“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.
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.