The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The legacy of bell hooks — trailblazing scholar and activist — lives through her students

The renowned author, social critic and scholar bell hooks. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post)
7 min

When bell hooks’s death was announced Wednesday, Javier Morillo’s mind traveled back over three decades to the unseasonably chilly day in New Haven, Conn., when he first set foot on Yale University’s campus.

It was 1987 and an 18-year-old Morillo had traded his native Puerto Rico’s sunny beaches for a stint at an elite institution. Standing at the foot of Yale’s imposing architecture and feeling like an outsider, an overwhelming sense of dread washed over him.

“A voice kept telling me, ‘You just made the worst mistake of your life,’ ” Morillo, now 52, said.

He said he was ready to call it quits, until Gloria — as students referred to hooks, the renowned author, social critic and scholar — delivered an orientation address.

“The feeling that I remember having from that lecture was a sense of belonging that I can be a thinking person, an educated person and still be true to my values, my roots,” he said. “And that those were things that were of benefit, not a subtraction.”

After orientation, Morillo enrolled in the “Romance, Self and Society” seminar taught by hooks. Years later, as a college professor in Minnesota, he used her method on his own students, he said.

“It’s special to think that we were so touched by her that we pass down the lessons she taught,” he said. “As much as her writing, that profound impact she had on her students is an important part of her legacy.”

The ripples of hooks’s sway showcase themselves in myriad ways. For some it was a change of heart, for others a change of career. Even among those who never met her, hooks instilled an ideal for what teaching could become — breaking down barriers as an act of love.

With over 30 books under a repertoire that mixes the personal and the political, hooks’s readers range from scholars to “just an ordinary person reading in the subway,” Morillo said. Her books are taught in colleges, including “Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” lauded as a groundbreaking work in feminist history. Her flowing and forthright style encourages readers to think more critically about race, sexuality, community, love and feminism. But more than a prolific writer, her former students remember the gentle-spoken woman who inspired them to think deeply, love immensely and aspire greatly.

Why bell hooks didn’t capitalize her name

For Min Jin Lee — author of “Pachinko,” a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction — having hooks as a professor shattered a slew of preconceived notions. As a Korean American woman and history major, Lee said she never envisioned herself following her teacher’s path. Her English courses at Yale “just completely opened my mind,” she said.

“Two classes of the few number of electives that I had really reflect how important I thought she was as a teacher,” Lee said. “Studying with her made such a huge impact on me in terms of thinking about how people become writers, why they write books and what it means to be a woman of color and to write.”

In more ways than one, Lee said, hooks embodied the central canons in her writing: like the colored pieces of a mosaic, the self contains a vast and sometimes juxtaposing array of experiences and interests.

Conversations could range from the commodification of Black bodies to the beauty behind a color event. A fashion lover, hooks could as readily engage in an intellectual debate as she could say “Oh, those shoes are so cute,” Lee said.

“Just to think of her in narrow terms is not fair to the bigness of her mind,” the author said.

hooks’s time as a professor in Yale ended in 1988. That same year, she moved some 561 miles away to Ohio, where she took up a teaching position at Oberlin College until 1994. After almost a decade — and a professorship at City College of New York — she returned to Oberlin in 2002 for an event, where her humor, larger-than-life laugh and attentive listening would resonate with then-freshman Mary Annaïse Heglar.

“She was a lot funnier and sillier in person,” said Heglar, who is now a podcast host and climate writer. “But, in the way of James Baldwin, she was very interested in what we thought then and liked engaging with people in that way as opposed to talking at them.”

In 2004, hooks moved back to her native Kentucky to take up a teaching position at Berea College. Her return, said Ben Boggs, a former colleague in that institution, was much more than a homecoming. Rather, the promise of what the country could be was entrenched in the full-circle moment: a woman who was raised in the segregated South teaching in the abolitionist-founded liberal arts school.

“The motto remains ‘From the Gospels that God has made of one blood all peoples of the Earth,’ ” he said. “And bell was just that. That was just part of who she was, so it was just a very natural fit.”

A decade later the college created the bell hooks Institute as a center for her writing and teaching. At Berea, Boggs said, hooks asked provocative questions to anyone who crossed her path. But she also once surprised her students by quietly flying an actress to the Appalachian town during the height of her Harry Potter fame.

“She somehow convinced Emma Watson to fly to Lexington, Kentucky, and then drove her down to Berea, where they met at bell’s house with students without the media ever knowing,” Boggs said. “That meant so much to the students.”

But her influence went beyond those who knew her personally. Her thoughts on teaching became a template for those wanting to act on one of the cornerstones in “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom,” her 1994 education-focused book: That “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”

A molecular biologist, Raven Baxter ran across this book when she made the jump toward pedagogy.

“I learned about the importance of using my platform as an educator to be vulnerable and break the traditional norms of elitism that are in science,” Baxter said. “By linking our personal stories, by being vulnerable and weaving those in with academic discussions, it really shows our humanity and also helps people understand how our personal narratives are integrated into the things that we learn in our academic material.”

Inspired by hooks’s “democratizing approach” at shattering the ivory tower of academia, Baxter said she has worked in different ways to break the barriers of science’s complexity — employing rap music to explain knotty subjects like the body’s immune response.

“She left such a huge legacy,” Baxter said. “It would be a disservice if we didn’t actually carry it on and do everything that we possibly could to continue sharing her teachings and following the practices.”

Whether it is by revisiting her work, smiling at shared moments or reflecting on her ideas, the impact hooks left builds from one of her best-known phrases.

“Love is an action, never simply a feeling,” she wrote in her 1999 book, “All About Love.”

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