UP EXPERT OPINON: The iconoclastic feminist scholar-activist

Posted on February 21, 2022

In his weekly column, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, Professor Adekeye Adebajo pays tribute to African-American scholar-activist bell hooks. 

Pioneering African-American scholar-activist bell hooks died recently of kidney failure aged 69. She published 40 books, mostly on the intersection between gender, race and class.

Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pseudonym was bell hooks, also wrote on psychology, pedagogy, art, music and spirituality. A Renaissance woman, she published poetry, memoirs, literary criticism, film reviews and children’s books, while also producing documentaries.

She was an organic intellectual who believed in speaking in the colloquial idiom of working-class black Americans, so that her work could reach and represent marginalised communities whose self-confidence and sense of identity she sought to bolster.

Watkins was born on September 25 1952 in the rural Kentucky town of Hopkinsville. Her father, Veodis, was a postal worker, while her mother, Rosa, was a homemaker. Gloria — the fourth of seven children — adopted the nom de plume bell hooks in honour of her outspoken great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, but kept the name in lower case to shift the focus more on her writing than on herself.

hooks won a scholarship to Stanford University, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in English in 1974. She obtained a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976, and finished her doctorate at the University of California at Santa Cruz seven years later, with a thesis on the work of African-American Nobel literature laureate, Toni Morrison.  

She was fearless in saying radical things that many thought, but dared not voice. She wore her hair in natural African plaits, and launched a sustained assault on the “imperialist white supremacy capitalist patriarchy” system. Her lifelong credo was uncompromising: “A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.”

hooks railed persistently against the powerlessness of blacks in fighting the ubiquitous negative stereotyping of their image in white-dominated American society. 

Her work was courageous, confrontational and critical. She resisted the elitist tag of “public intellectual,” seeing herself more as a grassroots scholar-activist. She was a pioneering iconoclast and unabashed cultural warrior who set out to slaughter feminist sacred cows. She gave black feminists the confidence to narrate their own stories.

Her 1981 Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism became an iconic feminist text, dealing with historical and contemporary black female oppression, based on slavery and patriarchy. Her 1984 Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center was a searing critique of mainstream white feminist theory, which she felt erased the experiences of black women and privileged those of white middle-class women. hooks thus called for the centring of marginal black and brown women, and the recognition of socioeconomic inequalities in building a more inclusive women’s movement.

The 1993 Sisters of the Yam urged political resistance and self-healing for black women throughout the African Diaspora. In 2004, We Real Cool: Black Men And Masculinity emerged, criticising black patriarchy but also sympathetically acknowledging the historical victimisation and oppression of black men.

Her books were translated into 15 languages, and continue to be used on curricula across the globe. Often wading into popular culture, she criticised the phallocentrism of Spike Lee’s films, and the ideological inconsistencies of Beyoncé’s art.

hooks returned to her close-knit community in Kentucky in 2004, and lived out the last 17 years of her life there. She taught at Berea College, and had the foresight to set up the bell hooks Institute at the university in 2014, which now hosts all her archives and collected works. By this time, the self-described “Buddhist Christian” spent time meditating, visiting family and friends, and writing on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

She had mellowed somewhat, stressing the importance of love and community to heal America’s deep racial and gender wounds. hooks was the ultimate iconoclast who consistently challenged conventional orthodoxy, and charted her own original path. In the process, she did much to force black feminist narratives into the intellectual mainstream.

Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 20 February 2022. 

- Author Kirsty Nepomuceno

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