‘I Am a Writer Because of bell hooks’
When the revolutionary intellectual found her voice, she helped a generation of Black Kentucky women writers find theirs too.
listen little sister
angels make their hope here
in these hills
I will guide you
(From Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place, by bell hooks)
For all the things that bell hooks was—one of the foremost Black intellectuals in the world, renowned feminist, author of more than 40 books, revolutionary cultural critic—and all the places she lived, she was still Gloria Jean Watkins from Hopkinsville, daughter of Rosa Bell and Veotis. There is no doubt that her entire body of work was shaped by her homeplace and that when she found her voice, she helped a generation of Black Kentucky women writers find ours too.
Though bell often wrote of her “wounded childhood,” she was also influenced by her ancestors, like her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks (from whom she devised her pen name) and others who taught her to, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, “draw up power from the deep.” bell grew up in the Western part of the state, near the Tennessee border. In Belonging: A Culture of Place, she explains that her spirit of resistance was nurtured by rural Black agrarians who valued self-reliance and self-determination above all else. “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully,” she later wrote in Sisters of the Yam. bell often spoke of the loss she felt when her family left the hills to move into town. She called this longing her “first deep grief.” The significance of our Kentucky roots—the wounds, the salve—was among the things bell and I talked about after we became friends.
Though I settled primarily on fiction, my work, too, looks back and remembers. My people, real and imagined, gather strength from the Bluegrass. I grew up in the foothills of south-central Kentucky, where nature was abundant, where I was free to roam the creeks and knobs. Like bell’s people, my grandparents grew gardens and tobacco and tended animals. They relied on white folks for little. I, too, have written about nature’s capacity to heal, especially for Black women, and know that bell was homesick for that balm.
When I met bell, in 1993, she was already an acclaimed writer and theorist. She had lived away from Kentucky for decades. I was a part of a mighty enclave of Black women that included Nikky Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis, Donna Johnson, Joan Brannon, and Daundra Scisney. Some of us were native Kentuckians; others had moved to Kentucky for jobs or to study. Among us were a grocery-store clerk, a government worker, a jewelry maker, a student, a filmmaker, and a new professor trying to define ourselves. We knew that more than anything, we wanted to tell our stories.
Since bell’s passing, the six of us who were there at the beginning all agree that something was already pulsing inside us that caught speed and shifted when she returned home to speak at a writers’ conference that year. We’d gathered at the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center on Georgetown Street in Lexington to listen. My then-6-year-old twins sat cross-legged on the floor. It was October, but it was hot. The small room was brimming with excitement. The audience, at bell’s insistence, was an eclectic mixture of women from every corner of the community, not just traditional academics.
I was a single mother of three, fresh out of a toxic relationship, unhappy with my public-relations job. bell had a way of turning the concepts and ideology of feminism into brilliant common sense. For the first time, in that crowded room, I connected feminism with my lived experience. bell was a rousing call for radical self-love. She was charismatic. She had the lilt and cadence of a preacher. She made us laugh. She had finessed her accent, but still I heard bits of Kentucky in her voice that reminded me of all the women I loved from back down-home.
None of us can remember how it happened, but Kelly, Daundra, and I ended the night in bell’s hotel room. The conversation made great leaps from the inner well-being of Black women to liberation to straight-up gossip. We were giddy, changed. We had held communion with bell hooks. She had treated us like we were her girls. The next night, she gave a huge lecture on the University of Kentucky campus surrounded by throngs of people, but we’d already been privately anointed. After she returned to New York, those of us who had attended the conference began to hold sister circles. We confronted our fears, were tender with one another, became deeper critical thinkers.
Over the years the circle waned, but we all kept writing. Some of us published books or made films. Some of us became professors, but I think we are all teachers, passing on what we learned from bell.
By the time I took a position as writer in residence at Berea College, where bell also taught, she and I had become friends. I accepted the job, in part, because bell was there. She invited me to her house. We broke bread. We talked about love. We talked about Black liberation and family. We reminisced about our Kentucky girlhoods. We were friends, but I never stopped learning from her. She got irritated when I called her teacher or mentor. “Friend,” she corrected me once, when we were onstage in public conversation. I never reminded her of October 1993, but she will forever be my teacher.
I am a writer because of bell hooks. I am a feminist because of bell hooks.
bell showed us that all things were possible for rebellious, bookish Black girls. She reminded us that no matter the prevailing stereotypes of Kentuckians (white, illiterate, poor), no matter the unfinished business of eliminating, as she put it, the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” Kentucky was also a culture of belonging. It was a landscape of thought, memory, imagination, renewal, and connection. She taught us that you can be a Black visionary intellectual from Kentucky and forge a voice of defiance amid—and in order to heal from—segregation, racial hatred, voicelessness, and separation from nature.
Since bell’s passing, the five women and I who experienced that night have talked by phone and text. Kelly, a poet and professor, texted me: “She taught me I could be a feminist, a teacher, an activist and a woman on my own terms.” When I spoke with Joan, who is a healing drummer, filmmaker, and activist, her voice cracked. “Time gathered with Black women is sacred.” Though I hadn’t spoken with Donna, a writer and consummate bibliophile, in years, we talked for almost four hours. From bell, she learned “to value our sense of place as Kentucky Black women.” Daundra was at work when I videochatted with her. Having lost her 25-year-old daughter this year, she is sick of death. “I’m not supposed to be on the phone,” she said. Then she laughed: “Let them fire me after 30 years.” She was an undergraduate when we first met and is the youngest among us. “bell taught me that I can be myself,” she said. “Talk back, no apologies for who I am.” When I called Nikky, she was washing dishes. “Girl, this is the best time,” she said. We paused and sighed in disbelief. A shared quiet reached from South Carolina, where she teaches now, back here to me in Kentucky. “I needed bell hooks,” she later said in a text, “in order to fully rise into all the women I hoped to one day be. She was a raging, loving river of permission.”
In her preface to Belonging, bell said, “Memories offer us a world where there is no death, where we are sustained by rituals of regard and recollection.” We Kentucky women of the Sister Circle of 1993 thank you, bell, for encouraging us, for helping us become writers, for loving us steady and strong. We’ve cried. We remember.