In the course of the history of feminist theory, many names have risen from their humble beginnings to help shape the field as we know it today. With contributions from great to small, no theorist who has contributed to the study of feminism is in any way to be demeaned for their effort. However, there are some without whom we may not know feminism as we do, contributors that have an impact that will resound throughout history. Today, one such theorist celebrates her birthday (as do I), and we will all take a moment to learn a bit about the woman whom wishes her words to resound louder than her name, a woman who asks to be lost in the ideas she puts forth, bell hooks.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins on this day in 1952, bell hooks adopted her pen name from her great-grandmother on her mother’s side, Bell Blair Hooks. Immediately, any reader is struck by her characteristic lack of capitalization in her name. The reason for this is simple: she wishes the focus of people to be on her words and her ideas, not on the name she has chosen for herself. In mentioning and citation, it is easy to see how one might not immediately notice her name, but the ideas she puts forth are almost as characteristic as that name.
hooks’ work focuses much on sexism and racism in relation to black women, particularly from a historical context. She often targets the degrading view of black women and their bodies, the portrayal of stereotypes in the media, patriarchy, black men and their masculinity in relation to society at large, and sexuality (though the true scope of her work would take much more than the words allotted in this article). She has a call-it-like-it-is style that makes her work seem very personal and direct. If she finds an injustice that needs to be addressed, she is not afraid to do so.
A prevalent topic in hooks’ repertoire is the importance of education, particularly for women in her situation. She grew up in a time where schools were still racially segregated. Once the desegregation of public schools was called for, she still faced the sting of racial injustice as she, like so many others, was transferred to an integrated school. One of her books, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), calls for universities and public schools to approach education collaboratively between students and teachers. She finds a great problem in the master/pupil roles that are often established between the supposed “learned” and “learning.” Much of her work also speaks for the need of furthered education, especially among the impoverished. The poor masses do not want to hear from learned intellectuals, whom they see as “outsiders.”
Another task that hooks has taken upon herself is to help foster a broader scope of feminism, an all-inclusive approach that will include groups that she sees as having been kept out of the veritable feminist loop. Black women, lesbians, and many other groups that have not received their fair share of attention need to be included. This “restructuring” of feminism additionally calls for the inclusion of men into the feminist theorizing process. Marginalized groups are “part of the whole but outside the main body [of feminism]” (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center). Any exclusion from feminism is likely to cause a rift, which could tear apart the movement.
Her works span over thirty years, with nearly as many books to cover the broad range of topics she has championed. hooks has proven to be a woman angry at the history she shares. She boldly states her opinion without the fear of chastisement, though it still occurs, even from those she wishes to address. In attempting to outline some of her great accomplishments, even I succumbed to the adulation of her ideas, rather than the writer herself. And that’s the way it should be. From education to black feminism, masculinity to patriarchy, inclusion to exclusion, it is the impact of hooks’ words that should receive the greatest praise, not how many years she has been able to share her work. Personally, I can’t wait to see where she goes next and what new topics (or rather old, undiscussed ones) that I will read and need to reevaluate in myself after I hear/read her words.
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984)
Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990)
Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995)
Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000)
We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004)
Belonging: A Culture of Place (2009)
Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice (2013)