Thinking a lot about bell hooks, the black feminist icon who died yesterday at age 69. In fact, I had a long dream about being at her wake. hooks was headquartered in KY for most of her last 20 years and I saw her speak where I was teaching at Morehead State in 2009 as well as other places in Kentucky and in Huntington, West Virginia. I’m also happy to say that I was able to introduce both my daughters to her. Being in her presence conferred a kind of blessing on them.
By the time hooks came to Morehead in 2009, I had already been teaching her books for almost 15 years. There hasn’t been any kind of reckoning of the place of black feminism in American intellectual and cultural life, but I had already believed that black feminism was the most dynamic new intellectual force since the 50’s and that bell hooks had the same kind of intellectual stature as a classic theorist like John Stuart Mill. I told her this directly when I met her before her speech in Morehead while also doing my best to hide my puppy dog fan boy mentality. Since her Morehead lecture, black feminism has gone way beyond being an intellectual influence and the core black feminist idea of intersectionality is now ingrained in mainstream American culture through music, movies, and official corporate, educational, and Democratic Party ideology. White conservatives complain relentlessly about the “wokeness” of American institutional life and much of that is an outcome of black feminism.
Along with “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins, the work of bell hooks was my own entry into black feminist theory which was my main source of intellectual growth while I was teaching at Morehead State. Beginning around 1995, I taught a wide variety of her writings in political theory classes and kept teaching her works in my classes on love and social theory after I left political science in 2010. “Sisters of the Yam,” “Reel to Real,” “Killing Rage,” “Bone Black,” “Ain’t I a Woman?,” “The Will To Change,” “Feminism is for Everybody,” “All About Love,” “Communion”–all great stuff. For a long time, I taught “Killing Rage” as part of the introductory sequence in my history of political thought class. I wanted hooks’ treatment of race and gender issues foremost in student minds as they went back through classic authors like Marx, Mill, Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Plato.
Bell hooks grew up in Hopkinsville, KY in the western part of the state and lived in Berea for most of her last two decades. When teaching her books, I always emphasized that hooks was a Kentucky writer and in fact the most eminent Kentucky writer of our time. hooks was all about black women and I’m not sure she would have seen her writings like “Sisters of the Yam” being applied to white women as well. But I thought that part of her genius was providing a basis for marginalized white people in Appalachia to see their situations more clearly and I taught “Sisters of the Yam” in that spirit.
To be honest, hooks thought that kind of racial boundary crossing was weird. When someone introduced her to me at a reception before she gave her Morehead talk, hooks gave me a big hug and I bragged about bell hooks hugging me for a couple years to my friends. Her and I talked for 10 or 15 minutes and I had no idea what I said but she integrated some of our conversation into our remarks and kept going “that Ric is weird” and “Ric sure is weird” before mentioning my seeing the racial lines in somewhat of a different way from her. She was thinking about things I had been saying and that was very affirming.