bell hooks is a revolutionary writer, educator, and cultural critic. She explores the intersectionality of race, class, and gender and the way they are used to perpetuate systems of oppression. Her feminism is not about elevating women into positions of power that were developed in the patriarchy, but rather replacing the patriarchy with a culture of love and mutuality.
Gloria Jean Watkins was born in 1952 in a small segregated town in Kentucky. Her father was a custodian, and her mother a homemaker. She attended an all-black school, where she found a love of learning through the tutelage of black women who were committed to nurturing intellect. In 1960, she was transferred to an integrated school with white teachers that she felt were more interested in disseminating bodies of knowledge from a white perspective. She has said that “we soon learned that obedience, and not zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us.”
She earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 1973, an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976, and a PhD in literature from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 1983. Her dissertation was on Toni Morrison.
She became an English professor and senior lecturer in Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California in 1976, holding that position for three years. She published her first book during this time – a collection of poems titled And There We Wept. In order to honor the legacy of her outspoken grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, Watkins took the pen-name of bell hooks. She chose to use all lower-case letters so readers would not focus on her, but on her message.
For the next 25 years, she taught at a multitude of institutions. In addition to working at the University of California – Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University, she was a Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College, and a Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York. In 2004, she joined Berea College in Kentucky as Distinguished Professor in Residence, where she led regular feminist discussion groups, seminars, and a lecture series. And, several times she has been a scholar-in-residences at The New School, which has included public dialogues with people such as feminist Gloria Steinem, actress and LGBTQ advocate Laverne Cox (highlighting that feminism must be trans-inclusive), philosopher Cornel West, and TV host and professor Melissa Harris-Perry,
“My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness. As teachers we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know.” – bell hooks
During her undergraduate studies, at the age of 19, she wrote her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, but it wasn’t published until 1981. In it, hooks explores the lack of race in discussions among white women, the lack of gender in discussions among black men, and how both are perpetuating systems of oppression. She examines “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, the marginalization of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism.”
She has since published more than 30 books, not just focusing on black women, but also examining black men, the patriarchy, masculinity, and sexist gender roles. She has also written about education, sexuality, self-help, media and cinema, and the importance of building community. So as to make her ideas accessible to more than just academics she writes in a very personal style, using personal anecdotes. For this, she has been criticized by several academics. She has also published personal memoirs, poetry collections, and children’s books.
“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.” – bell hooks
Her understanding of feminism differs from the two most commonly perpetuated ideas of feminism: the understandable but ineffective anti-male feminism that is rooted in an anger stemming from abusive relationships, and the feminism primarily seen among white, well-educated, upper-class women who deny that race and class play a formative role in womanhood. She points out that these women focus their attention on the white-collar work world, and ignore marginalized working class or poor women and women of color. She points out the inherent racism in proclaiming that “women are equal to men” because it ignores the fact that not all men are treated as equals.
hooks does not merely point out the systems of oppression, the failings, the structural imbalances; she promotes the ideas of feminism being revolutionary, not reformist; that love is possible; that love in all its varied forms has value (romantic, friendship, our love of strangers, community); eliminating violence is a crucial part of feminism; and feminism must help women of all races and classes.
The bell hooks institute was founded in 2014 to document her life and work, and to use critical thinking, teaching, events, and conversation to “promote the cause of ending domination through understanding the ways systems of exploitation and oppression intersect.