Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021) was born into a working-class Black family in the backwoods of apartheid Kentucky. Her segregated hometown of Hopkinsville sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, whose landscape would remain a significant part of her identity and inspiration. As a child, Gloria was a voracious reader. She found kinship in the reclusiveness of Emily Dickinson and the boldness of Langston Hughes. “The books are a new world,” she wrote in Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. “I am even less alone.”
Like most Black communities during Jim Crow, the church and classroom were the heart of Hopkinsville. The political leadership of the Black church and the radical teachings of Black women schoolteachers made a lasting impression on hooks. It was education that was her ticket out of the anti-Black South. At 17, she enrolled at Stanford.
The university opened space for hooks to express herself as a woman, but not as a Black woman. To cope, hooks embraced Buddhism and the pen name bell hooks, her great-grandmother’s name, spelt in lower case in rejection of the ego. You could find hooks on Stanford’s campus wearing jeans under tunics, fro’ blown out, working part-time as a preschool teacher. Early in the morning, she would find a closed-off space to write intensely. At night, her social life revolved around poetry cafes. There, she listened to poets like Gary Snyder, another Appalachian renegade, and met the lover who inspired her to write her first manuscript, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, at age 19. It took a decade for her to find a publisher for the text, now considered seminal to feminist theory.
“Were we Black or women first?” This invocation, from Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom, refers to hooks’ ambition of transforming Black feminism into a Black feminist politics. hooks’ praxis of looking at Black experience through a feminist standpoint revolutionised the feminist canon and classroom. Over the course of her teaching career – first at the University of Southern California, where she earned her PhD, later at Brea College in Kentucky – her literature and cultural theory courses situated Black feminists works within American English genealogies, and hooks herself at the forefront of the feminist third wave.
Like many, bell hooks reached me via academia. In graduate school, as we struggled with learning how to cite/sight/site place, we were nicely disoriented by hook’s proclamation of situating “homeplace as a site of resistance”. hooks not only taught us to centre ourselves within the intellectual inquiry; she also challenged us to orient ourselves towards a liberatory praxis, no matter how disparate our relationship seemed to the problem.
For most millennials, to be unaware of bell hooks is to be unfeminist. Her work is canon in the academy, and made highly accessible through social media. But with every 280-character quote or empty citation, the context to which hooks wrote is lost. In fact, the way many of us engage with her advances the white supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalism she fought so hard against. Both her harshest critics and her most ardent followers alienate hooks from her words and political commitments. Particularly within the Black community, there is a reluctance to think with hooks as a contradictory and revolutionary Black critical theorist. Perhaps this is due to her celebrity status as a Black public intellectual during the 1990s. Then again, I am still waiting to see Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates Jr undergo a similar crucifixion.
Without South End Press, a small worker-owned book publisher, we would not recognise bell hooks as the cultural theorist we do today. Through the 1990s, hooks averaged one to two books a year with South End, in addition to visual media, magazine articles and critical essays. The sheer volume of her books required dedicated bell hooks shelves at independent bookstores and made hooks the quintessential voice on American pop culture, Black art criticism, Black cultural politics and queer theory. She was everywhere and had an answer to everything.
With texts like Black Looks: Race and Representation, Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies and Outlaw Culture, hooks used popular culture to demonstrate how we are living the afterlives of chattel slavery and the American capitalist-imperialist regime. She posited Black American vernacular life as a point of departure for understanding the American white supremacist patriarchy. Her oppositional gaze held people, places and structures accountable. But her claims in her work were not without contradiction, and some of her arguments were weak. For some, some of her books on queer love or Black gender politics read as callous self-help texts; her prescriptions for Black male uplift in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity have been interpreted as at best misrepresenting, at worst pathologising the multitude of perspectives Black men hold about their experiences. At times hooks refused to acknowledge these faults, especially during the era of her celebrity. Still, her detractors deconstruct her work without the grace it deserves.
We’ve now lost bell hooks to a new American culture war, one that alienates strategies of Black resistance from their purpose. Critical race theory has become a primary target of white supremacist ideology in the classroom and public sphere. Meanwhile, Black public intellectuals – Ta Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole-Hannah Jones – are so consumed with answering their detractors that they forget their commitment to the material transformation of the lives of the Black and marginalised folks they claim to represent. As we struggle against state-sanctioned violence and poor public health infrastructure, as the prison-industrial complex and even the right to abortion remain realms of struggle, we no longer have hooks to give us new poetry for healing and strategy. What we do have is the ability to reread hooks without alienating her from her intentions. She gave us enough to make new medicine.
OD Enobabor (Omawu Diane Enobabor) is a PhD student in geography at the City University of New York and a critical cultural worker.