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Trailblazing feminist author, critic and activist bell hooks has died at 69

Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on Dec. 16, 1996, in New York City.
Karjean Levine
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Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on Dec. 16, 1996, in New York City.

The prolific and trailblazing author, poet, feminist, cultural critic and professor bell hooks died Wednesday at age 69. Her death was first announced by her niece, Ebony Motley, who said that she had died at home surrounded by family and friends. No cause of death was reported, but Berea College in Kentucky, where hooks had taught since 2004, said in a news release that she had died after an extended illness.

Preferring to spell her name with no capital letters as a way of de-emphasizing her individual identity, bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins as the fourth of seven children in Hopkinsville, Ky., on Sept. 25, 1952. Her pen name was a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.

She attended segregated schools in her native Christian County, Ky., before earning her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in California, a master's degree in English at the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She taught at Stanford University, Yale University, Oberlin College in Ohio and the City College of New York before returning to Kentucky to teach at Berea College, which now houses the bell hooks center.

The author of more than three dozen wide-ranging books, hooks published her first title, the poetry collection And There We Wept, in 1978. Her influential book Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism followed in 1981. Three years later, her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center explored and criticized the feminist movement's propensity to center and privilege white women's experiences.

Frequently, hooks' work addressed the deep intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality and geographic place. She wrote about her native Appalachia and growing up there as a Black girl in the critical-essay collection Belonging: A Culture of Place and in the poetry collection Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place.

In a 2000 interview with All Things Considered, hooks spoke about the life-changing power of love — that is, the act of loving and how love is far broader than romantic sentiment. "I'm talking about a love that is transformative, that challenges us in both our private and our civic lives," she said. "I'm so moved often when I think of the civil rights movement, because I see it as a great movement for social justice that was rooted in love and that politicized the notion of love, that said: Real love will change you."

She went on: "Everywhere I go, people want to feel more connected. They want to feel more connected to their neighbors. They want to feel more connected to the world. And when we learn that through love we can have that connection, we can see the stranger as ourselves. And I think that it would be absolutely fantastic to have that sense of 'Let's return to kind of a utopian focus on love, not unlike the sort of hippie focus on love.' Because I always say to people, you know, the '60s' focus on love had its stupid sentimental dimensions, but then it had these life-transforming dimensions. When I think of the love of justice that led three young people, two Jews and one African American Christian, to go to the South and fight for justice and give their lives — Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner — I think that's a quality of love that's awesome. ... I tell this to young people, you know, that we can love in a deep and profound way that transforms the political world in which we live in."

Additional reporting contributed by Steve Smith.

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