I was introduced to the work of bell hooks like most of us, in college; and like some of us, I instantly fell in love with her writing. Of course, it took me a while to actually read one of bell hooks’s books for class. But her whisperings were there. As an English major, her work on race, gender, and class was critical in my education—especially as we discussed the difficult topics of Civil War–era (and beyond) Black writers. Reading hooks’s writing has become essential in my anti-racist learning. She writes with passion, ferocity, pain at the injustices, but mostly love. Love for her family, for herself; love for her culture, for her color, love for all of the people who don’t deserve her writing, but read anyway so we can see a glimpse of what could be. Her writing is downright brave.
“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” —bell hooks
Who is bell hooks?
bell hooks was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky as Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952. She adopted her pen name from her great grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. hooks chooses not to capitalize her name in part to honor her grandmother, and so that her words speak for themselves and not for her name. bell hooks received her BA in English from Stanford University, MA from University of Wisconsin Madison, and finally her PhD from the University of California Santa Cruz; she even wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison. I mean come on. (heart eyes all around). Her first major book, “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” was completed during her undergrad studies and propelled her into the critical spotlight as a voice for marginalized women within feminism.
Since then, she has also spoken out about how race and class play a role in our lives in a white capitalist patriarchal society. Her book topics range from Black Masculinity, the importance of community, teaching diverse children, intersectional feminism. hooks also writes about the importance of literacy in children, believing that the ability to read, write, and think critically are the key to building communities where people can happily coexist without the structural race, gender, and class barrier. In 2014 she founded the bell hooks Institute in Berea Kentucky, to bring cultural critics together and dialogue about how we might achieve these goals. You can learn more at www.bellhooksinstitute.com
Now let’s start reading:
Where to Begin with bell hooks Books
Alright, if you haven’t had the honor of reading Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, I suggest you stop everything right now and go read it. Truth is addressing a room of suffragettes and activists asking black women to step aside and let their cause be first (before ending slavery—you know). Enter bell hooks, a young college student 100 years later. Much has changed, yet SO much is still the same. Jeez, even 40 years later we still have to argue that Black and marginalized people are human beings and deserve human treatment. This is essential for hooks readers because it’s her foundation stone. This is the work that she has built her life on.
This short and sweet book is often required reading in feminist classes. It’s a primer—in hooks’s classic style, in how feminism can change the lives of all of us for the better. She examines the core issues of feminism and its positive promise to eliminate sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression.
Here is where we start to deeply understand bell hooks. How she learned how to understand the social structures in her family as a vulnerable little girl who chose to read alone in the corner. She shows us a society that punishes women for anything more than silence—where fathers are estranged from their daughters—where writing becomes air. This book is the foundation of hooks’s creativity. It’s painful, but deeply beautiful.
This is a collection of essays about her feelings on writing through her years of teaching English in universities. She discusses how writing can offer healing, why it’s difficult for Black writers to write memoirs, and her personal experiences with publishing. I am putting this under “memoir” for this reason. Of course there’s the beautiful talk about writing being a political act. How women’s writing must take the form of confession to make it readable. But there’s also essays about how the impact of the success of her writing has had in her life. It’s beautiful and inspiring.
On Healing Communities
I am the mother of two sons whom I don’t want living a life emotionally stunted by toxic masculinity. hooks talks about the impacts of a patriarchal culture that keeps men from knowing themselves. She talks about how rich emotional lives don’t just have to be for women. How spiritually rewarding it is to be fully in tune with yourself. hooks also addresses the common fears men have when treading into this world, losing their patriarchal power. She shows men that life can be so much more rewarding and beautiful once they embrace themselves.
If “The Will to Change” was a call to men to embrace themselves, this is the call to women to claim own their own heroic journey into love. It is the third in a series starting with “All About Love” and “Salvation: Black People and Love.” Both are highly recommended. However, this book can stand on its own. A lot of people have said that this book has changed their lives. hooks writes with clear and loving language about the role of love for women in a changing society. What that role can look like if we let go of our obstacles and embraced our humanity as women.
Final Thoughts on bell hooks Books
Obviously, I want you to read all of bell hooks books. I mean, I want to read all of her writing. She does it with passion and grace that leaves me in an awe that is difficult to describe. Recently, she has released a string of children’s books that I hope you’ll also read. I hope that this will give you a little teaser into what she is capable of. Her writing is so important right now. She writes with a grace and love that is difficult to come by. Whew, are we really hurting for some real love right now.