BEREA – To the world, she was bell hooks – a trailblazing feminist theorist and relentless social activist. But to many of the people gathered at a memorial on Thursday afternoon, she was Gloria Jean Watkins – a spirited friend with wit like a razor, who loved fiercely.

Watkins passed away at her home in Berea on December 15, 2021. Almost six months later, a memorial service was held in her honor. Friends from across the world gathered at the Phelps Stokes Building at Berea College or sent in video messages to pay tribute to the beloved author, academic, and Berea College professor. At the end of the ceremony, it was announced that the bell hooks Institute would be reopening.

Watkins’ close friend and colleague Linda Strong-Leek served as a host at the event while friends and family (many of them fellow activists and philosophers) spoke including Gloria Steinem, Gwenda Motley, Zillah Eisenstein, Imani Perry, Paul Gilroy, Darnell Moore, Qrescent Mali Mason, Kevin Garner, Paige Billman, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Berea College President Lyle Roelofs spoke. The event began with Strong-Leek reading the blessing of the bell hooks Institute – an emotional reading at that, as it was the first time she had read the blessing without Watkins at her side.

Steinem, another feminist icon, felt Watkins should have been the one to speak at her memorial. She remembered her friend as a “patient organizer” and “ferocious shopper” among other titles. A prominent theme in Watkins’ writing was her struggle against existing power structures that she called the “imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.” While her work as a social activist and writings about that structure from the perspective of a queer black woman are what she is mostly known for, Watkins also wrote about the concept of love. Something Steinem spoke about during the tribute.

“She understood that given all those hierarchical exploiting forces, love is a radical act. Both to love ourselves and love other people as unique individuals. Sometimes I think to myself in particular situations or any situation, what would bell do? And then I try to do it,” Steinem said. “… She used the often devalued word ‘love.’ And made it strong, made it meaningful, made it serious, made it empathetic. Buy ‘love,’ she did not mean romance. I think in ‘love’ you want what’s best for the other person, in romance you want the other person. It’s much more possessive. bell knew the difference. She knew how important it was to be loved and to feel valued as your unique self. And it was important and life giving to her and she understood that was truly for everyone else too. ‘Love’ has been a devalued word and bell gave it back it’s value.”

The speakers painted a detailed portrait of Watkins. She was a woman who would stop and talk to someone if she knew them, just as she would to pick flowers out of other people’s yard. She was a thrifty shopper who loved to buy mystery novels from the local Goodwill and would read multiple books a day. In what was described as a sweet, southern, and high pitched voice, she would laugh and gossip for hours on end. Watkins loved to dance and was delighted to spend any time with young children and babies. She was never afraid to speak her mind and her truth, even to friends, family, and the world at large.

Steadfast in love and ruthless in criticism, the native of Hopkinsville truly lived a passionate life. With tears in her eyes, Gloria Jean Watkins’ sister, Gwenda Motley, gave an incredibly moving epitaph on behalf of the entire Watkins family.

“A common theme in the hundreds of expressions on social media after her passing was ‘rest in power, bell hooks.’ Many even said ‘rest in peace, bell hooks.’ From the family, I would just like to say rest in love, Gloria Jean. For you deserve a love that can lift you higher than you’ve ever been lifted before. So today and tomorrow and the days ahead if you would like to honor bell hooks than let’s not forget to love,” Motley said.

The memorial service can be viewed at