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Constance Alexander: Celebrating bell hooks, west Kentucky writer with international audience


The other day I easily exceeded my daily goal of 10,000 steps in the most unlikely spot, the Murray State University Library. In search of published works by bell hooks — American author, professor, feminist, and social activist — I consulted the electronic catalog and found a slew of books and articles both by and about her, in various literary journals and academic publications.

I downloaded and printed off a few pages, stuffed them in my bag, and was off and running in search of a random selection of hooks’ books.

My quest sent me from one corner of the library’s ground floor to the other, up and down aisles, back and forth to opposite ends of the building. Getting to some of hooks’ treasures meant cranking the roller racks to squeeze between shelves and pluck one of her books from its spot. My literary workout included stretching and standing on tiptoes to get to those almost out of reach, and then squatting down to eyeball level for those tucked onto the lowest shelves.

Once I had my hands on five books, I shuffled through them and wondered how hooks managed to produce so much work between 1981 and her death in December 2021. Not only was her output impressive – somewhere near forty titles — the range of topics she covered is a stunner. Race, feminism, love, visual art, writing, sexism, teaching, critical thinking, and the power of the written word are just some of the issues hooks explored.

Born and raised in Hopkinsville, as Gloria Jean Watkins, the writer’s nom de plume was inspired by her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, who was known for speaking her mind. In tribute to her grandmother’s spirit, Watkins assumed her name in lower case letters to keep the emphasis on the language, not the writer.

From an early age, she recognized the impact of race and class on children of color. In her memoir, “Bone Black,” she said, “We live in the country. We children do not understand that that means we are among the poor. We do not understand that the outhouses behind many of the homes are still there because running water came here long after they had it in the city. We do not understand that our playmates who are eating laundry starch do so not because the white powder tastes so good but because they are sometimes without necessary food.”

Watkins left home with a scholarship to attend Stanford University after she graduated from Hopkinsville High School. She received her BA in English in 1973. In 1976, she got an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she completed a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983.

According to a recent interview with WKMS-FM, Gloria’s younger sister, Gwenda Motley, said that the community they were raised in played a major role in Gloria’s academic and personal development.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

“It was through that community of African American teachers and principals and the church that she grew,” Gwenda explained. “In the 60s, we were segregated. Even after integration, there were still teachers who recognized she was very intelligent.”

In the early 1980s and into the 1990s, bell hooks taught at her alma mater in Santa Cruz, as well as San Francisco State University, Yale, Oberlin, and City College of New York. After thirty years away from Kentucky, she returned to Berea College, where she founded the Bell Hooks Institute.

Back in Kentucky, she was interviewed by Jennifer P. Brown, who was with the New Era newspaper in Hopkinsville at the time. According to the article, the move had not been on hooks’ agenda earlier in her writing life. Berea, however, reminded her of the small-town atmosphere she enjoyed in Hopkinsville.

“I always felt like Hopkinsville was such a special place,” hooks said.

She described Berea as “country cosmopolitan” because the setting was rural but people, drawn by the university, are diverse.”

When she died in December, her family was overwhelmed by the heartfelt reactions. “We were getting responses from all over the world about our sister,” Gwenda said.

In western Kentucky, MSU professor Jeff Osborne recalled being introduced to hooks’ works as a beginning teacher and then while he worked on his Master of Arts degree. He remembers studying “Teaching to Transgress” and its central message about helping students to consistently challenge and transgress oppressive institutions and thought.

“It has shaped my teaching since then,” he said.

Much like Dr. Osborne, Assistant Professor Sara Cooper discovered bell hooks in graduate school and has admired her use of storytelling and the ways she used the personal to write about teaching.

“She sees it all as connected,” Dr. Cooper explained.

“One thing I learned from her and her approach to critical pedagogy,” Cooper went on, “is that even when she disagrees with another theory, she listens and does not reject everything he represents.”

In observance of Women’s History Month and to honor bell hooks, Hopkinsville Community College has organized a series of screenings and discussions of the author’s video interviews at noon March 15, 22, and 29, in Thomas L. Riley Hall on the college campus.

A celebration of bell hooks’ life is scheduled for noon, April 2, at Hopkinsville’s Alhambra Theatre. Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s current Poet Laureate, and esteemed Kentucky writers Silas House and Wendell Berry have been invited to speak. There is no charge to attend and the event will be live-streamed. Pre-registration is required via bellhooks.inspired@gmail.com.


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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Very interesting, as always!

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