bell hooks, the renowned author, critic, activist, and feminist scholar, died Wednesday following an undisclosed illness. News of her death was announced by her family via Twitter and was later confirmed by Berea College, where hooks founded the bell hooks Institute. She was 69-years-old.
“The family is honored that Gloria received numerous awards, honors, and international fame for her works as a poet, author, feminist, professor, cultural critic, and social activist,” the family statement read. “We are proud to just call her a sister, friend, confidant, and influencer.”
Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, hooks grew up in the small, racially segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She was a voracious reader from a young age, and after graduating from high school, she attended Stanford University, where she received a BA in English in 1973. In 1976, hooks received an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in 1981 received a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, writing her dissertation on author Toni Morrison. hooks was a celebrated academic who taught at a variety of universities through the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Yale, San Francisco State University, and Oberlin College. But it was her more than 30 published books and scholarly articles on feminism, black womanhood, and “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that cemented her impact on feminist theory and pop culture critique.
In 1978, she published her first work, a book of poetry titled And There We Wept, under the pen name bell hooks. The name was a nod to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Her reason for using lowercase letters was threefold: it was a way to distinguish hooks from her predecessor, it acted as a blatant subversion to grammar etiquette, and it was an attempt to show that her name was of less significance than the work attached to it.
In 1981, hooks published Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, a highly acclaimed collection of essays that examines the impact of racism and sexism on Black women. The work also offers a blistering critique of the feminist movement, which hooks found overly concerned on the tribulations of middle and upper-class white women as opposed to women who were non-white or poor. The idea that racist, capitalistic, and patriarchal standards are reinforced by well-off white women—including those who consider themselves feminists—prompts handwringing in feminist circles to this day, 40 years after Ain’t I a Woman hit the shelves. This is a testament both to hooks’ perceptiveness and her continued relevance, even when her cultural criticism has been met with controversy and pushback.
If hooks was on a mission to make everyone agree with her, she failed. If, instead, she wanted her readers to reconsider power, question their influences, challenge norms, and approach even the pop culture they love with a critical eye, she succeeded. Whether interrogating feminist theory (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center), education (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom), film (Reel to Real), or relationships (All About Love: New Visions), hooks never shied away from sharp and unflinching critiques, but her observations were always underpinned with a distinct sense of care and love.
“It is essential for our struggle for self-determination that we speak of love, as love is the necessary foundation enabling us to survive the wars, the hardships, and the sickness and the dying with our spirits intact,” hooks wrote in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. “It is love that allows us to survive whole.......to love ourselves no matter our circumstances is already to stand in the place of victory.”