Adekeye Down | bell hooks – iconoclastic feminist scholar-activist | commentary

Pioneering African-American scholar-activist, bell hooks, died recently of kidney failure at the age of 69. She published 40 books, mostly on the intersection between gender, race, and class. hooks was a versatile writer and trenchant essayist who also wrote on psychology, pedagogy, art, music, and spirituality.

A Renaissance woman, she published poetry, memoirs, literary criticism, film reviews, and children’s books, while also producing documentaries. She was an organic intellectual who believed in speaking in the colloquial idiom of working-class black Americans so that her work could reach and represent marginalized communities whose self-confidence and sense of identity she sought to bolster.


Gloria Jean Watkins – bell hooks – was born on September 25, 1952, in the small working-class town of Hopkinsville in rural Kentucky. Her father, Veodis, was a postal worker, and her mother, Rosa, was a homemaker. Gloria – the fourth of seven children – adopted the name of plume bell hooks in honor of her outspoken great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.

Gloria wrote the name in lower case to stress the need for readers to focus on her text rather than her person -: a stark contrast to the shameless self-promotion of the contemporary narcissistic social media generation. Intellectually gifted and a prodigious reader, hooks grew up in racially segregated schools, imbibing the poetry of William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Browning as well as African-Americans Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. She attended an integrated high school in Kentucky as America’s civil rights movement gathered pace in the 1960s.


hooks won a scholarship to the Ivy League Stanford University, in California, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in English in 1974. This was the first time that she had left rural Kentucky, and Stanford was a culture shock. She took refuge in a group of local working-class black women while working as a telephone operator. hooks obtained a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976 and finished her doctorate at the University of California at Santa Cruz seven years later with a thesis on the work of African-American Nobel literature laureate Toni Morrison.

Having acquired a first-rate education at these mostly white-dominated institutions, hooks were ready to confront the world. She was fearless in saying radical things that many thought but dared not voice. She wore her hair in natural African plaits and played the role of a contemporary Joan of Arc prepared to be burned at the stake for her heretical views of her. Launching a sustained assault on what she described as the “imperialist white supremacy capitalist patriarchy” system, her lifelong creed was uncompromising: “A devaluation of Black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.” She also railed against the powerlessness of blacks in fighting the ubiquitous negative stereotyping of their image in white-dominated American media, film, and society.


hooks’ work was courageous, confrontational, and critical. She resisted the elitist tag of “public intellectual,” preferring instead to see herself more as a grass-roots scholar-activist. She was a pioneering iconoclast and unabashed cultural warrior who set out to slaughter feminist sacred cows and orthodox shibboleths. hooks gave black feminists the confidence to find their own voice and to narrate their own stories. African-American feminists like Angela Davis and Alice Walker had forced the establishment of Black Women’s Studies into American university curricula by the late 1970s, successfully arguing that their narratives had been marginalized in Black Studies syllabi. hooks was their heir.

Her first book was a collection of poems, And There We Wept, published in 1978 while teaching at the University of Southern California. hooks’ 1981 Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism became an iconic feminist text. It dealt with historical and contemporary black female oppression, based on the brutality of slavery and the imperialism of patriarchy. She was unfazed by some of the hostile reviews of her work, continuing to condemn the “acts of persecution, torture – the terrorism that breaks the spirits…”. She insisted that black women must move from being imperial objects to liberated subjects, and resisted efforts to silence strong black radical voices.

Her 1984 Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center was a searing critique of mainstream white feminist theory which she felt erased the experiences of black women, and privileged those of white middle-class women. hooks thus called for the centring of marginal black and brown women, and the recognition of socio-economic inequalities in building a more inclusive women’s movement.

In 1989, hooks published Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Two years later came Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, a collaboration with African-American celebrity theology scholar Cornel West, who described hooks as “an intellectual giant.” The 1993 Sisters of the Yam urged political resistance and self-healing for black women throughout the African Diaspora.

Three years later, hooks published Bone Black: Memories of Girlhoodand in the same year, Reel to Reel: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. In 2004, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity emerged. She criticized black patriarchy but also sympathetically acknowledged the historical victimization and oppression of black men, the inclusion of whom she consistently promoted in the fight to defeat patriarchy.

Her books have been translated into 15 languages ​​and continue to be used on curricula across the globe. By the 2000s, hooks had become a celebrity academic whose work was required reading on every continent. Often wading into popular culture, she criticized the phallocentrism of Spike Lee’s films and the ideological inconsistencies of Beyoncé’s art.


hooks returned to her close-knit community in Kentucky in 2004 and lived out the last 17 years of her life there. She taught at Berea College and had the foresight to set up the bell hooks Institute at the university in 2014, which now hosts all her archives and collected works from her.

By this time, the self-described “Buddhist Christian” had reduced her teaching load and spent time meditating, visiting family and friends, and writing on the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. She had mellowed somewhat, stressing the importance of love and community to heal America’s deep racial and gender wounds.

As she noted: “I believe wholeheartedly that the only way out of domination is love.” hooks was the ultimate iconoclast who consistently challenged conventional orthodoxy, and charted her own original path de ella. In the process, she did much to force black feminist narratives into the intellectual mainstream.

Prophetic to the end, hooks had envisioned the aftermath of her own demise: “This is the way I imagine ‘the end’: I close my eyes and see hands holding a Chinese red lacquer bowl, walking to the top of the Kentucky hill I call my own, scattering my remains as though they are seeds and not ash, a burnt offering, on solid ground vulnerable to the wind and rain – all that is left of my body gone, my being shifted, passed away, moving forward on and into eternity.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Center for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to

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