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Bell Hooks

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English Literature

Gloria Jean Watkins was a writer, activist and academic, most known for her influence on intersectional feminism and work on the position of Black women in society and feminist movements.

Watkins is best known by her pen-name bell hooks, borrowed from her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. Bell hooks' name is intentionally uncapitalised to ensure that those who read her work focused on the contents of her work rather than who she was.

bell hooks biography

Bell Hooks, photograph of bell hooks, StudySmarterbell hooks, clker.com.

Bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) was born in September 1952 to a working-class African American family. She was one of six children. Her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, worked as a maid for white families, and her father, Veodis Watkins, worked as a janitor.

Hooks grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a segregated town. Hooks' experiences growing up in this town informed much of her later work on identity. For instance, in her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996) hooks' described:

"[her] struggle to create self and identity from and yet inclusive of the world around" her (p xi).

Hooks enjoyed reading and performing poetry readings at her local church while growing up. She was particularly inspired by poets such as Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and William Wordsworth.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) is an African-American writer and activist, best known as one of the founding figures and leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.

Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861) is an English Victorian-era poet.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is an English poet who was one of the founding figures of the Romanticism movement in English literature.

For the majority of her childhood, hooks attended a segregated school. Even though the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education made segregation illegal by federal law, many schools remained segregated until the late 1950s. African American students who attended desegregated schools often received racist backlash from their white peers.

Hooks graduated from Hopkinsville High School, a desegregated school, with a scholarship to Stanford University, from where she graduated with a BA in English in 1973. She continued her academic studies with a MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976 and a doctorate in English at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983.

While studying, hooks was writing her first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. She began writing this at the age of 19 in 1971 and published it in 1981. She also published a collection of poetry titled And There We Wept (1978).

Outside of literary contributions to feminist discourse, hooks worked as a teacher. She first held several positions at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before teaching African American studies at Yale University in 1985. She took on a teaching role at Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1988, where she taught Women's Studies. In 1994, hooks' accepted a Distinguished Lecturer of English position at the City College of New York. A decade later, she accepted a position at Berea College, Kentucky.

Berea College set up a bell hooks Institute in 2014 and opened the bell hooks Centre in 2021, prior to her death in December that year, to preserve her legacy as a writer, activist, and teacher.

bell hooks feminist theory & intersectionality

The majority of hooks' work came to be defined by the concept of intersectional feminism. Hooks' first academic book, Ain't I a woman? (1981) addressed the intersection of gender and racial identity and the effect of this intersection on black women.

Intersectional feminism is an approach to feminism that understands how the intersecting identities of individual women impact the oppression they face.

In 1984, hooks presented her feminist theory in her work Feminist theory: from margin to centre. In this work, hooks introduced the concept of interlocking webs of oppression, which underpinned how individuals are impacted by multiple systems of oppression related to the factors which make up their identity. Through this concept, hooks expanded on the traditional concept of feminism as a movement that promotes the equality of men and women, by critiquing the dominance of white women in the ideals and aims of feminism at the time.

Interlocking webs of oppression: before the term intersectional feminism entered academic discourses, hooks discussed the concept of interlocking webs of oppression. This concept highlights how an individual can be oppressed in multiple ways based on their racial identity, gender, or class, among other factors, and acknowledges that these forms of oppression overlap and influence each other.

Hooks recognised that white feminist academics focused their theories and work on systems of oppression relating only to gender, neglecting the oppression faced by women of colour. Additionally, hooks understood that by only addressing one form of oppression, without addressing the issues of racism or classism, the feminist movement undermined its own efforts to create an equal society. Each form of oppression relies on a cultural norm or acceptance of such oppression, as underpinned by hooks' critique of the role of the media in constructing and maintaining a white-capitalist-patriarchy by only representing the views and experiences of dominant social groups. From this, hooks argued that unless the feminist movement represented the experiences of all women and addressed all areas of oppression, the revolutionary change would not occur.

The oppositional gaze

From hooks' critique on the role of the media in perpetuating cycles of oppression came the concept of the oppositional gaze, a term coined by bell hooks in her work Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). The oppositional gaze is a tool to oppose the dominant gaze present in the media (white, male, and upper class) and to work against the othering of people of colour in media. The oppositional gaze is a form of representational intersectionality and includes gazes such as the female gaze.

Can you think of any other gazes that oppose the dominant gaze?

Representational intersectionality is a part of intersectionality that focuses on the need for positive representation of minority groups in media and positions of power.

Thus, in her work, hooks proposed a new definition of feminism as a movement that intends to end the oppression and exploitation of women from all racial identities, classes, and abilities, among other areas of oppression. Through her recognition of how forms of oppression intersect and influence each other, hooks made feminism a more inclusive movement.

bell hooks key works & books

Let's take a look at bell hook's most famous works!

Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984)

Feminist Theory pushed bell hooks to the forefront of the feminist movement. In this work, hooks challenged traditional conceptions of feminism and had a long-lasting impact on the movement. She argued that the reliance of traditional feminism on white, middle-class experiences had limited the ability of the feminist movement to pursue women's liberation. As a solution to this, hooks presented a new definition for feminism as a movement inclusive of women of colour, disabled women, queer women, working-class women: all women.

Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992)

This collection of essays by bell hooks considers traditional narratives on Blackness in literature, film and politics and their role in forming oppressive systems. Hooks examines,

'images of black people that reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy."

With a particular focus on these images in the media, hooks presents the argument that there is a need for alternative ways to perceive blackness and whiteness. From reconstructing conceptions of Black masculinity to loving your Blackness and Black features, hooks highlights the importance of representation as an aspect of intersectional feminism.

All About Love: New Visions (2000)

All About Love differs from hooks' more famous works; it focuses on our perception of love rather than issues of race, class, and gender. Hooks presents the argument that men have been socialised to distrust the value of love, while women have been socialised to place too much trust in love. This argument relates to hooks' earlier (and later) critiques of systems of oppression perpetrated by societal perceptions present in the media. Hooks covers multiple aspects of love in this book, including affection, respect, trust, and commitment. She examines how these aspects of love are influenced by social systems and advises how we can address our internalised conceptions of love.

How can you link hooks' argument that men and women have been socialised to perceive and give love in different ways to representational intersectionality? What other systems of oppression may exist in this area of socialisation?

bell hooks important quotes

Some important quotes by bell hooks include:

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984, p. 17):

The central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definitions that could serve as points of unification. Without agreed-upon definitions, we lack a sound foundation on which to construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis."

Hooks highlights how there is a need for an agreed-upon definition of feminism for the feminist movement to succeed. By creating a unified feminist political movement, a sound foundation can be formed and built upon, allowing feminism to grow stronger. If the definition of feminism doesn't include all women or follow a consensus, the movement will be less powerful.

Loving Blackness as Political Resistance in Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992, p. 20):

Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life."

In this quote, hooks presents the oppositional gaze as a form of resistance. Socio-political systems work to oppress Black people by discriminating against their hair, facial features, and skin. This discrimination, in turn, is used to justify other racist ideals which present Black people as less. By loving their features, loudly and proudly, Black people can fight against such systems of oppression.

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000, p. 16):

As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized."

Hooks re-states the argument she first presented in her work Ain't I a Woman (1981) and continued discussing and developing throughout her life. That feminism isn't truly feminism unless it is inclusive of everybody. If feminism continues to follow its traditional meaning as a movement intended to create equality between men and women, it risks excluding women of colour and other differences. This exclusion will prevent the feminist movement from reaching its full potential.

bell hooks - Key takeaways

  • Gloria Jean Watkins is best known by her pen-name bell hooks, borrowed from her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks.
  • Bell hooks' name is intentionally uncapitalised to ensure that those who read her work focused on the contents of her work rather than who she was.
  • The majority of hooks' work came to be defined by intersectional feminism, beginning with her first academic book, Ain't I a woman? (1981) addressed the intersection of gender and racial identity in the feminist movement.
  • In her work Feminist theory: from margin to center (1984) hooks argues that unless the feminist movement represented the experiences of all women and addressed all areas of oppression, the revolutionary change would not occur.
  • The oppositional gaze is a term coined by bell hooks in her work Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). The oppositional gaze is a tool to oppose the dominant gaze present in the media.

Bell Hooks

Gloria Jean Watkins, best known by her pen-name bell hooks, was a writer, activist and academic. 

In 1984, hooks presented her own feminist theory in her work Feminist theory: from margin to center. In this work, hooks presented the concept of interlocking webs of oppression, which underpinned how individuals are impacted by multiple systems of oppression related to the factors which make up their identity. 

In her work, hooks proposed a new definition of feminism as a movement that intends to end the oppression and exploitation of women from all racial identities, classes, and abilities, among other areas of oppression. 

bell hooks is best known for her work on the experiences of Black women in the feminist movement.

bell hooks' name is intentionally uncapitalised to ensure that those who read her work focused on the contents of her work rather than who she was. 

Final Bell Hooks Quiz

Question

What is bell hooks' birth name?

Show answer

Answer

Gloria Jean Watkins 

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Question

True or false? bell hooks' name should be written without capital letters.

Show answer

Answer

True! bell hooks' name is intentionally uncapitalised to ensure that those who read her work focused on the contents of her work rather than who she was.  

Show question

Question

True or false? bell hooks grew up in a segregated town

Show answer

Answer

True. Hopkinsville Kentucky, the town in which hooks grew up was segregated. 

Show question

Question

What did bell hooks enjoy when growing up?

Show answer

Answer

Reading and performing poetry readings at her local church.

Show question

Question

Which supreme court case made segregation illegal by federal law?

Show answer

Answer

The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education

Show question

Question

Which university did hooks have a scholarship for?

Show answer

Answer

Stanford 

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Question

At what age did hooks start writing her first book Ain't I a Woman (1981)?

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Answer

19

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Question

What did hooks' book Ain't I A Woman? (1981) address?

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Answer

The intersection of gender and racial identity, and the effect of this intersection on black women.  

Show question

Question

What is intersectional feminism?

Show answer

Answer

An approach to feminism that understands how the intersecting identities of individual women impact the oppression they face. 

Show question

Question

In which book did hooks present her own feminist theory?

Show answer

Answer

Feminist theory: from margin to center. (1984)

Show question

Question

What are interlocking webs of oppression?

Show answer

Answer

The multiple ways in which an individual can be oppressed based on their racial identity, gender or class, among other factors.

Show question

Question

What, according to hooks. did the feminist movement need to do for revolutionary change to occur?

Show answer

Answer

The feminist movement needed to represent the experiences of all women, and address all areas of oppression.

Show question

Question

What is the oppositional gaze?

Show answer

Answer

A term coined by bell hooks in her work Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). The oppositional gaze is a tool to oppose the dominant gaze present in the media (white, male, and upper class), to work against the othering of people of colour in media.  

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a key work by bell hooks?

Show answer

Answer

Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex (1989)

Show question

Question

Which of bell hooks' works is the quote 

'As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized' from?

Show answer

Answer

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000)

Show question

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