Last Updated on September 25, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732
bell hooks 1952–
(Born Gloria Watkins) American essayist.
Known as one of the new African American intellectuals along with Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Derrick Bell, hooks reaches a wider audience than most essayists because of her dismissal of academic convention and her inclusion of personal reflection in her scholarly work. Hooks, who addresses such subjects as feminism, civil rights, and black womanhood, raises important questions about the tension between black women and white women in the feminist movement and analyzes how the media and popular culture portray African Americans.
Born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks chose to write under the name of her great-grandmother to honor her foremothers; she often refers to a household full of strong black women as one of her greatest influences. Hooks received her bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University in 1973 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1983. Throughout her years of study, hooks had difficulty reconciling her small-town Southern roots with her academic life. This disparity would later become a subject in her essays. In the mid-1980's, hooks became an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies and English at Yale University. Later she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Oberlin College and then moved to City College in New York as a professor of English. Hooks had always been interested in expressing herself through writing, and a friend finally convinced her to write her first collection Ain't I a Woman (1981). In 1991 hooks was presented the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Yearning (1990).
The major theme of hooks's first two works, Ain't I a Woman and Feminist Theory (1984), is that of black women finding a place in mainstream feminism. She explores this issue by tracing the oppression under which African American women have suffered since slavery. Arguing that domination is at the root of racism, classism, and sexism, and that black women are at the bottom of the hierarchical struggle in this country, hooks asserts that mainstream feminism is interested in raising only white women up to the level of white men. According to hooks, real equality can only be gained by overturning the whole hierarchical system. In Talking Back (1988), hooks begins to infuse more of her personal life into her work. In this collection she combines her personal experience as an African American woman with theory and analysis to show that feminist perspectives can be useful to assess the position of African American women in American society. In several of her works hooks discusses how portrayals of African Americans in the media have hurt African American women. Breaking Bread (1991) is a dialogue with African American social critic Cornel West in which hooks and West discuss the crises many black communities face, and how the media has contributed to these problems. Hooks also asserts in Black Looks (1992) that the mass media has denied the existence of a critical black female subjectivity. In addition to criticizing the media's complicity in racism and sexism, hooks attacks the educational system in Teaching to Transgress (1994) for its role in perpetuating the hierarchical system in this country. She asserts that true freedom can only be obtained when our education system is free. The focus of all of hooks's work, including her most recent book, Killing Rage (1995), is to heal the divisions in American society by creating a dialogue that respects all people and leads the way to rebuilding a new society.
Hooks has received varied critical response throughout her career. Many reviewers praise her for her insight and boldness. However, while most agree that her arguments are strong and challenging, many disagree with her opinions. The flaw most often noted by critics is her flouting of academic style. Many are uncomfortable with hooks's lack of footnotes and scholarly references and her reliance on self-help rhetoric and pop psychology. They also argue that she shows contempt toward black men and what they have suffered, and that she appears to be homophobic. Many of her reviewers, however, praise her for bringing a balance to feminist theory by including nonwhite, poor, and working class women into feminist discussions. Patricia Bell-Scott has observed that "we must keep in mind [hooks's] goal, to enrich feminist discourse and 'to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology,' as we struggle with the uncomfortable issues she raises."