Originally published for Vulture on December 17th, 2021.
The hills of Kentucky are enveloped in a legacy of resistance — first against the white colonizers who touched the Indigenous land we call America, and later against a state that confined an increasingly nonconformist working class, derogatorily designated hillbillies. It’s in the crevices of Appalachian dissent and Southern discontent that bell hooks, née Gloria Watkins, was born, in the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952. Her chosen name is an homage to her great grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, styled in lowercase to decenter herself in deference to her family and the work she would go on to produce, publishing over 30 books and scholarly articles — a lodestar for decades of Black feminist writing and scholarship — before her untimely passing at 69.
hooks would eventually leave Kentucky, citing her family’s move away from the hillside and into the fabric of mainstream society — as well as the racialized violence that framed her childhood in the 1950s and ’60s — as the impetus for her urge for other milieus. She went on to study at Stanford, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and UC Santa Cruz, bringing a commitment to community and the spirit of Black self-determination forged in the Kentucky hills to the confined spaces of academia. She was 19 years old when she put pen to paper and offered up the first draft of Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (published in 1981), introducing the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to the feminist canon as a descriptor of the interlocking mechanisms of domination well before intersectional feminism and all of its misapplications would become standard vernacular for the purportedly progressive-minded. She embraced a pedagogical mission of giving clarity and context to ongoing discussions, encouraging those who dared to interrogate existing ideas of race, class, or gender. Her approach to it all was informed by radical possibilities: We are not exclusively defined by any one single classification as long as we are fully present in all of them.Continue reading