bell hooks (1952-present) is a prolific writer and cultural critic, whose work challenges systems of oppression. She is internationally recognized as a scholar of feminism and race.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s feminist is a prolific writer and cultural critic, whose work challenges systems of oppression. She is internationally recognized as a scholar of feminism and race. Let’s talk about bell hooks.
Bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Her father was a janitor and her mother was a homemaker. Bell was one of six siblings and grew up in a small segregated town. In her book, “Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics,” she described her childhood neighborhood as a “world where folks were content to get on a little, Baba, mama's mother, made soap, dug fishing worms, set traps for rabbits, made butter and wine, sewed quilts, and wrung the necks of chickens."
During her childhood, bell was faced with frequent discrimination. Growing up in a segregated community, she had to deal with daily indignities. She was also forced to attend racially-segregated schools until the late 1960s.
In her 1990 book Yearning, Bell reflected on the experience of desegregation, which was also traumatic. She wrote: “What I remember most about that time is a deep sense of loss. It hurt to leave behind memories, schools that were 'ours, ' places we loved and cherished, places that honored us. It was one of the first great tragedies of growing up (Yearning 35).”
In her book “Ain’t I a Woman: Looking Back,” bell recalled that her childhood provided context for her feminism. During the 1960s, many women—particularly Black women— were told to be polite and behave. But bell talked back. In another of her books, Talking Back, she wrote of her young self: “I was always saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions. I could not confine my speech to the necessary corners and concerns of life (Talking Back 6).”
Bell’s unapologetic self-expression became her outlet. By the age of 10, she was writing poetry and reading her work at Church. Bell quickly gained a reputation for her ability to recite verse.
As a writer, bell was influenced by Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Her pen name—bell hooks—is a tribute to her great-grandmother Bell Blaire Hooks. Bell’s name is purposefully spelled out in all lowercase for the purpose of shifting the attention from her identity to her ideas.
When she was 19 years old, bell got a scholarship to Stanford University, where she wrote her first draft of “Ain’t I A Woman—a book that bell called “a love letter from me to black women.” It was published 10 years later in 1981.
“Ain’t I A Woman” established bell as a formidable intellectual, setting the tone for many conversations among feminist leaders. It examined the effects of racism and sexism on Black women.
In 1976, upon her graduation from Stanford, bell got her Master’s degree in English at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Seven years later, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of California Santa Cruz.
In 1985, bell accepted a joint appointment in English and African American Studies at Yale. In 1988, she became a faculty member at Oberlin college, teaching women’s studies.
In 2014, bell founded the bell hooks Institute, an establishment dedicated to critical thinking and education. It’s in her home state of Kentucky. She currently serves as a Distinguished Professor in Residence.
bell has continued to write at a rapid pace. To date, she has published more than 35 books—an astonishing number even for an academic. Bell’s writing explores the intersection of race, capitalism, and gender.
Bell continues to be highly influential in the sphere of feminism and cultural thought.
“People are hungry for dissent. People are hungry for provocative voices that go to the heart of the matter. Because people want to have answers to the things they are in crisis about. On one hand, we have a mass media and a publishing industry particularly that tells us, ‘Keep it mellow. Don’t say anything.’ But what I find is people are really hungry for truth.”
All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.
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Talk to you tomorrow!