bell hooks, a writer and thinker whose texts about Black art, feminism, and identity that inspired legions within academia and far beyond, has died. Berea College, the Kentucky school where hooks was a professor and where there is an institute in her name, said she had died at 69 on Wednesday. The Washington Post reported that the cause of death was end-stage renal failure.
Since the ’70s, hooks had been writing essential essays and poetry on an array of topics, many of them pertaining to the inner lives of Black women and to her own experiences. These essays were influential not only because of their groundbreaking subject matter—which, when she began writing, was largely kept out of white-led academic spaces—but also because of their style. In lush, elegant prose, hooks combined theory and poetry, the personal and the political, and academic and vernacular language.
A prolific writer with over 40 books published, the writings that made hooks famous carved out a space for Black women at a time when many white feminists did not believe race was related to their cause. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, whose title refers to a famed Sojourner Truth speech, had been written while hooks was an undergraduate during the ’70s, but it did not make it to press until 1981. It advocated for an understanding that race, gender, and class could not be viewed apart from one another, and that “the struggle to end racism and the struggle to end sexism were intertwined,” as she wrote.
“We, black women who advocate feminist ideology, are pioneers,” she wrote at the book’s end. “We are clearing a path for ourselves and our sisters. We hope that they see us reach our goal—no longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid—they will take courage to follow.”
She applied that clear-eyed prose to the art she saw as well. Her 1995 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics features interviews with artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Emma Amos, and Alison Saar, as well as hooks’s own musings on the role art played in her own life. She implied that art could have revolutionary potential, even for the Black community, whose members, she believed, often saw the field as something disconnected from their own lives.
“Taking our cues from mainstream white culture, black folks have tended to see art as completely unimportant in the struggle for survival,” she wrote in the book’s first chapter. “Art as propaganda was and is acceptable, but not art that was concerned with any old subject, content, or form. And black folks who thought there could be some art for art’s sake for black people, well, they were seen as being out of the loop, apolitical. Hence, black leaders have rarely included in their visions of black liberation the necessity to affirm in a sustained manner creative expression and freedom in the visual arts. Much of our political focus on the visual has been related to the issue of good and bad images. Indeed, many folks think the problem of black identification with art is simply the problem of underrepresentation, not enough images, not enough visible black artists, not enough prestigious galleries showing their work.”
While the focus in Art on My Mind was largely Black women, as it had been in other works by hooks, she also periodically turned her attention to men, in particular Jean-Michel Basquiat. Of him, in an essay originally published by Art in America in 1993, she wrote, “To bear witness in his work, Basquiat struggled to utter the unspeakable.” Quickly, her prose turned conversational. She wrote of how a Whitney Museum retrospective characterized him as “the stereotypical black stud randomly fucking white women,” and then concluded that Basquiat taught her something important: “we are more than our pain.”
Whipping between writerly modes like these was—and remains—unconventional within art essays. hooks described it as a necessary strategy, saying that it could bring theory beyond academia. “Part of the challenge for insurgent intellectuals, particularly those of us who are artists in this society, is to pull back from academe, actually, and academic settings,” she told Lawrence Chua in 1994 Bomb interview.
In 2006, hooks discussed this topic further in a series of conversations with artist and scholar Amalia Mesa-Bains, titled Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism, which also touched on the role of art and activism, feminist iconography, and much more. In the book’s preface, hooks says, “This conversation should nurture others. … And by actions like these, which are forms of activism, we repudiate the notion that as cultural workers and intellectuals, we are at odds with the world that we come from. And I agree with you–in this project, we’re thinking about solidarity and the links between Black culture and Latino culture.”
hooks was born under the name Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952. Raised by a working-class family that she said gave her a different voice on the subjects she would later address, she went on to attend Stanford University for a B.A. and the University of Wisconsin–Madison for an M.A. In 1978, for a book of poetry called And Then We Wept, she took on the alias bell hooks in reference to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. The unusual lowercase stylization also marked an attempt to “emphasize the importance of the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is,” she once wrote.
As hooks’s writing rose in popularity, it was read widely by artists and more. But not everyone was seduced by it. In a famed article published by the Village Voice in 1995, critic Michele Wallace wrote, “Everybody knows that p.c. rhetoric has become a problem, and Hooks has made herself queen of p.c. rhetoric. Without the unlovely p.c. code phrases, ‘white supremacy,’ ‘patriarchal domination’ and ‘self-recovery,’ Hooks couldn’t write a sentence.”
hooks’s writing and public appearances often included comments that seemed designed to provoke. In 1996, in an Artforum essay, she wrote, “Ultimately, let’s just pretend that there’s no racism—no sexism—that anybody who speaks out about oppression is just whining and should shut the fuck up, nobody’s listening. That was the message of 1996.” And in the book Killing Rage: Ending Racism, published the year before, she spoke of a desire to murder a white man sitting next to her as she was writing.
At its core, hooks’s writing remains so widely read because of its openness. “When I find myself raging at the lack of thought behind so many of the images produced by our dominant film and television culture, I turn to the appealing complexity of bell’s writing—a challenge equivalent to the difficulty that should go into creating images,” artist Isaac Julien once wrote in Artforum. Countless other artists have been inspired by hooks over the years since.
hooks seemed to speak for her practice as a whole when, in a 1996 interview with artist and filmmaker Camille Billops, she said, “If we are always fearful of judgement, we can never take the risks that make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized.”