bell hooks is a contemporary feminist theorist who deals with issues of race, gender, class, and sexual oppression. Born Gloria Watkins, she took her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother as a way to honor her women ancestors and chose to use lowercase letters to get away from the ego associated with names. She has provided commentary on a wide range of topics from popular culture and writing to self-esteem and teaching.
bell hooks was born in Kentucky on September 25, 1952. Her early life was marked by dysfunction. Her father, in particular, represented the fierce oppression she would come to associate with the patriarchy. A need to escape her tumultuous home life was what first led hooks to poetry and writing. This love of the written word would later inspire her to comment on the healing power of critical thinking. In her early years, hooks combined her love of reading with public speaking, often reciting poems and scriptures in her church congregation.
Growing up in the south also instilled in her a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. These early fears almost discouraged her from pursuing her love of writing. She received almost no support from her family, who felt that women were better suited for a more traditional role. The social atmosphere of the then-segregated south added to their discouragement.
hooks chose to rebel against this by adopting her great-grandmother's name and creating another self that was linked to female ancestors who were defiant in their need to achieve speech. By creating this other self, hooks empowered herself to fight back against the opposition that surrounded her.
hooks began to write her first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, while she was an undergraduate at Stanford. After receiving her baccalaureate degree in 1973, hooks enrolled in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a Masters in English. She next entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. For the next few years, hooks worked hard on her dissertation about the novelist Toni Morrison. At the same time, she completed her manuscript of Ain't I a Woman and published a book of poetry.
While seeking a publisher, hooks began teaching and lecturing at various colleges along the West Coast. She finally found a publisher for her book in 1981 and two years later received her doctorate. It took hooks eight years to publish Ain't I a Woman, which was part of her efforts to bring the cultural concerns of African American women into the mainstream feminist movement. hooks had long been troubled by the absence of women of color in women's studies courses. Like others before her, hooks found the mainstream feminist movement had focused mostly on the plight of a group of white, college-educated, middle- and upper-class women who had little to no stake in the concerns of women of color.
Research and Writing on Women of Color
In her research, hooks found that historically, women of color often found themselves in a double-bind. By supporting the suffrage movement, they would have to ignore the racial aspect of womanhood and if they supported the Civil Rights movement, they would be subjected to the same patriarchal order that dogged all women.
By shining a light on the racism inherent in the mainstream feminist movement, hooks found herself faced with monumental resistance. Many feminists found her book to be divisive and some questioned its academic integrity due to the absence of footnotes. However, this unorthodox writing style would soon become a trademark of hooks's style. She maintains that her method of writing is meant to make her work accessible to everyone, regardless of class, access, and literacy.
In her next book, Feminist Theory From Margin to Center, hooks wrote a philosophical work that was grounded in black feminist thought. It was about the need to articulate and recognize a feminist theory of empowerment that was accessible to people of color. In this book, hooks argues that feminists have not succeeded in creating political solidarity with women of different ethnicities or socioeconomic classes. She feels there needs to be a more transformative politics that is not as rooted in Western ideology.
hooks has always argued for solidarity: between genders, between races, and between classes. She believes that antimale sentiments reinstitute the ideology that feminism aims to change. hooks states that if there is to be liberation for women, men must also play a role in the struggle to expose, confront, oppose, and transform sexism.
Though she has often been accused of being confrontational, hooks has never wavered in her belief that change is a painful and disconcerting process. She continues to believe in the transformative power of language and has become a master at turning private pain into public energy. hooks has always believed that silence is crucial to the ongoing practices of domination. She remains interested in bridging the gap between the public and the private. For hooks, using her status as a public intellectual to link communal voices is a way to educate and empower. Speech, hooks believes, is a way to transform from object to subject.
In 1991, hooks collaborated with Cornel West for a book entitled Breaking Bread, which was written as a dialogue. Both were primarily concerned with the notion of a black intellectual life centered in the African American community. They believe rigid lines of separation found in public intellectualism have compromised this intellectual life. hooks argues that black women, in particular, have been silenced as serious critical thinkers. For hooks, this invisibility is both due to institutionalized racism and sexism, which is reflected in black women's lives both inside and outside of the academy.
hooks's focus on marginality inside and outside of the academy led her to study more closely the nuances of domination found within popular culture. In subsequent works, hooks has critiqued representations of blackness, focusing particularly on gender.
hooks continues to produce many books and other writings. She still believes that critical examination is key to gaining self-empowerment and overthrowing systems of domination. In 2004, hooks began teaching as a distinguished professor in residence at Berea College. She continues to be a provocative feminist theorist and still gives lectures.
Books and Publications
- And There We Wept: Poems
- Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism
- Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
- Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black
- Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics
- Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West)
- Black Looks: Race and Representation
- Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-recovery
- A Woman's Mourning Song
- Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom
- Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations
- Art on My Mind: Visual Politics
- Killing Rage: Ending Racism
- Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies
- Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood
- Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life
- Happy to be Nappy
- Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work
- All About Love: New Visions
- Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
- Where We Stand: Class Matters
- Salvation: Black People and Love
- Justice: Childhood Love Lessons
- Be Boy Buzz
- Communion: The Female Search for Love
- Homemade Love
- Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-esteem
- The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love
- Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope
- Skin Again
- We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity
- Soul Sister: Women, Friendship, and Fulfillment
- Grump Groan Growl
- Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom"
- Davis, Amanda. "bell hooks." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature. Westport (Conn.): Greenwood press, 2005. 787-791. Print.
- Henderson, Carol E… "bell hooks." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 246. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. 219-228. Print.
- Shelton, Pamela L., and Melissa L. Evans. "bell hooks." Feminist writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. 237-239. Print.
- Thompson, Clifford, John Wakeman, and Vineta Colby. "bell hooks." World Authors. Verschiedene Aufl. ed. New York: Wilson, 1975. 342-346. Print.