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A trailblazing cultural theorist and activist, public intellectual, teacher and feminist writer, bell hooks, who has died of kidney failure aged 69, authored around 40 books in a career spanning more than four decades. Exploring the intersecting oppressions of gender, race and class, her writings additionally reflected her concerns with issues related to art, history, sexuality, psychology and spirituality, ultimately with love at the heart of community healing.
Using storytelling as effectively as social theory, she was creatively agile in a range of genres, including poetry, essays, memoir, self-help and children’s books, as well as appearing in documentary films and working in academia. However, her outstanding legacy may be her pivotal contribution to Black feminist thought, first articulated in her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which examined both historical racism and sexism, going back to the treatment of Black women from enslavement to give context to continuing racial and sexual injustice.
The daughter of Veodis Watkins, a postal worker, and his wife, Rosa Bell (nee Oldham), she was born Gloria Jean Watkins in the small rural town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and her upbringing was affected by being part of a working-class African-American family in the US south, initially educated at racially segregated schools. A gifted child, she enjoyed the poetry of William Wordsworth, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gwendolyn Brooks, and was encouraged to write verse of her own well before she reached her teens. Scholarships enabled her to study at Stanford University, in California, where she earned a BA in English in 1973, and she took an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976.
That year she began teaching at the University of Southern California, and during her time there her first publication, the poetry chapbook And There We Wept (1978), appeared under the pseudonym bell hooks – a name she adopted in tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, styling it in lowercase so as to keep the focus on her work rather than on her own persona.
She had begun writing her major work, Ain’t I a Woman – its title referencing a celebrated speech by the 19th-century Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth – as an undergraduate. Harshly criticised from some quarters, the book eventually achieved influential status as a classic that centres Black womanhood. Another key title, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), is a critique of mainstream feminist theory in which Black women exist only on the margins, with the women’s liberation movement being primarily structured around issues relevant to white women with class privilege.
The journalist and media consultant Joan Harris recalled the historical context, when “it was almost considered anathema, almost traitorous, if you were Black also to be a ‘feminist’” and joining a white women’s group was not an option, given the differing concerns at the time. Harris said: “Bell’s work clarified things … Her work, her presence, made me, and so many others, feel validated during a truly fraught time.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, hooks taught at a number of educational institutions, among them Yale University, Oberlin College and the City College of New York. In 2004 she joined the faculty of Berea College in her native Kentucky, where in 2014 the bell hooks Institute was established. She received the American Book awards/Before Columbus Foundation award for Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (1990) and was nominated for an NAACP Image award for her 1999 children’s book Happy to Be Nappy.
An advocate of anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist politics, she produced radical writings that shaped popular and academic discourse. Her books illuminated a wide range of topics, evidenced by just a selection of the titles: Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989); Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West, 1991); Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992); Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies (1996); We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004); and Soul Sister: Women, Friendship, and Fulfillment (2005).
Her writing resonated far beyond the US, and her work was translated into 15 languages. Invited to London for the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1991, she spoke and took part in debates and readings, engaging with local activists. In my 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa I included the title essay from her collection Talking Back, which in many ways encapsulates the origins, motivation and inspiration that propelled her forward from early in life.
“In the world of the southern black community I grew up in, ‘back talk’ and ‘talking back’ meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it meant just having an opinion,” she explained. For a child, to speak when not spoken to was to invite punishment, so was a courageous act, an act of risk and daring. It was in that world that the craving was born in her “to have a voice, and not just any voice, but one that could be identified as belonging to me … Certainly for black women, our struggle has not been to emerge from silence into speech but to change the nature and direction of our speech, to make a speech that compels listeners, one that is heard.”
Her spirit refused to be crushed by the somewhat harsh reception her first work received and, tellingly, she wrote: “Now when I ponder the silences, the voices that are not heard, the voices of those wounded and/or oppressed individuals who do not speak or write, I contemplate the acts of persecution, torture – the terrorism that breaks spirits, that makes creativity impossible. I write these words to bear witness to the primacy of resistance struggle in any situation of domination (even within family life); to the strength and power that emerges from sustained resistance and the profound conviction that these forces can be healing, can protect us from dehumanisation and despair.”
For hooks, it was “that act of speech, of ‘talking back’, that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice”.
She is survived by four sisters, Sarah, Valeria, Angela and Gwenda, and a brother, Kenneth.
• bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), writer, born 25 September 1952; died 15 December 2021
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