Remembering bell hooks and her enormous legacy

The influential critic, author, and feminist bell hooks died Wednesday at the age of 69. She died at home, surrounded by friends and family. Amna Nawaz looks at her work and her legacy.

Our partners at PBS NewsHour report on this story.

TRANSCRIPT
  • Judy Woodruff:

    The influential critic, author and feminist bell hooks died today at the age of 69. She was at home surrounded by friends and family.

    Amna Nawaz is back with a look at her work and her legacy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks grew up in segregated Kentucky in the 1950s and ’60s. The daughter of a janitor and a maid, hooks left home to attend Stanford University, where she earned an English degree. She went on to earn a Ph.D. and then authored more than 30 works under her pen name, which is taken from her great-grandmother.

    Her prolific writing spanned poetry, essays, and children’s books, examining the intersection of race, politics, and gender, and making her one of the most influential Black feminist scholars of the last half-century.

    In 2004, hooks returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College and later founded the bell hooks Institute there.

    Here to talk more about her life and impact is Imani Perry. She’s the Hughes-Rogers professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

    And, Professor Perry, welcome to the “NewsHour.” Thank you for making the time.

  • Imani Perry, Princeton University:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You reacted to the passing of bell hooks on Twitter by sharing this thought.

  • You wrote:

    “For exactly 30 years, she was not only an intellectual influence, but a presence in my life.”

    Professor Perry, tell us about the impact that bell hooks had on you.

  • Imani Perry:

    Well, I met her when I was 19 years old. I was an intern at South End Press, where she published much of her work.

    And she was a teacher to her core, even though I didn’t have her in the classroom. She brought ideas alive. She is a person who bridged the space between high critical theory, European scholars and intellectuals, Marxist thinkers, and everyday life. And she wrote and spoke in a way to make all of that theory applicable to our daily lives.

    And, also, she wanted it to bear upon the way we thought of each other ethically, our relationships, our personal stories. So, she was both an intellectual and she was also a kind of — I don’t know, a curate, like a person who tended to soles as an educator.

    And so to be brought under her wing as a teenager was incredibly influential. It allowed me to imagine how to live a life of the mind, but also how to pursue right relation to other human beings in my midst.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, as we mentioned, she was born Gloria Jean Watkins.

  • Imani Perry:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She took the pen name bell hooks, which was her great-grandmother’s name.

  • Imani Perry:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do we know about why did she take that name and why all lowercase when she used it?

  • Imani Perry:

    Yes. She was — it was consistent of leftist organizers of the era to think of one — the individual in the lowercase, that one spoke in the collective, right?

    So, her name was both an homage to her great-grandmother and the women who came before, but also with a kind of humility to choose the lower case. And she was very much — I mean, she traveled the world. She had a massive influence. She was a Southern country woman to her core.

    And she never lost touch with that. It was — and so there was a kind of intimacy with that identity that she held on to through her pen name, as it were, but I always called her Gloria.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And she mentioned those Southern roots, growing up at the intersection of racism and sexism.

    She actually spoke about it in this 2016 talk at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Take a listen to what she said.

  • bell hooks, Author:

    I think that many of us as females find sexism so normalized, whereas people of color, Black, brown, whatever, when we hear a racist joke or racism spoken not as a joke, we really feel assaulted on our sensibilities, but sexism is such woven into the fabric of our daily lives that I think it’s harder for people to resist.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Perry, how did that lived experience show up in her work?

  • Imani Perry:

    Well, she told a lot of stories from her own life.

    She in many ways was an open book. She allowed herself to be vulnerable. And she contemplated. So, the way that she engaged with people — and she was outspoken, and she could be really challenging — was to open that up that — those — to explore those questions of internalized sexism, internalized classism. How do we love each other?

    I mean, those — so that kind of exploration was — I mean, that was consistent with who she was. And, for me, it allowed me to think all of the sort of academic things I was pursuing, they boiled down at — to the very core about how we are going to live and how we’re going to coexist on this planet, right? I mean, that’s who she was.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It has been four decades since her first full-length book, “Ain’t I a Woman?” was published.

    And you have to note that a lot of the ideas she brought up back then about Black women and feminism and white feminism and the intersection of race and sex and all these things, we’re still talking about those things and grappling with them today.

  • Imani Perry:

    Oh, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you think the legacy of those ideas that she raised four decades ago is today?

  • Imani Perry:

    Well, I think her legacy is enormous.

    And part of this incredible body of work that she created, the legacy that is found is, there’s so many young people, the first time they start to think seriously about class, about sexuality, about gender, about identity, about vulnerability, about spirituality is through her work.

    Her work has never gone out of press. That “Ain’t I a Woman?” you can still purchase, right? And so the legacy is actually in all of us who have been influenced by her work, not just in academia, in every sector of society, in organizing, in nonprofit worlds, in corporate America.

    And so, I mean, it really has — she has shaped several generations of thinkers and of people who are members of communities. And so I hope that, at this moment, it becomes a time for us to reflect on how much she helped us think, how much she helped us grow, right, and how she pushed the world closer to justice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An incredible life and an enormous loss.

    Professor Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers professor of African American studies at Princeton University, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Imani Perry:

    Thank you.