By Clay Risen, The New York Times
bell hooks, whose incisive, wide-ranging writing on gender and race helped push feminism beyond its white, middle-class worldview to include the voices of Black and working-class women, died Wednesday at her home in Berea, Kentucky. She was 69.
Her sister Gwenda Motley said the cause was end-stage renal failure.
Starting in 1981 with her book “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” hooks, who insisted on using all lowercase letters in her name, argued that feminism’s claim to speak for all women had pushed the unique experiences of working-class and Black women to the margins.
“A devaluation of Black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years,” she wrote.
If that seems like conventional wisdom today, that is in large part because of the enormous impact that hooks had on both feminism and Black women, many of whom had resisted aligning with a movement they felt was designed to diminish their experiences.
“I think of bell hooks as being pivotal to an entire generation of Black feminists who saw that for the first time, they had license to call themselves Black feminists,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University. “She was utterly courageous in terms of putting on paper thoughts that many of us might have had in private.”
Womanhood, hooks said, could not be reduced to a singular experience but had to be considered within a framework encompassing race and class. She called for a new form of feminism, one that recognized differences and inequalities among women as a way of creating a new, more inclusive movement — one that, she later said, had largely been achieved.
She applied a similar, and equally trenchant, criticism to Black anti-racism, which she said was often grounded in a patriarchal worldview that excluded the experiences of Black women. But she also recognized, in books like “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” (2004), that such a worldview resulted from centuries of oppression and exclusion of Black men.
hooks resisted the title “public intellectual,” but by the 2000s she had achieved celebrity status. Her books, written in a flowing, jargon-free style, were required reading across a wide range of college courses. She appeared onstage with actors like Laverne Cox and activists like Janet Mock, and on the bookstand of model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, who cited hooks as inspiration while writing her recent essay collection, “My Body” (2021).
Part of hooks’ appeal was the sheer diversity of her interests. Her work, across some 30 books, encompassed literary criticism, children’s fiction, self-help, memoir and poetry, and it tackled not just subjects like education, capitalism and American history but also love and friendship.
In “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom” (1994), she argued that the American education system had been constructed to quell dissent and shape young people into productive workers — and that it was therefore up to teachers to push against the grain by showing students how to use knowledge to resist.
She did just that in her own classes, instructing her students to see critical thinking and reading as liberating acts.
“She was a foundational influence on how I understood the possibility of my becoming a writer,” said Min Jin Lee, author of the novel “Pachinko,” who took two classes with hooks at Yale University. “She taught me how to read. But more than that, she taught me how to read as a global person.”
bell hooks was the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins, who was born Sept. 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small city in the southwestern part of the state not far from the Tennessee border.
Although her childhood in the semirural South exposed her to vicious examples of white supremacy, her tightknit Black community in Hopkinsville showed her the possibility of resistance from the margins, of finding community among the oppressed and drawing power from those connections — a theme to which she would return frequently in her work.
Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a postal worker, and her mother, Rosa Bell (Oldham) Watkins, was a homemaker. Along with her sister Motley, hooks is survived by three other sisters, Sarah Chambers, Valeria Watkins and Angela Malone, and her brother, Kenneth.
Her early education took place in segregated schools, although she moved to white-majority schools once the state integrated its education system — an experience in navigating complex racial and gender hierarchies that she later drew on in her memoir, “Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood” (1996).
She was an avid reader, vacuuming up books and reading long past her bedtime. She dreamed of becoming an architect and of leaving small-town Kentucky behind.
“Gloria learned to read and write at an early age and even proclaimed she would be famous one day,” her sisters said in a statement released after her death. “Every night we would try to sleep, but the sounds of her writing or page turning caused us to yell down to Mom to make her turn the light off.”
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hooks began her climb at Stanford University, from which she graduated in 1974 with a degree in English literature. While still an undergraduate, she began writing “Ain’t I a Woman,” its title borrowed from a speech by Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
She received a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1976 and a doctorate in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983, with a dissertation on Toni Morrison.
Her first book was a collection of poems, “And There We Wept,” which was published in 1978 while she was teaching at the University of Southern California. It was the first time she used the pen name bell hooks — in homage to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, to whom she was often compared as a child. She insisted on rendering it in lowercase letters to emphasize, she often said, the “substance of books, not who I am.”
After teaching at a number of institutions, including Yale, Oberlin College and the City College of New York, she returned to Kentucky in 2004 to take up a teaching position at Berea College. A decade later, the college created the bell hooks Institute as a center for her writing and teaching.
By the 2010s, she had entered semiretirement and was spending her days writing, meditating and visiting with her neighbors in Berea, an intellectually vibrant town in the foothills of the Appalachians.
“I loved how open her table always was with such hard conversations, mediated by her incredible balance of encouraging patience and absolute honesty,” novelist Silas House, a friend and former Berea instructor, said in an email.
Especially in her later work, hooks emphasized the importance of community and of healing as the end goal of movements like feminism and anti-racism. Some criticized this position as papering over deep social divisions.
But hooks, who described herself as a “Buddhist Christian” and spoke often of her friendship with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, insisted that love was the only way to overcome what she called the “imperialist white supremacy capitalist patriarchy.”
“I believe wholeheartedly that the only way out of domination is love,” she told philosopher George Yancy in an interview for The New York Times in 2015, “and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.