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An Appreciation: Our LGBTQ+ Sister-Friend bell hooks

bell hooks died on December 15, 2021, at 69 in Kentucky. As a Black Appalachian, she was inarguably one of the nation’s prominent feminist scholars and authors and a friend to everyone she met. Last year, Time‘s “100 Women of the Year” called our sister-friend a “rare rock star of a public intellectual.”

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she later took the uncapitalized pen name bell hooks from her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks.

hooks had legions of followers, especially among women and the LGBTQ+ community, because her body of work profoundly changed the lives of so many of us. Laverne Cox is one. The two had a deep sister-friendship and admiration for each other. hooks called Cox a “goddess for justice.” In a tribute to hooks, Cox wrote on Instagram:

bell hooks has always been the truth. Now perhaps more than ever, it’s paramount that we lean into her work. On this day of her passing, let us celebrate the rich published legacy she leaves behind.

bell hooks was a huge inspiration to me, too. She identified as “queer-pas-gay” and paved the way for intersectional feminism, inspiring generations of women and LGBTQ+ people. Because of hooks, my life’s work is grounded in an intersectional anti-oppression activism and praxis.

Few have changed and challenged feminism like bell hooks. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, she challenged the feminist movement to incorporate women beyond the educated and the academy. As an African lesbian minister, theologian, and multimedia journalist, I take theology to the streets. hooks’ body of work has assisted me in shaping both a local and national affirming public dialogue on religion and social justice issues about women and LGBTQ+ people.

In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks states that she begins her analysis at the margin because it is a space of radical openness, and it gives you an oppositional gaze from which to see the world, unknown to the oppressor. It is at the margin where you can see injustice being done. It is not only a site where you can honestly critique the oppressive structures in society that keep us wounded as a people, but it is also a site that can heal us as a people — both the oppressed and the oppressor.

I’ve learned from hooks in All About Love: New Visions that love is a verb, not a noun, requiring action, responsibility, and accountability to others. Love is about radical inclusion, and it must not be intellectualized but rather connected deeply with our need for personal healing; thus, challenging us to heal our “isms.”

We must address deep-seated biases that impede authentic, respectful, and enriching relationships. And radical inclusion can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable right.

hooks taught at several colleges and universities across the country. However, when she decided to return home to Kentucky, she opted to teach at Berea College. This liberal arts college offers free tuition and is the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. At Berea, hooks was the Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies and the founder of the bell hooks Institute that continues her life’s work and mission.

My favorite poem by hooks is “Appalachian Elegy”:

hear them cry
the long dead
the long gone
speak to us
from beyond the grave
guide us
that we may learn
all the ways
to hold tender this land
hard clay direct
rock upon rock
charred earth
in time
strong green growth
will rise here
trees back to life
native flowers
pushing the fragrance of hope
the promise of resurrection

Like so many, I’ll miss bell hooks and wondering what new tome she’s gifting us. I loved bell hooks’ unquiet intellectual energy, her revolutionizing spirit, and her radical love for change. Heartbroken doesn’t aptly depict the enormity of bell hooks’ passing.

May our sister-friend rest in power!