BELL HOOKS Biography - Writers


Biography » writers » bell hooks


Born: September 25, 1952                                                                         
Hopkinsville, Kentucky                                                                           
African American activist, educator, and writer                                                   
Writer, professor, and social critic, bell hooks is undeniably one of the most                   
successful "cross-over" academics of the late twentieth century. Her books look                   
at the function of race and gender in today's culture.                                           
Born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, bell hooks was raised in                         
Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small, segregated (separated by race) town in rural                     
Kentucky. She recalled her neighborhood as a "world where folks were content to                   
get by on a little, where 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." She later explained how this community turned the hardships created                   
by racism (the idea that one race is superior to another) into a source of                       
strength. The neighborhood where she grew up provided young Gloria with her                       
resistance to racism, but it also provided her with the negative and positive                     
experiences that would shape her feminism (support of equal rights for women).                   
Gloria was one of six siblings: five sisters and a baby brother. Her father                       
worked as a janitor, and her mother, Rosa Bell Oldham Watkins, worked as a maid                   
in the homes of white families. As a student at segregated public schools, hooks                 
was taught by a dedicated group of teachers, mostly single black women, who                       
helped to shape the self-esteem (satisfaction with oneself) of children of color.                 
But the late 1960s Kentucky schools became desegregated. By the time she was ten,                 
hooks had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her                   
ability to recite poetry.                                                                         
Although hooks was supposed to become a quiet, well-behaved young woman, she                     
became instead a woman who "talked back." This action, for which hooks                           
eventually named a volume of essays, actually refers to the development of a                     
strong sense of self that allows black women to speak out against racism and                     
Although young hooks continued to write poetry—some of which was published—she               
gained a reputation as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. In                   
order to do this work, she found that she needed to develop a different voice, a                 
different name. She first used her pseudonym (assumed name)—her maternal great-grandmother's   
name—for a small book of poems. She decided not to capitalize her first and last               
names in an attempt to place the focus on her work, rather than her name.                         
After high school, hooks accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, in                       
California. Despite her full-time studies she began Ain't I a Woman at the age                   
of nineteen. She also took a job as a telephone operator. Finding time for her                   
writing was a challenge, but hooks found that the job offered her something she                   
did not have in school at the time—a community of working-class, black women.                   
The author went through several drafts of the manuscript over the next six years                 
before she had one that satisfied her. It was at this moment that the persona of                 
bell hooks truly rescued Gloria Watkins. At first hooks had considerable trouble                 
publishing her work, and eventually she was directed to her future publisher,                     
South End Press, while giving a talk at a feminist bookstore in San Francisco.                   
Once published in 1981, Ain't I a Woman became a central book in discussions of                   
racism and sexism. Eleven years later, Publishers Weekly ranked it among the "twenty             
most influential women's books of the previous twenty years."                                     
While Ain't I a Woman made bell hooks an important name in feminist debate, she                   
continued her work. After obtaining a doctorate degree in English literature,                     
she began her teaching career. It was in her role as a teacher that hooks felt                   
she was doing her most important work. She knew that for a people historically                   
and legally denied the right to education, teaching was one of the most                           
substantial forms of political resistance she could choose.                                       
After holding various positions at the University of California in Santa Cruz,                   
California, in the early 1980s, hooks left for Yale University in New Haven,                     
Connecticut, when she had the opportunity to teach in African American Studies.                   
In 1988 she joined the faculty at Oberlin College, in Ohio, where she would                       
teach in Women's Studies, a program that now offered the critique of racism that                 
was absent during her undergraduate years.                                                       
Taking a post with the City College of New York in 1995, hooks moved to the                       
Henry Holt publishing company and came out with Killing Rage: Ending Racism, a                   
book that calls for a more proactive approach (initiative) to solving the                         
problem of racism in America.                                                                     
Hooks lives in New York City and remains an important figure in the fight                         
against racism and sexism in America. With the release of Communion: The Female                   
Search for Love in 2002, hooks has more than twenty books to her name with more                   
to come.