bell hooks: A Voice for Afro-American Feminism
FeminismsSexuality and Gender

bell hooks: A Voice for Afro-American Feminism

In 1952 Gloria Jean Watkins, the feminist writer best known as ‘bell hooks’, was born in Hopkinsville, a segregated town in the state of Kentucky. 

bell hooks grew up in a working-class Afro-American family: her father was a janitor and her mother worked as a maid in the houses of white families. In those times, racist segregation of people was a common practice in the United States. The Watkins family was composed of six daughters whom their mother, from a young age, had endowed with the importance of being free and independent: 

“She taught my sisters and me that women should treat themselves with respect, care, encouragement, and love amongst ourselves, and that sisterhood empowers” stated the writer. 

Young Gloria went to a public, segregated, school that was integrated with a college where the majority of professors and students were white. Nevertheless, despite the hostile environment that surrounded her, her eagerness to read and learn didn’t diminish in the least. In 1973, she graduated in English from the University of Stanford and, later, obtained a master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Finally, in 1981, she published her first book, ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism’. She signed her work under the pseudonym she would adopt from that moment, bell hooks – in honour of her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Her pseudonym written in lower case, the young woman searched to express her criticisms of social privilege through her ideas. In essence, the lower case use of her pseudonym emphasised, “the substance of the books, not who I am”.

bell hooks, in search of intersectional feminism

In the 70s, although the second wave of feminism was in full swing, bell hooks, being a black woman, did not feel herself embraced by the movement. Her first book tackles the connection between feminism and racism and tells how the first waves of feminism excluded black women, who were also suffering simultaneously humiliations, foul treatment, and stereotypes depicted on television. 

During her years at university, bell hooks debated with many white women, members of the feminist movement, who accused black women of being ‘traitors’ that said feminism distracts the attention from the problem of racism.

bell hooks

Despite this, hooks persisted with her focus: to help create a feminism that included all women and would be based on sisterhood, it was necessary to take into account the suffering of black women. 

In her book ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism’, hooks start dismantling the feminist and academic theory that she encountered in university: all the studies of gender that she had read until that moment had left black women silenced and excluded from the feminist movement. Those texts, narrated by white women, completely ignored the racial issue. 

The arrival of a pioneer 

hooks wrote numerous essays with a specific focus, that which she would maintain throughout her life: a vision that surpassed class, gender, and racial problems. hooks sustained that for any analysis, it was fundamental to include these three topics since they impact and propagate one another. 

Due to this, it is necessary to approach these issues with unity to end the systems of oppression and class inequality that haven’t only propagated themselves for years but have also, as a consequence, derived from that which the activist may call, “capitalist, imperialist, patriarchy [stemming] from white supremacy.” 

bell hooks sustained that it is important to fight, in an incisive manner, against this system to create a change in society: so that all women can enjoy their rights, freely. 

“There isn’t one route to feminism, there are people of various origins who need feminist theories that refer uniquely to their lives” 

bell hooks defended feminism that placed those at the margins of society as its focus; feminism that traverses the discriminatory problems of segregation: racism, poverty, work exploitation, and also the failure of public groups to diverge from what was deemed ‘official’ in the social discussion. The central work to the development of her feminist thinking is Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’.

“What does it matter that we write eloquently about decolonisation if only white and privileged boys read our theory on the matter? Many black people suffer today because of internalised racism, our intellectual task would never impact their lives if we don’t free it from academia. The methods of communicating to the masses have to be seen as the principal vehicles for the diffusion of intellectual thought. We are before a culture in which millions of people don’t read or write”. 

bell hooks

After a long illness, bell hooks died in December 2021, in her house in Kentucky, surrounded by friends and family. In retrospect, her life and works are irrefutably part of the legacy of contemporary and future feminists. 

bell hooks opened the possibility of feminism that integrated all sectors of society; a movement in which diversity would operate as the principal force for the change that society desperately needs.

The struggle continues constantly and the books of bell hooks serve as refuge and support but, above all, as teachings for the road ahead. 

Translated by David Crowe