Thursday Reads: bell hooks (and other news)Posted: December 16, 2021
Yesterday we lost bell hooks (born Gloria Watkins), feminist theorist, poet, and activist.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read her work, but I was impressed by what I read about hooks this morning. Dakinikat was inspired by her, so perhaps she will share her thoughts today and/or tomorrow.
Lucy Knight at The Guardian: bell hooks, author and activist, dies aged 69.
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, has died aged 69.
Her niece Ebony Motley tweeted: “The family of @bellhooks is sad to announce the passing of our sister, aunt, great aunt and great great aunt.”
She also attached a statement, which said that “the family of Gloria Jean Watkins is deeply saddened at the passing of our beloved sister on December 15, 2021. The family honored her request to transition at home with family and friends by her side.”
The author, professor and activist was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1952, and published more than 30 books in her lifetime, covering topics including race, feminism, capitalism and intersectionality.
She adopted her maternal great-grandmother’s name as a pen name, since she so admired her, but used lowercase letters to distinguish herself from her family member. hooks’ first major work, Ain’t I a Woman?, was published in 1981, and became widely recognised as an important feminist text. It was named one of the 20 most influential women’s books in the last 20 years by Publishers Weekly in 1992.
She went on to write Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 1984, All About Love: New Visions in 2000 and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity in 2004, continuing to draw on themes of feminism, race, love and gender.
Since 2004, she taught at Berea College in Kentucky, a liberal arts college that offers free tuition.
In 2016 hooks wrote in the Guardian that Beyoncé’s album Lemonade was “capitalist money-making at its best”, but criticised the notion of “freedom” depicted in the lyrics. “To truly be free,” wrote hooks, “we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal wellbeing and joy.”
“I want my work to be about healing,” she said in 2018 when she was inducted into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame. “I am a fortunate writer because every day of my life practically I get a letter, a phone call from someone who tells me how my work has transformed their life.”
From The Literary Hub:
hooks’s first published work of theory, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, was published when she was 29 but written when she was an undergraduate, launching a four-decade-long career of writing and teaching, with a focus on classroom accessibility. hooks’s extensive body of scholarship and poetry—that remains and will continue to remain relevant—was consistent in its generosity, emphasizing the importance of loving communities to challenging systemic inequalities. Hooks believed a “militant commitment to feminism” was not at all at odds with joy and humor; in fact, that love “is the necessary foundation enabling us to survive the wars, the hardships, the sickness, and the dying with our spirits intact.” As she told The New York Times in 2015,
“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community. For example, I love to be in conversation with Cornel West. We always go high and we go low, and we always bring the joyful humor in. The last talk he and I gave together, many people were upset because we were silly together. But I consider it a high holy calling that we can be humorous together. How many times do we see an African-American man and an African-American woman talking together, critiquing one another, and yet having delicious, humorous delight? It’s a miracle.”
hooks’s family said contributions and memorials can be made to the Christian County Literacy Council, which promotes reading for children, or the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville Christian County, where a biographical exhibit is on display.
From the New Yorker piece:
I came to her work in the mid-nineties, during a fertile era of Black cultural studies, when it felt like your typical alternative weekly or independent magazine was as rigorous as an academic monograph. For hooks, writing in the public sphere was just an application of her mind to a more immediate concern, whether her subject was Madonna, Spike Lee, or, in one memorably withering piece, Larry Clark’s “Kids.” She was writing at a time when the serious study of culture—mining for subtexts, sifting for clues—was still a scrappy undertaking. As an Asian American reader, I was enamored with how critics like hooks drew on their own backgrounds and friendships, not to flatten their lives into something relatably universal but to remind us how we all index a vast, often contradictory array of tastes and experiences. Her criticism suggested a pulsing, tireless brain trying to make sense of how a work of art made her feel. She modelled an intellect: following the distant echoes of white supremacy and Black resistance over time and pinpointing their legacies in the works of Quentin Tarantino or Forest Whitaker’s “Waiting to Exhale.”
Yet her work—books such as “Reel to Real” or “Art on My Mind,” which have survived decades of rereadings and underlinings—also modelled how to simply live and breathe in the world. She was zealous in her praise—especially when it came to Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” a film referenced countless times in her work—and she never lost grasp of how it feels to be awestruck while standing before a stirring work of art. She couldn’t deny the excitement as the lights dim and we prepare to surrender to the performance. But she made demands on the world. She believed criticism came from a place of love, a desire for things worthy of losing ourselves to….
This has been a particularly trying time for critics who came of age in the eighties and nineties, as giants like hooks, Greg Tate, and Dave Hickey have passed. hooks was a brilliant, tough critic—no doubt her death will inspire many revisitations of works like “Ain’t I a Woman,” “Black Looks,” or “Outlaw Culture.” Yet she was also a dazzling memoirist and poet. In 1982, she published a poem titled “in the matter of the egyptians” in Hambone, a journal she worked on with her then partner, Nathaniel Mackey. It reads:
I enjoyed reading this piece from 2019 by Min Jin Lee in The New York Times: In Praise of bell hooks.
In 1987, I was a sophomore at Yale. I’d been in the United States for 11 years, and although I was a history major, I wanted to read novels again. I signed up for “Introduction to African-American Literature,” which was taught by Gloria Watkins, an assistant professor in the English department, and she was such a wonderful teacher that I signed up for her other class, “Black Women and Their Fiction.”
Gloria — as we were allowed to address her in the classroom — had a slight figure with elegant wrists that peeked out of her tunic sweater sleeves. She was soft-spoken with a faint Southern accent, which I attributed to her birthplace, Hopkinsville, Ky. She was in her mid-30s then but looked much younger. Large, horn-rimmed glasses framed the open gaze of her genuinely curious mind. You knew her classes were special. The temperature in the room seemed to change in her presence because everything felt so intense and crackling like the way the air can feel heavy before a long-awaited rain. It wasn’t just school then. No, I think, we were falling in love with thinking and imagining again….
I was 19 when I took hooks’s classes, and I was just becoming a young feminist myself. I had begun my study of feminism with Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, among other white women, and perhaps, because I was foreign-born — rightly or wrongly — I had not expected that people like me would be included in their vision of feminist liberation. Women and men of Asian ethnicities are so often neglected, excluded and marginalized in the Western academy, so as a college student I’d no doubt internalized my alleged insignificance. bell hooks changed my limited perception.
Her book of theory taught me to ask for more from art, literature, media, politics and history — and for me, a Korean girl who had been born in a divided nation once led by kings, colonizers, then a succession of presidents who were more or less dictators, and for millenniums, that had enforced rigid class systems with slaves and serfs until the early 20th century, and where women of all classes were deeply oppressed and brutalized, I needed to see that the movement had a space for me.
What else is in the news? January 6 and the never ending pandemic.
January 6: Could it be that the investigation is really heating up?
David Rohde at The New Yorker: Is There a Smoking Gun in the January 6th Investigation?
William Saletan at Slate: The Chilling Lesson of Mark Meadows’ Text Messages.
The New York Times: Meadows and the Band of Loyalists: How They Fought to Keep Trump in Power.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/15/us/politics/trump-meadows-republicans-congress-jan-6.html
Kyle Cheney at Politico: The Jan. 6 puzzle piece that’s going largely ignored.
Kyle Cheney at Politico: Jan. 6 investigators mull whether Trump violated obstruction law.
The Washington Post: Role as Trump’s gatekeeper puts Meadows in legal jeopardy — and at odds with Trump.
Georgia Public Radio: Exclusive: More Georgia Secretary of State’s office officials interviewed by Jan. 6 committee.
The never ending pandemic
Ian Bogost at The Atlantic: I’m Starting to Give Up on Post-pandemic Life.
Yasmin Tayag at The Atlantic: Don’t Be Surprised When You Get Omicron.
Ed Yong at The Atlantic: America Is Not Ready for Omicron. The new variant poses a far graver threat at the collective level than the individual one—the kind of test that the U.S. has repeatedly failed.
Have courage and enjoy the present moment. There’s no telling what will happen next.