“I live in a small, pre­dom­i­nant­ly white town in the Bible Belt. Rather than say­ing, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I always think, ‘What does Martin Luther King want me to do today?’ Then I decide what Martin Luther King wants me to do today is to go out into the world and in every way that I can, small and large, build a beloved community.” 

— bell hooks
Excerpted from a 2015 The Stone inter­view by George Yancy enti­tled, “bell hooks: Buddhism, the Beats, and Loving Blackness.”

When Hopkinsville native and lit­er­ary giant bell hooks moved back to Kentucky to join the Berea College fac­ul­ty in 2004, it was a great day for the Commonwealth. It’s always a proud moment when one of our own goes out into the world, makes a name for her­self, and then comes home to roost.

And if you were pay­ing atten­tion to the news in mid-December, you undoubt­ed­ly learned of hooks’ death on December 15, 2021 in Berea. Only 69 years old and gone way too soon, this dis­tin­guished Kentuckian’s demise caused rip­ples of mourn­ing through­out the nation and the world.

bell hooks (Photo by Alex Lozupone (Tduk), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky on September 25, 1952, hooks wrote under the name bell hooks with low­er-case let­ters because she want­ed read­ers to focus not on her, but on her ideas. She chose the pseu­do­nym as an homage to her mater­nal great-grand­moth­er, Bell Blair Hooks.

A deep thinker with an almost imp­ish demeanor in her lat­er years, hooks spent her entire adult life in acad­e­mia, think­ing crit­i­cal­ly, writ­ing thought­ful­ly, and teach­ing pas­sion­ate­ly about her pro­found explo­rations of race, gen­der, class, sex­u­al­i­ty, and love. Throughout her career, she held teach­ing posi­tions at Stanford University, Yale University, Oberlin College in Ohio, City College of New York, and final­ly, Berea College. It was her well-doc­u­ment­ed con­clu­sion that only love, inclu­sion, and accep­tance can lead us to true con­nec­tion as indi­vid­u­als, and as a society.

Often labeled a fem­i­nist, hooks sought to expand the scope of the fem­i­nist move­ment to include efforts to lib­er­ate both men and women from what she con­sid­ered sys­temic insti­tu­tion­al­ized sex­ism. In her view, both sex­es suf­fered due to gen­der-based soci­etal expec­ta­tions and, as a result, expe­ri­enced inequal­i­ty, oppres­sion, and marginalization.

Hooks wrote pro­lif­i­cal­ly and broad­ly, pro­duc­ing a body of work that includes over 35 books. Essays, poet­ry, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, even children’s fic­tion — bell hooks thought like a schol­ar but wrote like a best-sell­ing nov­el­ist. In 2020, Time mag­a­zine chose hooks as one of its “100 Women of the Year,” call­ing her a “rare rock star of a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al.” Among her most pop­u­lar works are “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” (1981), “All About Love” (2000), and “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” (2004).

In 2015, I had the dis­tinct plea­sure of see­ing hooks and fel­low pio­neer Gloria Steinem swap sto­ries and riff on a vari­ety of top­ics at an event cel­e­brat­ing the open­ing of the bell hooks Institute on the Berea College cam­pus. Now known as the bell hooks cen­ter, this stu­dent-ori­ent­ed space is filled with hooks’ pub­lished works and spir­it. You can take a vir­tu­al tour and learn much more about hooks’ lega­cy at https://www.berea.edu/bhc/

A few years lat­er, in 2018, I again had the good for­tune to wit­ness hooks’ induc­tion into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. Smaller in stature than I remem­bered her to be, her com­ments rein­forced what I love most about her: she is the rare aca­d­e­m­ic with a sense of humor and a warmth that belie her colos­sal achieve­ments and con­tri­bu­tions. (Check out a 3‑minute snip­pet of her com­ments at the Hall of Fame induc­tion cer­e­mo­ny on the youtube link below.)

From a per­son­al stand­point, bell hooks has influ­enced me as a thinker, a woman, and a writer.

For the first 20 years or so of my life, the term “fem­i­nist” came out of people’s mouths in gen­er­al­ly one of two ways: sneer­ing­ly or with rev­er­ence. When the term was used dis­parag­ing­ly, it was gen­er­al­ly code for man-hat­ing women whose pri­ma­ry mis­sion in life was emas­cu­la­tion. Those who spat the word out like an epi­thet were usu­al­ly men, but not always. As a young woman who real­ly liked men, but also liked equal­i­ty, this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion was demean­ing and clear­ly wrong.

If only those haters had read bell hooks or, bet­ter yet, known her. Thankfully, her work is wide­ly avail­able in book stores, and there are many videos online of this ground­break­ing Kentuckian who devot­ed her life to the pro­mo­tion of love and equal­i­ty for all.

On January 31, 2018, Hopkinsville native and Berea College pro­fes­sor bell hooks was induct­ed into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame at the Lexington Carnegie Center.

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    Adra Fisher grew up in Winchester, moved away in her ear­ly 20s and returned a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry lat­er. She enjoys all types of art and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to live creatively.