Constance Alexander: Celebrating Western Kentucky Writer Bell Hooks with an International Audience
The other day, I easily exceeded my daily goal of 10,000 steps in the most unlikely place, the Murray State University Library. Looking for works published by bell hooks – author, professor, feminist and American social activist – I consulted the electronic catalog and found a multitude of books and articles both by and about her, in various literary journals and academic publications.
I downloaded and printed a few pages, stuffed them into my bag, and ran off in search of a random selection of teaser books.
My quest sent me from one corner of the ground floor of the library to the other, up and down the aisles, back and forth to opposite ends of the building. To access some of the hooks’ treasures, you had to operate the roller brackets to squeeze between the shelves and snatch one of her books from its slot. My literary training consisted of stretching and standing on my tiptoes to reach those almost out of reach, then squatting to eyeball level for those nestled on the lowest shelves.
Once I got my hands on five books, I flipped through them and wondered how Hooks had managed to produce so much work between 1981 and his death in December 2021. Not only was his output impressive – something like almost forty titles – the range of topics she has covered is a dizzy. Race, feminism, love, visual arts, writing, sexism, teaching, critical thinking and the power of the written word are just a few of the issues explored.
Born and raised in Hopkinsville as Gloria Jean Watkins, the writer’s pen name was inspired by her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, who was known for speaking her mind. In homage to her grandmother’s spirit, Watkins lowercased her name to emphasize the language, not the writer.
From an early age, she recognized the impact of race and class on children of color. In her memoir, ‘Bone Black’, she said: ‘We live in the countryside. We children do not understand that this means that we are among the poor. We don’t understand that the outbuildings behind many houses are still there because running water arrived here long after it had any in the city. We don’t understand that our playmates who eat lye starch do so not because the white powder tastes so good but because they sometimes run out of necessary nourishment.
Watkins left home on a scholarship to attend Stanford University after graduating from Hopkinsville High School. She earned her BA in English in 1973. In 1976, she earned an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she completed a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983.
According to a recent interview with WKMS-FM, Gloria’s younger sister, Gwenda Motley, said the community they grew up in played a major role in Gloria’s academic and personal development.
“It was through this community of African-American teachers and principals and the church that she grew,” Gwenda explained. “In the 1960s, we were separated. Even after integration, there were still teachers who recognized that she was very intelligent.
During the early 1980s and into the 1990s, Bell Hooks taught at his alma mater in Santa Cruz, as well as San Francisco State University, Yale, Oberlin, and City College of New York. After thirty years away from Kentucky, she returned to Berea College, where she founded the Bell Hooks Institute.
Back in Kentucky, she was interviewed by Jennifer P. Brown, then working for the New Era newspaper in Hopkinsville. According to the article, the move had not been on the brackets agenda earlier in his life as a writer. Berea, however, reminded her of the small-town atmosphere she enjoyed in Hopkinsville.
“I always felt like Hopkinsville was such a special place,” Hooks said.
She described Berea as “a cosmopolitan country” because the setting was rural but the people, attracted by the university, are diverse.”
When she passed away in December, her family was overwhelmed with the heartfelt reactions. “We were getting responses from all over the world about our sister,” Gwenda said.
In western Kentucky, MSU professor Jeff Osborne recalled being introduced to Hooks’ works as a first-time teacher and then while working on his master of arts. He remembers studying “Teaching to Transgress” and its central message of helping students constantly challenge and transgress oppressive institutions and thinking.
“It has shaped my teaching ever since,” he said.
Like Dr. Osborne, Assistant Professor Sara Cooper discovered bell hooks in graduate school and admired her use of storytelling and the way she used staff to write about teaching.
“She sees everything as connected,” Dr. Cooper explained.
“One thing I learned from her and her approach to critical pedagogy,” Cooper continued, “is that even when she disagrees with another theory, she listens and doesn’t. don’t reject everything he stands for.”
In honor of Women’s History Month and to honor the bells, Hopkinsville Community College hosted a series of screenings and discussions of the author’s video interviews at noon on March 15, 22, and 29 at Thomas L Riley Hall on the University campus.
A celebration of life for Bell Hooks is scheduled for noon, April 2, at the Alhambra Theater in Hopkinsville. Crystal Wilkinson, the current Kentucky Poet Laureate, and acclaimed Kentucky writers Silas House and Wendell Berry were invited to speak. Participation is free and the event will be broadcast live. Pre-registration is required via [email protected]