Gloria Jean Watkins (September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021), better known by her pen name bell hooks, was an American author and social activist who was Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. She is best known for her writings on race, feminism, and class. The focus of hooks's writing was to explore the intersectionality of race, capitalism, gender, and what she described as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She published around 40 books, including works that ranged from essays and poetry to children's books. She published numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures. Her work addressed love, race, class, gender, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.
Gloria Jean Watkins 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 white families. In her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996), Watkins would write of her "struggle to create self and identity" while growing up in "a rich magical world of southern black culture that was sometimes paradisiacal and at other times terrifying."
She began her academic career 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 (1978), written under the name "bell hooks". She had adopted her maternal great-grandmother's name as her pen name because, as she later put it, her great-grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which I greatly admired,". She also said she put the name in lowercase letters both to honor her great-grandmother and to convey that what is most important to focus upon is her works, not her personal qualities: the "substance of books, not who I am." About the unconventional lowercasing of her pen name, hooks added that, “When the feminist movement was at its zenith in the late ‘60s and early '70s, there was a lot of moving away from the idea of the person. It was: Let’s talk about the ideas behind the work, and the people matter less... It was kind of a gimmicky thing, but lots of feminist women were doing it.”
South End Press published her first major work, Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, in 1981, though she had written it years earlier while still an undergraduate. 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 and the marginalization of black women.
bell hooks in 2009
At the same time, hooks became significant as a leftist and postmodern political thinker and cultural critic. She published more than 30 books, ranging 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".
As hooks argued, communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are necessary for the feminist movement because without them people may not grow to recognize gender inequalities in society.
In 2002, hooks gave a commencement speech at Southwestern University. Eschewing the congratulatory mode of traditional commencement speeches, she spoke against what she saw as government-sanctioned violence and oppression, and admonished students who she believed went along with such practices.The Austin Chronicle reported that many in the audience booed the speech, though "several graduates passed over the provost to shake her hand or give her a hug."
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, the last time in 2014. Also in 2014, the bell hooks Institute was founded at Berea College, where she donated her papers in 2017.
She was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2018.
Regarding her sexual identity, hooks described herself as "queer-pas-gay". She uses the term "pas" from the French language, translating to "not" in the English language. hooks describes being queer in her own words as "not who you’re having sex with, but about being at odds with everything around it". She states, "As the essence of queer, I think of Tim Dean’s work on being queer and queer not as being about who you’re having sex with – that can be a dimension of it – but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live."
During an interview with Abigail Bereola in 2017, hooks revealed to Bereola that she was single while they discussed her love life. During the interview, hooks told Bereola, "I don't have a partner. I've been celibate for 17 years. I would love to have a partner, but I don't think my life is less meaningful."
hooks, bell (2004), "Selling hot pussy: representations of Black female sexuality in the cultural marketplace", in Richardson, Laurel; Taylor, Verta A.; Whittier, Nancy (eds.), Feminist frontiers (5th ed.), Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 119–127, ISBN978-0072824230. Pdf.
^Dinitia Smith (September 28, 2006). "Tough arbiter on the web has guidance for writers". The New York Times. p. E3. Archived from the original on July 3, 2018. Retrieved February 21, 2017. But the Chicago Manual says it is not all right to capitalize the name of the writer bell hooks because she insists that it be lower case.
^McGrady, Clyde (December 15, 2021). "Why bell hooks didn't capitalize her name". Washington Post. ISSN0190-8286. Archived from the original on December 15, 2021. Retrieved December 21, 2021. Early on, hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, wanted a way to honor her maternal great-grandmother while detaching herself from her work. She wrote dozens of books using her great-grandmother’s name but didn’t capitalize it.
^Williams, Heather (March 26, 2013). "bell hooks Speaks Up". The Sandspur. Archived from the original on February 28, 2021. Retrieved November 10, 2019 – via Issuu.
hooks, bell (2005). "Black women: shaping feminist theory". In Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O. (eds.). Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology. Oxford, UK; Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 60–68. ISBN978-1405116619.
hooks, bell; Trend, David (1996), "Representation and democracy an interview", in Trend, David (ed.), Radical democracy: identity, citizenship, and the state, New York: Routledge, pp. 228–236, ISBN978-0415912471