bell hooks is an African American author, teacher, academic and social activist. In a career spanning four decades, she has explored and written on a variety of themes including racism, feminism, culture and education. Her work has centred on identifying and challenging systems of oppression and discrimination which are based on race, sex and class. She is widely regarded as one of the most important intellectuals and writers of her generation.
She was born in 1952 into a working class family in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Christened Gloria Watkins, she would later adopt the pen name “bell hooks” after her maternal great-grandmother and in acknowledgment of her female ancestry. She chose to use lower case letters for this name in order to remove the focus from her as a person and place it solely on her writing.
As a child, bell initially attended a segregated school where her desire to learn was nurtured and encouraged. When integrated education was introduced to Kentucky she was forced to attend a predominantly white school and has subsequently spoken of her hugely negative experiences there. After graduating from high school, bell attended Stanford University and majored in English in 1972. She gained her Masters degree in English Literature in 1976 and, following several years writing, teaching and working as a telephonist in order to support herself financially, bell completed her PhD in literature at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1983.
Her academic career began in 1976 with a post at the University of Southern California teaching English and Ethnic Studies. Since then bell has held a variety of academic posts including the Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, the Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Ohio and Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York. In 2004 she joined Berea College in Kentucky and is currently the Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies there.
A prolific writing career began in 1978 with the publication of a chapbook of poems called And There We Wept. However, bell’s first major work, the groundbreaking Ain’t I Woman?: Black Women & Feminism, was published in 1981. It was a hugely influential book and remains a vital text in feminist literature. In the book, bell explored feminism and the civil rights movement, arguing that the divergence of racism and sexism which began with slavery made black women the most oppressed and marginalised group in American society. She described Black Nationalism as a patriarchal and misogynistic movement which sought to replace racial divisions by reinforcing sexist ones and feminism as largely white and middle class, wholly divorced from the needs of non-white and poor women.
“The process begins”, she wrote, “With the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.”
The book defied academic conventions and employs the informal writing style which became bell’s trademark. Her intention was to make her work wholly inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of their class, education or literacy. In her 1991 book, Breaking Bread, bell explains that the most important feedback she received was from non-academic readers. “When Ain’t I a Woman was first published”, she wrote, “I would get dozens of letters a week where, say, a black woman from a small town, out in the middle of nowhere, would tell me that she read my book at the public library and it transformed her life”.
Thus far, bell has published over 30 books exploring subjects such as race, gender, class, education, the role of the media in contemporary culture and, most particularly, how these issues intersect to produce systems of oppression and domination. She has written children’s books, several volumes of poetry and numerous academic articles. A brilliant and charismatic speaker, she has given lectures, made documentaries and appeared at public events in America and around the world. She recently completed a three year residency at the New School and in 2014 she founded the bell hooks Institute, an establishment dedicated to critical thinking, discussion and education.
Frequently outspoken and occasionally controversial, bell hooks remains a vital voice in the feminist movement and one of contemporary culture’s leading thinkers and authors.