Skip to main content
Select Source:

hooks, bell 1952–

Bell Hooks 1952

Social activist, feminist theorist, educator, writer

At a Glance

Learned to Talk Back

Found Racism in Womens Studies

Wrote First Book at Nineteen

A Career in Higher Education

Selected writings

Sources

Writer, professor, and social critic bell hooks is undeniably one of the most successful cross-over academics of the late twentieth century. Her name, as well as the criticisms of racism and sexism that she has penned, are central to many current academic discussions, and they are also read widely outside of the educational arena. Her 1992 publication Black Looks: Race and Representation, was described by Publishers Weekly as imbued with hookss theoretical rigor, intellectual integrity, breadth of knowledge and passion and a necessary read for anyone concerned with race in America.

Her other books, five of which were on the market before 1992, similarly analyze the functions of race and gender in contemporary culture, taking as their subjects movies, television, advertising, political events, socioeconomic conditions anything that reflects social inequality. In the introduction to Black Looks, which includes essays about Madonna, Spike Lee, and the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, hooks explained the fundamental political purpose of her cultural criticism: It struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify.

The essayist and teacher known to her readers as bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952. The sense of community that would become so significant a note in hookss work grew out of her early life in a black neighborhood in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in rural Kentucky. She recalled her neighborhood as a world where folks were content to get by on a little, where Baba, mamas mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens. In the same essay, Chitlin Circuit, hooks explained how the hardships created by racism could be turned by this community into a source of strength: A very distinctive black culture was created in the agrarian South, by the experience of rural living, poverty, racial segregation, and resistance struggle, a culture we can cherish and learn from. It offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people.

Gloria was one of six siblings: five sisters and a baby brother. Her father worked as a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell Oldham Watkins, worked as a maid in the homes of white families, as did many of the black women in town. Although

At a Glance

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, KY; daughter of a janitor and mother, Rosa Bell (a domestic laborer; maiden name, Oldham) Watkins. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1973; University of Wisconsin, M.A., 1976; University of California at Santa Cruz, Ph.D., 1983.

Worked as a telephone operator during college; lecturer at University of Southern California, 1976-79, University of California at Riverside, 1978, Occidental College, 1980, San Francisco State University, 1981, and University of California at Santa Cruz, 1981 -84; first book, Aint l a Woman, published by South End Press, 1981; assistant professor of African American Studies and English Literature at Yale University, beginning 1985; associate professor in American Literature and Womens Studies at Oberlin College, 1988; teacher of courses in black studies at City College of New York, 1993.

Awards: Before Columbus Foundations American Book Award, 1991, for Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics.

Addresses: 222 Elm Street, Oberlin, OH 44074; or c/o South End Press, 116 St. Botolph Street, Boston MA 02115.

hookswriting in the essay Keeping Close to Home from Black Looks described her father as an impressive example of diligence and hard work, she paid the most tribute to her mothers care; in Homeplace she explained, Politically, our young mother, Rosa Bell, did not allow the white supremacist culture of domination to completely shape and control her psyche and her familial relationships. The author further described how this role applied to mothers in black communities in general: Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.

As a student at segregated public schools such as Booker T. Washington Elementary and Crispus Attucks High, hooks was taught by a dedicated group of teachers, mostly single black women, who helped to shape the self-esteem of children of color. But the late 1960s brought forced school integration to Kentucky. Looking back on her sophomore year of high school in Chitlin Circuit, she recalled, What I remember most about that time is a deep sense of loss. It hurt to leave behind memories, schools that were ours, places we loved and cherished, places that honored us. It was one of the first great tragedies of growing up.

The neighborhood where she grew up provided young Gloria with the affirmation that fostered her resistance to racism, but it also provided her with the negative and positive experiences that would shape her feminism, which she discussed in the essay Aint I a Woman: Looking Back: I cannot recall when I first heard the word feminist or understood its meaning. I know that it was early [in my] childhood that I began to wonder about sex roles, that I began to see and feel that the experience of being made female was different from that of being made male; perhaps I was so conscious of this because my brother was my constant companion. I use the word made because it was obvious in our home that sex roles were socially constructedthat everyone could agree that very small children were pretty much alike, only different from one another physiologically; but that everyone enjoyed the process of turning us into little girls and little boys, little men and little women, with socially constructed differences.

Learned to Talk Back

Although Gloria was supposed to become a quiet, well-behaved young woman, she became instead a woman who talked back. This phenomenon, for which hooks eventually named a volume of essays, actually refers to the development of a strong sense of self that allows black women to speak out against racism and sexism. In the introduction to Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, a collection published in 1989, hooks emphasized the importance of this trait in her personality: Folks who know me in real life and in the unreal life of books can bear witness to a courageous openness in speech that often marks me, becomes that which I am known by. In the essay of the same name, hooks noted the origin of this outspokenness: I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life.

Young Glorias personality was a mix of this disobedient curiosity and a painful reserve; she explained, in retrospect, that safety and sanity were to be sacrificed if I was to experience defiant speech. Though I risked them both, deep-seated fears and anxieties characterized my childhood days.

She wasnt, however, afraid of writing or of books; she used both to further develop her voice. In When I Was a Young Soldier: Coming to Voice, hooks explained that poetryan element of particular importance in the growth of her voicefirst captured her attention at church with reading scripture with those awkward and funny little rhymes we would memorize and recite on Easter Sunday. By the time she was ten, she had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her ability to recite verse. She described the way poetry figured into her early life in When I Was a Young Soldier: Poetry was one literary expression that was absolutely respected in our working-class household. Nights when the lights would go out, when storms were raging, we would sit in the dim candlelight of our living room and have a talent show. I would recite poems: [William] Wordsworth, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks. Poetry by white writers was always there in schools and on family bookshelves in anthologies of great works sold to us by door-to-door salesmen Poetry by black writers had to be searched for.

Although hooks has continued to write poetry and has published some, she gained notoriety as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. In order to do this work, she found herself needing to develop a different voice, a different name. In an essay called To Gloria, Who Is She: On Using a Pseudonym, hooks noted: Gloria was to have been a sweet southern girl, quiet, obedient, pleasing. She was not to have that wild streak that characterized women on my mothers side.

She first used her pseudonymher maternal great-grandmothers namefor a small book of poems; another woman in her community was named Gloria Watkins, and she wanted to avoid confusion. But a different purpose gradually developed, as she noted in Talking Back: One of the many reasons I chose to write using the pseudonym was to construct a writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses leading me away from speech into silence. This writer-identity, represented by the pseudonym bell hooks, grew out of the reputation that the original bell hooks had in Glorias community and, consequently, the sense of self that it could make for Gloria: I was a young girl buying bubble gum at the corner store when I first really heard the full name bell hooks, she remembered in Talking Back. I had just talked back to a grown person. Even now I can recall the surprised look, the mocking tones that informed me I must be kin to bell hooksa sharp-tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back. I claimed this legacy of defiance, of will, of courage, affirming my link to female ancestors who were bold and daring in their speech.

Found Racism in Womens Studies

To a southern black girl from a working-class background who had never been on a city bus, who had never stepped on an escalator, who had never traveled by plane, leaving the comfortable confines of a small town Kentucky life to attend Stanford University was not just frightening, it was utterly painful. In Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education, hooks described her difficult first journey out of Hopkinsville, which she made to begin her undergraduate education at Stanford, a white, Ivy League institution.

Accepting the scholarship that would take her to northern California, hooks gave up the affirmation of her black community but hoped to find a place that would affirm a womans voice talking back. Initially, as she acknowledged in Aint I a Woman: Looking Back, she found some of the intellectual and political affirmation that she had anticipated: I eagerly responded to the fervor over the contemporary feminist movement on campus. I took classes, went to meetings, to all-womens parties. But one of the significant weaknesses of that womens movement quickly became apparent to her: It was in one of my first Womens Studies classes, taught by Tillie Olsen, that I noticed the complete absence of material by or any discussion about black women. I began to feel estranged and alienated from the huge group of white women who were celebrating the power of sisterhood.

That initial disillusionment would eventually fuel hookss major contribution to mainstream feminismher critique of its persistent racism. In Feminism: a Transformational Politic, she translated that early experience in Womens Studies into broad political insight: Within the feminist movement in the West, [there exists] the assumption that resisting patriarchal domination is a more legitimate feminist action than resisting racism and other forms of domination. It became hookss main work to change that assumption.

The unspoken racism she witnessed in the classroom reflected the racism embedded in the academy at large, where an institution run largely by middle-class, white men actively worked to limit the movement of the few people of color who were present. In Black and Female: Reflections on Graduate School, hooks recalled the racism that began in her undergraduate education: We were terrorized. As an undergraduate, I carefully avoided those professors who made it clear that the presence of any black students in their classes was not desired They communicated their message in subtle waysforgetting to call your name when reading the roll, avoiding looking at you, pretending they do not hear you when you speak, and at times ignoring you altogether.

She encountered further obstacles when she pursued her study of literature later in graduate school. Several professors at the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin were determined to stop hooksa black womanfrom earning the graduate degree that she needed to become a university professor. Neither of these programs nor her final degree program at the University of California at Santa Cruz had black women on the faculty. Persisting against the racism, hooks completed her dissertation titled Toni Morrisons Fiction: Keeping A Hold on Life, in 1983. Although she would go on to teach African American literature, hooks only submitted this work for publication in the early 1990s. As early as 1981, however, she already had a major publication to her credit, Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

Wrote First Book at Nineteen

In the early 1970s, in order to combat the racism that permeated her world, hooks turned to the same strategy that had served her so well in childhood: talking back. She was experiencing, every day, as she recorded in Aint I a Woman, a social reality that differed from that of white men, white women, and even black men. She tried to find texts that would explain that difference and validate her recognition of the injustice. The impetus to write her own text finally came from a black male friend who was her lover at the time: When I could not find sources, when I expressed mounting bitterness and rage, he encouraged me to write this book that I was searching for. In Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, she summarized the fundamental idea she needed to capture in that first book: What I wanted so much to do was to say there is a history that has produced this circumstance of devaluation. It is not something inherent in Black women that we dont feel good about ourselves, that we are self-hating. Rather it is an experience which is socially circumscribed, brought into being by historical mechanisms.

Despite the full-time studies she was pursuing at Stanford when she began Aint I a Woman at the age of nineteen, hooks took a job as a telephone operator. Finding time for her writing was a challenge, but hooks also found that the job offered her something she didnt have in school at the timea community of working-class, black women: They provided support and affirmation of the project, she wrote, the kind of support I had not found in a university setting. They were not concerned about my credentials, about my writing skills, about degrees. They, like me, wanted someone to say the kinds of things about our lives that would bring change or further understanding.

The author went through several drafts of the manuscript over the next six years before she had one that satisfied her. A large part of the process, as she reconstructed it in When I Was a Young Soldier: Coming to Voice, was once again about discovering a voice that was strong enough to talk back: The initial completed manuscript was excessively long and very repetitious. Reading it critically, I saw that I was trying not only to address each different potential audienceblack men, white women, white men, etc.but that my words were written to explain, to placate, to appease. They contained the fear of speaking that often characterizes the way those in a lower position within a hierarchy address those in a higher position of authority. Those passages where I was speaking most directly to black women contained the voice I felt to be most truly mineit was then that my voice was daring, courageous. It was at this moment that the persona of bell hooks truly rescued Gloria Watkins.

At first hooks had considerable trouble publishing her work: some publishers would release works on racism, and a number of feminist presses were printing anti-sexist books, but no one wanted to take a risk on a book that treated the two topics together. Eventually, hooks was directed to her future publisher, South End Press, while giving a talk at a feminist bookstore in San Francisco. Once published in 1981, Aint I a Woman became central to discussions of racism and sexism. Eleven years later, Publishers Weekly ranked it among the 20 most influential womens books of the last 20 years. Much of the response, as hooks characterized it in Talking Back, was shockingly negative: The book was sharply and harshly criticized. While I had expected a climate of critical dialogue, I was not expecting a critical avalanche that had the power in its intensity to crush the spirit, to push one into silence.

Most of the criticism came from the academic community, both because hookss form defied academic convention and because her subject matter pressed vulnerable points with established white feminists. The author explained in Breaking Bread that she received her most important feedback from her non-academic readers: When Ain t I a Woman was first published I would get dozens of letters a week, where, say, a Black woman from a small town, out in the middle of nowhere, would tell me that she read my book at the public library and it transformed her life.

A Career in Higher Education

While Aint I a Woman made bell hooks a vital name in feminist debate, Gloria Watkins continued her work. With a Ph.D. in English literature, she embarked on her teaching career. It was in her role as a teacher that hooks felt she was doing her most important work, as she explained in On Being Black at Yale: Education as the Practice of Freedom: Fundamentally the purpose of my knowing was so I could serve those who did not know, so that I could learn and teach my owneducation as the practice of freedom. She knew that for a people historically and legally deprived of the right to education, teaching was one of the most substantial forms of political resistance she could choose.

After holding various lectureships at Santa Cruz in the early 1980s, hooks left for Yale when she had the opportunity to teach in African American Studies, stating: I would not have accepted a job solely in the English Department. I believed that I would find in African American Studies a place within the university wherein scholarship focusing on black people would be unequivocally deemed valuableas necessary a part of the production of knowledge as all other work. In 1988, she joined the faculty at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she would teach in Womens Studies, a program that now offered the critique of racism that was absent during her undergraduate years.

Along with her teaching, hooks has continued to write and publish at a rate that is astonishing even for an academic. She published Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center while still lecturing at Santa Cruz in 1984 and followed it in 1989 with Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. She then produced three books in three years: Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics in 1990; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, which she wrote with Cornel West, in 1991; and Black Looks: Race and Representation in 1992. Her essays frequently appear in a publications that range from the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion to Essence. In 1992 she also submitted volumes of poetry and fiction to publishers.

It is clear that hooks intends to hold fast to the goal she described in Talking Back: Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of talking back, that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subjectthe liberated voice.

Selected writings

And There We Wept (poems), Golemics, 1978.

Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End Press, 1981.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, South End Press, 1984.

Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, South End Press, 1989.

Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, South End Press, 1990.

(With Cornel West) Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992.

A Womans Mourning Song, Harlem River Press, 1992.

Sources

Books

hooks, bell, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, South End Press, 1989.

hooks, bell, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, South End Press, 1990.

hooks, bell, and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992.

Periodicals

Essence, July 1992, p. 124.

Publishers Weekly, June 15, 1992, p. 95.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"hooks, bell 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"hooks, bell 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hooks-bell-1952

"hooks, bell 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hooks-bell-1952

Bell Hooks

bell hooks

Social critic bell hooks (born 1952) is a prolific writer whose books analyze the function of race, as well as gender, in contemporary culture.

Writer, professor, and social critic, bell hooks is undeniably one of the most successful "cross-over" academics of the late twentieth century. Her name, as well as the criticisms of racism and sexism that she has penned, are central to many current academic discussions, and they are also read widely outside of the educational arena. Her 1995 publication Killing Rage: Ending Racism, according to Ingrid Sischy in Interview, "unswervingly, unnervingly faces [the subject of racism], which is so often swept under the carpet and which is afloat in a big way. [hooks] shows racism as the minefield that it is."

Her other books, five of which were on the market before 1992, similarly analyze the function of race, as well as gender, in contemporary culture, taking as their subjects movies, television, advertising, political events, socioeconomic conditions—anything that reflects social inequality. In the introduction to Black Looks, which includes essays about Madonna, filmmaker Spike Lee, and the Anita Hill Clarence Thomas hearings, hooks explained the fundamental political purpose of her cultural criticism: "It struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify."

The essayist and teacher known to her readers as bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952. The sense of community that would become so significant a note in hooks's work grew out of her early life in a black neighborhood in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in rural Kentucky. She recalled her neighborhood as a "world where folks were content to get by on a little, where Baba, mama's mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens." In the same essay, "Chitlin Circuit, " hooks explained how the hardships created by racism could be turned by this community into a source of strength: "A very distinctive black culture was created in the agrarian South, by the experience of rural living, poverty, racial segregation, and resistance struggle, a culture we can cherish and learn from. It offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people."

Gloria was one of six siblings: five sisters and a baby brother. Her father worked as a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell Oldham Watkins, worked as a maid in the homes of white families, as did many of the black women in town. Although hooks—writing in the essay "Keeping Close to Home" from Black Looks—described her father as "an impressive example of diligence and hard work, " she paid the most tribute to her mother's care; in "Homeplace" she explained, "Politically, our young mother, Rosa Bell, did not allow the white supremacist culture of domination to completely shape and control her psyche and her familial relationships." The author further described how this role applied to mothers in black communities in general: "Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world."

As a student at segregated public schools such as Booker T. Washington Elementary and Crispus Attucks High, hooks was taught by a dedicated group of teachers, mostly single black women, who helped to shape the self-esteem of children of color. But the late 1960s brought forced school integration to Kentucky. Looking back on her sophomore year of high school in "Chitlin Circuit, " she recalled, "What I remember most about that time is a deep sense of loss. It hurt to leave behind memories, schools that were 'ours, ' places we loved and cherished, places that honored us. It was one of the first great tragedies of growing up."

The neighborhood where she grew up provided young Gloria with the affirmation that fostered her resistance to racism, but it also provided her with the negative and positive experiences that would shape her feminism, which she discussed in the essay "Ain't I a Woman: Looking Back": "I cannot recall when I first heard the word 'feminist' or understood its meaning. I know that it was early [in my] childhood that I began to wonder about sex roles, that I began to see and feel that the experience of being 'made' female was different from that of being 'made' male; perhaps I was so conscious of this because my brother was my constant companion. I use the word 'made' because it was obvious in our home that sex roles were socially constructed—that everyone could agree that very small children were pretty much alike, only different from one another physiologically; but that everyone enjoyed the process of turning us into little girls and little boys, little men and little women, with socially constructed differences."

Learned to "Talk Back"

Although Gloria was supposed to become a quiet, well-behaved young woman, she became instead a woman who "talked back." This phenomenon, for which hooks eventually named a volume of essays, actually refers to the development of a strong sense of self that allows black women to speak out against racism and sexism. In the introduction to Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, a collection published in 1989, hooks emphasized the importance of this trait in her personality: "Folks who know me in real life and in the unreal life of books can bear witness to a courageous openness in speech that often marks me, becomes that which I am known by." In the essay of the same name, hooks noted the origin of this outspokenness: "I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life."

Young Gloria's personality was a mix of this disobedient curiosity and a painful reserve; she explained, in retrospect, that "safety and sanity were to be sacrificed if I was to experience defiant speech. Though I risked them both, deep-seated fears and anxieties characterized my childhood days."

She wasn't, however, afraid of writing or of books; she used both to further develop her voice. In "'When I Was a Young Soldier': Coming to Voice, " hooks explained that poetry—an element of particular importance in the growth of her voice—first captured her attention at church "with reading scripture with those awkward and funny little rhymes we would memorize and recite on Easter Sunday." By the time she was ten, she had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her ability to recite verse. She described the way poetry figured into her early life in "When I Was a Young Soldier": "Poetry was one literary expression that was absolutely respected in our working-class household. Nights when the lights would go out, when storms were raging, we would sit in the dim candlelight of our living room and have a talent show. I would recite poems: [William] Wordsworth, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks. Poetry by white writers was always there in schools and on family bookshelves in anthologies of 'great' works sold to us by door-to-door salesmen. … Poetry by black writers had to be searched for."

Although hooks has continued to write poetry and has published some, she gained notoriety as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. In order to do this work, she found herself needing to develop a different voice, a different name. In an essay called "To Gloria, Who Is She: On Using a Pseudonym, " hooks noted: "Gloria was to have been a sweet southern girl, quiet, obedient, pleasing. She was not to have that wild streak that characterized women on my mother's side."

She first used her pseudonym—her maternal great-grandmother's name—for a small book of poems; another woman in her community was named Gloria Watkins, and she wanted to avoid confusion. But a different purpose gradually developed, as she noted in "Talking Back": One of the many reasons I chose to write using the pseudonym … was to construct a writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses leading me away from speech into silence." This writer-identity, represented by the pseudonym bell hooks, grew out of the reputation that the original bell hooks had in Gloria's community and, consequently, the sense of self that it could make for Gloria: "I was a young girl buying bubble gum at the corner store when I first really heard the full name bell hooks, " she remembered in "Talking Back." "I had just talked back to a grown person. Even now I can recall the surprised look, the mocking tones that informed me I must be kin to bell hooks—a sharp-tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back. I claimed this legacy of defiance, of will, of courage, affirming my link to female ancestors who were bold and daring in their speech."

Found Racism in Women's Studies

To a southern black girl from a working-class background who had never been on a city bus, who had never stepped on an escalator, who had never traveled by plane, leaving the comfortable confines of a small town Kentucky life to attend Stanford University was not just frightening, it was utterly painful. In "Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education, " hooks described her difficult first journey out of Hopkinsville, which she made to begin her undergraduate education at Stanford, a white, ivy-league institution.

Accepting the scholarship that would take her to northern California, hooks gave up the affirmation of her black community but hoped to find a place that would affirm a woman's voice talking back. Initially, as she acknowledged in "Ain't I a Woman: Looking Back, " she found some of the intellectual and political affirmation that she had anticipated: I eagerly responded to the fervor over contemporary feminist movement on campus. I took classes, went to meetings, to all-women's parties." But one of the significant weaknesses of that women's movement quickly became apparent to her: "It was in one of my first Women's Studies classes, taught by Tillie Olsen, that I noticed the complete absence of material by or any discussion about black women. I began to feel estranged and alienated from the huge group of white women who were celebrating the power of 'sisterhood."'

That initial disillusionment would eventually fuel hooks's major contribution to mainstream feminism—her critique of its persistent racism. In "Feminism: a Transformational Politic, " she translated that early experience in Women's Studies into broad political insight: "Within the feminist movement in the West, [there exists] the assumption that resisting patriarchal domination is a more legitimate feminist action than resisting racism and other forms of domination." It became hooks's main work to change that assumption.

The unspoken racism she witnessed in the classroom reflected the racism embedded in the academy at large, where an institution run largely by middle-class, white men actively worked to limit the movement of the few people of color who were present. In "Black and Female: Reflections on Graduate School, " hooks recalled the racism that began in her undergraduate education: "We were terrorized. As an undergraduate, I carefully avoided those professors who made it clear that the presence of any black students in their classes was not desired. … They communicated their message in subtle ways—forgetting to call your name when reading the roll, avoiding looking at you, pretending they do not hear you when you speak, and at times ignoring you altogether."

She encountered further obstacles when she pursued her study of literature later in graduate school. Several professors at the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin were determined to stop hooks—a black woman—from earning the graduate degree that she needed to become a university professor. Neither of these programs nor her final degree program at the University of California at Santa Cruz had black women on the faculty. Persisting against the racism, hooks completed her dissertation titled Toni Morrison's Fiction: Keeping "A Hold on Life, " in 1983. Although she would go on to teach African American literature, hooks only submitted this work for publication in the early 1990s. As early as 1981, however, she already had a major publication to her credit, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

Wrote First Book at Nineteen

In the early 1970s, in order to combat the racism that permeated her world, hooks turned to the same strategy that had served her so well in childhood: talking back. She was experiencing, every day, as she recorded in Ain't I a Woman, "a social reality that differed from that of white men, white women, and even black men." She tried to find texts that would explain that difference and validate her recognition of the injustice. The impetus to write her own text finally came from a black male friend who was her lover at the time: "When I could not find sources, when I expressed mounting bitterness and rage, he encouraged me to write this book that I was searching for." In Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, she summarized the fundamental idea she needed to capture in that first book: "What I wanted so much to do … was to say there is a history that has produced this circumstance of devaluation. It is not something inherent in Black women that we don't feel good about ourselves, that we are self-hating. Rather it is an experience which is socially circumscribed, brought into being by historical mechanisms."

Despite the full-time studies she was pursuing at Stanford when she began Ain't I a Woman at the age of nineteen, hooks took a job as a telephone operator. Finding time for her writing was a challenge, but hooks also found that the job offered her something she didn't have in school at the time—a community of working-class, black women: "They provided support and affirmation of the project, " she wrote, "the kind of support I had not found in a university setting. They were not concerned about my credentials, about my writing skills, about degrees. They, like me, wanted someone to say the kinds of things about our lives that would bring change or further understanding."

The author went through several drafts of the manuscript over the next six years before she had one that satisfied her. A large part of the process, as she reconstructed it in "'When I Was a Young Soldier': Coming to Voice, " was once again about discovering a voice that was strong enough to talk back: "The initial completed manuscript was excessively long and very repetitious. Reading it critically, I saw that I was trying not only to address each different potential audience—black men, white women, white men, etc.—but that my words were written to explain, to placate, to appease. They contained the fear of speaking that often characterizes the way those in a lower position within a hierarchy address those in a higher position of authority. Those passages where I was speaking most directly to black women contained the voice I felt to be most truly mine—it was then that my voice was daring, courageous." It was at this moment that the persona of bell hooks truly rescued Gloria Watkins.

At first hooks had considerable trouble publishing her work: some publishers would release works on racism, and a number of feminist presses were printing anti-sexist books, but no one wanted to take a risk on a book that treated the two topics together. Eventually, hooks was directed to her future publisher, South End Press, while giving a talk at a feminist bookstore in San Francisco. Once published in 1981, Ain't I a Woman became central to discussions of racism and sexism. Eleven years later, Publishers Weekly ranked it among the "20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years." Much of the response, as hooks characterized it in "Talking Back, " was shockingly negative: "The book was sharply and harshly criticized. While I had expected a climate of critical dialogue, I was not expecting a critical avalanche that had the power in its intensity to crush the spirit, to push one into silence."

Most of the criticism came from the academic community, both because hooks's form defied academic convention and because her subject matter pressed vulnerable points with established white feminists. The author explained in Breaking Bread that she received her most important feedback from her non-academic readers: "When Ain't I a Woman was first published I would get dozens of letters a week, where, say, a Black woman from a small town, out in the middle of nowhere, would tell me that she read my book at the public library and it transformed her life.

A Career in Higher Education

While Ain't I a Woman made bell hooks a vital name in feminist debate, Gloria Watkins continued her work. With a Ph.D. in English literature, she embarked on her teaching career. It was in her role as a teacher that hooks felt she was doing her most important work, as she explained in "On Being Black at Yale: Education as the Practice of Freedom": "Fundamentally the purpose of my knowing was so I could serve those who did not know, so that I could learn and teach my own—education as the practice of freedom." She knew that for a people historically and legally deprived of the right to education, teaching was one of the most substantial forms of political resistance she could choose.

After holding various lectureships at Santa Cruz in the early 1980s, hooks left for Yale when she had the opportunity to teach in African American Studies, stating: "I would not have accepted a job solely in the English Department. I believed that I would find in African American Studies a place within the university wherein scholarship focusing on black people would be unequivocally deemed valuable— as necessary a part of the production of knowledge as all other work." In 1988, she joined the faculty at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she would teach in Women's Studies, a program that now offered the critique of racism that was absent during her undergraduate years.

Along with her teaching, hooks has continued to write and publish at a rate that is astonishing even for an academic. She published Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center while still lecturing at Santa Cruz in 1984 and followed it in 1989 with Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. She then produced three books in three years: Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics in 1990; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, which she wrote with Cornel West, in 1991; and Black Looks: Race and Representation in 1992. The following year saw the publication of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. In addition, hooks's essays frequently appear in a publications that range from the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion to Essence.

Taking a post with the City College of New York in 1995, hooks moved to the Henry Holt publishing company and came out with Killing Rage: Ending Racism, a book that calls for a more proactive approach to solving the problem of racism in America. When asked in Interview magazine why she chose this focus, hooks responded, "Wherever I went, I kept hearing people say, 'I will always be racist, ' or 'This person will always be racist.' And I kept thinking, Why do so many people have bleak, passive responses to racism, where they just act as though it is some kind of illness that will never change, that will never go away. … I kept thinking how this passiveness really belies the history of resistance to racism in our culture. … When one looks at the history of African-Americans in our culture, it's amazing how much has been profoundly altered in people's lives, from the end of slavery to today." With her many critiques of America's societal problems, hooks has certainly proven her own commitment to play a role in bringing attention to all forms of prejudice.

It is clear that hooks intends to stick to the goal she once described in her essay "Talking Back": "Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of 'talking back, ' that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice."

Further Reading

hooks, bell, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, South End Press, 1989.

hooks, bell, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, South End Press, 1990.

hooks, bell, and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992.

Essence, July 1992, p. 124; May 1995, p. 187.

Interview, October 1995, p. 122.

Publishers Weekly, June 15, 1992, p. 95; March 27, 1995, pp. 24-25. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bell Hooks." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bell Hooks." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bell-hooks

"Bell Hooks." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bell-hooks

Hooks, Bell 1952–

Hooks, Bell 1952–

(Gloria Jean Watkins)

Personal

Born September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, KY; daughter of Veodis and Rosa Bell Watkins. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1973; University of Wisconsin, M.A. 1976; University of California Santa Cruz, Ph.D. (English), 1987.

Addresses

Home—291 W. 12th St., New York, NY 10031. Office—Department of English, Berea College, 101 Chestnut St., Berea, KY 40404.

Career

Social critic, educator, and writer. Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor of Afro-American studies and English, 1980–85; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, associate professor of English, 1986–94; City College of New York, professor, then distinguished professor of English, 1995–2004; Berea College, Berea, KY, distinguished professor-in-residence, beginning 2004. Co-founder, Hambone literary magazine.

Awards, Honors

American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1991, for Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics; Writer's Award, Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, 1994; Image Award nomination, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2001, for Happy to Be Nappy; Children's Book of the Year designation, Bank Street College, 2002, for Homemade Love; Hurston Wright Legacy Award nomination, 2002, for Salvation: Black People and Love.

Writings

FOR CHILDREN

Happy to Be Nappy, illustrated by Chris Raschka, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998, boardbook edition, Jump at the Sun (New York, NY), 2001.

Homemade Love, illustrations by Shane W. Evans, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.

Be Boy Buzz, illustrated by Chris Raschka, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.

Skin Again, illustrated by Chris Raschka, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.

ADULT NONFICTION

Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 1981.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984, second edition, 2000.

Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, Between-the-Lines, 1988.

Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between-the-Lines, 1990.

(With Cornell West) Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.

Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.

Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993, second edition, 2005.

Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.

Changing the Subject: Painting and Prints, 1992–94, Art in General, 1994.

Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, New Press, 1995.

Killing Rage: Ending Racism, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.

Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, Routledge (New York, NY), 1996.

Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

All about Love: New Visions, Morrow (New York, NY), 2000.

Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

Where We Stand: Class Matters, Routledge (New York, NY), 2000.

Salvation: Black People and Love, Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.

Communion: The Female Search for Love, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Routledge (New York, NY), 2002.

Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, Atria Books (New York, NY), 2003.

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, Routledge (New York, NY), 2004.

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, Atria Books (New York, NY), 2004.

(With Amalia Mesa-Bains) Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism, South End Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

Contributor to books, including Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, 1992, Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists, 1995, The Masculine Masquerade, 1995, An Elliptical Traverse of 20th-Century Art, 1996, Spoils of War, 1997, Talking about a Revolution, 1998, and UpSouth, 1999. Contributor to periodicals, including Emerge, Callalo, Utne Reader, and Catalyst.

OTHER

A Woman's Mourning Song (poetry), Writers and Readers, 1992.

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.

Sidelights

Considered among the foremost intellectuals of her generation, bell hooks is a social critic and educator who writes about social and cultural topics ranging from racism to feminism to the theory of art and the practice of education. Well known in academic circles for her essays collected in the books Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, among others, hooks has also written movingly of her own childhood in the memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, and of writing in both Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life and Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. Beginning with 1999's Happy to Be Nappy, hooks broadened her audience to include younger children, and the picture books she has produced with illustrators Chris Raschka and Shane W. Evans have been commended for instilling young African Americans with cultural pride and self-esteem.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, hooks grew up in Kentucky, the daughter of a custodial worker and a homemaker. Poetry was a family-shared interest, and when frequent storms caused power outages, the Watkins family would sit in candlelight and recite poetry to one another. Writing her own poetry at an early age, hooks was also inspired by the writings of Emily Dickinson. While she dreamed about becoming an architect when she grew up, the power of words would ultimately prove more compelling than design, although hooks has discussed both art and design in her nonfiction writing.

Hooks's experiences growing up in a segregated community have caused her to focus predominately on the effects of racism in much of her published work. Additionally, her father's rigid traditional beliefs regarding gender roles made her question, early on, the sexism alive in both the black community and U.S. society at large. Her feminist stance is rooted in the strong female role models that figured largely in her early life; in fact, her adopted name is that of her great grandmother, adopted in order, according to Paula Giddings in Ms., to "honor the unlettered wisdom of her foremothers." Hooks writes the name in the lower case, as she explained to Michel Marriott in the New York Times, "to emphasize her message and not herself."

The place of African-American women within the feminist movement of the late twentieth century is the focus of several of hooks's essay collections, including her first, 1981's Ain't I a Woman. Begun when its author was nineteen years old, Ain't I a Woman takes its title from a speech by the nineteenth-century former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. In this book hooks challenges the minor role black women were given in both the feminist and black liberation movements, and champions the idea of sisterhood among black women. She expands her thesis regarding black feminism in Feminist Theory and the essay collection Talking Back. A prolific writer, she continued to publish a book per year throughout the 1990s, in addition to her teaching duties, which included serving as distinguished professor of English at the City College of New York. In books such as Black Looks: Race and Representation and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations she takes on cultural and societal shibboleths: studying not only the black woman's place in the scheme of things, but also that of the black intellectual, while also examining the role of the outsider in so-called mainstream society.

Teaching to Transgress, a collection of essays about the power of teaching, was praised as "full of hope and excitement for the possibility of education to liberate and include" by a Publishers Weekly critic, while her Art on My Mind, a book on the impact of black artists, particularly women, prompted Booklist critic Donna Seaman to write that, "As erudite and sophisticated as hooks is, she is also eminently readable, even exhilarating."

Viewed as inspirational reading for teen readers, hooks's autobiographical writings include the childhood chronicle Bone Black and her recollections of her college years in Wounds of Passion. In Bone Black hooks recalls the formative influences on her youth: the black community, strong women, religion, and the local library. Openly discussing her budding sexuality as well as the domestic turbulence in her home, hooks draws an intimate portrait of growing up black in a segregated community. Dottie Kraft, writing in School Library Journal, found the book to be a "treasure box of memories" and a "unique autobiography of a contemporary African-American woman," while Seaman wrote in Booklist that the memoir, a "lyrical, deeply moving, and brilliantly structured autobiography," showcases hooks's ability "to articulate the sharp, unrelenting anguish of her young self, and her struggle to find comfort and inspiration in books." Wounds of Passion, which takes up hooks's life at the point at which she leaves Kentucky to enroll at Stanford and has, at its heart, her prolonged love affair with a man who she spent fifteen years with, was described by Ann Burns in Library Journal as an "exceptionally written memoir."

With Happy to Be Nappy hooks takes a new direction in her written work, creating a children's picture book that celebrates the unique qualities of blackness. For hooks's young protagonist, her nappy hair is "soft like cotton, / flower petal billowy soft, full of frizz and fuzz." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the book a "joyous ode to hair" and a "powerful, uplifting and, above all, buoyantly fun read-aloud." In Booklist Rochman described the book as "bubbling over with affection, and injecting a strong self-esteem boost for girls." Praising the author's "ebulient, poetic text," Rochman also commended Raschka's "superb" illustrations for "bolstering the theme of individuality."

Described by Horn Book critic Susan Dove Lempke as "a celebration of humanity rather than ethnicity," Skin Again takes another physical characteristic and brings home the point that beneath our varied shells, all humans are unique. "The skin I'm in is just a covering," hooks's young narrator recites. "It cannot tell my story." Addressing the issue of stereotypes in rhythmic language that will appeal to young children, the book employs "exuberant, playful imagery that will open discussion," according to Rochman. Dubbing Skin Again a "verbal and visual celebration" that features Raschka's "impressionistic" art, School Library Journal reviewer Grace Oliff praised hooks for her "deft handling of language," noting that it makes the story "gently persuasive rather than didactic."

Building self-esteem, particularly among African-American children, is the unifying theme of hooks's picture books. Described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as a "stunning volume" that "celebrates all things boy," Be Boy Buzz once again reunites hooks and Raschka in a pairing of rhyme and delightful artistry. What the Publishers Weekly reviewer described as the author's "rhythmic blend of brevity and eloquence" inspires the illustrator's pastel and watercolor portraits depicting a young boy engaging in everything from running and jumping to pouting and dreaming. While noting in her Black Issues Book Review article that hooks's "liberal use of Ebonics may prove controversial," Evette Porter nonetheless praised the "sparse narrative" for its ability to convey a range of childhood feelings.

Broadening her scope from the child to the family, Homemade Love pairs hooks's verse with Evans' brightly toned artwork to present what a Kirkus Reviews contributor described as a "paean to parental unconditional love" that features a "joyful, loving African-American family." Narrated by a young black girl dubbed "girlpie" by her parents, the book shows that mis-steps do not diminish true affection within a loving home. In School Library Journal Amy Lilien-Harper praised the book's young protagonist for "exuding happiness and a zest for life," while in Booklist Gillian Engberg commended hooks's picture book as "an elemental celebration of children and African-American pride."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 94, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St.

James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Florence, Namulundah, Bell Hooks's Engaged Pedagogy: A Transgressive Education for Critical Consciousness, Bergin & Garvey, 1998.

hooks, bell, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

hooks, bell, Happy to Be Nappy, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.

hooks, bell, Skin Again, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.

hooks, bell, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.

PERIODICALS

Black Enterprise, June, 1992, p. 23.

Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2002, Evette Porter, "Bell hooks' Be a Boy and Girlpie," p. 42.

Booklist, June 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, p. 1715; September 15, 1995, Bonnie Smothers, review of Killing Rage: Ending Racism, pp. 118, 147; September 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Bone Black, p. 189; February 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Bone Black, p. 1025; August 19, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Happy to Be Nappy; November 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, re view of Be Boy Buzz, p. 508; February 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Homemade Love, p. 1001; January 1, 2004, Vernon Ford, review of We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, p. 796; September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Skin Again, p. 250.

Bookwatch, July 1989, p. 4; September, 1992, p. 10.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 2002, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 160; February, 2003, review of Homemade Love, p. 238; December, 2004, Karen Coats, review of Skin Again, p. 171.

Choice, April, 1982, review of Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, p. 1141; July, 1985, p. 1703.

Essence, July, 1989, p. 20.

Horn Book, November-December, 2004, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Skin Again, p. 698.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1995, review of Art on My Mind, p. 534; November 15, 1998, review of Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work; September 1, 2002, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 1310; December 1, 2002, review of Homemade Love, p. 1769; August 15, 2004, review of Skin Again, p. 897.

Library Journal, December 1, 1981, Mary Biggs, review of Ain't I a Woman, p. 2326; March 15, 1985, p. 68; December, 1988, p. 126; July, 1992, p. 109; September 15, 1996, Ann Burns, review of Bone Black, p. 75; October 1, 1997, Ann Burns, review of Wounds of Passion, p. 94; March 15, 2000, Ann Burns, review of All about Love: New Visions, p. 112; November 1, 2000, Emily Joy Jones, review of Where We Stand: Class Matters, p. 104.

Ms., July, 1983, p. 24; October, 1985, Paula Giddings, review of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, p. 25.

Multicultural Review, April, 1992; March, 1993, Itibari M. Zulu, review of Black Looks: Race and Representation, p. 84.

New Directions for Women, January, 1992, p. 22.

New Statesman, October 22, 1982, p. 31; November 30, 1990, p. 39.

New York Times, November 13, 1997, Michel Marriott, "The Eye of the Storm," pp. F1, F4.

New York Times Book Review, February 29, 1993, D. Soyini Madison, review of Black Looks, p. 23; December 18, 1994, p. 27; September 17, 1995, p. 25; December 15, 1996, Thulani Davis, "Native Daughter," p. 32.

Phylon, March, 1983, p. 85.

Political Science Quarterly, spring, 1983, p. 84.

Progressive, March, 1991, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, November 18, 1988, review of Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, p. 72; November 22, 1991, p. 49; June 15, 1992, p. 95; July 19, 1999, review of Happy to Be Nappy, p. 194; September 30, 2002, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 71; November 18, 2002, review of Homemade Love, p. 59; November 25, 2002, Robert Fleming, "Feminist Revolutionary Comes down to Earth" (interview), p. 54; November 10, 2003, review of We Real Cool, p. 49; October 18, 2004, review of Skin Again, p. 62.

Queen's Quarterly, summer, 1990, p. 318; November 7, 1994, review of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, p. 70; September 22, 1997, review of Wounds of Passion, p. 64; July 19, 1999, review of Happy to Be Nappy, p. 194.

School Library Journal, March, 1997, Dottie Kraft, review of Bone Black, p. 217; November, 1999, Karen James, review of Happy to Be Nappy, p. 120; December, 2002, Amy Lilien-Harper, review of Homemade Love, p. 97; December, 2002, Anna DeWind Walls, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 97; September, 2004, Grace Oliff, review of Skin Again, p. 162.

Sight and Sound, June, 1991, p. 36; May, 1997, p. 34.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1982, p. 10; December, 1992, p. 14; November, 1995, p. 19.

West Coast Review of Books, April, 1982, p. 51.

Women's Review of Books, February, 1985, P. Gabrielle Foreman, review of Feminist Theory, p. 3; September, 1991, p. 12; October, 1993, p. 12; March, 1995, p. 10.

ONLINE

Orlo Web site, http://www.teleport.com/∼orlo/be4/interview/bellhooks.html (May 10, 2006), interview with hooks.

Shambhala Sun Web site, http://www.shambhalasun.com/ (May 10, 2006), Pema Chödrön, interview with hooks.

OTHER

bell hooks: Cultural Criticism and Transformation (film), Media Center Foundation, c. 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hooks, Bell 1952–." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hooks, Bell 1952–." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/hooks-bell-1952

"Hooks, Bell 1952–." Something About the Author. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/hooks-bell-1952

Hooks, Bell

BELL HOOKS

Born: September 25, 1952
Hopkinsville, Kentucky

African American activist, educator, and writer

Writer, professor, and social critic, bell hooks is undeniably one of the most successful "cross-over" academics of the late twentieth century. Her books look at the function of race and gender in today's culture.

Childhood

Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, bell hooks was raised in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small, segregated (separated by race) town in rural Kentucky. She recalled her neighborhood as a "world where folks were content to get by on a little, where Baba, mama's mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens." She later explained how this community turned the hardships created by racism (the idea that one race is superior to another) into a source of strength. The neighborhood where she grew up provided young Gloria with her resistance to racism, but it also provided her with the negative and positive experiences that would shape her feminism (support of equal rights for women).

Gloria was one of six siblings: five sisters and a baby brother. Her father worked as a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell Oldham Watkins, worked as a maid in the homes of white families. As a student at segregated public schools, hooks was taught by a dedicated group of teachers, mostly single black women, who helped to shape the self-esteem (satisfaction with oneself) of children of color. But the late 1960s Kentucky schools became desegregated. By the time she was ten, hooks had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her ability to recite poetry.

Learned to "talk back"

Although hooks was supposed to become a quiet, well-behaved young woman, she became instead a woman who "talked back." This action, for which hooks eventually named a volume of essays, actually refers to the development of a strong sense of self that allows black women to speak out against racism and sexism.

Although young hooks continued to write poetrysome of which was publishedshe gained a reputation as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. In order to do this work, she found that she needed to develop a different voice, a different name. She first used her pseudonym (assumed name)her maternal great-grandmother's namefor a small book of poems. She decided not to capitalize her first and last names in an attempt to place the focus on her work, rather than her name.

Wrote first book at nineteen

After high school, hooks accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, in California. Despite her full-time studies she began Ain't I a Woman at the age of nineteen. She also took a job as a telephone operator. Finding time for her writing was a challenge, but hooks found that the job offered her something she did not have in school at the timea community of working-class, black women.

The author went through several drafts of the manuscript over the next six years before she had one that satisfied her. It was at this moment that the persona of bell hooks truly rescued Gloria Watkins. At first hooks had considerable trouble publishing her work, and eventually she was directed to her future publisher, South End Press, while giving a talk at a feminist bookstore in San Francisco. Once published in 1981, Ain't I a Woman became a central book in discussions of racism and sexism. Eleven years later, Publishers Weekly ranked it among the "twenty most influential women's books of the previous twenty years."

A career in higher education

While Ain't I a Woman made bell hooks an important name in feminist debate, she continued her work. After obtaining a doctorate degree in English literature, she began her teaching career. It was in her role as a teacher that hooks felt she was doing her most important work. She knew that for a people historically and legally denied the right to education, teaching was one of the most substantial forms of political resistance she could choose.

After holding various positions at the University of California in Santa Cruz, California, in the early 1980s, hooks left for Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, when she had the opportunity to teach in African American Studies. In 1988 she joined the faculty at Oberlin College, in Ohio, where she would teach in Women's Studies, a program that now offered the critique of racism that was absent during her undergraduate years.

Taking a post with the City College of New York in 1995, hooks moved to the Henry Holt publishing company and came out with Killing Rage: Ending Racism, a book that calls for a more proactive approach (initiative) to solving the problem of racism in America.

Hooks lives in New York City and remains an important figure in the fight against racism and sexism in America. With the release of Communion: The Female Search for Love in 2002, hooks has more than twenty books to her name with more to come.

For More Information

Hooks, bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989.

Hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Hooks, bell, and Cornel West. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. Boston: South End Press, 1991.

Talking about a Revolution: Interviews with Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bell Hooks, Peter Kwong, Winona LaDuke, Manning Marable, Urvashi Vaid, and Howard Zinn. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hooks, Bell." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Hooks, Bell." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hooks-bell

"Hooks, Bell." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hooks-bell