bell hooks and the most precious gift


bell hooks, wearing red, smiles into the cameraThis past December, Berea, and the world, lost a friend and an icon. bell hooks, née Gloria Jean Watkins, spelled her pen name in all lower-case letters because she wanted people to focus on her work, not her person. But it was her work and her person that inspired the Berea College community to establish the bell hooks center and even to name a campus road after her. And that same community prompted bell to establish the bell hooks Institute at Berea College. These named places will remind current and future community members of one of the world’s great minds, a Kentuckian, an international hero of feminism and, for the last 17 years of her life, a Berean.

Born in 1952 in the segregated community of Hopkinsville, bell transcended the limitations society tried to place on her. She studied English at Stanford University, earned her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author of dozens of books ranging in topics from race and gender to poetry and children’s literature, bell’s prolific teaching career stretched across many prestigious schools, including Yale, Oberlin, The City College of New York and, ultimately, Berea College, where she chose to continue her life-long work in social justice.

There are not enough words available in this column to express the impact bell hooks had on society, both globally and locally. Her feminist refrain—feminism is for everyone!—was and is so profoundly Berean in its inclusiveness. She welcomed me, too, as a fellow feminist, and we became friends, but she was not shy to point out when my thinking needed correction. It was always an honor to have her expand my horizons because she was so smart and so fierce.

bell had many friends and they all, like me, honored and treasured their relationships with her. Her tent was so very welcoming, capacious and full of learning opportunities. She read at least a book every day and always eagerly shared what she had learned. We will miss bell so much and will always be proud that she chose to associate herself with us and that she allowed us to put her name on the center where we celebrate all gender identities, seeing their inclusion as fundamental to the welcoming mission and identity of Berea College.bell hooks Institute

Her work, her life and her presence spoke to five of Berea’s eight Great Commitments: our commitments to the liberating potential of a liberal arts education, to interracial education, to gender equality, to sustainability and to Appalachia. That close alignment is no surprise because another conviction of bell’s that made her such a true Berean was that love, the impartial love celebrated as well by Berea’s founders, was the answer to most of what is wrong with our culture.

In her classic book, “All about Love: New Visions,” she wrote about the openness of a generous heart: “This is the most precious gift true love offers—the experience of knowing we always belong.”

That experience—belonging—is denied so many in our society based on superficial differences like race, gender and class, but bell admonished us to be better, to see in each person potential and worth. We can honor bell’s legacy by opening our tents and our hearts in a way that makes that most precious gift less rare.  Even as that gift is bestowed more frequently, it will still be so very precious.