Groundbreaking Feminist Scholar bell hooks Dies at 69

The prolific American writer shaped a generation of discourse around Black feminism and intersectionality

hooks, a Black woman in a red blazer, sits in front of a red, yellow and black quilt with her hand resting lightly on her chin and a small smile
bell hooks, pictured in 1999 Photo by Margaret Thomas / The The Washington Post / Getty Images

Writer bell hooks, a prolific cultural critic, poet and scholar whose works explored issues of Black womanhood, Black masculinity and spirituality, died Wednesday at her home in Berea, Kentucky. She was 69.

Berea College, where hooks taught as a distinguished professor in residence in Appalachian Studies, announced her death in a statement and noted that she had suffered an “extended illness.” The private liberal arts college houses hooks’ personal papers at the bell hooks Institute, which was established in 2010 to steward her legacy, reports Linda Blackford for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“It is with great sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the passing of feminist author, professor and activist bell hooks,” says the museum’s director, Kevin Young, in a statement. “hooks’ writing inspired generations of writers and thinkers after her, gave voice to the plight of Black women in American society and advocated for love as a transformative force.”

hooks introduced a generation of readers to a transformative feminism grounded in community care and love. In books such as Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981) and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), the writer probed scholarly questions in clear, considered language that was accessible to wide audiences. She wrote more than 40 works, including scholarly texts, guides for educators, essays, poetry collections and children’s books.

As news of hooks’ death broke, writers and intellectuals from around the world took to social media to express their condolences.

“Oh my heart. bell hooks. May she rest in power. Her loss is incalculable,” wrote author Roxane Gay on Twitter.

Historian Clint Smith, a poet and author of How the Word is Passed, added, “bell hooks was an extraordinary writer and scholar who gave us new language with which to make sense of the world around us. Her work was imbued with a deep commitment to truth-telling, but also with a profound sense of care and love for community.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, called hooks a “special, brilliant voice.”

“Her straightforward, powerful words speak to me and visitors to our National Museum of African American History and Culture, who see them displayed in our galleries: ‘People resist... by telling their story,’” Bunch wrote on Twitter.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, hooks grew up in a small, segregated town in southwest Kentucky. The daughter of postal worker Veodis Watkins and homemaker Rosa Bell Watkins, the young hooks was an avid reader. In a statement quoted by the New York Times’ Clay Risen, hooks’ sisters recall, “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.”

hooks attended Stanford University on a scholarship and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. As a 19-year-old student, she wrote the first draft of what would eventually become her first work of feminist thought, Ain’t I a Woman?, She went on to receive a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1976 and a PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983.

The writer adopted her penname when she published her first book, a short volume of poems titled And There We Wept (1978). As Clyde McGrady reports for the Washington Post, she chose the pseudonym to honor her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and spelled it in lowercase letters because, in her words, “she wanted readers to focus on her books, not ‘who I am.’”

hooks’ writings helped usher in a new wave of feminist thought in the late 20th century. Along with thinkers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, she was an early advocate for what is now known as “intersectional feminism”—an approach that links the movement against patriarchy to ongoing struggles against white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Summed up by hooks as the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” these “interlocking systems” of oppression are institutionalized and enforced through violence, the scholar argued.

“I think of bell hooks as being pivotal to an entire generation of Black feminists who saw that for the first time they had license to call themselves Black feminists,” Crenshaw, a lawyer and scholar at Columbia University, tells the Times. “She was utterly courageous in terms of putting on paper thoughts that many of us might have had in private.”

One such view expressed by hooks was her critique of whitewashed feminism, such as the vision of womanhood articulated by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). Both at the time and today, mainstream feminism centered white middle- and upper-class women at the expense of working-class women, women of color and all people damaged by the patriarchy—which, hooks argued, was everyone, including men.

“Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation,” the scholar wrote in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004).

hooks achieved celebrity status during her lifetime as a trenchant, witty critic of popular culture, covering everything from movies to Madonna to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”

In her final years, notes Hua Hsu for the New Yorker, hooks increasingly wrote about the need in progressive movements for community and love, which she defined as “an action, a participatory emotion” that plays a crucial role in decolonization.

“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression,” she wrote in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994). “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”

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