On December 15, 2021, bell hooks died. Born Gloria Watkins, she wrote under the pen name of bell hooks to honor her grandmother. She kept her pen name uncapitalized as both a symbol of personal humility to elevate her ideas over herself and as a symbol of empowerment to subvert the dominant cultural norms of patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and more.
I first read bell hooks as an undergraduate in a philosophy class on ethics. It might have been Teaching to Transgress. I do remember, I did not like it. I was not ready for her radical perspective at that point in my life. Later, I was assigned to read Teaching to Transgress as a doctoral student in a class on learning and pedagogy. I loved it. It connected with so much I had learned, experienced, questioned, and pondered since.
I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.bell hooks
Later, as I explored men’s identity hooks’s intersectional feminism organized my thinking and my research. Her approach to dismantling sexism and patriarchy for the benefit of all genders resonated with my own unlearning.
Later I connected with hooks again as I was exploring more liberatory approaches to social justice education. She advocated an approach to teaching, learning, and unlearning that she described as educational as the practice of freedom.
“All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions – and society – so that the way we live, teach, and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom.”bell hooks
Her liberatory pedagogies built on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and what she learned from Buddhist leaders who had survived generational genocide. I keep coming back to the 3 minutes following what is queued up here in the middle of this talk that a friend shared with me years ago.
hooks has shaped how I think about social justice, gender, feminism, teaching and pedagogy, and liberatory approaches. Her writing, insight, and presence often offers me not only intellectual critical analysis but also more spiritual guidance as she talks about love as a liberatory practice and a way of being.
When I heard of her passing, I shouted “no” out loud, hoping that it was a misguided internet post. As the reality set in, I was overwhelmingly grateful to have met hooks once, as surreal as the experience was. This is a story better told in person and when you don’t know it is a bell hooks story. However, a friend said I should share it as a blog post, so… here is my bell hooks story.
My bell hooks Story
In the spring of 2000, I was finishing my master’s degree in student affairs and job searching for my first full-time professional position. I was on my second consecutive on-campus interview and flew into Cleveland in the evening after interviewing all day on another campus. I was tired and not looking forward to riding with my host/hiring authority for 90 minutes from the airport to Oberlin College. My host met me and shared that we would be waiting a bit for a professor to arrive who needed a ride back to Oberlin as well. Worn out as I was, this was not good news. I assumed this would be where the real interview would happen and prepared to put my best foot forward. My host ordered and beer and lifted the New York Times between us and enjoyed reading the news of the day. After about 45 minutes, we got in an old car and started doing airport loops waiting for our passenger. Finally, she saw the professor and we picked her up. I was in the front seat passenger seat, she was in the back seat.
The two of them chatted and caught up, like I wasn’t even there. The woman in the back seat was a bit of a loose cannon revealing personal details of my host that wouldn’t be approprioate on a job interview. The professor in the back seat introduced herself as Gloria and shared she was in the midst of moving from Oberlin, OH where she had been a professor to New York City where she was now teaching and writing. She candidly shared with me her compliments and criticisms of Oberlin, OH as well as Oberlin College. She mischievously pointed out the lack of good cable TV and tried to see what reactions from me she could get with bold comments.
I asked what she wrote. She dismissively said, “nothing you would have read.” I explained that my mother was a librarian and that I’m familiar with lots of books. She again dismissed my inquiries by simply saying, I write under a pen name. I said, “What’s your pen name?” When she said “bell hooks” I nearly leaped out of my skin. At that point, I had only read one bell hooks book and didn’t like it or her approach. So, I was not enamored as I would have been had we met later in life. I was however star-struck and very intimidated, as I would have also been later.
She and my host made plans to watch a movie together later. She asked where I was staying and shared her compliments and criticisms of the particular hotel. She remarked that they did have great popcorn for free in the bar. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and call my friend Jenny whom I had taken the ethics class in undergrad with to share this story. To my surprise hooks got out of the car as well – as though we were going to exchange goodbyes. I got my suitcase out from next to hers. She got out her purse.
She explained to me that they needed popcorn for their movie. “It’s just inside the bar, just to the right as you go in. Just fill up a bag and dump it in here,” pointing to her purse. I couldn’t believe this feminist I had to read for ethics class was demanding that I steal popcorn for her. She was insistent. I set my bags aside inside the door of the small hotel and went into the bar. There was a stand-alone popcorn machine with small bags and a scooper. I filled up a bag while shaking my head in disbelief. I walked out of the bar and hooks was there with her feet pointed back toward the door and hurriedly pointing excitedly to her wide open purse. I added the popcorn. She closed up her purse and whisper/shouted, “good luck” as she quickly exited.
I stood there dumbfounded. I looked around the small lobby wondering if this was all some elaborate hoax. I was waiting for the cameras to come out. I checked in and emailed my friend Jenny the story. I’ve seen many heist movies and always wondered if I could pull it off. I never imagined my first heist would be stealing popcorn for bell hooks. I hope they enjoyed their movie.