bell hooks is known for inspiring generations with her feminist writing, teaching and poetry on race, class and gender. In March, “TIME” magazine named her one of the 100 women of the year in its series of the most influential women of the past century.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, she had a love of reading and learning from the very beginning. She was one of seven children living with working-class parents in Hopkinsville, Ky. Watkins was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Stanford University when she wrote her first draft of “Ain’t I a Woman,” and she published the book when she was 29 years old, after she received her doctorate in English from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Watkins chose ‘bell hooks’ as her pen name to honor her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks, but wanted it displayed in lowercase to shift the attention from her identity to her ideas.
hooks’ writing broke ground by recognizing that a woman’s race, political history, social position and economic worth to her society are just some of the factors which comprise her value and speak to the totality of her life.
She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy and masculinity to self-help to personal memoirs. She has held positions as professor of African American Studies and English at Yale University, associate professor of women’s studies and American literature at Oberlin College (Ohio) and as distinguished lecturer of English literature at the City College of New York.
In 2004, hooks joined Berea College as a distinguished professor in residence. It is here she chose to house her papers. She also selected Berea for the location of the bell hooks Institute, knowing that people seeking to study with her or use primary sources would have to journey to Kentucky, to a small town much like the one that formed her sense of self and identity, she said.
Founded in 2014, the bell hooks Institute celebrates, honors and documents the life and work of this
acclaimed intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist and writer. Visitors have the opportunity to explore and visually engage with artifacts, images and manuscripts talked about in hooks’ work. For example, one can see the brown baby doll bell writes about in her memoir “Bone Black,” look at the Star of David quilt her grandmother gave her when she left for college and check out the international editions of her books. The Institute seeks to bring together academics with local community members to study, learn and engage in critical dialogue. It also brings scholars and thinkers from in and outside Kentucky to engage visitors, teach and share new ideas in a setting that is local and diverse.