Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

Bell Hooks, a prolific feminist writer, is one of America’s leading intellectual figures. The author of more than a dozen books and numerous essays, Hooks has had a distinguished career as she has sought to locate, describe, and define the shared experiences of black women. Hooks has earned her reputation as an impassioned yet analytical theorist by approaching such subjects as racism, classicism, and sexism with an acute sensitivity.{$S[A]Watkins, Gloria;Hooks, Bell}

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Hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She is the daughter of Veodis Watkins, a custodian employed by the postal service, and Rosa Bell Watkins, a homemaker. There were seven children, including Gloria, in the Watkins family: one boy and six girls. All the members of the Watkins family shared a love for language, especially poetic language. Hooks remembers that during storms that caused power outages, she would sit with her family in their candlelit living room and stage impromptu talent shows; poetry recitations always figured prominently in these spontaneous family performances. This love for poetry, initiated and sustained by her family, has inspired Hooks throughout her career, and though she chooses to write under the name “Bell Hooks,” she does not do so to distinguish or separate herself from her family. Her choice of her pseudonym is a tribute to the wisdom of her great-grandmother, Bell Hooks.

Hooks attended Crispus Attucks High School in Hopkinsville. After graduation she enrolled at Stanford University in Stanford, California; she obtained her B.A. degree in English in 1973. In 1976 she earned her master’s degree, also in English, from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She then began teaching English at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; she remained there until 1979. In the early 1980’s she taught courses in creative writing, African American literature, and composition at several institutions, including the University of California at Santa Cruz. While teaching, Hooks also pursued her Ph.D. She received her doctoral degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1983. Teaching and earning her Ph.D., however, were not the only activities absorbing Hooks’s energy during this period. In 1981 she published her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

The publication of Ain’t I a Woman, a work Hooks began writing when she was nineteen years old, earned her much critical praise. The book was also the harbinger of Hooks’s future work. The focus of Ain’t I a Woman—black women finding their voices within mainstream feminism—is also the central concern of several of Hooks’s later works, including Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.

A different concern surfaced in the works Hooks published in the first half of the 1990’s. In such works as Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics and Black Looks: Race and Representation, Hooks analyzes, from a black and feminist perspective, such popular cultural phenomenon as films, rap songs, and advertisements. Her specific targets include the videos of the pop-music diva Madonna and the advertisements of the clothing manufacturer Benetton. The purpose of her examination of society and its media representations, Hooks suggests in each of these books, is to illustrate the way African Americans are depicted in film, television, advertisements, and literature. Hooks hopes that by pointing out these images she will help others “see” how prevalent racist images still are in America.

Although Hooks has delved into American popular culture in her books, she has not abandoned all academic pursuits. Besides writing, Hooks has remained active in the classroom. In 1985 she taught African and Afro-American studies and English at Yale University. She has also served as an associate professor of women’s studies and American literature at Oberlin College. In 1994 she became the distinguished professor of English at the City College of New York.

Hooks articulated and examined some of her teaching theories in her 1994 work Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. This volume, according to Hooks, is her attempt to apply the philosophy of the progressive Brazilian educator Paula Freire to American society. She argues in this book that students should do more than merely receive an education; they should participate throughout the process. Hooks has certainly been an active participant in her own education. Through her meticulous observation of and theorizing about such topics as feminism, racism, popular culture, and pedagogical methods, she has cultivated a broad base of knowledge. Her books and essays are her means of synthesizing and disseminating the material that has enriched her own life.

In 1996, Hooks published the first volume of a three part autobiography, Bone Black. She continued with Wounds of Passion and Remembered Rapture. In 1999, she also began writing children’s books, aimed to encourage self-esteem among African American children. In All About Love, Salvation, and Communion, Hooks ventured into territory that verged on self-help, albeit with her typically engaged political consciousness. In these books, Hooks considers the role of love in human lives and how the contentious relations between the sexes in modern American culture came to be and how they can be redressed.

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