bell hooks: The Author Who Challenged the Norms of Academia

Gloria attracted attention in 1981 when she published her first book. Am I not a woman: Black women and feminism, under her pseudonym Bell Hooks, in honor of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. She wrote the name in lower case, she said, to draw attention from her identity to her ideas. She was a 19-year-old student at Stanford University when she wrote the first draft of this book, which she first published when she was 29 and had already received her PhD in English from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Over the next several decades, her writing and teaching focused on feminism – which it was for and what it definitely wasn’t – as well as capitalism and patriarchy, and how these constructs shaped and deformed relationships between Black people across genders. She wrote about black artists and their art when she both loved and disregarded black people. She wrote about the lens of white supremacy that skewed the representation of blacks in film and television. She wrote about her family and photographs, the segregated black community in her home state of Kentucky, and the rare air she learned to breathe after leaving home to attend and teach at a number of elite educational institutions. She wrote about her relationship wounds that had healed and that still pulsed with emotion. At the end of her career, however, she mainly wrote about finding, understanding and processing the power of love as a balm that can heal individual, cultural and national wounds.

In 2004, she left New York to teach at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to return to Kentucky, where she lived until her death. There she taught at Berea College, a liberal arts school, and founded the Bell Hooks Institute. She never stopped writing. She never stopped teaching.

Although I can no longer say exactly where from, I dusted off another long-forgotten conversation that I had with her decades ago in the hours after the news of her death made the rounds. It was when I was still a PhD student, at a time when I was struggling to convince the professors on my dissertation committee that I should write an academic paper on black women and the politics of hair. In response to my sharing of her repeated “concerns” about the feasibility of the subject, she said, “For black women, our oppression is in our hair.”

I think I never told her how this perfectly articulated statement changed the focus of my dissertation from one that traced a historical artifact, hair, over time, to one that focused on black humanity and black politics, Has sharpened, and Black oppression and survival and joy. This is the legacy she left me, and as the tremors after her death make clear, this is the legacy she left for many of us. Because of bell hooks, we know that we can bring our whole selves into our work. We can trust and believe in our intellect. We can be complicated in our humanity. We can be gentle with our criticism. We can be tough in our protection. We can talk to ourselves until our last breath and talk to ourselves and talk back.

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