Bell Hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins) is a contemporary feminist theorist who deals with issues of race, gender, class, and sexual oppression. She took her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother as a way to honor her female ancestors and chose to use lowercase letters to get away from the ego associated with names. She has provided commentary on a wide range of topics from popular culture and writing to self-esteem and teaching.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, Bell Hooks grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She described her town as a “world where folks were content to get by on a little, where Baba, mama's mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens.”
Her father was a janitor for the local post office and her mother was a homemaker. Her early life was marked by dysfunction. Her father, in particular, represented the fierce oppression she would come to associate with the patriarchy. A need to escape her tumultuous home life was what first led Hooks to poetry and writing.
Hooks attended racially segregated public schools. Her love of the written word would later inspire her to comment on the healing power of critical thinking. In her early years, hooks combined her love of reading with public speaking, often reciting poems and scriptures in her church congregation.
Growing up in the South also instilled in Bell Hooks a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. These early fears almost discouraged her from pursuing her love of writing. She received almost no support from her family, who felt that women were better suited for a more traditional role. The social atmosphere of the then-segregated south added to their discouragement.
Hooks chose to rebel against this by adopting her great-grandmother's name and creating another self that was linked to female ancestors who were defiant in their need to achieve speech. By creating this other self, hooks empowered herself to fight back against the opposition that surrounded her.
Education and First Books
Hooks began to write her first book, “Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” while she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1973, Hooks enrolled in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she earned a Master's degree in English.
Bell Hooks entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. For the next few years, Hooks worked her dissertation about the novelist Toni Morrison. At the same time, she completed the manuscript of Ain't I a Woman and published a book of poetry.
College Teaching and Early Concerns
While seeking a publisher, Hooks began teaching and lecturing at various colleges along the West Coast. She found a publisher for her book in 1981 and two years later received her doctorate.
Like others before her, Hooks found the mainstream feminist movement had focused mostly on the plight of a group of white, college-educated, middle and upper-class women who had little to no stake in the concerns of women of color. Hooks had long been troubled by the absence of women of color in women's studies courses. “Ain't I a Woman,” represents the beginning of her efforts to bring the cultural concerns of African American women into the mainstream feminist movement.
Research and Writing on Women of Color
In her research, Hooks found that, historically, women of color often found themselves in a double-bind. By supporting the suffrage movement, they would have to ignore the racial aspect of womanhood and if they supported only the Civil Rights Movement, they would be subjected to the same patriarchal order that dogged all women.
As her writing shed light on the racism inherent in the mainstream feminist movement, Hooks encountered enormous resistance. Many feminists found her book to be divisive and some questioned its academic integrity due to the absence of footnotes. This unorthodox writing style, however, would soon become a trademark of Hooks’ style. She maintains that her method of writing is meant to make her work accessible to everyone, regardless of class, access, and literacy.
Continued Development of Theory
In her next book, Feminist Theory From Margin to Center, Hooks wrote a philosophical work that was grounded in Black feminist thought. In this book, Hooks continues her argument that feminists have not succeeded in creating political solidarity with women of different ethnicities or socioeconomic classes. She feels there needs to be a more transformative politics that is not as rooted in Western ideology.
Hooks has always argued for solidarity: between genders, between races, and between classes. She believes that anti-male sentiments re-institute the ideology that feminism aims to change. Hooks states that if there is to be liberation for women, men must also play a role in the struggle to expose, confront, oppose, and transform sexism.
Though she has often been accused of being confrontational, Hooks has never wavered in her belief that change is a painful and disconcerting process. She continues to believe in the transformative power of language and has become a master at turning private pain into public energy. Hooks has always believed that the ongoing practices of domination require silence. She remains interested in bridging the gap between the public and the private. For Hooks, using her status as a public intellectual to link communal voices is a way to educate and empower. Speech, Hooks believes, is a way to transform from object to subject.
In 1991, Hooks collaborated with Cornel West for the book Breaking Bread, which was written as a dialogue. Both were primarily concerned with the notion of a Black intellectual life centered in the African American community. They believe rigid lines of separation found in public intellectualism have compromised this intellectual life. Hooks argues that Black women, in particular, have been silenced as serious critical thinkers. For Hooks, this invisibility is both due to institutionalized racism and sexism, which is reflected in Black women's lives both inside and outside of the academy.
Hooks’ focus on marginality inside and outside of the academy led her to study more closely the nuances of domination found within popular culture. In subsequent works, hooks has critiqued representations of Blackness, focusing particularly on gender.
Hooks continues to produce many books and other writings. She still believes that critical examination is key to gaining self-empowerment and overthrowing systems of domination. In 2004, Hooks began teaching as a distinguished professor in residence at Berea College. She continues to be a provocative feminist theorist and still gives lectures.
September 25, 1952
- Gloria Watkins’ maternal great-grandmother inspired her pen name, Bell Hooks, which she first used while publishing a small book of poems. She opted to not capitalize her first and last names to emphasize her writing instead of herself.
- Hooks began working on Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, her earliest mainstream work, when she was 19. It was published a decade later in 1981, and Hooks has authored more than 30 books since. She writes for readers of all ages: Her work includes several board books, aimed toward very young children.
- In an interview with JSTOR, Hooks talked about her writing process and revealed why she prefers handwriting her books. “I like to handwrite because I think differently when I do so,” she said. “For me, the stages tend to be that I work something through in my head, and then start writing it.”
- In her book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, Hooks called Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire one of her major mentors. She didn't agree with everything Freire said. But his concept of critical consciousness left a mark, and the philosopher had a lasting effect on her ideas of literacy and consciousness, two concepts she views as necessary for the feminist movement's future.
- Hooks, who identifies as a Buddhist Christian, was first introduced to spirituality through Beat poets, particularly Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. She explained how Buddhism inspires her writing habits: “One of the things I like about Buddhism is its emphasis on practice; when I apply that to writing, writing becomes a form of practice that gives me the energy to spend long hours.”
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