The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trailblazing Black feminist and social critic bell hooks dies at 69

Feminist author bell hooks in 2003, signing one of her children's books for a young reader in Hyattsville, Md. (Melanie Burford for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Trailblazing Black feminist bell hooks, whose graceful, probing and wide-ranging books sought to empower people of all races, classes and genders, anticipating and helping shape ongoing debates about justice and discrimination in the United States, died Dec. 15 at her home in Berea, Ky. She was 69.

The cause was end-stage renal failure, said her sister Gwenda Motley. Dr. hooks had been on the faculty of Berea College since 2004, serving as distinguished professor in residence in Appalachian studies.

A poet, memoirist, social critic and scholar, she wrote more than 30 books, mixing the personal and the political as she examined Madonna music videos, Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, the representation of Black Americans in film and the nature of love.

Honing a voice that was by turns fiery and uplifting, earnest and wry, Dr. hooks became known as one of the country’s leading feminist theorists — a “rare rock star of a public intellectual,” as Time magazine put it last year. She appeared on panels with scholars such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. while reaching readers far outside the academy, expanding her audience through self-help and children’s books.

“To think of certain ways of writing as activism is crucial,” she told Bomb Magazine in 1994. “What does it matter if we write eloquently about decolonization if it’s just White privileged kids reading our eloquent theory about it? Masses of Black people suffer from internalized racism; our intellectual work will never impact on their lives if we do not move it out of the academy.”

Years before the term “intersectionality” came into vogue, Dr. hooks argued that mainstream feminists failed to account for racism, class exploitation and other forms of discrimination. She was often credited with broadening the feminist movement, making room for women of color, for working-class women and for others who felt left out by activists’ early focus on White middle-class mothers and wives.

Offering a straightforward definition of feminism, she declared that it was “the struggle to end sexist oppression,” a struggle that occurred on multiple levels. She spoke of “an interlocking system” of domination and oppression, and described America’s political system as an “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” writing in 2013 — six years before the New York Times examined similar themes with the 1619 Project — that the country was “founded and colonized on a foundation of white supremacist thought and action.”

Raised in a racially segregated town in rural Kentucky, Dr. hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins and used “bell hooks” as a pseudonym, taking the name of a maternal great-grandmother and styling it lowercase. She said she wanted to focus attention on her work, not on herself, while also paying homage to a relative with whom she shared an independent cast of mind.

“I was a young girl buying bubble gum at the corner store when I first really heard the full name bell hooks,” she wrote in her 1989 book “Talking Back.” “I had just ‘talked back’ to a grown person. Even now I can recall the surprised look, the mocking tones that informed me I must be kin to bell hooks — a sharp-tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back. I claimed this legacy of defiance, of will, of courage, affirming my link to female ancestors who were bold and daring in their speech.”

That boldness was evident from her first nonfiction book, “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” (1981), which she started writing as a 19-year-old undergraduate at Stanford University. Named for a speech by abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, the book explored the effects of racism and sexism on African American women from slavery onward.

Initially panned by some critics who questioned her historical claims, including those about slavery’s outsize toll on women, “Ain’t I a Woman” is now considered a feminist classic, and was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the “20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years.”

“For me, reading ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind,” novelist Min Jin Lee, the author of “Pachinko,” wrote in a 2019 essay for the New York Times. “I am neither white nor black, but through her theories, I was able to understand that my body contained historical multitudes and any analysis without such a measured consideration was limited and deeply flawed.”

With her follow-up, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” (1984), Dr. hooks expanded her critique of mainstream feminism, delivering a withering indictment of Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller “The Feminine Mystique.”

“She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes,” Dr. hooks wrote of Friedan. “She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.” “The Feminine Mystique,” she added, “remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women” but was also “a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence.”

Dr. hooks’s own writing inspired similarly passionate criticism, with detractors saying she was too radical or not radical enough, that she was overly “P.C.” or reliant on pop psychology, that she was wasting her time writing for a wide audience or squandering her talent by spreading herself too thin.

But as Dr. hooks saw it, many of her critics simply refused to see her as multidimensional. The issue had been faced by Black women for years, she told The Washington Post in 1999.

“Black women have trouble,” she said. "[Writer] Naomi Wolf is allowed to be both intellectual and sexy. Whenever a Black woman is attractive and sexy, she must be a whore. It makes it difficult for Black women to be fully complex. I’m playful, anybody who hangs out with me knows that, but I am also a dead-serious intellectual woman who is on the job.”

The fourth of seven children, Gloria Jean Watkins was born in Hopkinsville, Ky., on Sept. 25, 1952. Her father was a janitor for the Postal Service, and her mother worked as a maid for White families across town.

Growing up, Dr. hooks rebelled against the expectation that she develop into a quiet, “well-behaved” young woman. “I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions,” she recalled. “I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life.”

By age 10, she was writing and memorizing poetry, reciting verses of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes during impromptu family talent shows, sometimes held by candlelight in the living room. She went on to receive a scholarship to study English at Stanford, where she became involved in the feminist movement, only to be disillusioned by a women’s studies class with writer Tillie Olsen, where she said there was no discussion or consideration of Black women and their history.

“I began to feel estranged and alienated,” she wrote, “from the huge group of white women who were celebrating the power of ‘sisterhood.’”

Dr. hooks received a bachelor’s degree in 1973 and studied English literature in graduate school, earning a master’s degree in 1976 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a doctorate in 1983 from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she wrote her dissertation on novelist Toni Morrison.

By then she had already adopted her pen name and published her first book, the poetry chapbook “And There We Wept” (1978). She continued to publish poetry while splitting her time between teaching and writing, working at schools including Yale University, Oberlin College and the City College of New York.

Survivors include a brother and four sisters.

Dr. hooks won an American Book Award for her essay collection “Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics” (1990). Her later work tended to be more personal, including in “Bone Black” (1996), a memoir of her childhood, and “All About Love” (2000). Her first children’s book, “Happy to Be Nappy” (1999), celebrated the beauty of hair that is “soft like cotton, flower petal billowy soft, full of frizz and fuzz.”

“I want my work to be about healing,” she once said. “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.”

Emily Langer contributed to this report.

Loading...