bell hooks at the New School, 10 October 2014. Photo by Alex Lozupone (Tduk), via Wikimedia Commons
African American, Cultural Theory, Philosophy
bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins)
Gloria Jean Watkins, best known by her adopted pen name, bell hooks, was one of the most respected and prolific Black woman thinkers of all time, celebrated for her writing on love, masculinity, race, gender, feminism, and class. As many of her writings indicated, her upbringing in a small Southern segregated town within a working-class African American family greatly informed her outlook, social justice efforts, academic and creative worlds.
Growing up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Watkins graduated from the local high school and went on to attend Stanford University in 1973. She then earned her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1976). Over the course of many years of teaching and writing, she completed her PhD in English (1983) at the University of California, Santa Cruz with a dissertation focused on author Toni Morrison, entitled “Keeping a Hold on Life: Reading Toni Morrison’s Fiction.” Shortly thereafter, Watkins adopted her great-grandmother’s name (bell hooks) as her pen name and to honor her legacy. She opted for a lower-case spelling to bring attention to the written work and not the author’s qualities. She wanted readers to focus on, “the substance of books, not who I am.”
hooks began her academic career in 1976 teaching English and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California. A celebrated lecturer and distinguished professor, throughout her career, she taught at Stanford University, Yale University, Oberlin College, and The City College of New York before joining the faculty of Berea College in Kentucky. From the early 1980s through her career, hooks amassed more than forty publications that included books, academic essays, poetry, and children’s books. In 2014 she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College.
hooks was known as a leftist postmodern thinker and cultural theorist who helped readers and colleagues make sense of the world around them through feminist thought. One of her most well-known and celebrated works Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981) centers sexism and what enslaved Black females endured to reveal how the legacy of (mis)representation has contributed to systemic devaluation of Black womanhood to this very day. Among her vast intellectual offerings and interventions was her identification of the “white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.” hooks purposely strung these words together to encompass a total system of domination that reflects the ways institutional and structural elements of racism intersect with economic and gendered aspects of society to affect the lives of Black women and other women of color.
hooks’ deeply theoretical writing was always accessible—designed to touch and guide her readers to a place of political awakening and transformed understanding. Among her writings of relevance to folklore:
Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994)
Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003)