Remembering bell hooks: She signed my books but wouldn't let me take her coat

Earlier this month, we lost the physical presence of a great intellectual, bell hooks. 
bell hooks - Photo courtesy of Berea College

I had two memorable encounters with this amazing woman. The first happened while working at UMass Boston. The second was at Goucher College. Prior to teaching, I worked in public relations at several organizations. These positions afforded me opportunities to meet and listen to some phenomenal thinkers, scholars and entertainers.

At UMass Boston in 1998, hooks had visited the university to discuss Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. I covered the event for the University Reporter, the campus newspaper.  The article was titled "bell hooks Addresses Packed Faculty Club." In the piece, I mentioned that the venue was so packed, guests had to sit on the floor. Clearly someone had underestimated the popularity and reach of bell hooks.

University Reporter - Vol. 02, No. 08 - April 1998

I can't honestly say that I remember much about the event. But I recall being impressed with so much about bell hooks. 

With her strong cheekbones, creamy complexion and glasses, hooks reminded me a lot of my own mother. They looked like they could be related. 

I remember being surprised by her voice. I had expected a Black feminist to be loud and intimidating. She was neither. In fact, she was rather soft-spoken and came across as caring and genuine.

bell hooks chose the spell her name in all lowercase letters. This resonated with me. A recently married writer with dreams of more significant publications, I had initially intended to keep my maiden name. I had a byline, after all! But my husband was super uncomfortable with my not taking his name.  Even my own family would address mail to me using my husband's last name. So, I compromised. I chose to hyphenate. Controlling my own name the way bell hooks controlled hers -- down to the unconventional use of lowercase letters -- felt far-fetched to me at the time. 

bell hooks was a prolific writer. I honestly don't think I knew what the word prolific meant prior to researching hooks. But I absolutely loved everything about the word. I, too, wanted to be called a "prolific writer."

Fast forward to 2003. I was working in the public relations office at Goucher College. My second encounter with bell hooks happened while assisting with publicity for a symposium commemorating James Baldwin. 

The details of this event are a bit hazy now, too. However, I remember that part of my job was to greet speakers, coordinate greenroom amenities and make people feel welcome at the college. It was in this capacity that bell hooks politely refused to let me hang up her coat. She opted to keep it with her.

"We New Yorkers have a thing about our coats," she said.

I remember thinking that this was some strange superstition that I, a non-New Yorker who grew up in Chester, Pa., simply didn't understand. But it stuck with me. Over the years, I've wondered if bell hooks' not wanting to hand over her coat was, in fact, a metaphor for the guarded mistrust that Black women have been forced to employ to survive in America. Why put your covering in the hands of another, when you can maintain control yourself?

I was blessed to have bell hooks sign two books during the symposium at Goucher. She signed one of her children's books, Homemade Love, for my then one-year-old daughter. She also signed a copy of Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life. I recall her chuckling when she saw it, saying "Wow! You went way back with this one!"  

Unfortunately, I have no idea where my signed copy of Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life might be. I hope that whoever has it will appreciate its specialness.

I found out first about bell hooks' death from my daughter, now a sophomore in college, who forwarded a post from social media. I searched for the copy of Homemade Love and sent her the image of hooks' note on the title page. I followed it with a note of my own: "You are special!" 

As my daughters approach womanhood, I pray that they will be open to reading bell hooks' writing and watching her lectures. I see that they've already embraced aspects of feminism that I was not ready for at their ages. 

bell hooks made us think. She modeled self-growth and taught us how to articulate many of our struggles as women and as Black Americans. I am thankful for her voice and that it will live on for generations through her prolific writing.

You can watch bell hooks' keynote address at the James Baldwin Symposium at Goucher College in 2003 on C-Span.

* University of Massachusetts Boston, "University Reporter - Vol. 02, No. 08 - April 1998" (1998). 1996-2009, University Reporter. Paper 65. http://scholarworks.umb.edu/university_reporter/65

Comments

  1. She was a stalwart for African American women in particular, and a role model for all.

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