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

bell hooks (Getty Images)

From the reinvention of the classroom to the destruction of impostor syndrome, the author, critic and fierce intellectual have 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 and remote Kentucky, Hooks graduated from Stanford University in 1974 with a degree in English Literature. Over the course of her career, she has written dozens of books under the name she adopted to honor her maternal great-grandmother. Each helped cement her reputation as a great thinker, a woman whose observations on education, race and love would gain iconic status among the many students she has taught over the years and the hordes of others. university students and graduates gave him the job.

“For me, the classroom continues to be a place where Heaven can be achieved, a place of passion and possibility, a place where the mind matters, where everything we learn and know leads us to a more. great connection, to a better understanding of life lived in community. “, she writes in her 2003 book, The teaching community, a pedagogy of hope.

A feminist researcher and social activist, Hooks was recently a distinguished Professor in Residence of Appalacian Studies at Berea College. She died on December 15 at age 69 after a long illness, the University of Kentucky announcement.

Stephanie J. Hull is President and CEO of Girls Inc., a national organization that serves – through programs and advocacy – more than 132,000 girls through a network of 80 local organizations in the United States and Canada. Canada. She was first introduced to hooks at Harvard College and later taught some of her work at Dartmouth.

“I’ve never read or heard anything from her that I don’t admire,” Hull said of the hooks. “What she said was important. What she wrote was important. His way of thinking and his approach was so transformative… and so empowering, but in a very productive way.

Hull knew her own accomplishments were important, having reached academic heights as a black woman in the 1960s and 1970s. But, she said, she didn’t feel the weight of racism in her daily life, in part. because of women like hooks.

“She broke new ground in this area and made it less remarkable to me,” said Hull. “The bell hooks allowed us to build on what she built. I don’t think she wanted us to stop there. His work says, “Keep going. “

This is exactly what Ashley Rodriguez Lantigua, 20, hopes to do. A first generation student, she was particularly moved by the book of hooks Teaching to transgress, education as a practice of freedom.A student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, she wanted to work in teaching one day.

She said she was inspired by Hooks’ claim that love should be the center of the classroom. If that were the case, said Rodriguez Lantigua, the schools would be remarkably different.

“Without an ethic of love in a classroom, we cannot center well-being, especially in the schools I have attended, public schools, with an emphasis on standardized testing,” he said. Rodriguez Lantigua said, adding that the hooks had encouraged her to create something better. . “I see it as a healing space where children remember their power and their ability to dream.”

But Hooks’ job wasn’t just about helping others. Serena Natile, scholar and feminist activist, said Teach to transgress made her feel legitimized, allowing her to let go of the stereotype she had come to adopt as the norm for the field – a stereotype she didn’t fit.

“My strength was very different and was great and I had to use it – not to lecture behind the table, but to create more conversations with the students, changing the way they would approach me… and listen to them more” said Natile, assistant professor at the University of Warwick Law School in the UK.

Assistant Professor of English at the University of Central Florida, Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés admired Hooks as a teacher, writer and critic.

“The only thing that struck me from the start was the way she addressed the reader directly – no footnotes, no high-end academic jargon,” Rodríguez Milanés said. “She wrote in simple English and it was really impressive to me. It made me think, “I also belong to academia.”

Rodríguez Milanés said the hooks also helped her tackle the impostor syndrome she had battled throughout her career, her fear that someone might one day snatch her doctorate from her. she worked so hard to win. And while hooks may have appealed primarily to black women in her early works, it later spread to all.

“By the time we got to Teach to transgress and Feminism is for everyone, it touched different communities, ”she said, adding that the Latin community had started to cite her work, reflecting its universality.

Sarah Brown, Senior Education Specialist at the Center for Powerful Public Schools, an organization founded in 2003 to help schools create a more equitable and engaging learning environment, is dedicating the next year to proofreading Hooks’ work.

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

Alicia Montgomery, executive director of the Center, said the brackets encourage black women like her to speak out and be heard, regardless of how their opinions are received.

“She was saying things that people wouldn’t like,” Montgomery said. “When you want to be authentically yourself, you have to do it knowing what it’s going to cost. “

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

“We’re going to make it exist,” she said, adding that Hooks’ work is no doubt inspiring other young black and brown thought leaders in the making. “I’m waiting to see what the next bell hooks have to say.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Subscribe to the 74 newsletter here.

Lola R. McClure