bell hooks examined how stereotypes influence everything from music and movies (“the oppositional gaze”) to love, writing in “All About Love” that “much of what we were taught about the nature of love makes no sense when applied to daily life.” (Photo: Twitter)

by Hillel Italie —

NEW YORK – Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, whose explorations of how race, gender, economics, and politics intertwined helped shape academic and popular debates over the past 40 years, has died. She was 69.

In a statement issued through William Morrow Publishers, hooks’ family announced that she died Wednesday in Berea, Kentucky, home to the bell hooks center at Berea College. Additional details were not immediately available, although her close friend Dr. Linda Strong-Leek said she had been ill for a long time.

“She was a giant, no-nonsense person who lived by her own rules, and spoke her own truth in a time when Black people, and women especially, did not feel empowered to do that,” Dr. Strong-Leek, a former provost of Berea College, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. 

“It was a privilege to know her, and the world is a lesser place today because she is gone. There will never be another bell hooks.”

Starting in the 1970s, hooks was a profound presence in the classroom and on the page. She drew upon professional scholarship and personal history as she completed dozens of books that influenced countless peers and helped provide a framework for current debates about race, class, and feminism. 

Her notable works included “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” and “All About Love: New Visions.”

She also wrote poetry and children’s stories,  and appeared in such documentaries as “Black Is … Black Ain’t” and “Hillbilly.”

Rejecting the isolation of feminism, civil rights, and economics into separate fields, she was a believer in community and connectivity, and how racism, sexism, and economic disparity reinforced each other. 

Among her most famous expressions was her definition of feminism, which she called “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

Ibram X. Kendi, Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others mourned hooks. Author Saeed Jones noted that her death came just a week after the loss of the celebrated Black author and critic Greg Tate. “It all feels so pointed,” he tweeted Wednesday.

hooks’ honors included an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, which champions diversity in literature. 

She taught at numerous schools, including Yale University, Oberlin College, and City College of New York. She joined the Berea College faculty in 2004 and a decade later founded the center named for her, where “many and varied expressions of difference can thrive.” 

hooks was born in 1952 in the segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and later gave herself the pen name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother, while also spelling the words in lower case to establish her own identity and way of thinking. 

She loved reading from an early age, remembering how books gave her “visions of new worlds” that forced her out of her “comfort zones.”

Her early influences ranged from James Baldwin and fellow Kentucky author Wendell Berry to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Martin Luther King was my teacher for understanding the importance of beloved community. He had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way,” she said in an interview that ran in Appalachian Heritage in 2012.

Over the decades, hooks examined how stereotypes influence everything from music and movies (“the oppositional gaze”) to love, writing in “All About Love” that “much of what we were taught about the nature of love makes no sense when applied to daily life.”

(Associated Press Writer Piper Hudspeth Blackburn in Louisville, Kentucky contributed to this report.)