Groundbreaking cultural critic and poet bell hooks has died at 69

bell hooks passes away 69
Courtesy of Bell Hooks/Flickr (Public Domain)

bell hooks, acclaimed poet, professor, and feminist, has passed away at age 69, according to a press release from Berea College, the institution where hooks taught and the home of her eponymous bell hooks Institute.

According to the release, “Berea College is deeply saddened about the death of bell hooks, Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies, prodigious author, public intellectual and one of the country’s foremost feminist scholars.” The college added that hooks passed away after an “extended illness.”

hooks came to prominence upon the publication of her seminal work of intersectional feminism, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism in 1981. Much of hooks’ writing focused on issues of race, gender and, capitalism, dealing with themes of oppression and class struggle and, in particular, the effects of racism and sexism on Black women. In a 2019 article in the New York Times, author and journalist Min Jin Lee wrote that hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman “remains a radical and relevant work of political theory. hooks laid the groundwork of her feminist theory by giving historical evidence of the specific sexism Black female slaves endured and how that legacy affects Black womanhood today.”

hooks was also dedicated to the accessibility of her work and strove to produce practical “theory that people could use.” She defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” The definition is still cited by many today.

hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, KY, and grew up attending segregated schools. She has said she faced adversity when she transitioned to integrated schools due to predominantly white students and teachers. After receiving her doctorate from UC Santa Cruz, hooks would go on to a decades-long career as both a highly-respected college professor and a profoundly influential writer and critic. She taught at multiple universities and published more than 30 books. hooks chose her pen name as a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. According to her Berea College website biography, she chose not to capitalize the spelling in order “to emphasize the importance of the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is.”

The announcement of hooks’ death initiated an outpouring of respect, love, and grief, with many noting how her work completely changed their worldview.

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

Fellow professor and critic Cornel West tweeted: “She was an intellectual giant, spiritual genius & freest of persons! We shall never forget her!”

Linda Strong-Leek, a friend of hooks from Berea, stated, “the world is a lesser place today without her.”

According to The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, “bell hooks embodied amazing courage and deeply felt intelligence. In finding her own words and power, she inspired countless others to do the same. Her dedication to the cause of ending ‘sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression was exemplary.”

hooks’ family has asked that those who wish to send memorials or contributions do so at the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville Christian County, where a biographical exhibit dedicated to hooks is on display or to the Christian County Literacy Council.