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The classroom as a radical space: Teacher, author and fierce intellectual, bell hooks transformed education, especially for women of color

Jo Napolitano | January 12, 2022

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bell hooks (Getty Images)

From reimagining the classroom to tearing down imposter syndrome, author, critic and fierce public intellectual bell hooks inspired women of color across generations to create a world in which all are free to reach their potential.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in rural, segregated Kentucky, hooks graduated from Stanford University in 1974 with a degree in English literature. Throughout the course of her career, she wrote dozens of books under the name she adopted to honor her maternal great-grandmother. Each one helped cement her reputation as a great thinker, a woman whose observations about education, race and love would earn iconic status among the many students she taught through the years and the hordes of other college and graduate students assigned her work.

“To me the classroom continues to be a place where paradise can be realized, a place of passion and possibility, a place where spirit matters, where all that we learn and know leads us into greater connection, into greater understanding of life lived in community,” she wrote in her 2003 book, Teaching Community, a Pedagogy of Hope.

A feminist scholar and social activist, hooks was most recently a distinguished professor in residence in Appalacian studies at Berea College. She died Dec. 15 at age 69 after an extended illness, the Kentucky university announced.

Stephanie J. Hull is the president and CEO of Girls Inc., a national organization that serves — through programing and advocacy — more than 132,000 girls through a network of 80 local organizations across the U.S. and Canada. She was first introduced to hooks in graduate school at Harvard and later taught some of her work at Dartmouth.

“I never read or heard anything from her that I didn’t admire,” Hull said of hooks. “What she spoke was important. What she wrote was important. Her way of thinking and her approach was so transformative … and so challenging — but in a very productive way.”

Hull knew her own accomplishments were substantive, having risen to academic heights as a Black woman in the 1960s and ’70s. But, she said, she didn’t feel the weight of racism in her daily life, in part because of women like hooks.

“She broke that ground and made it less remarkable for me,” Hull said. “bell hooks meant for us to build on what she built. I don’t think she meant for us to stop at that point. Her work says, ‘Keep going.’”

That’s exactly what Ashley Rodriguez Lantigua, 20, hopes to do. A first-generation college student, she was particularly moved by hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress, Education as the Practice of Freedom.A student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, she wants to one day work in education.

She said she drew inspiration from hooks’s assertion that love should be at the center of the classroom. If that were the case, Rodriguez Lantigua said, schools would look remarkably different.

“Without an ethic of love in a classroom, we can’t center wellness, especially in the schools I have gone through, public schools, with their focus on standardized testing,” Rodriguez Lantigua said, adding that hooks encouraged her to create something better. “I see it as a space for healing where children are reminded of their power and their ability to dream.”

But hooks’s work wasn’t just about helping others. Serena Natile, an academic and feminist activist, said Teaching to Transgress made her feel legitimized, allowing her to abandon the stereotype she had come to embrace as a standard for the field — one she did not fit.

“My strength was very different and was a great one and I had to use that — not to lecture behind the table, but create more conversations with students, changing the way they would approach me … and listen to them more,” said Natile, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Law in the U.K.

An assistant English professor at the University of Central Florida, Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés admired hooks as a teacher, writer and critic.

“The one thing that stood out to me from the beginning was how directly she spoke to the reader — with no footnotes, no highfalutin’ academic lingo,” Rodríguez Milanés said. “She was writing in plain English and it was really impressive to me. It made me think, ‘I belong in academe, too.’”

Rodríguez Milanés said hooks also helped her fight the imposter syndrome she’s battled throughout her career, her fear that someone might some day rip away the Ph.D. she worked so hard to earn. And while hooks might have, in her early works, appealed mostly to Black women, she later expanded to all.

“By the time we got to Teaching to Transgress and Feminism is for Everyone, she was reaching across different communities,” she said, adding that the Latin community started to quote her work, reflecting its universality.

Sarah Brown, senior educational specialist at the Center for Powerful Public Schools, an organization founded in 2003 to help schools create a more equitable and motivational learning environment, is dedicating the next year to rereading hooks’s works.

“There are just so many aspects of my different identities that she spoke to,” Brown said. “There is only one bell hooks, only one who could so eloquently and yet succinctly capture it all.”

Alicia Montgomery, the Center’s executive director, said hooks encouraged Black women such as herself to speak up and be heard no matter how their opinions are received.

“She would say things people would not like,” Montgomery said. “When you want to be authentically yourself, you have to do that knowing what it is going to cost.”

Hooks’s legacy will live on through those she’s touched, Montgomery said.

“We will speak her into existence,” she said, adding hooks’s work is no doubt inspiring other young Black and brown thought leaders in the making. “I’m waiting to see what that next bell hooks has to say.”

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