Social critic bell hooks (born 1952) is a prolific writer whose books analyze the function of race, as well as gender, in contemporary culture.
Writer, professor, and social critic, bell hooks is undeniably one of the most successful "cross-over" academics of the late twentieth century. Her name, as well as the criticisms of racism and sexism that she has penned, are central to many current academic discussions, and they are also read widely outside of the educational arena. Her 1995 publication Killing Rage: Ending Racism, according to Ingrid Sischy in Interview, "unswervingly, unnervingly faces [the subject of racism], which is so often swept under the carpet and which is afloat in a big way. [hooks] shows racism as the minefield that it is."
Her other books, five of which were on the market before 1992, similarly analyze the function of race, as well as gender, in contemporary culture, taking as their subjects movies, television, advertising, political events, socioeconomic conditions—anything that reflects social inequality. In the introduction to Black Looks, which includes essays about Madonna, filmmaker Spike Lee, and the Anita Hill Clarence Thomas hearings, hooks explained the fundamental political purpose of her cultural criticism: "It struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify."
The essayist and teacher known to her readers as bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952. The sense of community that would become so significant a note in hooks's work grew out of her early life in a black neighborhood in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in rural Kentucky. She recalled her neighborhood as a "world where folks were content to get by on a little, where Baba, mama's mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens." In the same essay, "Chitlin Circuit, " hooks explained how the hardships created by racism could be turned by this community into a source of strength: "A very distinctive black culture was created in the agrarian South, by the experience of rural living, poverty, racial segregation, and resistance struggle, a culture we can cherish and learn from. It offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people."
Gloria was one of six siblings: five sisters and a baby brother. Her father worked as a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell Oldham Watkins, worked as a maid in the homes of white families, as did many of the black women in town. Although hooks—writing in the essay "Keeping Close to Home" from Black Looks—described her father as "an impressive example of diligence and hard work, " she paid the most tribute to her mother's care; in "Homeplace" she explained, "Politically, our young mother, Rosa Bell, did not allow the white supremacist culture of domination to completely shape and control her psyche and her familial relationships." The author further described how this role applied to mothers in black communities in general: "Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world."
As a student at segregated public schools such as Booker T. Washington Elementary and Crispus Attucks High, hooks was taught by a dedicated group of teachers, mostly single black women, who helped to shape the self-esteem of children of color. But the late 1960s brought forced school integration to Kentucky. Looking back on her sophomore year of high school in "Chitlin Circuit, " she recalled, "What I remember most about that time is a deep sense of loss. It hurt to leave behind memories, schools that were 'ours, ' places we loved and cherished, places that honored us. It was one of the first great tragedies of growing up."
The neighborhood where she grew up provided young Gloria with the affirmation that fostered her resistance to racism, but it also provided her with the negative and positive experiences that would shape her feminism, which she discussed in the essay "Ain't I a Woman: Looking Back": "I cannot recall when I first heard the word 'feminist' or understood its meaning. I know that it was early [in my] childhood that I began to wonder about sex roles, that I began to see and feel that the experience of being 'made' female was different from that of being 'made' male; perhaps I was so conscious of this because my brother was my constant companion. I use the word 'made' because it was obvious in our home that sex roles were socially constructed—that everyone could agree that very small children were pretty much alike, only different from one another physiologically; but that everyone enjoyed the process of turning us into little girls and little boys, little men and little women, with socially constructed differences."
Learned to "Talk Back"
Although Gloria was supposed to become a quiet, well-behaved young woman, she became instead a woman who "talked back." This phenomenon, for which hooks eventually named a volume of essays, actually refers to the development of a strong sense of self that allows black women to speak out against racism and sexism. In the introduction to Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, a collection published in 1989, hooks emphasized the importance of this trait in her personality: "Folks who know me in real life and in the unreal life of books can bear witness to a courageous openness in speech that often marks me, becomes that which I am known by." In the essay of the same name, hooks noted the origin of this outspokenness: "I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life."
Young Gloria's personality was a mix of this disobedient curiosity and a painful reserve; she explained, in retrospect, that "safety and sanity were to be sacrificed if I was to experience defiant speech. Though I risked them both, deep-seated fears and anxieties characterized my childhood days."
She wasn't, however, afraid of writing or of books; she used both to further develop her voice. In "'When I Was a Young Soldier': Coming to Voice, " hooks explained that poetry—an element of particular importance in the growth of her voice—first captured her attention at church "with reading scripture with those awkward and funny little rhymes we would memorize and recite on Easter Sunday." By the time she was ten, she had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her ability to recite verse. She described the way poetry figured into her early life in "When I Was a Young Soldier": "Poetry was one literary expression that was absolutely respected in our working-class household. Nights when the lights would go out, when storms were raging, we would sit in the dim candlelight of our living room and have a talent show. I would recite poems: [William] Wordsworth, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks. Poetry by white writers was always there in schools and on family bookshelves in anthologies of 'great' works sold to us by door-to-door salesmen. … Poetry by black writers had to be searched for."
Although hooks has continued to write poetry and has published some, she gained notoriety as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. In order to do this work, she found herself needing to develop a different voice, a different name. In an essay called "To Gloria, Who Is She: On Using a Pseudonym, " hooks noted: "Gloria was to have been a sweet southern girl, quiet, obedient, pleasing. She was not to have that wild streak that characterized women on my mother's side."
She first used her pseudonym—her maternal great-grandmother's name—for a small book of poems; another woman in her community was named Gloria Watkins, and she wanted to avoid confusion. But a different purpose gradually developed, as she noted in "Talking Back": One of the many reasons I chose to write using the pseudonym … was to construct a writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses leading me away from speech into silence." This writer-identity, represented by the pseudonym bell hooks, grew out of the reputation that the original bell hooks had in Gloria's community and, consequently, the sense of self that it could make for Gloria: "I was a young girl buying bubble gum at the corner store when I first really heard the full name bell hooks, " she remembered in "Talking Back." "I had just talked back to a grown person. Even now I can recall the surprised look, the mocking tones that informed me I must be kin to bell hooks—a sharp-tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back. I claimed this legacy of defiance, of will, of courage, affirming my link to female ancestors who were bold and daring in their speech."
Found Racism in Women's Studies
To a southern black girl from a working-class background who had never been on a city bus, who had never stepped on an escalator, who had never traveled by plane, leaving the comfortable confines of a small town Kentucky life to attend Stanford University was not just frightening, it was utterly painful. In "Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education, " hooks described her difficult first journey out of Hopkinsville, which she made to begin her undergraduate education at Stanford, a white, ivy-league institution.
Accepting the scholarship that would take her to northern California, hooks gave up the affirmation of her black community but hoped to find a place that would affirm a woman's voice talking back. Initially, as she acknowledged in "Ain't I a Woman: Looking Back, " she found some of the intellectual and political affirmation that she had anticipated: I eagerly responded to the fervor over contemporary feminist movement on campus. I took classes, went to meetings, to all-women's parties." But one of the significant weaknesses of that women's movement quickly became apparent to her: "It was in one of my first Women's Studies classes, taught by Tillie Olsen, that I noticed the complete absence of material by or any discussion about black women. I began to feel estranged and alienated from the huge group of white women who were celebrating the power of 'sisterhood."'
That initial disillusionment would eventually fuel hooks's major contribution to mainstream feminism—her critique of its persistent racism. In "Feminism: a Transformational Politic, " she translated that early experience in Women's Studies into broad political insight: "Within the feminist movement in the West, [there exists] the assumption that resisting patriarchal domination is a more legitimate feminist action than resisting racism and other forms of domination." It became hooks's main work to change that assumption.
The unspoken racism she witnessed in the classroom reflected the racism embedded in the academy at large, where an institution run largely by middle-class, white men actively worked to limit the movement of the few people of color who were present. In "Black and Female: Reflections on Graduate School, " hooks recalled the racism that began in her undergraduate education: "We were terrorized. As an undergraduate, I carefully avoided those professors who made it clear that the presence of any black students in their classes was not desired. … They communicated their message in subtle ways—forgetting to call your name when reading the roll, avoiding looking at you, pretending they do not hear you when you speak, and at times ignoring you altogether."
She encountered further obstacles when she pursued her study of literature later in graduate school. Several professors at the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin were determined to stop hooks—a black woman—from earning the graduate degree that she needed to become a university professor. Neither of these programs nor her final degree program at the University of California at Santa Cruz had black women on the faculty. Persisting against the racism, hooks completed her dissertation titled Toni Morrison's Fiction: Keeping "A Hold on Life, " in 1983. Although she would go on to teach African American literature, hooks only submitted this work for publication in the early 1990s. As early as 1981, however, she already had a major publication to her credit, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.
Wrote First Book at Nineteen
In the early 1970s, in order to combat the racism that permeated her world, hooks turned to the same strategy that had served her so well in childhood: talking back. She was experiencing, every day, as she recorded in Ain't I a Woman, "a social reality that differed from that of white men, white women, and even black men." She tried to find texts that would explain that difference and validate her recognition of the injustice. The impetus to write her own text finally came from a black male friend who was her lover at the time: "When I could not find sources, when I expressed mounting bitterness and rage, he encouraged me to write this book that I was searching for." In Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, she summarized the fundamental idea she needed to capture in that first book: "What I wanted so much to do … was to say there is a history that has produced this circumstance of devaluation. It is not something inherent in Black women that we don't feel good about ourselves, that we are self-hating. Rather it is an experience which is socially circumscribed, brought into being by historical mechanisms."
Despite the full-time studies she was pursuing at Stanford when she began Ain't I a Woman at the age of nineteen, hooks took a job as a telephone operator. Finding time for her writing was a challenge, but hooks also found that the job offered her something she didn't have in school at the time—a community of working-class, black women: "They provided support and affirmation of the project, " she wrote, "the kind of support I had not found in a university setting. They were not concerned about my credentials, about my writing skills, about degrees. They, like me, wanted someone to say the kinds of things about our lives that would bring change or further understanding."
The author went through several drafts of the manuscript over the next six years before she had one that satisfied her. A large part of the process, as she reconstructed it in "'When I Was a Young Soldier': Coming to Voice, " was once again about discovering a voice that was strong enough to talk back: "The initial completed manuscript was excessively long and very repetitious. Reading it critically, I saw that I was trying not only to address each different potential audience—black men, white women, white men, etc.—but that my words were written to explain, to placate, to appease. They contained the fear of speaking that often characterizes the way those in a lower position within a hierarchy address those in a higher position of authority. Those passages where I was speaking most directly to black women contained the voice I felt to be most truly mine—it was then that my voice was daring, courageous." It was at this moment that the persona of bell hooks truly rescued Gloria Watkins.
At first hooks had considerable trouble publishing her work: some publishers would release works on racism, and a number of feminist presses were printing anti-sexist books, but no one wanted to take a risk on a book that treated the two topics together. Eventually, hooks was directed to her future publisher, South End Press, while giving a talk at a feminist bookstore in San Francisco. Once published in 1981, Ain't I a Woman became central to discussions of racism and sexism. Eleven years later, Publishers Weekly ranked it among the "20 most influential women's books of the last 20 years." Much of the response, as hooks characterized it in "Talking Back, " was shockingly negative: "The book was sharply and harshly criticized. While I had expected a climate of critical dialogue, I was not expecting a critical avalanche that had the power in its intensity to crush the spirit, to push one into silence."
Most of the criticism came from the academic community, both because hooks's form defied academic convention and because her subject matter pressed vulnerable points with established white feminists. The author explained in Breaking Bread that she received her most important feedback from her non-academic readers: "When Ain't I a Woman was first published I would get dozens of letters a week, where, say, a Black woman from a small town, out in the middle of nowhere, would tell me that she read my book at the public library and it transformed her life.
A Career in Higher Education
While Ain't I a Woman made bell hooks a vital name in feminist debate, Gloria Watkins continued her work. With a Ph.D. in English literature, she embarked on her teaching career. It was in her role as a teacher that hooks felt she was doing her most important work, as she explained in "On Being Black at Yale: Education as the Practice of Freedom": "Fundamentally the purpose of my knowing was so I could serve those who did not know, so that I could learn and teach my own—education as the practice of freedom." She knew that for a people historically and legally deprived of the right to education, teaching was one of the most substantial forms of political resistance she could choose.
After holding various lectureships at Santa Cruz in the early 1980s, hooks left for Yale when she had the opportunity to teach in African American Studies, stating: "I would not have accepted a job solely in the English Department. I believed that I would find in African American Studies a place within the university wherein scholarship focusing on black people would be unequivocally deemed valuable— as necessary a part of the production of knowledge as all other work." In 1988, she joined the faculty at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she would teach in Women's Studies, a program that now offered the critique of racism that was absent during her undergraduate years.
Along with her teaching, hooks has continued to write and publish at a rate that is astonishing even for an academic. She published Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center while still lecturing at Santa Cruz in 1984 and followed it in 1989 with Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. She then produced three books in three years: Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics in 1990; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, which she wrote with Cornel West, in 1991; and Black Looks: Race and Representation in 1992. The following year saw the publication of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. In addition, hooks's essays frequently appear in a publications that range from the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion to Essence.
Taking a post with the City College of New York in 1995, hooks moved to the Henry Holt publishing company and came out with Killing Rage: Ending Racism, a book that calls for a more proactive approach to solving the problem of racism in America. When asked in Interview magazine why she chose this focus, hooks responded, "Wherever I went, I kept hearing people say, 'I will always be racist, ' or 'This person will always be racist.' And I kept thinking, Why do so many people have bleak, passive responses to racism, where they just act as though it is some kind of illness that will never change, that will never go away. … I kept thinking how this passiveness really belies the history of resistance to racism in our culture. … When one looks at the history of African-Americans in our culture, it's amazing how much has been profoundly altered in people's lives, from the end of slavery to today." With her many critiques of America's societal problems, hooks has certainly proven her own commitment to play a role in bringing attention to all forms of prejudice.
It is clear that hooks intends to stick to the goal she once described in her essay "Talking Back": "Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of 'talking back, ' that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice."
Further Reading on Bell Hooks
hooks, bell, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, South End Press, 1989.
hooks, bell, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, South End Press, 1990.
hooks, bell, and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.
hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992.
Essence, July 1992, p. 124; May 1995, p. 187.
Interview, October 1995, p. 122.
Publishers Weekly, June 15, 1992, p. 95; March 27, 1995, pp. 24-25.