bell hooks

bell hooks

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: Cmongirl


* Former professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Berea College
* Viewed America as a nation awash in racism and sexism
* Anti-capitalist
* Candidly used the classroom to indoctrinate students to her political philosophy
* Died on December 15, 2021

Background & Overview

Born in rural Kentucky on September 25, 1952, Gloria Jean Watkins was better known, from 1981 onward, by her revolutionary nom de guerre, “bell hooks,” which was also the name of her great grandmother. As a form of protest against the grammatical conventions of the Western society that she detested, the younger bell hooks chose not to capitalize her new name. She was an open lesbian who described herself as a “Buddhist Christian” and an “insurgent Black intellectual voice” committed to a “renewed liberation struggle.”

Hooks earned a B.A. in English from Stanford University in 1973, an M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976, and a Ph.D. in English from UC Santa Cruz in 1983. She launched a career in academia in 1976, when she began a three-year stint as an English professor and Ethnic Studies lecturer at the University of Southern California. Hooks subsequently taught at several post-secondary institutions in the 1980s, including UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, and Yale University. In 1988 she became a professor of Women’s Studies at Oberlin College, and in 1995 she joined the faculty of the City College of New York. In 2004 she became a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.

In the 1980s, hooks established a black women’s support group called the Sisters of the Yam, which later became the title of her 1993 book celebrating the sisterhood of black women.

Over the course of her professional life, hooks authored approximately 33 adult books, 5 children’s books, and numerous papers. Her writings focused heavily on the race, gender, and class “hierarchies” and “intersectionalities” that, in her view, dominated every aspect of America’s social order and culture. Among her books were such titles as: Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984); Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989); Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992); Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995); Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (1996); Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996); Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life (1997); Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work (1999); Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000); Communion: The Female Search for Love (2002); We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2003); The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004); and Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice (2012).

Broadside Against America’s “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”

In her 1991 essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” hooks contended that feminist theory was primarily a political tool that should be used to “challenge the status quo” of America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” “Again and again,” she lamented, “black women find our efforts to speak, to break silences that would enable us to engage in radical progressive political debates on a number of fronts, opposed. There is a link between the silencing we experience, the censoring, the anti-intellectualism in predominantly black settings that are supposedly supportive (like all-black woman space), and that silencing that takes place in institutions wherein black women/women of color are told that we cannot be fully heard or listened to because our work is not theoretical enough.”

Encouraging Teachers to Indoctrinate & Radicalize Students

In her 1994 polemic, Teaching to Transgress, hooks claimed that every educator who viewed himself or herself as “a subject in resistance” against societal oppression, had a “right” to engage in “political activism,” to “define reality” in accordance with his or her worldview, and to “empower” students by converting the classroom into an incubator of “progressive” politics. Claiming that the English language projects the tones of brutal colonialism, hooks said: “It is difficult not to hear in standard English always the sound of slaughter and conquest.” And she wrote, with satisfaction, about the effect that her brand of “engaged pedagogy” had on her students: “I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: ‘We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.’”

In a 1996 essay titled “The Rebel’s Dilemma,” hooks again candidly acknowledged that she sought to use her position (as a professor) to radicalize a new generation of black activists and to confront America’s “structures of domination,” thereby advancing “our struggle for liberation.” “My concern,” she once told Z Magazine, “is to … reach young Black people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are the reading population but who are least likely, maybe, to hear of a bell hooks.”

Killing Rage

In 1995, hooks published a book titled Killing Rage: Ending Racism, a collection of 23 essays promoting the notion that the major problems faced by blacks in contemporary American society were largely due to country’s intractable white racism. The title essay, “Killing Rage: Ending Racism,” began with this sentence: “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Her anger in that particular instance was sparked when a stewardess allowed a white man to take a first-class airplane seat that had originally been occupied by hooks’ female friend whose upgrade (to first class) had not been properly registered with the airline. To hooks, this event was emblematic of the “institutional racism” and “sexism” at the heart of American society. “It was these sequences of racialized incidents involving black women that intensified my rage against the white man sitting next to me,” hooks elaborated. “I felt a ‘killing rage.’ I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse. And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly ‘racism hurts.’ With no outlet, my rage turned to overwhelming grief and I began to weep, covering my face with my hands. All around me everyone acted as though they could not see me, as though I were invisible, with one exception. The white man seated next to me watched suspiciously whenever I reached for my purse. As though I were the black nightmare that haunted his dreams, he seemed to be waiting for me to strike, to be the fulfillment of his racist imagination. I leaned towards him with my legal pad and made sure he saw the title written in bold print: ‘Killing Rage.'”

Hooks’ essay argued that black rage generally was a very natural reaction to the “racism” and “white supremacy” pervading American culture, and to white people’s blindness to their own unconscious bigotry and unearned privileges. Some additional key excerpts from “Killing Rage”:

  • “I grew up in the apartheid South. We learned when we were very little that black people could die from feeling rage and expressing it to the wrong white folks. We learned to choke down our rage. This process of repression was aided by the existence of our separate neighborhoods. In all black schools, churches, juke joints, etc., we granted ourselves the luxury of forgetfulness. Within the comfort of those black spaces we did not constantly think about white supremacy and its impact on our social status. We lived a large part of our lives not thinking about white folks. We lived in denial. And in living that way we were able to mute our rage. If black folks did strange, weird, or even brutally cruel acts now and then in our neighborhoods (cut someone to pieces over a card game, shoot somebody for looking at them the wrong way), we did not link this event to the myriad abuses and humiliations black folks suffered daily when we crossed the tracks and did what we had to do with and for whites to make a living. To express rage in that context was suicidal. Every black person knew it. Rage was reserved for life at home—for one another.”
  • “To perpetuate and maintain white supremacy, white folks have colonized black Americans, and a part of that colonizing process has been teaching us to repress our rage, to never make them the targets of any anger we feel about racism.”
  • “Lecturing on race and racism all around this country, I am always amazed when I hear white folks speak about their fear of black people, of being the victims of black violence. They may never have spoken to a black person, and certainly never been hurt by a black person, but they are convinced that their response to blackness must first and foremost be fear and dread. They too live in denial. They claim to fear that black people will hurt them even though there is no evidence which suggests that black people routinely hurt white people in this or any other culture…. Now, black people are routinely assaulted and harassed by white people in white supremacist culture. This violence is condoned by the state. It is necessary for the maintenance of racial difference. Indeed, if black people have not learned our place as second-class citizens through educational institutions, we learn it by the daily assaults
    perpetuated by white offenders on our bodies and beings that we feel but rarely publicly protest or name. Though we do not live in the same fierce conditions of racial apartheid that only recently ceased being our collective social reality, most black folks believe that if they do not conform to white-determined standards of acceptable behavior they will not
    survive. We live in a society where we hear about white folks killing black people to express their rage. We can identify specific incidents throughout our history in this country whether it be Emmett Till, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, etc. We can identify rare incidents where individual black folks have randomly responded to their fear of white assault by
    killing. White rage is acceptable, can be both expressed and condoned, but black rage has no place and everyone knows it.”
  • “Rage can act as a catalyst inspiring courageous action. By demanding that black people repress and annihilate our rage to assimilate, to reap the benefits of material privilege in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, white folks urge us to remain complicit with their efforts to colonize, oppress, and exploit. Those of us black people who have the opportunity to further our economic status willingly surrender our rage.”
  • “Close to white folks, I am forced to witness firsthand their willful ignorance about the impact of race and racism. The harsh absolutism of their denial. Their refusal to acknowledge accountability for racist conditions past and present…. Racial hatred is real. And it is humanizing to be able to resist it with militant rage.”

Professor hooks’ book also claimed, in a separate essay, that Colin Ferguson, a black gunman who had shot some twenty white and Asian commuters (killing six of them) in a racially motivated incident aboard a New York train in December 1993, was merely trying to avenge what he called “racism by Caucasians and Uncle Toms.” Ferguson, hooks added, had a “complex understanding of the nature of neo-colonial racism,” and he “held accountable all the groups who help perpetuate and maintain institutionalized racism, including black folks [i.e., Uncle Toms].” But by manipulating these facts, said hooks, white media outlets were able to use the tragedy as “a way to stereotype black males as irrational, angry predators,” rather than use it as an occasion “to highlight white supremacy and its potential ‘maddening impact.’”

Lamenting Sexism, Racism, & Capitalism

In her 2000 book, Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks wrote that “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”; that “males as a group … benefit the most from patriarchy [and] the assumption that they are superior to females and should rule over us”; and that men commonly seek “to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep the patriarchy intact.” Because “our society continues to be primarily a ‘Christian’ culture,” hooks added, “masses of people continue to believe that god has ordained that women be subordinate to men in the domestic household.” Further, hooks told readers that her book was an exercise in “revolutionary feminist consciousness-raising,” even as she lamented that black women were “never going to have equality within the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Radical Commencement Address at Southwestern University

Professor hooks’ great popularity in the academic world won her many invitations to give commencement speeches at collegiate graduation ceremonies. In 2002, for instance, she addressed the graduating class at Southwestern University with a speech that depicted America as a racist, imperialist, fascist, militaristic hell-hole. She also sneered at the institution of the nuclear family. Among her remarks were the following:

  • “The radical, dissident voices among you have learned here at Southwestern how to form communities of resistance that have helped you find your way in the midst of life-threatening conservatism, loneliness, and the powerful forces of everyday fascism which use the politics of exclusion and ostracism to maintain the status quo. Every terrorist regime in the world uses isolation to break people’s spirits.”
  • “Indeed our nation’s call for violence in the aftermath of 9/11 was an expression of widespread hopelessness, the cynicism that has been at the heart of our nation’s ongoing fascination with death. Any society based on domination supports and condones violence. Yet as that violence wreaked havoc in our own hearts and in the lives of our loved ones and fellow citizens, many Americans experienced for the first time a moment of clarity when they knew without a doubt that to choose life, we must stand against violence, we must choose peace. And yet that moment of collective clarity was soon obscured by the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal hunger to show the planet our nation’s force, to show that this nation would commit absolute acts of violence that will wipe out whole nations and worlds. The world was held spellbound by our government’s declaration of its commitment to violence, to death. Yet just as the violence of the terrorists who slaughtered the innocent on 9/11 does not lead us closer to justice, to reconciliation or peace, the violence acts of imperialist aggression enacted in the name of bringing an end to terrorism have brought us no closer to reconciliation, to peace, to justice.”
  • “Their terrorist acts called out the violence undergirding every culture of domination, including ours, unmasked it and compelled it to speak openly its worship of death. No one has gained greater freedom or peace as a consequence of these acts. In their violent wake, these brutal acts have sown the seeds for greater, more destructive violence. They have led us more deeply into the valley of the shadow of death. All over the world, young males and females, schooled in the art of patriarchal thinking, are building an identity on a foundation that sees the will to do violence as the essential way to assert being. We cannot then, turn away from violence without challenging and changing patriarchy, without bringing an end to sexist exploitation and oppression that teaches boys and men contempt for life, rooted in support of dominance and submission, coercion and manipulation, is the appropriate way to express masculine identity.”
  • “Many of the older grownups at this commencement remember the college years and grieve the loss of deep, intimate connections, of soul-nurturing bonds they made during those years that they have forsaken that they did not sustain as they moved into a world of nuclear families, of competitive individual quests for success, for opportunities that demand that the high achiever embrace a dominator model of advancement which applauds and rewards disconnection.”
  • “Ours has been and mostly remains a society which encourages us to look to the future, to put our hopes and dreams on what may happen to tomorrow, to work for progress and advancement, all future-oriented goals. Every imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation on the planet teaches its citizens to care more for tomorrow than today…. We cease to live in the now. And the moment we do this, we are seduced by the lure of death…. To live fixated on the future is to engage in psychological denial. It is a form of psychic violence that prepares us to accept the violence needed to ensure the maintenance of imperialist, future-oriented society.”
  • “Because the terror of unjust killing, which has long been rampant in our land taking place everyday, when children are murdered, when women are beaten and raped, when individuals are bombed in their churches, in their homes, when native peoples continue to suffer loss of their lands.” (The grammatical problems in the preceding sentence were in hooks’ original statement.)

Endorsing “Not In Our Name,” a Revolutionary Communist Party Project

Also in 2002, hooks was one of many prominent leftists to endorse the Not In Our Name (NION) “Statement of Conscience,” a Revolutionary Communist Party project that condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”

Trashing America Again

In a December 2015 interview with the New York Times, hooks condemned America as a nation engulfed by endless torrents of “white supremacy,” “capitalist patriarchy,” “greed,” and “materialism” — indeed, a culture thoroughly infected by “mental illness.” Some key excerpts from hooks’ remarks:

  • “We can’t begin to understand the nature of domination if we don’t understand how these systems connect with one another. Significantly, this phrase [“imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”] has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another. For so many years in the feminist movement, women were saying that gender is the only aspect of identity that really matters, that domination only came into the world because of rape. Then we had so many race-oriented folks who were saying, ‘Race is the most important thing. We don’t even need to be talking about class or gender.’ So for me, that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.”
  • “I used to talk about patriarchy as a mental illness of disordered desire, but white supremacy is equally a serious and profound mental illness, and it leads people to do completely and utterly insane things. I think one of the things that is going on in our society is the normalization of mental illness, and the normalization of white supremacy, and the evocation and the spreading of this is part of that mental illness.”
  • “We have to be willing to be truthful. And to be truthful, we have to say, the problem that black people face, the trauma of white supremacy in our lives, is not limited to police brutality. That’s just one aspect. I often say that the issue for young black males is the street. If you only have the streets, you encounter violence on all sides: black on black violence, the violence of addiction, and the violence of police brutality. So the question is why at this stage of our history, with so many wealthy black people, and so many gifted black people, how do we provide a place other than the streets for black males? And it is so gendered, because the street, in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is male, especially when it is dark. There is so much feeling of being lost that it is beyond the trauma of racism. It is the trauma of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, because poverty has become infinitely more violent than it ever was when I was a girl.”
  • “[O]ne of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption…. [M]ost people in our culture believe money is everything. That is the big tie, the connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people — the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.”
  • “The issue for us as black people is that very few people feel that we deserve healing. Which is why we have very few systems that promote healing in our lives. The primary system that ever promoted healing in black people is the church, and we see what is going on in most churches today. They’ve become an extension of that material greed.”
  • “[M]any of us live [blacks] in fear of whiteness…. [F]or many of us that fear of whiteness has intensified. I think that white people, for the most part, never think about black people wanting to be in black only spaces, because we do not feel safe.”


Hooks died of kidney failure at her home in Berea, Kentucky, on December 15, 2021.

Praise from The Friends Committee on National Legislation

In a 2022 statement titled “On Anti-racism, Anti-bias, Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) — a leftwing activist and lobbying organization associated with the Religious Society of Friends (a.k.a. the Quakers) — articulated its agreement with bell hooks’ view of America as an irredeemably evil nation. Said the FCNL statement:

“In seeking a society with equity and justice for all, where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, FCNL recognizes our shared responsibility to redress the United States’ long history of slavery, genocide, discrimination, and oppression and their ongoing consequences. We are working to create the type of ‘beloved community’ described by author and social activist bell hooks as being ‘formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.’

“Through our internal systems and practices as well as our lobbying and other activities, FCNL intends to identify, expose, and eliminate white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression and discrimination. FCNL must actively challenge the laws, systems, mindsets, policies, and practices that lead to institutionalized racism and injustice to avoid being complicit in it.”

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