On December 15th, 2021, bell hooks died. In her sixty nine years of life, she has written over forty books. Starting in the 1970s after her graduation, hooks published dozens of books that shaped academic discourse. Her works included Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and All About Love: New Visions. She explored race, gender, economics, and politics, investigating how they interacted and intertwined with one another. It made her one of the most influential thinkers of her time. Her death was announced by her niece, Ebony Motley, who said that hooks died at her home surrounded by friends and families, and intellectuals everywhere feel the weight of her loss.
“She was a giant, no nonsense person who lived by her own rules, and spoke her own truth in a time when Black people, and women especially, did not feel empowered to do that,” Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, a close friend and former administrator of Berea College (where hooks taught), wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “It was a privilege to know her, and the world is a lesser place today because she is gone. There will never be another bell hooks.”
And it’s true. As we examine antagonistic and unsympathetic spaces in academia, corporate America, healthcare, popular culture, and even our own families, hooks not only emphasizes education and the search for justice, but self love against all odds. She helped us understand and forgive the women who birthed and raised us. She encouraged empathy and compassion to the men who helped them (or didn’t help them). She claimed feminism without apology but identified with the struggles of masculinity. bell hooks was an inspiration to everyone everywhere.
But before she was bell hooks, she was Gloria Jean Watkins, daughter of Rosa Bell and Veodis Watkins. She was raised in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated community in Kentucky. Gloria was only ever able to attend segregated schools up until college. It was there, in the classroom, that she was able to glimpse into the liberation and transformation that education offered. In 1973, Watkins graduated from Stanford and when she began writing, it was not just her education that shaped her process, but where she came from.
You see, her father was a janitor and her mother worked as a maid for white families. Through their experiences, Gloria was able to build a picture of the world, however cold and unfriendly. By drawing on their perspectives, Gloria was able to implement their struggle into her teachings.
“My father, who was a very violent, very patriarchal man, he was in the all-Black infantry in World War Two. He was a boxer. He was a basketball player. He was all of these things that we associate with masculinity, and in fact really had a lot of disdain for my brother, because actually my brother was a much softer, warmer human being. And my father looked down on that—he felt that was not masculine,” hooks comments in a conversation with David Remnick for The New Yorker Radio Hour, “I still think that, if we really want patriarchy to change, we are in trouble if we turn our backs on men and not really want to examine, Why are men so violent? [The author and educator] John Bradshaw used to say that the primary form of child abuse is really shaming. And I think that if we look at all of these men and their behavior—it’s such shaming behavior.”
bell hooks was a name chosen as homage to her great grandmother, but it was also a kind of humility. It was the choice to be lower case and allow your work to be upper case. Still, bell hooks would not be bell hooks without Gloria Watkins. It is the intersectionality of these two identities that allowed hooks to create an open dialogue about the intersectionalist of other issues such as gender/race and sexuality/poverty. For many young people, the first they start to think seriously and critically about the systems surrounding class and spirituality is through her work. The legacy is not only in academia, but in all of us who have been touched by her teachings. It is seen in organizing, in the classroom, in corporations, and in the culture that will continue to grow and evolve. bell hooks has shaped generations of thinkers. Gloria Watkins pushed the world that much closer to justice and to understanding, and we all must mourn her passing.