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.
If integrity was one pillar by which hooks faithfully abided, love was the other. In a country that had so long ago turned a sacred act into a commodity — the purchase of mined diamonds one of many expressions of power and ownership — hooks strove to shed the artifice. Sisters of the Yam, originally published in 1993, presented Black women throughout the diaspora with a link between self-healing and political resistance. All About Love (1999) was a holistic reframing of everything Black women had been socialized to accept when it comes to compassion, care, community, and freedom. In the seminal 2000 work Feminism Is for Everybody, she interlocked a commitment to justice with love: “Feminism is the struggle to end sex oppression.”
Indeed, she had range, swinging from feminist theory to self-help and culture. Outlaw Culture is a gold standard in cultural criticism; her essay “Gangsta Culture — Sexism and Misogyny” is breathtaking in its subversion of reductive interpretations of feminism and plainspoken in its empathy for Black men who are both the arbiters of a subculture and the capitalist products of it, a dynamic she further articulates in her 1992 essay “Eating the Other.” Any Black feminist in film criticism will elevate “The Oppositional Gaze” as recommended reading. In a time when there was a dearth of popular writing by African Americans in fine arts, hooks published Art on My Mind.
It is near impossible to calculate the level of courage it took for hooks to serve as an early architect of concepts that now feel self-evident. A walking embodiment of the term cultural worker, fearlessly cutting through every medium, viewing her work as one of the purest expressions of love for Black people there is — a belief in our ability to strive for greater and demand more. She was as prolific a poet and children’s book author as she was a critic, as bright and sharp onscreen and in person as her words read on the page. As an instructor, whether to Yale students who still knew her as Gloria in the ’80s, the commuter students at the City College of New York in Harlem in the ’90s and early aughts, or at the bell hooks institute at Berea College in Kentucky that she established in 2010, she sought to make a rigorous politic tangible and invited her pupils into a room of compassionate, critical thought. Texts such as Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope still serve as a salve — reminders of ways to continue to fight the battle of will and memory from the margins.
hooks’s fastidious adherence to candor above all would not come without repudiations. A forthright Black feminist body of work lent itself to some misreadings, including a frequently mis-contextualized passage from 1990’s Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, referencing the Exonerated 5 and racialized gender-based violence. (It was commonly misread as an interpretation of guilt as opposed to an examination of how Black men are victims of patriarchy and white supremacy.) Critics assumed hooks’s perception of Black men came from a position of disdain rather than care. Studying Black life in the face of domination and commodification placed her at odds with many Black contemporaries and their respective fan bases, from confronting Spike Lee’s phallocentric gaze to daring to highlight the political inconsistencies in Beyoncé’s art. Nonetheless, so many contemporary arguments over representation, imagery, the relationship between art and commerce, and indicators of harm and progress are facsimiles of conversations surfaced by hooks in the ’90s; as the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
It is not an understatement to say that hooks changed the world. “I am a fortunate writer because every day of my life practically I get a letter, a phone call from someone who tells me how my work has transformed their life,” she said during her 2018 speech for her induction into the Kentucky Hall of Fame. Because of hooks, writers felt empowered to explore the interior textures of Black life and love, and understand that they should be afforded the same level of gravitas as any other academic subjects. We learned to acknowledge grief as part of healing, as part of the continuum of love. In the early aughts when a wave of titans of Black feminism — Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Claudia Tate — passed before their time, very few of them experiencing the pleasure of crossing the threshold of 60 years old, hooks was there to ruminate on what their sudden absences meant. Now to process her loss, we have an endless array of hooks’s own words to turn back to.
In Belonging to a Culture of Place, hooks writes: “Choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live. Choosing to return to the land and landscape of my childhood, the world of my Kentucky upbringing, I am comforted by the knowledge that I could die here. This is the way I imagine ‘the end’: I close my eyes and see hands holding a Chinese red lacquer bowl, walking to the top of the Kentucky hill I call my own, scattering my remains as though they are seeds and not ash, a burnt offering on solid ground vulnerable to the wind and rain — all that is left of my body gone, my being shifted, passed away, moving forward on and into eternity. I imagine this farewell scene and it solaces me; Kentucky hills were where my life began. They represent the place of promise and possibility and the location of all my terrors, the monsters that follow me and haunt my dreams. Freely roaming Kentucky hills in childhood, running from snakes and all forbidden outside terrors, both real and imaginary, I learn to be safe in the knowledge that facing what I fear and moving beyond it will keep me secure. With this knowledge I nurtured a sublime trust in the power of nature to seduce, excite, delight, and solace.”
I hope hooks embraced death knowing that she had secured an intergenerational foothold in the Black feminist legacy through gratitude and constant belief in the capacity of Black people to embrace love and reject domination. Above all, I hope she found the love and freedom she wished for us, amongst those Kentucky hills. Whether or not she did, I am confident that she never stopped trying; as long as bell hooks remains part of my memory, I never will either.