Remembering bell hooks: Kamala Harris, Ibram X. Kendi and Others Mourn the Black Feminist Author

bell hooks died on Wednesday at the age of 69

bell hooks
bell hooks. Photo: Margaret Thomas/The The Washington Post via Getty

"The one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself," bell hooks wrote in Communion: The Search for Female Love. "Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin."

The renowned author, culture-changing feminist and critic died on Wednesday at the age of 69. hook's sister, Gwenda Motley told the New York Times she died as a result of end-stage renal failure.

Since news of hooks' passing was announced, her readers, former students and colleagues have turned to her words for comfort.

"The passing of bell hooks hurts, deeply. At the same time, as a human being I feel so grateful she gave humanity so many gifts," wrote author Ibram X. Kendi in a multi-part tweet on Wednesday. "AIN'T I A WOMAN: BLACK WOMEN AND FEMINISM is one of her many classics. And ALL ABOUT LOVE changed me. Thank you, bell hooks. Rest in our love."

"Our nation lost a prolific author, activist, and trailblazer. bell hooks' profound and positive influence will be with us for generations to come. May she rest in power," wrote Vice President Kamala Harris on Twitter on Wednesday.

Generations of readers and students have been forever altered by hooks' work. Early on, she adopted the pen name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and insisted on keeping her name in lower case letters to lessen the focus on her individual identity.

Since she released her first book of poems, And There We Wept, in 1978, hooks has riveted readers with her powerful theories on the intersectionality of gender, race, class and sexuality. She published close to 40 books during her career, including her work of feminist theory Ain't I a Woman?, influenced by Sojourner Truth's eponymous speech, and her rethinking of modern love in All About Love.

"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," hooks wrote in Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, "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."

Most recently, hooks worked as professor at Berea College in Kentucky, where there is a bell hooks center in celebration of her legacy.

bell hooks Feminist Theory

"The bell hooks Institute at Berea College will continue to be a valuable and informative beacon to her life's work, continuing to remind humans that life is all about love," reads a statement from the college that was posted after her death.

The iconic author was born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky on Sept. 25, 1952. She was raised in the small southern city by her father Veodis Watkins, a postal worker, and mother Rosa Bell, a stay-at-home mom, alongside her seven siblings, Sarah, Theresa, Kenneth, Valeria, Gwenda and Angela, according to the Times.

"Gloria learned to read and write at an early age and even proclaimed she would be famous one day," hooks' family shared in a statement on Wednesday. "Growing up, the girls shared an upstairs bedroom and she would always keep the light on well into the night. Every night we would try to sleep but the sounds of her writing or page turning caused us to yell down to Mom to make her turn the light off."

From early on, hooks was a voracious reader, the Watkins family explains.

Ain’t I a Woman? bell hooks

"There were many summer days that Gloria led the walk to the public library to checkout books. While Valeria and Gwenda would find one or two Nancy Drew or other fun books, Gloria always had at least ten books of a more serious nature (Shakespeare, Little Women, and other classics)," the statement continues. "With her intense love for information, her ability to speed read was perfected. We will always remember Gloria as having a great thirst for knowledge, which she incorporated into her life's work."

hooks went on to attend attend Stanford University, where she graduated with a degree in English literature, followed by a master's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, per the Times.

She taught at various universities across the U.S. before rising to prominence as a celebrated intellectual and activist. Cornel West recognized her prowess as a radical thinker on Twitter.

"This sad season of massive deaths is nearly killing me! From my precious Mom to five eulogies in one week, and now my very dear sister bell hooks!" Cornel tweeted on Wednesday. "She was an intellectual giant, spiritual genius & freest of persons! We shall never forget her!"

West is far from the only one who will remember hooks. Her impact on fellow authors — including Min Jin Lee, who wrote a 2019 Times essay about her — is great.

In 1987, hooks was working at Yale University when Lee, now a bestselling author, took two of her classes, "Introduction to African-American Literature" and "Black Women and Their Fiction," according to her Times essay, "In Praise of bell hooks." hooks didn't assign her own books, so some of her students sought them out at the local bookstore.

When Lee read Ain't I a Woman? for the first time, it changed her perspective, she writes.

"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," Lee writes in her essay. "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."

At the end of the essay, she explains that Ain't I a Woman? "allowed me to recognize the dignity and power of living privately and publicly as an immigrant feminist of color."

She continues: "At the time, I did not yet know of Kimberle Crenshaw's brilliant term 'intersectionality,' or Claudia Rankine's vital concept 'racial imaginary' — complementary and significant theories for understanding present day lives, but as a young woman, through hooks's work, I was just beginning to see that everyone needs theory, and we need it like water."

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