a masculine and heteronormative motivation. . bell hooks had a pretty deep understanding of the power of the gaze, of the “gaze” and, more importantly, the effects of the gaze on those who are looked at, especially black people. She introduced the idea of the “oppositional gaze”, arguing that “gaze” is a political act and that those on the other end of the gaze are not passive but rather capable of challenging their overseers. Black people, Hooks wrote, can use the “oppositional gaze” to criticize their oppressors, and all oppressed people can allow themselves to look back at society and rebel against injustice. “Watching bravely, we defiantly declared,” she wrote, “Not only will I be watching. I want my look to change reality.
Hooks died of kidney failure on December 15, 2021, at the age of 69. She left over 40 books and articles, forever changing academia. At a time when feminist and gender studies focused only on white women and a particular capitalist perspective, she rose above superficial analysis to delineate a feminist practice rooted in solidarity among those of all races, gender identities and socio-economic positions. Her work has had a profound impact on women and gender studies, pedagogy, language and writing.
What makes Hooks so unique is the origin of its writing: love. It’s one thing to write about oppression and injustice – to write about racism and misogyny – in a clinical way, to diagnose the ills of society. It’s quite another to write from a place of deep intimacy, favoring more accessible language than academic jargon, but never sacrificing clarity or sharpness. When assessing the power structures in our society, Hooks refused to write from a place of “misfortune” and instead chose not only to interpret injustices, but to provide us with the road map. to destroy them. Scholarly writing can seem very antiseptic, aloof, and even cold, but Hooks loved us, devoting his life and academic career to saying it unapologetically. She has collected a scholarly tradition that asks “who are you writing for?” and “can they hear you?”
Poet Danez Smith, scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, author Naomi Jackson and journalist Kaila Philo each cite hooks as inspiration for their work. As Ivie Ani, Editor-in-Chief and Director of Amaka Studio told The Cut, “She made the theory accessible, concise and digestible for everyone – and did it with a sense of urgency.” She gave what she knew, when she knew it, so that we would know it too. She was a light.
In teach to transgress, she wrote, quoting the great American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, “No wonder, then, that we keep thinking, ‘It’s the language of the oppressor but I need to speak to you.'” She has spoken to black women, people, all of us, reminding us that within each of us lies the power to assess the world around us and disobey its violent and oppressive limits and expectations. bell hooks preferred to spell her name in lowercase letters to encourage us to focus our attention on her message rather than herself, and it’s safe to say we heard her, loud and clear.