Gloria Watkins (1952- ), better known by her pen name of bell hooks (all lower case), is an American professor, a leading black feminist writer and thinker. She wanted to be a poet but made her name as a feminist by showing how white and racist feminism is.
Her catchphrase is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”: not only is American society built by and for rich white men, built on divisions of race, class and sex, but the losers – blacks, women and the poor – are brainwashed into accepting it through education, television, music and film.
That is why she likes to talk about Madonna and hip hop: they both started out speaking truth to power but then sold out, singing the white man’s song, the old song of women as sex objects and black men as violent brutes. That is what those rap videos are about. Spike Lee, meanwhile, did not sell out but then wound up getting sidelined.
She says America is not so much racist as white supremacist. Racism is about how people think and feel, it is something that comes from living in a white supremacist society, that is, a society built to favour whites over others.
Blacks living in such a society are brainwashed, they have colonized minds. They learn to look down on themselves, to hate themselves. They buy into the “black is ugly” message they hear all the time. They suffer from internalized racism.
The road to freedom is education. That is why she teaches. An education, that is, based on reading books, asking hard questions and thinking for oneself, education that tears apart the lies, that decolonizes your mind. A free society can be built on nothing less.
She grew up in the American South in Jim Crow days, on the black side of a small town in Kentucky. Until she went to high school she lived in a world of home and school that was largely the creation of black women. Her school was black, even her teachers were black. It was the old black Southern world that “offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people.”
Then she won a scholarship to Stanford University and found herself thrust into an all-white world.
Even though Stanford was a world of learning and ideas and books, none of the books spoke about what being a black woman in a white world meant – the self-hatred, the injustices, the racism and the sexism both. She looked and looked for a book that would speak to her, for her, but found none. So at age 19 she started writing the book herself in between her studies and her work. In time it became “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” (1981).
She expected her ideas to judged, weighed and even found wanting, but she did not expect them to be crushed under a landslide of angry words. Many white feminists hated the book, but many black women loved it. In any case it made her name.