'She Was Prophetic': Bay Area Remembers Groundbreaking Author and Cultural Critic bell hooks

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bell hooks stands next to a podium wearing an orange long-sleeve shirt and scarf speaking with a mic in her right hand.
bell hooks in 2009. Author, poet, feminist, cultural critic and professor, hooks died on Dec. 15 at age 69. (Wikimedia Commons)

Author, professor and cultural critic bell hooks had deep ties to the Bay Area. She went to Stanford and received her Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, but she also taught many through her writing, including over 30 books.

hooks, who passed away on Dec. 15 at age 69, has been foundational in shaping Black feminist thought and expanding a feminist worldview beyond white, middle-class identity — from her pointed critiques of the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to her vulnerability and thoughts on love and healing.

In 1952, she was born with the name Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. hooks rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, during which she published multiple books including "All About Love: New Visions," "Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism," "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center" and "All About Love: New Visions." Her works had a strong focus on community and examining the connections among racism, sexism and poverty.

She later decided on the pen name bell hooks to honor her maternal great-grandmother. In the 1980s and 1990s, hooks went on to teach at universities across the country including Stanford University, Yale University and The City College of New York, before creating the bell hooks Institute located at Berea College in Kentucky.

Many people in the Bay Area shared what hooks's work has meant to them. Responding to the question: "What did bell hooks's work mean to you?" one Instagram user shared, “For me, a beginning of understanding intersectionality—the overlapping of racism and misogyny, and how the political crept into personal spaces and relationships, and vice-versa.”

San Francisco-based Gallery 16, which published a book with hooks, said, “We couldn’t believe how joyful, warm and brilliant she was. She’s a Northstar.”

Others cited specific books as part of their own personal journey. “Her book ‘Communion: The Female Search for Love’ introduced me to what love and womanhood are, it was transformative and served as a guiding light as I grew into an adult,” one person shared.

On Friday, KQED Forum’s Mina Kim spoke with Beverly Guy-Sheftall, professor at Spelman College, and john a. powell, director of UC Berkeley's Othering and Belonging Institute and professor of law at UC Berkeley, about hooks's life and legacy.

“She wasn't just talking about liberation for Black people or people of color and women," Guy-Sheftall said. "She also really focused on racial capitalism and the evils of economic hierarchies that position working class, everybody — even across color — at the bottom."

Guy-Sheftall and hooks knew each other for over 40 years and first met at a National Women's Studies Association conference in 1981. They bumped into each other, recalls Guy-Sheftall, and ended up sharing a dorm room. "We literally talked all night," she said, adding that they have been talking ever since.

"One of the things I loved about bell is she critiqued these systems without confusing them with the people," powell shared, adding that hooks talked about love as a way of getting to belonging. And she talked about accountability in the home and in community. In 2015, hooks spoke of life and death at an Othering and Belonging conference at UC Berkeley.

Both powell and Guy-Sheftall remarked on hooks's ability to always be vulnerable, and comfortable with her own weaknesses. "She would cry in public," powell said. This vulnerability, Guy-Sheftall said, and her willingness to talk about dysfunctionality, therapy and love, allowed people to connect to her, "like a sister or like an aunt."

"She did this very, very comfortably and brought people in. And I think it was also her way of saying, 'I love you,'" Guy-Sheftall said.

In one of her many notable quotes, hooks said in "Marginality As a Site of Resistance" (1990): "Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation. In fact I was saying just the opposite: that it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance."

Providing a close reading of this quote, powell shared how she took concepts like vulnerability and love from the margins. "She took love and ... made it part of the public discourse," he said.

During KQED's Forum episode, one caller shared how important and relevant hooks's 1994 book "Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom" is today.

Guy-Sheftall emphasized how much bell understood the power of teachers. "In some ways, she was prophetic — because think about the ways in which now professors and people who teach about race and capitalism are being literally thrown under the bus," she said.

With schools all across the country banning books about slavery, Guy-Sheftall said, hooks really understood that teachers have power not just to transform their classrooms, but also to transform society.


Listen to the full episode of KQED Forum here