bell hooks, the Pioneering Intersectional Scholar and Author, Dead at 69

Towering feminist, author, poet, and critic bell hooks died on Dec. 14 at her home in Berea, Kentucky, the Lexington Herald Leader reports. She was 69.

hooks’ family confirmed her death in a statement, saying they “honored her request to transition at home with family and friends by her side.” An exact cause of death was not revealed, but the family said hooks had been ill.

During her career, hooks published more than 40 books — from essay collections to children’s books — and worked as a professor at Yale, Oberlin, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2014, she established the bell hooks Institute at Berea College, which houses her archives and hosts events and speakers that seek to further explore how to understand and disrupt what hooks long described as the “imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy” power structure.

In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, hooks spoke about her use of that specific multi-hyphenated term, saying, “We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. Significantly, this phrase has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another. For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters, that domination only came into the world because of rape. Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, ‘Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.’ So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism, and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.”

hooks was born Gloria Watkins on Sept. 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, (her pen name, bell hooks, was a tribute to her great grandmother, and she chose to use lowercase letters to keep the focus on her work, rather than her self). hooks grew up attending segregated schools, but graduated from an integrated high school, after which she completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University, and then earned a Master’s at the University of Wisconsin. In 1981, she published her first major work, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, a pioneering book that traced the marginalization and subjugation of Black women in contemporary society — as well as contemporary civil rights and women’s liberation movements — back to the way Black female slaves were treated.

In future works, hooks continued to explore intersectional issues of race, feminism, and oppression, as well as penning books on pedagogy and how to better teach and approach these issues in the classroom. She also engaged with these themes through more abstract lenses, like her acclaimed 2000 exploration of love and relationships, All About Love: New Visions. 

“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming,” hooks wrote in one famous passage from All About Love. “In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers — the experience of knowing we always belong.”

In 2018, hooks was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, while this past fall, Berea College opened up the bell hooks center to complement the bell hooks Institute. In a 2018 interview with Diverse Education, hooks explained why she was compelled to open the Institute.

“I was discouraged because other Black women said to me, ‘You don’t need an Institute, you don’t know what you’re doing,’” she said. “And I was really shocked, not to get the support but I think that’s the schizophrenia that we live within. People act like, ‘Well, your books will be around.’ You can’t count on this White racist world to keep anything of ours with the care and the commitment that we would like for it to have.”

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