Gloria Watkins (aka bell hooks)
September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021
Notable: Author & Professor
Gloria Jean Watkins was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky one of her parents’ seven children. Rosa Bell was a stay-at-home mom who worked at times as a domestic worker while Veodis provided for the family by working as a janitor at the local post office. Watkins began her education at local all-Black schools where the teachers were primarily single Black women who nurtured both the intellectual interests and self-esteem of their students. This environment provided a safe space for Watkins to explore her desire to learn and an early passion for reading.
Yet, outside of these early classroom experiences and church at which she could perform poetry readings, Watkins faced oppression in most other areas of her early life. Within her home, as a constant companion to her brother, Watkins noticed that aside from some physical aspects there were no substantial differences between them when they were young. But as they grew older, the children within the household were being trained to operate within the strict confines of constructed gender roles. When the local schools integrated, Watkins was forced to leave the nurturing environment of her previous schools for majority White schools at which she would have negative experiences.
There was a two-fold expectation that being Black and a girl, Watkins would grow up to be demure and conscious of not saying or doing the wrong things. While Watkins’ childhood home and community exposed her to the realities of sexism they helped provide her with some of the tools needed to resist racism. Her love of reading and appreciation for writing combined with her intellectual curiosity led to Watkins questioning everything. Watkins’ pushed through the anxiety of her reserved nature and used reading and writing as outlets for forming and expressing her ideas.
After high school, Watkins enrolled at Stanford where she received a scholarship to study English. Located on the West coast in California, attending the elite school required leaving the familiar environment of her small town to move across the country. But unlike her earlier transition from segregated to integrated schools, Watkins had positive expectations that the college’s environment would welcome her as a Black female student with ideas and opinions.
The university provided space for some of the intellectual and political exploration that Watkins desired but there were disappointments. Her undergrad years coincided with the Women’s Rights Movement of the late 60s and early 70s and Watkins became involved. Yet, attending women’s studies classes and events in this supposedly progressive environment made it very clear that she was once again allowed to be present but there was no expectation for her to be heard. Discussions at gatherings about women and feminism centered on the experiences of White women while completely ignoring the existence of Black women.
She also experienced passive-aggressive racism at Stanford in the form of professors who made it a point to ignore or otherwise make Black students feel unwelcome. Watkins would comment on the similar exclusion of Black women’s experiences within the movement for Black equality. She would find that within these movements White women were unwilling to discuss race and Black men were unwilling to discuss gender. Working as a telephone operator brought Watkins into contact with working-class Black women who supported her idea to give voice to their experience through writing.
While Watkins’ would be ambivalent about her college experience, the period was pivotal in her future. It was during this time that Watkins began writing what would become her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. She also adopted her great-grandmother’s name as her pen name in honor of that ancestor’s reputation for being outspoken. Watkins opted to spell the name in all lower case letters to indicate focus should be placed on her work rather than her as an individual.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in 1973, hooks went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1976) and the University of California at Santa Cruz (1983). In 1978, hooks released a collection of poetry And There We Wept while she continued reworking her manuscript. hooks experienced some initial difficulty with finding a publisher as most were hesitant to take a chance on a title attempting to tackle both racism and sexism. During her search hooks worked as a teacher and lecturer at various colleges until the book landed at South End Press.
Upon its publication in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman was met with fervent criticism, especially from feminists and academics. This was because the book critiqued not only sexist and racist ideas but also the problematic activism in both areas. Yet, many non-academics, especially those who otherwise felt ignored by these movements gravitated to the book. This single title that would eventually be considered a classic immediately established hooks as an authority on the individual subjects of racism and sexism but particularly in the area of intersectionality.
While advancing her education, hooks would continue to teach, eventually working at the University of Southern California, Yale University, Oberlin College, the City College of New York, and finally Berea College. In 2014, Berea established the bell hooks Institute which is dedicated to helping students learn the skills needed to enter the world with new ideas rather than continuing to replicate gender and racial hierarchies.
Semi-retired since the 2010s, bell hooks passed away at her home on December 15, 2021, from end-stage renal failure. In addition to her years as an educator and authority on social issues, hooks also left behind a legacy of having published over 30 books covering race and gender but also touching on love, relationships, and her life.
- Jankowski, Lauren. 2019. “Biography of Bell Hooks, Feminist and Anti-Racist Theorist and Writer.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. February 16, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/bell-hooks-biography-3530371.
- Le Blanc, Odine. 2018. “Bell Hooks.” Encyclopedia.com. Elite Cafe Media. May 14, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/social-reformers/bell-hooks.
- Liptrott, Josephine. 2016. “Bell Hooks.” The Heroine Collective. March 18, 2016. http://www.theheroinecollective.com/bell-hooks/.
- Quintana, Maria. 2021. “Bell Hooks/Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021) .” Blackpast.org. December 16, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hooks-bell-gloria-jean-watkins-1952/.
- Risen, Clay. 2021. “Bell Hooks, Pathbreaking Black Feminist, Dies at 69.” The New York Times. New York Times, Co. December 15, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/15/books/bell-hooks-dead.html.
- Smith, Harrison. 2021. “Trailblazing Black Feminist and Social Critic Bell Hooks Dies at 69.” The Washington Post. WP Company. December 16, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/15/bell-hooks-dead/.
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