Tom Eblen

Her writing, Kentucky institute are known worldwide. Now she’ll be honored at home.

Emma Watson, left, an English actress best known for the "Harry Potter" films, poses with bell hooks during a visit to the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in September 2016. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will induct hooks Jan. 31 into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
Emma Watson, left, an English actress best known for the "Harry Potter" films, poses with bell hooks during a visit to the bell hooks Institute at Berea College in September 2016. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will induct hooks Jan. 31 into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Under her lower-case pen name, bell hooks earned a global reputation as a black feminist author, social critic, activist and educator.

Her fame has attracted actress Emma Watson, feminist Gloria Steinem, author Cornel West and others to her bell hooks Institute at Berea College, where she moved in 2004 after teaching stints at Yale, Oberlin and City College of New York.

Now hooks, who was born 65 years ago in Hopkinsville with the name Gloria Jean Watkins, is excited about being recognized in a new light: As a Kentucky writer.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will induct her into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Jan. 31 along with three deceased authors: local colorist John Fox Jr. (1862-1919), who wrote “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come”; Walter Tevis (1928-1984), author of “The Hustler”; and Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931), who wrote “The Little Colonel” children’s books.

“It's always fascinated me that in all the years that I lived away from Kentucky nobody ever talked about me as a Kentucky writer,” hooks said as we talked in her living room.

“Because I was a hard-hitting intellectual thinker, I think they just dismissed location, because they didn’t really connect any of that to being born and raised in Kentucky,” she said. “That’s why I’m excited about the award, because that is the image of Kentucky that we have to be about changing.”

hooks grew up in a large, working-class family, first in the rural hills outside Hopkinsville and then in town “where the schools were supposedly better,” she wrote in a 2008 book, “Belonging: A Culture of Place.”

Before she was 20, hooks left Kentucky for Stanford University in California, then earned a master’s in English at the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Her pen name comes from a great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, who was said to have had a sharp tongue. hooks has said she doesn’t capitalize her name to put the emphasis on the “substance of books, not who I am.”

hooks first gained notoriety with her 1981 book, “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.” Since then, she has written more than 30 books, including essays, poetry and children’s books. Her topics include feminism, racism, culture, politics, gender roles, love, spirituality and what she calls America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Her book “Belonging: A Culture of Place” included a chapter “Kentucky is My Fate,” in which she reflected on her need to return home even though “Kentucky is one of the states in our nation known for its hard-headed refusal to embrace change.”

“Living away from my native place,” she wrote, “I became more consciously Kentuckian than I was when I lived at home. This is what the experience of exile can do.”

hooks said she hasn’t regretted her decision to return to Kentucky. One of her sisters lives in Berea, and she had made many friends here, although she wishes she had a partner.

“I've failed in a lot of ways, especially around the whole question of romance and men,” she said. “But I’ve learned.”

hooks doesn’t use the Internet or have a smart phone. She also doesn’t like to drive, the result of years living in New York City. She likes to read mystery novels by the bagful.

hooks said Berea College and her work there have been a blessing, especially since 2010 when the bell hooks Institute was created in a small building the college owns near her home.

The institute houses her collection of contemporary African American art, personal artifacts and copies of her books published in other languages. But she mostly wants the institute to be an informal place for shared learning.

“One of my dreams for the institute was to bring important people here to have conversations with local people,” she said. “Lots of people aren’t comfortable coming on college campuses for a talk. They feel like that’s not their place. The thing about the institute is that its goal is to be this sort of democratic location. No degrees required.”

Raised in a conservative Christian home, hooks said she has always been religious, although her views are now more liberal. She worships at Berea’s historic Union Church. She prays and does Buddhist meditation daily and writes for Buddhist magazines. Her current book project is about spirituality.

“I want my work to be about healing,” she said. “I am a fortunate writer because every day of my life practically I get a letter, a phone call from someone who tells me how my work has transformed their life.”

She remains outspoken about politics and social issues. She sees President Donald Trump’s election as the result “of a certain kind of toxic masculinity that is very pervasive in our society.” She also thinks feminism has “stalled.”

“I don’t think feminism should just be about how women are victimized; I think it also has to be about how women empower themselves,” she said. “For me, a country black girl from Kentucky to go out into the world, of course I’ve met with resistance. Of course I’ve met with disrespect. But I’ve refused to embrace that as a sign of my identity.”

Although Kentucky has become more politically conservative, hooks said she is encouraged by the state’s many fine progressive writers and thinkers, such as her Berea College colleagues Crystal Wilkinson and Silas House.

“There’s a lot of interesting people and work coming out of Kentucky, but it’s not what people hear about,” she said. “I'm hoping to be part of changing the national view of Kentucky.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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