I was always unsure how to greet her, the radiantly brilliant scholar named Gloria Watkins who wrote worlds into being as bell hooks. She was a neighbor of mine in the 1990s; we lived within blocks of each other in Greenwich Village. I did not know her well, but our paths crossed with some regularity because we wrote on overlapping topics—race, gender, class. She was the eminence whose first book—Ain’t I a Woman?, written while still an undergraduate—had revolutionized second-wave feminism. She forced an epistemic rethinking of intersectionality, encapsulated well by the title of the landmark 1982 anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.
Many friends called her by her given name of Gloria, but I never could. This is partly because I was so in awe that I rarely addressed her by any name. On one hand, “Gloria” felt too familiar, disrespectful somehow, in need of an honorific. On the other, her chosen name of “bell hooks” seemed like more than just the adopted name of her great-grandmother, more than a mere pen name: Gloria become “bell” was a self-proclaimed deflection of regard away from herself and toward the body of her work as the ceremonial inhabitation of an old soul. Her demeanor was watchful from behind that imposed distance, carefully oscillating between the plurals of a historicized self. Even her use of lower case struck me as a generous gesture: While sometimes dismissed as a modernist affectation, her spelling effectively marked upper case as the reserved property of great-grandmothers. The lower-casing of herself in specific deference to the elder who inspired her was a kind of genuflection that I found insistently reverent.
One afternoon I ran into her at a bistro in Greenwich Village. The two of us were dressed in black, head to toe. It was a guise I thought of as sophisticated in a specifically New York way (this was Manhattan after all, where even the infants were dressed in power-black onesies), but it was also what she would sometimes wryly claim as “Kentucky cosmopolitan”—she never let go of her roots. Over tea, she talked about her experience growing up in segregated Kentucky schools; she said it was violent, repressive, threatening. “I grew up afraid.” She thought of her survival in and escape from that milieu as a true victory. But she loved the emergence of what she called “the new Kentucky” into a world of “hope and beauty and promise.” Sustained by belief in the power of change, she moved back to Kentucky in 2004 to work at the tuition-free Berea College, which has described her contribution as helping the institution to “get closer to its Great Commitments, particularly the Fifth Great Commitment focused on the kinship of all people and interracial education; the Sixth Great Commitment dedicated to gender equality; and the Eighth Great Commitment centered on service to Appalachia.”
Perhaps precisely because she had grown up so afraid, service and kindness to others constituted a very large part of her literary legacy—from children’s books, to tracts on the needs of poor mothers, to self-help books on healing trauma and repairing racism. She considered it a singular injury that Kentucky’s school system had taught her that “Black people didn’t write any books.” It was her life’s mission to make sure that today’s children did not grow up suffering such ignorance. She wrote at least 30 books, many of them volumes about pedagogy; she advocated teaching that respects and cares for the whole spectrum of pupils’ humanity. She insisted that all teaching transgress the bounds of the classroom and attend to the lives of real people, and do so with hope, empathy, and compassionate exchange.
In mourning her, I also mourn a cruel irony: that despite all the gains, the Kentucky state legislature has pending on its 2022 docket one Bill Request 69, “an act relating to prohibited instruction and declaring an emergency.” It would “ensure that no public school or public charter school offers any classroom instruction or discussion that promotes designated concepts related to race, sex, and religion; provide that a school district employee that violates the prohibition is subject to disciplinary action…prohibit classroom instruction or discussion that incorporates designated concepts related to race, sex, and religion at public postsecondary education institutions.” It hurts beyond words to think that bell hooks’s prodigious output might be banned from the very same schools she had hoped to help, and that new generations may be returned to that state of oblivion where people who write from raced, gendered, or other embodied experiences will be consigned to voicelessness and invisibility.
Another recollection: There had been a conference at the New School, at which we had both been among the speakers. A few of us had left the conference a bit early and headed to the after party at Café Loup. We—and just about every other writer in the West Village of that era—used to love the now-gone Café Loup on 13th Street, with its seasoned waiters, French café menu, and weekend jazz. There would be live music and lots of jocular noise within the hour. But we were ahead of the crowd, needing time away from the intensity of audience.
We secured a table, ordered appetizers (whitefish pâté, sliced cucumber and rye bread) and settled in to talk idly while waiting for the rest. We talked about the complex aesthetic confinements of having been Black girl children, forced to assert one’s innocence to a world that rarely sees Blacks as either innocent or feminine, forced by parents through the impossibly bewildered virtue-signaling of ruffled pink dresses. It was just before she published her memoir, Bone Black, in which she wrote about this phenomenon in some detail: “When she is older, she will wear black every day…. She is not in mourning. She has learned to put all the broken bits and pieces of her heart back together again. She is a woman. She is dressed in black. She has been told all her life that black is a woman’s color.”
We were all grown up that evening. I remember us enjoying our crispy, sophisticated breadsticks, the little pats of butter placed upon tiny ceramic squares, centered in a pool of pale green olive oil—oh, the relaxed bohemianism of place and time.
As others came—the late writer and musician Greg Tate, the late jazz critic Stanley Crouch, and the late art critic Maurice Berger were all there—the waiters pulled more tables together and we sat in a long rectangle that extended most of the length of the little restaurant. At one point bell stood up and spoke words I now think of as a perfect metaphor for her life: “Hello, I’m bell hooks and I want to introduce myself to those of you at the far end of the table.” Her voice was light, high and musical, like a silver bell. Not a tinkling bell, perish the thought. But a meditation bell, a call to mindfulness, a beacon of resonant calm.
I remember the dim light of evening settling around us as others gathered, as other now-long-gone friends drifted in, as the live jazz grew louder, and we all raised our voices so as to be more clearly heard.