A woman with a dark afro rests her head in her palm as her photo is taken, in black and white
Aged 69, bell hooks died on Wednesday after a long illness.  (Supplied: bell hooks Institute )none

Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, has died aged 69.

The groundbreaking author, educator and activist, who explored the intersections of race, gender, economics and politics, helped shape academic and popular debates over the past 40 years.

In a statement, hooks’s family said she died after a long illness in Kentucky, where her inclusive learning facility, the bell hooks centre, is based.

A close friend, Dr Linda Strong-Leek, described bell hooks as a visionary.

“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,” she said.

A woman with  cornrows wearing glasses and an orange scarf over dark clothes holds a microphone while gesturing towards a crowd
Gloria Jean Watkins, who wrote under the name bell hooks. (Supplied: bell hooks Institute )none

“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.”

Community and connectivity

From the 1970s, hooks had a large presence in the classroom and on the page.

She drew upon professional scholarship and personal history as she wrote dozens of books that influenced peers and helped provide a framework for debates about race, class and feminism.

Notable works included Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre and All About Love: New Visions.

She also wrote poetry and children’s stories and appeared in documentaries like Black Is … Black Ain’t and Hillbilly.

The author rejected the isolation of feminism, civil rights and economics and believed in community and connectivity.

She was particularly focused on 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”.

Tributes flowed for hooks on Wednesday.

Author Saeed Jones said her death came just a week after the loss of the celebrated Black author and critic Greg Tate.

“It all feels so pointed,” he said in a tweet.

A highly decorated author, hooks received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, which champions diversity in literature.

She taught at various schools, including Yale University, Oberlin College and City College of New York and joined the Berea College faculty in 2004 before founding a centre in her name, where “many and varied expressions of difference can thrive”.

Author Min Jin Lee, a former student, wrote in The New York Times in 2019 that in hooks’s classroom, “everything felt so intense and crackling, like the way the air can feel heavy before a long-awaited rain.”

Reading inspired ‘visions of new worlds’

Born 1952 in the segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Watkins later gave herself the pen name bell hooks in honour of her maternal great-grandmother.

She also spelled her name in lower case to establish her own identity and way of thinking.

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

Her early influences included the work of Martin Luther King Junior.

“Martin Luther King was my teacher for understanding the importance of beloved community,” she said in an interview in 2012 with Appalachian Heritage.

“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.”

An English major at Stanford University, hooks went on to gain a master’s in English from the University of Wisconsin.

In the 1970s and at the height of second-wave feminism,  hooks — “this bold young black female from rural Kentucky” as she described herself — felt apart from the movement and its “white and female comrades”.

She was still in college when she began writing Ain’t I a Woman, a look at how the “devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery”.

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

 She also documented the collective identity and past of Black people in rural Kentucky, a part of the state often depicted as largely white and homogeneous.

“We chart our lives by everything we remember from the mundane moment to the majestic. We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering,” she wrote in her 2009 book, Belonging: A Culture of Place.

“I pay tribute to the past as a resource that can serve as a foundation for us to revision and renew our commitment to the present, to making a world where all people can live fully and well, where everyone can belong.”