Here's what bell hooks' friends and colleagues want you to remember about her
M. Shadee Malaklou had just been hired as the new chair of the Women's and Gender Studies department at Berea College in Kentucky when she was invited to have lunch with bell hooks. When she arrived, Malaklou remembers, hooks said with a nod and a wink, "'I was against your hire.'"
Rather than being taken aback, Malaklou leaned into hooks' irreverence and witty honesty – a trait of her writing, too. "That was her way," says Malaklou. hooks had assumed that Malaklou, a woman of Iranian descent from Southern California, wouldn't like Berea's lack of an Iranian American community and would leave. But three years later, hooks was writing a glowing commendation for Malaklou's tenure.
Malaklou, now the inaugural director of Berea College's recently opened bell hooks center, speaks about her friendship with bell hooks with gratitude, recognizing she had access to the private and mundane side of her persona, while others celebrated her public figure and academia.
Over the last three years of bell hooks' life, she and Malaklou became close friends and confidants. Sometimes, she would call Malaklou to share McDonald's cheeseburgers, even in the middle of class. It's also well-known that hooks had an endless craving for Juicy Fruit gum: "She would ask me to order it for her in hordes from Amazon," says Malaklou.
The rest of the world probably knows her best through her most popular books, Feminism is For Everybody, Teaching to Transgress and All About Love: New Visions, which re-emerged in the pandemic as a New York Times bestseller despite being published in 2000. Since hooks' passing on December 15, social media has flooded with eulogies and poignant reflections on almost three decades of her work in feminism, teaching and theory. Many noted the accessibility of her language, as well as her willingness to write from life experience as a way to speak on spirituality and family.
Before she was bell hooks, though, she was Gloria Watkins, a rising scholar teaching at Yale University in the 1980s. At that time, Rachel Chapman, now a tenured professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, had the professor as her undergraduate thesis advisor. Chapman remembers that her classes were highly sought after, and that she led a support group of Black women, called "Sisters of the Yam," who idolized her.
While working with hooks, Chapman recognized that much of her mentor's work was concerned with the loss of Black life. "She was writing about what it means to be young and Black and angry and seeing clearly the thin line between being mad and madness, between radical action and personal self-destruction," says Chapman.
What Chapman witnessed at the time was someone working through the pain and the hurt that would later lead to All About Love. Chapman would see hooks again in Los Angeles, while she was working towards her doctoral degree at UCLA in 1992. The Los Angeles riots were raging after the police beating of Rodney King, and hooks was addressing a beleaguered crowd of the college's student activists. She offered them advice that would stay with Chapman over the years.
"'I don't do social justice work with anyone who's not in a movement with me for a lifetime. And that really reduces the number of people who I'm willing to interact with on that level,'" Chapman remembers hooks saying. "That gave me permission to not have to engage every person running their racism at me. I now do whatever gives me strength and move on."
hooks' work with students and approach to education has also become part of her legacy, says Jody Greene, the founder of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at the University of California Santa Cruz, where hooks received her doctoral degree. She says the writer's books about the practice of teaching have been deeply influential to teachers like herself. "hooks strongly believed in education as the cultivation of a human being and not just an instrument for creating good employees," says Greene, who was a student at Yale during her time there.
In her last decade of life, hooks wasn't growing complacent in her ideas, friends say: She was actively learning and growing, giving talks and having conversations with other academics and public figures. Shelby Chestnut, the director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center, introduced Laverne Cox and hooks at their conversation at the New School back in 2014. Chestnut remembers meeting hooks for the first time, particularly her generosity and tenderness towards strangers.
"She was like, 'Hold my hand.' And so I held her hand and then Laverne held her other hand, and we just walked around the [West Village]", says Chestnut.
Chestnut saw hooks working to understand and include the trans community in her understandings about feminism, even at a time it wasn't popular. Her foundational works on feminism, including Ain't I a Woman, critiqued white feminism and began farsighted conversations around intersectionality even before the term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw. "Even her kindness to all, to feminism more broadly, she was really unapologetic in the prioritization of Black women," says Chestnut.
Multiple people shared how hooks profoundly cared for young people and children, too. Linda Strong-Leek, former professor at Berea College and now provost at Haverford College, remembered hooks' concern that "'we had never seen a book with a black boy just sitting and reading.'" Many of her children's books, such as Be Boy Buzz, were aimed at increasing literacy for children of color and providing meaningful representation.
She gave over thirty years of her life to groundbreaking scholarship, but she also identified as an Appalachian scholar and chose to return to her home state Kentucky in the last years of her life. In her book On Belonging: A Culture of Place, hooks wasn't an abstract theorist, but someone who was grounded in the geography of her rural upbringing in contrast to city life. Her friends say her love for community was both political and personal. Linda Strong-Leek recalls that, first and foremost, she was dedicated to the people around her.
"We would go out in Berea, most people didn't know who she was if they weren't connected to the college or readers [of] feminist theory," says Strong-Leek. "I want people to remember that she loved regular people."
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