Explained: bell hooks, the author and activist behind the name

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Black feminist, activist and author bell hooks (written in lower case) died on December 15 at her home in Kentucky, US. According to reports, hooks died of last-stage renal failure. She was 69. The acclaimed intersectional feminist was an important voice in academic and cultural circles, and her writings shaped perspectives on the intersectionality of race, capitalism and gender. She called feminism “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

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The story behind the name

As much as her writings, the feminist’s chosen name has been a matter of fascination and intrigue. hooks was born in 1952 as Gloria Jean Watkins in the segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She gave herself the pen name of bell hooks to honour her mother, grandmother and maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.

She spelled the words in lower case to establish her own identity. In a profile of the feminist from 1999 in The Washington Post, it appears that bell hooks chose this name as a way of erasing her younger self, “the girl who was always wrong, always punished”, referring to trauma from her childhood. hooks also believed that her name’s lower case was to convey that what was important was “the substance of books, not who I am” (The Sandspur, 2013). hooks was not in the favour of people who misspelled or miswrote her name, even though she herself described it as a gimmick.

Growing up

hooks’ was initially educated in racially segregated schools and moved to an integrated school in the late 1960s. She obtained her degrees in English Literature from Stanford University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then a PhD from the University of California. Her first published work under bell hooks was a collection of poems “And There We Wept” which was released in 1978.

Among hooks’ early influences were James Baldwin, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. In an interview with Appalachian Heritage in 2012, hooks had said that King was her teacher for understanding the importance of “beloved community”. She wrote some 40 books in her lifetime, including essays, poetry and children’s books.

Ain’t I a Woman

At 24, hooks was writing her book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which would go on to revolutionise feminist thought when it was published in 1981. It is currently taught in colleges across the world and noted as one of the most influential women’s books. The book is titled after abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. hooks argued that the convergence of sexism and racism in slavery meant that Black women had the lowest status and worst conditions of any group in American society. The feminist movement was therefore a largely white, middle- and upper-class affair and did not articulate the needs of poor and non-white women. She wrote, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism’, to focus on the fact that to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”

hooks and feminist interventions in popular culture

hooks wrote, “As long as the United States is an imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal society, no large female majority can enter the existing ranks of the powerful.” Cynthia Carter from Cardiff University writes that throughout most of her intellectual career, hooks was interested in the ways in which mass media informs audiences everyday understanding of identity in the US, a culture that hooks refers to as being a “white supremacist capitalist racist patriarchy”. hooks forced herself to engage with media, no matter how suspicious their motives, Carter observes, and she believed that feminist reform is not the answer, only radical or revolutionary feminist intervention. It is with this intention that hooks believed that it wasn’t enough to comment from the academic sidelines but also engage with everyday, popular culture.

On Black representation and popular culture

Throughout her career, hooks paid a lot of attention to the representation of Black culture and bodies in popular culture, particularly music and film, as well as ways in which this was misappropriated. In her observations on pop icon Madonna, as stated in “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?”, hooks writes that Madonna’s “blonde ambition” had much in common with the masses of black women who suffer from internalised racism but that ultimately the singer can think of exerting power only along “very traditional, white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal lines”.

hooks also held strong views on rap music and its roots, as a source of Black youth rebellion against attempts at control, both on the streets and at home. In this process, however, rap lyrics are often misogynistic and anti-domesticity, with much focus on a patriarchal macho image and disciplining women.

All About Love

In 2000, hooks’ book All About Love: New Visions was published. It offered her perspectives, both cultural and personal, on love, freeing it from its only understanding as romance. She argues that love can be the new ethic with which to heal and bind individuals, communities, societies and even nations. She wrote, “How different things might be if, rather than saying “I think I’m in love,” we were saying “I’ve connected with someone in a way that makes me think I’m on the way to knowing love.” Or if instead of saying “I am in love” we say “I am loving” or “I will love.” Our patterns around romantic love are unlikely to change if we do not change our language.”





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