The Center for Women’s History mourns the passing of bell hooks, a cultural critic and writer who reimagined the world of feminist action to include the experiences of Black and working-class women, reshaping the fields of gender studies and women’s and gender history. Just 69, hooks died on December 15 at her home in Berea, Kentucky.
bell hooks, WikiMedia Commons
Over the course of her career, hooks wrote more than 30 books, which ranged from poetry and nonfiction essay collections to scholarly works on political theory, media studies, and Black womanhood. Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, she took on her pen name to honor her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hook, though she preferred to write her name in the lower case in order to suggest that what mattered most was her thinking, rather than her name.
Here and above: Chalk tribute to bell hooks on the Upper West Side, December 17, 2021.
Through her writing, hooks articulated a feminist program that recognized differences among women—especially those differences that unfolded along the lines of race and class—in order to achieve a more inclusive, powerful, and caring mode of activism. Read together, hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) distill this program in powerfully lucid terms by showing how the historical legacies of slavery continue to inform modern conceptions of Black womanhood. As hooks held, the struggle for women’s rights was also a struggle against the interconnected infrastructures of sexism, racism and classism. “Since men are not equals in [a] white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure,” she challenged, “which men do women want to be equal to? Do women share a common vision of what equality means?”
The questions hooks asked continue to guide contemporary discussions over how to achieve a truly just society. As Korean American novelist Min Jin Lee recently wrote, the experience of reading hooks’ work “was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind. I am neither white nor black, but through her theories, I was able to understand that my body contained historical multitudes and any analysis without such a measured consideration was limited and deeply flawed.”
For Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the double bind of racial and gendered prejudice, hooks’s influence resides in her ability to speak to a universal audience while nonetheless returning always to the specificities of her own experience as a Black woman. “I think of bell hooks as being pivotal to an entire generation of Black feminists who saw that for the first time they had license to call themselves Black feminists,” Crenshaw said in an interview with the New York Times. “She was utterly courageous in terms of putting on paper thoughts that many of us might have had in private.”
Much of hooks’s work centered around celebrating the everyday joys of Black womanhood, which so often unfolded within the private spaces of the home. In her 1995 essay, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” hooks recalled the walls of her childhood home and argued that its display of family photographs operated as radical museums of sorts. For hooks, the photographs that filled up these walls profoundly countered mass media and pop cultural representations of Black communities, which often turned on racist themes of violence and poverty. The mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who curated these domestic spaces—the “keeper[s] of walls”—took on the means of image making for themselves, constructing complex stories of love, sorrow, and belonging. “To enter black homes in my childhood was to enter a world that valued the visual,” she wrote, “that asserted our collective will to participate in a noninstitutionalized curatorial process.”
hooks made and remade this argument over the course of her career: that while Black girls and women rarely saw their experiences represented in public spaces, they had long been making, displaying, and cherishing such images for themselves. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” dwells on one such image from hooks’s childhood. Posing at her father’s cousin’s house, she appears in the image in full cowgirl regalia, wearing a white ruffled blouse, vest, and fringed skirt. “I loved this snapshot of myself because it was the only image available to me that gave me a sense of presence, of girlhood beauty and capacity for pleasure,” she observes. The snapshot has long been lost—“a terrible loss, an irreconcilable grief”—but the image of hooks, in joyful costume, lingered in her mind for years. “Those pictorial genealogies” she writes, “provided a necessary narrative, a way for us to enter history without words.”
Written by Karintha Lowe, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.