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Why bell hooks didn’t capitalize her name

Born Gloria Jean Watkins hooks was looking for a way to honor her maternal great-grandmother

bell hooks was a leading black feminist theorist and the author of several books, among them "Remembered Rapture." (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post)

Author bell hooks opted not to capitalize her name, hoping to keep the public’s focus on her work. But over her decades at the forefront of Black feminist writing, the punctuation choice became a constant curiosity.

The writer, who helped shape decades of debate about race and gender, died Wednesday at her home in Berea, Ky., at age 69.

Early on, hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, wanted a way to honor her maternal great-grandmother while detaching herself from her work. She wrote dozens of books using her great-grandmother’s name but didn’t capitalize it.

During a 2013 visit to Rollins College, she told an audience that she always wrote her name in lowercase because she wanted people to focus on her books, not “who I am.” (Ironically, the spelling of her name became a matter of public fascination.)

bell hooks, trailblazing Black feminist and social critic, dies at 69

The influential feminist writer’s books, including “Ain’t I a Woman” and “All About Love,” explored the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality. “Her work was credited with redefining feminism, broadening a movement that was often viewed as primarily serving White, middle- and upper-class mothers and wives,” The Washington Post wrote in hooks’s obituary.

The pen name may have also given hooks some needed perspective. “She also wrote to erase her young self, the young Gloria Jean Watkins, described by her as ‘the girl who was always wrong, always punished,’” The Post said in a 1999 profile. The author continued: “She was the girl who sat a hot iron on her arm pleading with them to leave her alone. … This death in writing was to be liberatory.”

“It’s not so much that the personal is political,” she said during a conversation at the New School in 2016. But the psychological is political, as well as the trauma and personal experiences that shape people.

Despite the self-described “gimmick” of her name, hooks was ambivalent when people got it wrong.

“Even when people capitalize my name, I don’t freak out, even though that would not be my choice,” she said in a 2009 interview. “I’m not attached to it, and in that sense I think we have to choose, what are the issues that really matter?

“I think we are obsessed in the U.S. with the personal,” she continued, “in ways that blind us to more important issues of life.”

Still, she admitted to getting “a little pissed at people who write me and want me to do things, and spell my name wrong.”