bell hooks

bell hooks

bell hooks in October 2014
Born Gloria Jean Watkins
(1952-09-25) September 25, 1952
Hopkinsville, Kentucky
Occupation Author, academic
Known for Feminism, social activism
Notable work
  • Veodis Watkins
  • Rosa Bell Watkins

Gloria Jean Watkins (born September 25, 1952), better known by her pen name bell hooks,[1] is an American author, feminist, and social activist. The name "bell hooks" is derived from that of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.[2]

Hooks' writing has focused on the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published over 30 books and numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures. Primarily through a postmodern perspective, she has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.[3]

In 2014, she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.[4]


Early life

hooks was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to a working-class family. Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a custodian and her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, was a homemaker. She had five sisters and one brother. An avid reader, she was educated in racially segregated public schools, and wrote of great adversities when making the transition to an integrated school, where teachers and students were predominantly white.

She graduated from Hopkinsville High School in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She obtained her B.A. in English from Stanford University in 1973, and her M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976. In 1983, after several years of teaching and writing, she completed her doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a dissertation on author Toni Morrison.


Hooks' teaching career began in 1976 as an English professor and senior lecturer in Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California. During her three years there, Golemics, a Los Angeles publisher, released her first published work, a chapbook of poems titled "And There We Wept" (1978), written under her pen name, "bell hooks." She adopted her grandmother's name as a pen name because her grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired". She put the name in lowercase letters "to distinguish [herself from] her great-grandmother." She said that her unconventional lowercasing of her name signifies what is most important is her works: the "substance of books, not who I am."[5]

She taught at several post secondary institutions in the early 1980s, including the University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University. South End Press published her first major work, Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism in 1981, though it was written years earlier, while she was an undergraduate student.[6] In the decades since its publication, Ain't I a Woman? has gained widespread recognition as an influential contribution to feminist thought.[7]

Ain't I a Woman? examines several recurring themes in her later work: the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, devaluation of black womanhood, media roles and portrayal, the education system, the idea of a white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, the marginalization of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism.

Since the publication of Ain't I a Woman?, she has become eminent as a leftist and postmodern political thinker and cultural critic. She targets and appeals to a broad audience by presenting her work in a variety of media using various writing and speaking styles. As well as having written books, she has published in numerous scholarly and mainstream magazines, lectures at widely accessible venues, and appears in various documentaries.

bell hooks in 2009

She is frequently cited by feminists[8][9][10] as having provided the best solution to the difficulty of defining something as diverse as "feminism", addressing the problem that if feminism can mean everything, it means nothing. She asserts an answer to the question "what is feminism?" that she says is "rooted in neither fear nor fantasy... 'Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression'".[11]

She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help, engaged pedagogy to personal memoirs, and sexuality (in regards to feminism and politics of aesthetic/visual culture). A prevalent theme in her most recent writing is the community and communion, the ability of loving communities to overcome race, class, and gender inequalities. In three conventional books and four children's books, she suggests that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are crucial to developing healthy communities and relationships that are not marred by race, class, or gender inequalities.

She has held positions as Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and as Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York.

In 2002, hooks gave a commencement speech at Southwestern University. Eschewing the congratulatory mode of traditional commencement speeches, she spoke against what she saw as government-sanctioned violence and oppression, and admonished students who she believed went along with such practices. This was followed by a controversy described in the Austin Chronicle after an "irate Arizonian"[12] had criticized the speech in a letter to the editor.[13] The newspaper reported that many in the audience booed the speech, though "several graduates passed over the provost to shake her hand or give her a hug".[12]

In 2004 she joined Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, as Distinguished Professor in Residence,[14] where she participated in a weekly feminist discussion group, "Monday Night Feminism"; a luncheon lecture series, "Peanut Butter and Gender"; and a seminar, "Building Beloved Community: The Practice of Impartial Love."

Her 2008 book, belonging: a culture of place, includes a very candid interview with author Wendell Berry as well as a discussion of her move back to Kentucky.[15]

Hooks has undertaken three scholar-in-residences at The New School. Mostly recently she did one for a week in October 2014. She engaged in public dialogues with Gloria Steinem,[16] Laverne Cox,[17] and Cornel West.


Those who have influenced hooks include African-American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (whose speech Ain't I a Woman? inspired her first major work), Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose perspectives on education she embraces in her theory of engaged pedagogy), Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, African-American writer James Baldwin, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, African-American black nationalist leader Malcolm X, and African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr (who addresses how the strength of love unites communities).[18][19] As bell hooks says of Martin Luther King's notion of a beloved community, "he had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way."[20]

Teaching to Transgress

In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks investigated the classroom as a source of constraint but also a potential source of liberation. She argued that teachers' use of control and power over students dulls the students' enthusiasm and teaches obedience to authority, "confin[ing] each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning."[21] She advocated that universities encourage students and teachers to transgress, and sought ways to use collaboration to make learning more relaxing and exciting. She described teaching as "a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged".[22]

All About Love: New Visions

After many disputes with ex-boyfriends about the nature of love, bell hooks published All About Love: New Visions in 2001. She explains how her past two long-term boyfriends were foiled by "patriarchal thinking" and sexist gender roles, so neither relationship ever really had a chance. She continuously wanted to recommend a book for the men to read, but could not find one that would clearly make her point to support her argument. For this reason, she decided to write her own, which would go into depth about her true feelings towards love.

In this book, hooks combines her personal life experiences, along with philosophical and psychological ideas, to shape her thesis and discuss her main concepts. She criticizes the way in which love is used in today's society. To further explain, how we use the word without much meaning, when referring to how much we like or enjoy our favorite ice cream, color, or game. Hooks is very disturbed by the fact that our culture has lost the true meaning of love, and believes it is because we have no shared definition. For this reason, the first chapter of her book primarily focuses on what she thinks the definition of love is, which she explains includes components such as care, affection, trust, respect, honesty, communication, and commitment. She proposes that if we all came to the agreement that love is a verb rather than a noun, then we would all be happier. Hooks believes love is more of an interactive process. It is not about what we just feel, but more about what we do. She states, "So many people think that it's enough to say what they feel, even if their actions do not correspond to what they are feeling" ("A Chat"). Bell hooks strongly clarifies why society needs to adopt a universal definition of love.

Overall, this book works to shed some light on what hooks sees as the modern day abandonment of love and what it means for people of today to experience love. She presents many powerful arguments throughout her book. One strong argument she proposes is how love cannot exist in the middle of a power struggle. Hooks goes as far as to present a number of problems she finds with our modern ideals of love and proposes their possible solutions. She includes the propositions of full reconstruction and transformation of modern-day love based on "affection, respect, recognition, commitment, trust and care" (Nonfiction Book Review). Hooks also points out what she sees to be the roots of the problems regarding modern day love, those being gender stereotypes, domination, control, ego, and aggression (Nonfiction Book Review). Another powerful argument hooks discusses is one in which she describes how starting from a very young age, boys and girls are constantly being knocked down and told to fit into the tiny boxes of characteristics that are expected of them. Hooks points out that the boy is denied his right to show, or even have, any true feelings. To further explain, she uses men in the American culture as an example, and describes how they have been socialized to mistrust the value and power of love. While the girl is taught that the most important thing she can do is change herself and her own feelings, with the hopes of attracting and pleasing everyone else. These unfair expectations lead boys and girls to grow up into men and women who are convinced that lies are the way to go, and no one should be showing their truest feelings to each other. This leads to the paradox hooks points out because in order to have a functional, and healthy loving relationship, honesty is a natural requirement. In bell hooks's own words, "Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love" (hooks). Another central argument in hooks's All About Love is the way in which it is almost impossible for women to find happiness in what she sees as a brutal culture where men are taught to worry more about sexual satisfaction and performance than actually loving someone. This reality pointed out by hooks, paired with the fact that women focus so strongly on obtaining themselves a partner, leads to most relationships being completely one sided. In this case, the men are emotionally satisfied, and the women are left without any true happiness. Hooks points out that despite these evident problems in modern-day love culture, love can be revived, and this is what she is arguing throughout her book.

Bell hooks wrote this book to inform the world how we can change the way we think about love, our culture, and one another. She teaches us ways to love in a face of a planet of love-lessness. Her New Visions demonstrate how love is possible, and stress that all love is important—romantic, friendship, our love of strangers, and community.

Feminist Theory

Noting a lack of diverse voices in popular feminist theory, bell hooks published this work in 1984. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she explains that those voices have been marginalized. "To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body."[23] hooks argued in her work that if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because in Western society, not all men are equal. She claimed, "Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women's liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status."[24] She used the work as a platform to offer a new, more inclusive feminist theory. Her theory encouraged the long-standing idea of sisterhood but advocated for women to acknowledge their differences while still accepting each other. Bell hooks challenged feminists to consider gender's relation to race, class, and sex, a concept coined as intersectionality. Hooks covers the importance of male involvement in the equality movement, that in order to make change men must do their part. Hooks also calls for a restructuring of the cultural framework of power, one that does not find oppression of others necessary.[25]

Part of this restructuring involves allowing men into the feminist movement, so that there is not a separationist ideology, so much as an incorporating camaraderie. Additionally, she shows great appreciation for the movement away from feminist thought as led by bourgeois white women, and towards a multidimensional gathering of both genders to fight for the raising up of women. This shifts the original focus of feminism away from victimization, and towards harboring understanding, appreciation, and tolerance for all genders and sexes so that all are in control of their own destinies, uncontrolled by patriarchal, capitalist tyrants.[26]

Another part of restructuring the movement comes from education; bell hooks points out that there is an anti-intellectual stigma among the masses. Poor people don't want to hear from intellectuals because they are different and have different ideas. As bell hooks points out though, this stigma against intellectuals leads to poor people who have risen up to become graduates of post secondary education, to be shunned because they are no longer like the rest of the masses. In order for us to achieve equality, people must be able to learn from those who have been able to smash these stereotypes. This separation leads to further inequality and in order for the feminist movement to succeed, they must be able to bridge the education gap and relate to those in the lower end of the economic sphere. If they are able to do this, then there will be more success and less inequality.

In 'Rethinking The Nature of Work', bell hooks goes beyond discussing work and raises a pertinent question that feminists may need to ask themselves. "Many Women active in feminist movement do not have radical political perspectives and are unwilling to face these realities, especially when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure."[27]

Media theory

In her book Reel to Real bell hooks discusses the effect that movies have on any given individual with specific emphasis on the black female spectator. She explains that although we know that movies aren't real life, " matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention, [we] are usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen. They have power over us, and we have no power over them."[28] Hooks focuses on problematic racial representations. Bell hooks has done a number of essays and articles, and in Reel to Real she describes her experiences growing up watching mainstream movies as well as engaging in the media. Hooks believes that to engage in film was to engage in the negation of black female representation in the media.[28] Hooks states, "Representation is the 'hot' issue right now because it's a major realm of power for any system of domination. We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation".[28]

Film theory

Asserting that for her, the "gaze" had always been political, bell hooks explains how growing up she began to grow curious as to how much influence black parents were given as a result of black slaves being punished for looking at their white owners. She wondered how much had been absorbed and carried on through the generations to shift not only parenting, but spectatorship as well.[28] In what is described as an "oppositional gaze", hooks explains the sometimes overwhelming desire to look and thus stating that by looking, actually declares a defiantly, "Not only will I stare, I want my look to change reality."[28] The cinema became a place of critical analysis and a place where black men could view narratives starring white women without the risk of being lynched or murdered for being perceived as a threat.[28]


Writer David Horowitz has objected to a passage in the first chapter of Killing Rage,[29] in which hooks states that she is "sitting beside an anonymous white male that [she] long[s] to murder" because he was complicit in a boarding pass misunderstanding that resulted in the harassment of her black, female friend.[30] Of these kind of "irrational, violent impulses," hooks states, "My irrational impulse to want to kill people who bore me or whose ideas are not very complex clearly has to do with an exaggerated response to situations where I feel powerless."[31] Hooks also states that she has been criticized for lacking confession and personal experience in her works.[32]

Although much of the criticism aimed at hooks is politically motivated, liberals and conservatives alike have critiqued her informal style of writing. After the release of her first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women in Feminism, hooks's writing was criticized as "ahistorical [and] unscholarly"; many complained about the absence of footnotes.[33] Hooks does not provide a bibliography for any of her work, making it difficult to find the editors and publication information for the pieces listed under the "notes" section of her work.[34] In "Theory as Liberatory Practice," hooks explains that her lack of conventional academic format was "motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations as possible".[35]

In "Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work; By bell hooks; Mother to Mother", Nicole Abraham criticizes hooks's unconventional format rationalization. Abraham suggests that, if her rationalization for not providing footnotes and bibliographic information in her writing is that it will help her reach a broader (presumably a less academic) audience, hooks either assumes the average person has "no real interest or knowledge about who really wrote what ideas and where we can look for more thoughts on similar subjects" or "she mean[s] that we are lazy readers who have not the sophistication to grapple with the complications of an endnote".[36]

Awards and nominations

Select bibliography


Children's books

Book chapters

Journal articles

"Critic bell hooks and British filmaker Isaac Julien on sex, style, and cinema."
See also: Oscar Micheaux
See also: MacKinnon, Catharine A. (Fall 1991). "From practice to theory, or what is a white woman anyway?". Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Yale Law School. 4 (1): 13–22.  Pdf.
Also published as: hooks, bell (July–August 1990). "An aesthetics of blackness: strange and oppositional". Art Papers. Friends of Art Papers. 14 (4): 2–5. OCLC 39845279. 
Review of: Riefenstahl, Leni (1995). Leni Riefenstahl: a memoir. New York: Picador USA. ISBN 9780312119263. 

Film appearances


  • hooks, bell (1996). Reel to Real : Race, Sex, And Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91824-3. 
  1. Dinitia Smith (September 28, 2006). "Tough arbiter on the web has guidance for writers". The New York Times. p. E3. But the Chicago Manual says it is not all right to capitalize the name of the writer bell hooks because she insists that it be lower case.
  2. hooks, bell, "Inspired Eccentricity: Sarah and Gus Oldham" in Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (eds),Family: American Writers Remember Their Own, New York: Vintage Books, 1996, p. 152.
    hooks, bell, Talking Back, Routledge, 2014 [1989], p. 161.
  3. "Bell Hooks Biography - life, childhood, children, name, school, mother, young, book, information, born". Retrieved 2016-04-23.
  4. "About the bell hooks Institute | bell hooks Institute". bell hooks Institute. Retrieved 2016-04-23.
  5. Heather Williams. "bell hooks Speaks Up". The Sandspur (2/10/06).
  6. Teaching to Transgress, 52.
  7. Google Scholar shows 894 citations of Ain't I a Woman (as of August 30, 2006)
  8. "Book Review: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks". Retrieved 2013-12-14.
  9. "10 Years of "Feminism is for Everybody"". Ms. Magazine Blog (2010 September 7). Retrieved 2013-12-14.
  10. "Feminism is for Everybody: Further Discussion". Retrieved 2013-12-14.
  11. bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Pluto Press, 2000.
  12. 1 2 Lauri Apple. "bell hooks Digs In". The Austin Chronicle (May 24, 2002). Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  13. "Postmarks - Southwestern Graduation Debacle". The Austin Chronicle (May 24, 2002). Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  14. Archived May 28, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. Hooks, bell (2009-01-01). Belonging: a culture of place. ISBN 9780415968157.
  16. Vagianos, Alanna (October 7, 2014). "Gloria Steinem On The Great Part Of Feminism: 'We Have Each Other's Backs'". Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  17. Scherker, Amanda (October 10, 2014). "Laverne Cox And bell hooks Talk How To Survive The Patriarchy". Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  18. Notes on IAPL 2001 Keynote Speaker, bell hooks Archived January 31, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. Building a Community of Love, bell hooks & Thich Nhat Hanh
  20. Brosi, George; Hooks, Bell (2012-01-01). "The Beloved Community: A Conversation between bell hooks and George Brosi". Appalachian Heritage. 40 (4): 76–86. doi:10.1353/aph.2012.0109. ISSN 1940-5081.
  21. (hooks, Teaching to Transgress 12)
  22. (hooks, 11)
  23. (hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, xvi)
  24. (hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center)
  25. (hooks,92)
  26. (hooks,74)
  27. hooks, bell (1984). Feminist Theory : From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-89608-614-3.
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 6 hooks 1996.
  29. David Horowitz (February 13, 2006). "Top 10 Most Dangerous Academics in America". Human Events. Retrieved September 20, 2011.
  30. hooks, bell (1995). Killing Rage. New York: Henry Holt & Co. pp. 8–9. ISBN 0-8050-3782-9. OCLC 32089130.
  31. Lawrence Chua (1994). "bell hooks by Lawrence Chua". BOMB Magazine. Retrieved September 20, 2011.
  32. "BOMB Magazine — bell hooks by Lawrence Chua". Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  33. Bell-Scott, Patricia (1985). "The Centrality of Marginality". The Women's Review of Books. 2 (5): 3. doi:10.2307/4019632. JSTOR 4019632.
  34. Pettis, Joyce (1986). "A Review of Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center". Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 11 (4): 788–789. doi:10.1086/494279.
  35. Haley, Shelly (1995). "Practicing Freedom". The Women's Review of Books. 7 (6): 10–11.
  36. Abraham, Nicole (1999). "Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work; by bell hooks; Mother to Mother; by Sindiwe Magona". Southern African Feminist Review. 3 (2): 101.
  37. 1 2 "bell hooks". Loyal Jones Appalachian Center. This may be a working title. See talk page.

Further reading

  • hooks, bell; Trend, David (1996), "Representation and democracy an interview", in Trend, David, Radical democracy: identity, citizenship, and the state, New York: Routledge, pp. 228–236, ISBN 9780415912471 
  • Florence, Namulundah (1998). bell hooks' Engaged Pedagogy. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. ISBN 0-89789-564-9. OCLC 38239473. 
  • Leitch et al., eds. "bell hooks." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. pp. 2475–2484. ISBN 0-393-97429-4
  • South End Press Collective, ed. (1998). "Critical Consciousness for Political Resistance". Talking About a Revolution. Cambridge: South End Press. pp. 39–52. ISBN 0-89608-587-2. OCLC 38566253. 
  • Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto, ed. (1998). Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02361-7. OCLC 36446785. 
  • Wallace, Michele (1998). Black Popular Culture. New York: The New Press. ISBN 1-56584-459-9. OCLC 40548914. 
  • Whitson, Kathy J. (2004). Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32731-9. OCLC 54529420. 

External links

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