“I think we can’t overstate her influence.”
That’s a statement from Imani Perry, distinguished professor of Black Studies at Princeton University, who deftly and accurately summed up the impact of cultural critic Gloria Jean Watkins, better known to most of the world as “bell hooks.”
hooks, a revolutionary feminist voice, departed this Earth on Dec. 15 at the age of 69. Predictably, the tributes were plentiful and largely laudatory for one of the most important voices in the field of women studies.
It’s virtually impossible to wholly detail the indescribable impact that hooks had on both the modern feminist movement and the larger literary world in general. As a professor who was introduced to her as an undergraduate student during my senior year, and became an avid fan, I can personally attest to this fact.
The author of more than 30 books and works of poetry, hooks’ work is required reading in many gender studies and humanities courses, and is a routine topic at academic conferences and feminist symposiums. She possessed razor sharp intellect, boundless passion and formidable intellectual acumen.
In contrast to many academics, she didn’t speak in didactic, convoluted language. Rather, she spoke in a manner that was powerful, competent, yet accessible
“Her writing is so powerful and so important, but it’s also so clear.” said Kikihana Miraya Ross, a professor of Black American studies at Northwestern University. “She has always been a role model for me in that way: no shade to people who don’t write like that, but I think that when you can say things clearly it means you understand what you’re saying.”
hooks was born on September 25, 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to a working class Black family. Her father, Veodis, was a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell, was a maid who worked in the homes of wealthy white families. Perhaps due to her hardscrabble life experience growing up in rural Kentucky during the era of Jim Crow segregation, hooks did not shy away from engaging in deeply controversial subjects some cultural critics (including some Black feminist writers) were apprehensive of venturing into.
Her critique of superstar Beyonce Knowles in 2016 — “Let’s take the image of this super rich, very powerful black female, and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, because she probably had very little control over that cover, that image” — sent ripples through the blogosphere and within feminist circles.
Frank, fearless, forceful and without apology, hooks deftly and eloquently detailed the injustices still being perpetrated upon marginalized women of color due to sexism and misogyny. She eloquently told Black women that despite abject levels of societal marginalization due to centuries of disenfranchisement, they were beautiful, intelligent, and resilient, and worthy of love. She stressed the importance of self care.
“When we choose to love, we choose to move against fear, against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect, to find ourselves in the other,” she wrote. “Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.”
Through it all, she expressed herself with formidable candor. Her bluntness garnered the ire of a number of critics, including Michelle Wallace and Adolph Reed. Detractors aside, even her most ardent critics could not deny her raw intellect and frequently innovative examination of intersectionality.
hooks was fearless discussing the internal conflicts that plague the Black community itself, which include class issues, religious preferences, sexism, and homophobia.
Her occasional biting and humorous wit caused segments of the Black community to engage in some reflection and serious soul searching.
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity,” hooks wrote in “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope.” “Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”
bell hooks was a tremendous intellectual force. The ample outpouring of admiration and respect she has received is well deserved. Her work will undoubtedly be studied for decades, if not centuries to come. May she rest in peace.
Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.