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Minnesota women speak about bell hooks' impact on their lives

1January 2022

When I asked Kimala Price about the impact bell hooks, the Black feminist scholar and pioneer who died last month at age 69, had on her life, she paused.

“I’m a Black woman of a certain age,” said Price, an associate professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University and the co-director of the school’s Bread and Roses Center for Feminist Research and Activism. “I discovered her when I was in college. I was in college late ’80s, early ’90s. We’re talking undergraduate years. It was the perfect time for me to discover her.”

It was a familiar reflection. Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched people, especially Black, Indigenous, people of color women, mourn the passing of hooks in public and profound displays. In my own world, Black women who followed her words remain in mourning.

A friend of mine told me hooks taught her how to think. Another colleague corrected a national publication on Twitter when it capitalized hooks’ name, something hooks — born Gloria Jean Watkins before she adopted a pen name in honor of her great-grandmother — did not condone. Another friend, also a Black woman, posted on Facebook an image of a stack of books written by hooks and added that she “didn’t have the right words” to discuss the icon’s legacy. For the uninitiated, hooks taught at many universities including Yale, where she was a professor in the ’80s, and was the author of notable works, including “Feminism is for Everybody” and “ain’t i a woman.”

In the days after her death, I heard Black, Indigenous and people of color women speak of a figure who had challenged the status quo and helped them discover themselves by reimagining our collective confines of Black history — boundaries that have historically eliminated Black women — in unapologetic dialogue.

“I can really say bell hooks allowed me to find my voice as a Black feminist writer and as a Black feminist educator,” said Zenzele Isoke, director of graduate studies in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. “And I really mean that. I remember I saw her talk in 1998 and I had read one of her books, I think it was ‘ain’t i a woman.’

“Just the way in which she wrote, the clarity in which she wrote, the way in which she was fearless and critiquing things that were harmful to Black women, whether it was the feminist movement or whether it was aspects of the Black civil rights movement, where she showed how Black women were used as props for both of those groups, both of those social movements. She showed me how to find a voice and a perspective that was unique to Black women and didn’t have to be secondary to the ideologies of white feminism or Black nationalism or even Black racial liberalism.”

Isoke told me she’d taught her children about hooks, her legacy and her voice.

It made me think about my own daughters. I am a Black man raising three Black girls. As they grow, I hope to offer a balanced perspective that considers the fullness of their experience. I am always aware that I exist just inches from perspectives rooted in misogyny and sexism, and without constant self-examination and study, I will miss my mission to parent, not as a man or a father, but as a human. In ‘ain’t i a woman,’ hooks highlights the tainted perspectives of Black women in all communities.

“The images of Black women that are seen as positive usually are those that depict the Black woman as a long-suffering religious, maternal figure whose most endearing characteristic is her self-sacrificing, self-denial for those she loves,” Hooks wrote. “Negative images of Black women in television and film are not simply impressed upon the psyche of white males. They affect all Americans.”

She also said the Black male is often viewed as the “representative” of the Black community. You can see that in the stories that are told about the civil rights movement, stories that tend to center Black men, what they gained and what they lost.

But hooks also demanded a broader consideration. She tied the plight of Black women to racism, the patriarchy and capitalism. She discussed the complexities of their hurdles. For her views, some called her a rebel. But when we discuss Black thinkers and leaders, hooks should be mentioned in the same vein as James Baldwin or W.E.B. Du Bois. She was a revolutionary who birthed a generation of Black women who were empowered by her stance. And that, I learned, is why so many were moved by her death.

“bell hooks just sort of went in and out of these venerated institutions, but she never really had an institutional home, and I think that’s something that really resonates with myself and other Black women writers and intellectuals and also, sort of the just the uncompromising nature of understanding what you’re here to do,” said Shannon Gibney, Minneapolis writer, educator, activist, and the author of “See No Color.” “Just understanding that I don’t care if it’s ‘publish or perish’ or if you think that my work is too easy to digest or you don’t feel like it’s theoretical enough or whatever it is that’s delegitimizing me in your eyes, I’m going to write what I want to write. bell hooks …. that’s what she did. That’s who she was.”

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online. E-mail: myron.medcalf@startribune.com

Twitter: @MedcalfByESPN

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