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The Commonwealth

Community remembers feminist scholar and activist bell hooks’ work, life and her dedication to love

bell hooks memorial.jpg
Courtesy Berea College
Feminist scholar and activist bell hooks taught at Berea College and established the bell hooks center. She died in December.

When friends, writers and colleagues shared stories honoring feminist scholar bell hooks at a memorial service on Thursday, they talked about her commitment and belief in love as a means to challenge injustice.

“As she put it, love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust,” Berea College President Lyle Roelofs said.

“If you have all of that, you cannot be an imperialist, or an unconstrained capitalist, or a white supremacist, or in any way oblivious to all the disparities and cruelties in our society around the full rainbow of gender identities,” he said.

Feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem met hooks in 1992 and the two became friends. Steinem said love stood out in hooks’ works.

“What then and now inspires me most about her writing, is her insistence on the value of love, even though love is a very devalued, cheapened misunderstood word,” Steinem said in a recorded message.

Last December, hooks died at the age of 69 at her home in Berea after a long illness. Before authoring trailblazing works on feminism, race, class and capitalism, bell hooks was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky as Gloria Jean Watkins. Her pen name came from her great grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.

A graduate of Stanford and the University of Wisconsin, hooks earned her doctorate in literature in 1983 from the University of California, Santa Cruz. hooks went on to teach at Stanford, Yale, the City College of New York and Oberlin. She began teaching at Berea College in 2004, where she established the bell hooks center.

Gwenda Motley spoke on behalf of the Watkins family. Motley’s family hopes that everyone comes to know their bell hooks and her work.

“Gloria Jean Watkins, also known as bell hooks, yearned to be loved. She yearned for a beloved community. And she yearned for mankind to return to love,” Motley said.

A friend of more than four decades, Zillah Eisenstein, professor emerita of politics at Ithaca College, described hooks as being uncompromising in her beliefs.

“She was insistent about how her Black self was always simultaneously constructed by racism, by sexism and capitalism. If she thought you compromised with any of these systems of power, she had no forgiveness, but she was not rejecting, but rather unrelenting in the struggle for her and all of our freedom,” Eisentein said in a recorded message.

When Imani Perry was a teenager, she met hooks while interning at South End Press, which published hooks first book, “Ain’t I a Woman, black women and feminism.” Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, said one of her favorite stories that she’s heard came from hooks’ students at Yale.

“She had students go out onto the streets of New Haven, you know that most students are told to stay away from, and read poetry to the people. For her public intellectualism was not limited to big stage publics,” Perry said.

University College London professor and Founding Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation Paul Gilroy said hooks’ presence in his life changed him and his family. He spoke from his home in London where hooks had visited over the years.

“I'm glad that Gloria led me astray. She challenged me to think and say things I wouldn't previously have been bold enough to express and to find ways I would have never dared to employ in order to articulate them,” Gilroy said. “My life was greatly enriched by her fearlessness.”

In the last days of her life, friends and family visited hooks at her home in Berea. Darnell Moore, a friend and vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix, met Hooks in 2014.

“As I grew to learn, bell flirted and made jokes, and gossiped and offered sharp cultural criticism, and wrote conversation-starting books, and loved and lusted and was erotic, and spiritual, and transparent, and complicated because that was the stuff of her humaneness,” Moore said.

Moore said she read one to two books every day and woke up early to write. But he also recalled her honesty, laughter and a time when the two shared an authors’ table at a book festival.

“As we chatted over dinner … a white woman tablemate interrupted our dinner and conversation to get in a few words with bell,” Moore said. “Before too long, bell looked past me and into the eyes of the woman and said, ‘Do you mind? I am trying to eat my dinner, and I don't want to talk right now.’”

Moore paused as he and memorial attendees laughed.

“I gasped. Because she was unafraid,” he said.

In their tributes, friends and former colleagues also spoke as openly about hooks’ struggles as they did about her extraordinary work.

Qrescent Mali Mason is president of the International Simone de Beauvoir Society and an assistant professor of philosophy at Haverford College. She first heard hooks speak in 2004. Mason went on to teach at Berea College during hooks’ tenure.

“Here are things that I witnessed bell struggle with: forgiveness, regarding an honoring the feelings of others, loneliness, suicidal ideation, keeping people's confidences, the sometimes miscalibration of the meaning and persistent need for talking back, not always accepting and receiving the love and care offered to her,” Mason said.

She added, “I think often about all the projected lovelessness, invisibility and silences that bell shouldered in her mission to rid her life of hers as an example of how we might read our lives of ours.”

Linda Strong-Leek hosted the memorial and said she rarely talked about her friendship with hooks. But she said hooks taught her about self care, life and to embrace being a Black feminist.

“Now, like most good friends, bell and I often disagreed. For instance, I still love ‘The Color Purple,’ it is one of my favorite books, and bell hated it,” she said.

Strong-Leek said as Black women writers died, hooks worried about their work and memories fading.

“Every time another Black woman writer left us, we would talk about her project, the bell hooks institute, and how she wanted the institute to live on long after she was gone,” she said.

As hooks’s memorial came to a close, Strong-Leek announced that within the next year, the bell hooks center will relaunch and reopen “to honor her life and her work.”

“My dear sister friend, you will never be forgotten,” she said.

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