By Annie Bell
bell hooks: 1952-2021.
On 15th December 2021, the world said goodbye to an illustrious feminist luminary. The news of bell hook’s passing at the age of 69 was announced by her niece, explaining she had sadly been facing an undisclosed illness. Infamous for her revolutionary approaches to racism and patriarchal oppression, social media was flooded with tributes from heartbroken people around the world thanking her not only for the work she did giving voices to Black women but for the personal impact she had on their lives. Born Gloria Jean Watkins in September 1952 to a working-class African-American family, she grew up in the heavily racially segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, attending a segregated school. The pen name ‘bell hooks’ was later adopted by the activist as a nod to her beloved great-grandmother, intentionally choosing to not capitalise her name in order to retract attention and credit from herself and instead maintain focus on the ideas of her work. Her first book, ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism’, arguably her most famous work, was published in 1981. Referring to this book as ‘a love letter from me to black women’, hooks discussed the importance of intersectionality and its essentiality to all activist movements, advocating its necessity for the implementation of true change. She wrote of the importance of the interrelation of recognition of class and race to identity, and brought to light the inequitable attention feminism gave to white, able, middle-class women whilst black, disabled and lesbian women were seemingly left to swim against the tide.
hooks were one of the first and most prominent figures to critique feminist theory for its exclusive nature and tendency to overlook those who needed it most, taking the voices of black women from the back of the shelf and pushing them to the centre of people’s thoughts. hooks went on to write over 40 books and continued to give a voice to the unheard throughout her career. She is credited with coining the term ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ and was one of the earliest theorists to explain how misogyny and patriarchy can be best explored through examining our education of men, particularly those from white, upper-class backgrounds. In 2004, the year after publishing ‘The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love’ she began work as a teacher at Berea College, later opening the bell hooks Institute there in 2010 and becoming a well renowned postmodern political thinker. In 2018 she was introduced into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame, and her first book was named ‘one of the twenty most influential women’s books’ by Publishers Weekly. Her writing was not just limited to a critique of oppression, however, she also wrote and spoke on the importance of spirituality, self-love and respect, as well as writing poetry and children’s books. She had an ability to not only speak for silenced communities but touch the lives of individuals and ignite self belief and inspiration. Contemporary feminists have claimed we all owe hooks a significant debt and Black communities have expressed deep gratitude for half a century’s worth of work rewriting the socially prescribed narrative. While hooks’ work has been far-reaching and powerful, there is still work to be done.
Her spirit and her intellect inspired a community of women to interrogate the discourse that devalued them and, for the first time, made an unheard community feel loud. It is only right that bell hooks remain a name in the history books, just as she will remain a name in many people’s hearts.
Image: The bell hooks Institute