Watkins, Gloria Jean 1952-
WATKINS, Gloria Jean 1952-
PERSONAL: Born September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, KY; daughter of Veodis (a custodian) and Rosa Bell (a homemaker) Watkins. Education: Stanford University, B.A. (English), 1973; University of Wisconsin, Madison, M.A. (English), 1976; University of California at Santa Cruz, Ph.D., 1983.
CAREER: Social critic, educator, and writer. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, English instructor and senior lecturer in ethnic studies, 1976-79; taught various subjects at institutions, including San Francisco State University, during the early 1980s; Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor of Afro-American studies and English, beginning c. 1985; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, associate professor of women's studies and American literature, 1988-94; City College of the City University of New York, distinguished professor of English, beginning 1994.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1991, for Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics; Writer's Award, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest, 1994.
UNDER NAME BELL HOOKS
Ain'tIaWoman: Black Women and Feminism, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1981.
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1984, 2nd edition, 1999.
Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (essays), South End Press (Boston, MA), 1989.
Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1990.
(With Cornell West) Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1991.
A Woman's Mourning Song (poetry), Writers and Readers, 1992.
Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1992.
Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1993.
Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (essays), Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.
Emma Amos: Changing the Subject: Paintings and Prints (catalog essay), Art in General (New York, NY), 1994.
Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom, Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.
Killing Rage: Ending Racism, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (essays), Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor) Gumbo YA YA: Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists, Midmarch Arts, 1995.
Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Happy to Be Nappy (juvenile), illustrated by Chris Raschka, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1996.
Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, Routledge (New York, NY), 1996.
Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
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.
Homemade Love (juvenile), Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
Salvation: Black People and Love, Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.
Be Boy Buzz (juvenile), Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.
Communion: Female Search for Love, Morrow (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), 2003.
Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Routledge (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of And There We Wept (chapbook of poems), 1978; Black Is a Woman's Color (part 1 of memoirs), c. 1996; and Cat Island Woman (part 2 of memoirs), c. 1996. Contributor to Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, 1992; Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African-American Woman's Film, 1992; Felix Gonzales-Torres: Traveling, 1994; and Spoils of War: Women of Color, Culture, and Revolution, 1998. Contributor of essays to periodicals, including Utne Reader, Catalyst, Callaloo, Emerge, and Essence.
SIDELIGHTS: Gloria Jean Watkins, who writes under the name bell hooks (cited in lowercase), has written prolifically about many social issues. Her work takes an approach that is at once analytical yet also impassioned and personal. She explores the ways that African-American culture, womanhood, feminism, the civil rights movement, and critical theory both clash and complement each other, in the world at large and in her personal life. She has challenged the feminist movement with being largely racist, and has frequently voiced her concern over the negative images of blacks perpetuated in the popular media. She has also written children's books and poetry, memoirs, and books dealing with the need for love and increased self-esteem among the members of the African-American community. "At her best she exhibits a command of various voices that range from subtle overlays of the personal and historical to a refreshing public forthrightness that stings," wrote P. Gabrielle Foreman in the Women's Review of Books. "Inevitably, a reader will cheer through one essay and scowl through another."
Watkins grew up in rural Kentucky, in a small, segregated community with five sisters and one brother. Her father worked as a custodian for the U.S. Postal Service, and her mother worked as a domestic. Watkins has said that growing up in a family of strong women was extremely important to her, and she took her great-grandmother's name as a way of paying homage to the legacy of her female ancestors. She recalled in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, "I was a young girl buying bubble gum at the corner store when I first really heard the name bell hooks. 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."
Watkins was drawn to literature and writing from an early age. Her scholastic achievement was such that she was able to attend Stanford University on scholarships. It was in college that she became aware of class differences and racism in a way she never had before. She found the campus environment much less liberal and open than she expected, and was surprised at the lack of attention paid to black women by the fledgling feminist movement. She perceived a lack of material about African-American women at the library, as well, which spurred her to begin writing her own books. Her first publication was the poetry chapbook And There We Wept, published in 1978.
After several years and numerous revisions, Watkins published Ain'tIaWoman: Black Women and Feminism, her first book of theory. In Ain'tIaWoman she explains how racism pervades mainstream feminism and chides white women for ignoring blacks, while discussing how black women can find their place in feminism anyway. Using a feminist perspective, Watkins chronicles the history of black women in America, from the slavery era through the 1970s, and posits the theory that African-American women were more strongly feminist in the nineteenth century than the twentieth. The work got a chilly reception, as many critics questioned Watkins's methods of analysis and some of her assertions, such as her opinion that slavery was worse for women than for men. She has continued to develop similar themes in Feminism, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.
In Feminist Theory Watkins clearly states that the basic ills of the three "isms"—racism, classism, and sexism—have at their root the notion of domination. This kind of organization is opposed to a consensual/collectivist model which would eradicate the existing forces of control, manipulation, and domination, and thus redefine power throughout society. Being at the bottom of such a power structure, black women are naturally in the vanguard of liberation from the existing structure, by their very efforts at individual self-determination. They are not, however, recognized as such by mainstream feminist organizations, who see the world with the same hierarchical eyes as do white males, wanting merely to be in their positions. Real feminism, says Watkins, should attack the whole hierarchical system. The paradigm is played out in Watkins's book Talking Back, which contains twenty-three essays on different aspects of the black/feminist connection, varying from "writing autobiography, teaching women's literature, black homophobia, intimate violence, racist feminists, black porn, and politics at Yale," noted Beverly Miller in Library Journal.
Watkins's first three works have sometimes been seen as taking on too many voices to deal with their complex, inflammatory issues. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, for example, noted that "although the author makes perceptive and provocative observations, they are diminished by redundancy and weakened by her doctrinaire Marxist rhetoric." Patricia Bell-Scott, in the Women's Review of Books, admitted to reacting defensively to some arguments that run against the feminist grain, and pointed to the Marxist flavor as possibly irritating. "However," Bell-Scott continued, "we must keep in mind the author's goal, to enrich feminist discourse and 'to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology,' as we struggle with the uncomfortable issues she raises."
Although all of Watkins's work contains self-examination, her fourth book, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, seems to reassess all her efforts, as well as her various voices. In it she continues to broaden her cultural criticism, using more and more of the theoretical tools available to—and expected from—a cutting-edge, post-modern academic. Critics like P. Gabrielle Foreman find that central to this effort is the essay "Homeplace: A Site of Resistance," in which Watkins once more returns home to find her "location" of strength, a sense of community in the households set up by black women. This "location" helps her to solidify her base point of view, even as she sets out to examine more of her overall culture, and a black woman's part in it, from more varied and theoretical perspectives. This might be the reason that critics, among them Foreman, see her often contradicting herself and taking on the white feminists' point of view. For Foreman, though, it is her "'intervention' into the politics of post-modern theory and practice that makes Yearning so timely and valuable." She tries, for example, to untangle the theories of "Otherness"—the position of outsiders within a culture—that have been primarily produced by insiders or white scholars. This includes their theorizing on "essentialism"—in this case the reality of racial groupings, and the politics of identity based on those groupings. This is a complicated question for Watkins, since blacks can be affected by both sides of this dilemma.
The reassessment of Watkins's "locations" as an African-American intellectual continue in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, a dialogue with social critic and professor Cornel West. Their discussion ranges over the various crises of the black community, and how marketing to blacks, and depictions of blacks in the media, have contributed to those problems. This theme, which has threaded its way through her earlier work, is enlarged upon in Black Looks: Race and Representation. In its twelve chapters, she explores the implicit meaning of black images in phenomena such as advertising, Madonna's music videos, and the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Her most serious indictment of the media is that it further threatens the position of the black woman by selling black males a macho self-image. Widely greeted with approval for its groundbreaking breadth and theoretical rigor, Black Looks caused a Library Journal critic to remark, "hooks continues to produce some of the most challenging, insightful, and provocative writing on race and gender in the United States today."
In 1994 Watkins published both Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Reviewing these books in the New York Times Book Review, Jerome Karabel noted that Teaching to Transgress is "often marred by a disconcerting reliance on pop psychology." However, Karabel concluded, each book allows readers "to confront the political undercurrents of life in America." "Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations continues the investigation of the depiction of African Americans in modern culture that Watkins explored in Breaking Bread," noted Melissa L. Evans in Feminist Writers. "Outlaw Culture specifically focuses on cinematic, artistic, and musical representations of race, and is particularly interesting due to Watkins's commentary on figures such as Madonna and gangster rap. Aside from cultural commentary, Watkins also offers her commentary, critical as it is, on the 'new feminism' of figures such as Camille Paglia."
Watkins recalls her own life in the books Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, and Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. In Bone Black she relates the story of her youth in a traditional Southern working-class family. It is significant "both as a documentation of one black woman's girlhood and as a beautifully crafted narrative," decided Evelyn E. Shockley in her African American Review appraisal of the book. Bone Black was praised as "vivid" and "extraordinary" by Catherine Burt in American Visions, the critic adding that the book "reveals the events and experiences as well as the feelings, thoughts and dreams of a wise and sensitive girl as she sifts through the magical world around her and shapes her identity." Bone Black reveals much about the source of Watkins's "forcefulness and candor," mused Donna Seaman in Booklist, and it does so in a book that is "lyrical, deeply moving, and brilliantly structured."
In Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life the author moves on to subjects such as poetry, feminism, sexuality, and a fifteen-year romantic relationship, telling her stories in a "consistently fresh and bravely honest voice," according to a Publishers Weekly writer. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work is a collection of twenty-two essays discussing spirituality and writing. The styles range from personal, reflective life memories to more highly structured, formal essays that reflect the author's experience as a university lecturer. As usual, Watkins "emphasizes the importance of personal and political identity to writing," found a Publishers Weekly writer. "Her prose is clear and she presents her arguments with a confident passion. If her politics are predictable, hooks infuses the best of these essays with a personal tone that sheds warm light on this one particular writer's writing life."
Watkins turns her attention to various aspects of love in books such as All about Love: New Visions, Salvation: Black People and Love, and Communion: Female Search for Love. In All about Love she suggests that the hatred encountered in the experience of racism and other oppressive relationships can be negated by the experience of profound love. She notes with distress the lack of belief in real love that is expressed by even very young children in contemporary times. Aleta Richards in the Civil Rights Journal stated that this book "teaches us how to find and keep love in a culture full of hatred." Richards remarked that while at first glace the book might seem to be a rather superficial pop-psychology manual, in fact, "it's an important book about the sociological implications of oppression and why it's hard to give and receive love in our highly individualized, Western culture."
In Salvation Watkins again advocates for the increase of unselfish love. She identifies lack of love and trust as the root of many other social problems, particularly the collapse of communities. "Readers of every hue will benefit from hooks' piercing insights into the troubled state of our collective soul and find solace in her belief that 'love is our hope and salvation,'" commented Seaman in Booklist. Communion tackles problems unique to women, who are made to feel that their lovableness is based on their attractiveness and their service to others. Women have made great strides in becoming socially empowered, but they are still questing for satisfying love, because society has conditioned men to think that withholding their emotions is a validation of their manhood. The author suggests that women may have to be creative in looking for love, pointing out the possibilities of same-sex love, romantic friendships, and "circles of love."
Low self-esteem, rooted in generations of slavery, has negatively affected the African-American spirit for years, Watkins argues in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem. She reflects on the successes and failures of efforts to build black pride in the past, and suggests pathways to a future in which African Americans can replace chronic emotional pain with healthy ways of thought. "To read her is to set out on the path toward healing," claimed Seaman in a Booklist review, while a Publishers Weekly writer concluded: "With each new book, hooks is deeply exploring the inner terrain of the black community, calling for a return to sound values, self-love and commonsense solutions while seeking new ways to cope with a modern world gone slightly mad."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Literature Criticism Supplement, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Black Writers, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 94, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 246: Twentieth-Century American Cultural Theorists, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Newsmakers 2000, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Notable Black American Women, Book II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
African American Review, fall, 1997, Evelyn E. Shockley, review of Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, p. 552.
American Visions, April-May, 1997, Catherine Burt, review of Bone Black, p. 28.
Black Collegian, February, 1996, Mamie Webb Hixon, review of Killing Rage: Ending Racism, p. 11; October, 2002, Corinne Nelson, review of Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, p. 126.
Black Enterprise, June, 1992, p. 23.
Black Issues Book Review, March, 2001, Angela Dodson, review of Salvation: Black People and Love, p. 64; March-April, 2002, Gary Dauphin, interview with Watkins, p. 50; November-December, 2002, Evette Porter, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 42.
Black Scholar, January, 1983, pp. 38, 46.
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, p. 118; September 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Bone Black, p. 189; September 15, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, p. 185; December 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, p. 721; August, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Happy to Be Nappy, p. 2064; January 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of All about Love, p. 839; February 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Salvation, p. 1098; February 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Communion: The Female Search for Love, p. 1002; November 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 508; February 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Rock My Soul, p. 814, Gillian Engberg, review of Homemade Love, p. 1001.
Bookwatch, July 1989, p. 4; September, 1992, p. 10.
Choice, April, 1982, p. 1141; July, 1985, p. 1703.
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 1995.
Civil Rights Journal, fall, 2000, Aleta Richards, review of All about Love, p. 58.
Emerge, November, 1995, Lori S. Robinson, review of Killing Rage, p. 92; February, 2000, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, review of All about Love, p. 108.
Essence, December, 1997, Martha Southgate, "Do We Need Kwanzaa?," p. 68; July, 1989, p. 20.
Interview, October, 1995, Ingrid Sischy, interview with Watkins, p. 122.
Library Journal, July, 1995, Ann Burns, review of Killing Rage, p. 107; October 1, 1997, Ann Burns, review of Wounds of Passion, p. 94; December 1, 1981, p. 178; March 15, 1985, p. 68; November 1, 1998, Ann Burns, review of Remembered Rapture, p. 81; December, 1988, p. 126; July, 1992, p. 109; July, 1993; November 1, 1999, Ann Burns, review of All about Love, p. 107; November 1, 2000, Ann Burns, review of Where We Stand: Class Matters, and Salvation, p. 104; February 15, 2002, Deborah Bigelow, review of Communion, p. 166; November 1, 2002, Ann Burns, review of Rock My Soul, p. 115; October 1, 2003, Scott Walter, review of Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, p. 92.
Ms., July, 1983, p. 24; October, 1985, p. 25; February-March, 2000, Pearl Cleage, review of All about Love, p. 84; December, 2000, Jocelyn L. Womac, review of Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, p. 88.
Multicultural Review, April, 1992; March, 1993.
National Review, January 22, 2001, Maggie Gallagher, review of Feminism Is for Everybody.
New Directions for Women, January, 1992, p. 22.
New Statesman, October 22, 1982, p. 31; November 30, 1990, p. 39.
New York Review of Books, April 18, 1996, George M. Fredrickson, review of Killing Rage, p. 16.
New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993; December 18, 1994; November 21, 1999, p. 58; January 30, 2000, Elise Harris, review of All about Love, p. 21.
Phylon, March, 1983, p. 85.
Political Science Quarterly, spring, 1983, p. 84.
Progressive, March, 1991, p. 42.
Publishers Weekly, June 26, 1995, review of Art on My Mind, p. 104; November 18, 1988, p. 72; November 22, 1991, p. 49; June 15, 1992, p. 95; July 17, 1995, review of Killing Rage, p. 211; August 5, 1996, review of Bone Black, p. 421; September 22, 1997, review of Wounds of Passion, p. 64; November 23, 1998, review of Remembered Rapture, p. 29; July 19, 1999, review of Happy to Be Nappy, p. 194; November 29, 1999, review of All about Love, p. 60; December 4, 2000, review of Salvation, p. 60; September 30, 2002, review of Be Boy Buzz, p. 71; November 18, 2002, review of Homemade Love, p. 59; November 25, 2002, Robert Fleming, interview with Watkins, and review of Rock My Soul, p. 54; September 1, 2003, review of Teaching Community, p. 77.
Queen's Quarterly, summer, 1990, p. 318.
Savoy, March, 2002, Catherine Kelly, review of Communion, p. 36.
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, Anna DeWind Walls, review of Be Boy Buzz, and Amy Lilien-Harper, review of Homemade Love, p. 97.
Sight and Sound, June, 1991, p. 36.
Signs, autumn, 1994.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1982, p. 10.
West Coast Review of Books, April, 1982, p. 51.
Women's Review of Books, February, 1985, p. 3; September, 1991, p. 12.*