- Former professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Berea College
- Viewed America as a nation awash in racism and sexism
- Candidly used the classroom to indoctrinate students to her political philosophy
- Died on December 15, 2021
Born in rural Kentucky on September 25, 1952, Gloria Jean Watkins was better known by her revolutionary nom de guerre,“bell hooks,” which, as a form of protest against the grammatical conventions of the Western society that she detested, she chose not to capitalize. A self-proclaimed lesbian, hooks also described herself as “a Buddhist Christian” and an “insurgent Black intellectual voice” committed to a “renewed liberation struggle.”
Hooks earned a B.A. from Stanford University in 1973, an M.A. From the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976, and a Ph.D. From UC Santa Cruz in 1983. She launched a career in academia in 1976, when she began a three-year stint as an English professor and Ethnic Studies lecturer at the University of Southern California. She subsequently taught at several post-secondary institutions in the early 1980s, including UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, and Yale University. In 1988 she became a professor of Women’s Studies at Oberlin College, and in 1995 she joined the faculty of the City College of New York. She later became a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Berea College in 2004.
Over the course of her professional life, hooks authored more than 35 books and papers, of which a large percentage focused on the race, gender, and class “hierarchies” that, in her view, dominated every aspect of the social order and its culture. In her 1991 essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” hooks contended that feminist theory was primarily a political tool that should be used to “challenge the status quo” of America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
In her 1994 polemic, Teaching to Transgress, hooks claimed that every educator who viewed himself or herself as “a subject in resistance” against societal oppression, had a “right” to engage in “political activism,” to “define reality” in accordance with his or her worldview, and to “empower” students by converting the classroom into an incubator of “progressive” politics. Claiming that the English language projects the tones of brutal colonialism, hooks said: “It is difficult not to hear in standard English always the sound of slaughter and conquest.” And she wrote, with satisfaction, about the effect that her brand of “engaged pedagogy” had on her students: “I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: ‘We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.’”
In a 1996 essay titled “The Rebel’s Dilemma,” hooks again candidly acknowledged that she sought to use her position (as a professor) to radicalize a new generation of black activists and to confront America’s “structures of domination,” thereby advancing “our struggle for liberation.” “My concern,” she once told Z Magazine, “is to … reach young Black people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are the reading population but who are least likely, maybe, to hear of a bell hooks.”
Promoting the notion that the problems faced by blacks in contemporary American society were largely due to intractable racism, hooks’ 1995 book Killing Rage: Ending Racism began with this sentence: “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Her anger in that particular instance was sparked when a stewardess allowed a white man to take a first-class airplane seat that had originally been occupied by hooks’ female friend whose upgrade (to first class) had not been properly registered with the airline. To hooks, this event was emblematic of the “institutional racism” and “sexism” at the heart of American society. In the same book, hooks wrote that “to perpetuate white supremacy, white folks have colonized black Americans [and taught] us to repress our rage, to never make them the targets of any anger we feel about racism.” To combat this pernicious form of brainwashing, hooks emphasized, blacks should take pains to never “surrender our rage.”
Also in Killing Rage, hooks claimed that Colin Ferguson, a black gunman who had shot some twenty white and Asian commuters (killing six of them) in a racially motivated incident aboard a New York train in December 1993, was merely trying to avenge what he called “racism by Caucasians and Uncle Toms.” Ferguson, hooks added, had a “complex understanding of the nature of neo-colonial racism,” and he “held accountable all the groups who help perpetuate and maintain institutionalized racism, including black folks [i.e., Uncle Toms].” But by manipulating these facts, said hooks, white media outlets were able to use the tragedy as “a way to stereotype black males as irrational, angry predators,” rather than use it as an occasion “to highlight white supremacy and its potential ‘maddening impact.’”
In her 2000 book, Feminism Is for Everyone, hooks wrote that “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”; that “males as a group … benefit the most from patriarchy [and] the assumption that they are superior to females and should rule over us”; and that men commonly seek “to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep the patriarchy intact.” Because “our society continues to be primarily a ‘Christian’ culture,” hooks added, “masses of people continue to believe that god has ordained that women be subordinate to men in the domestic household.” Further, hooks told readers that her book was an exercise in “revolutionary feminist consciousness-raising,” even as she lamented that black women were “never going to have equality within the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
Professor hooks’ great popularity in the academic world won her many invitations to give commencement speeches at collegiate graduation ceremonies. In 2002, for instance, she told the graduating class at Southwestern University to beware of “life-threatening conservatism” and “the powerful forces of everyday fascism which use the politics of exclusion and ostracism to maintain the status quo.” Describing the American government as a “terrorist regime” whose “call for violence in the aftermath of 9/11 was an expression of … our nation’s ongoing fascination with death,” she denounced America’s “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal hunger to show the planet our nation’s force, to show that this nation would commit absolute acts of violence that will wipe out whole nations and worlds.” Further, hooks argued that “just as the violence of the terrorists who slaughtered the innocent on 9/11 does not lead us closer to justice, to reconciliation or peace, the violen[t] acts of imperialist aggression enacted in the name of bringing an end to terrorism have brought us no closer to reconciliation, to peace, to justice.” Moreover, she lamented “the terror of unjust killing, which has long been rampant in our land, taking place everyday when children are murdered, when women are beaten and raped, when individuals are bombed in their churches, in their homes, when native peoples continue to suffer loss of their lands.”
Also in 2002, hooks was one of many prominent leftists to endorse the Not In Our Name (NION) “Statement of Conscience,” which condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
In a December 2015 interview with the New York Times, hooks stated that “white supremacist white people are crazy”; that “white supremacy is … a serious and profound mental illness” that has achieved widespread “normalization” in America; that all blacks suffer to some degree from “the trauma of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”; and that when “white people gave us [blacks] … integration,” they had also given blacks such dubious gifts as “full access to the tormenting reality of desire,” “the expectation of constant consumption,” and constant exposure to the “greed and … materialism” allegedly inherent in capitalism. Lamenting also that America has “very few systems that promote healing in [black people’s] lives,” hooks stated that the “fear of whiteness has intensified” for many black people, who consequently “do not feel safe” outside of “black only spaces.”
Hooks died on December 15, 2021 in Berea, Kentucky.