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Whether it's art, literature, bluegrass or blues, Black Kentuckians have had a hand in shaping it. The African American Folklorist explores that history by providing a more personal look at culture. Building upon the existing newspaper and podcast series, The African American Folklorist presents a chance to share lesser known stories of influential figures.

The African American Folklorist: bell hooks

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

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky bell hooks is considered to be amongst the top tier scholars of cultural, structural, and racism critics. As a writer, educator, and feminist, hooks penned books such as Ain't I a Woman?: Black women and feminism, Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom, and many more. Deliberate in her voice, hooks chose her maternal great-grandmother's name as her pen name, as she is quoted to say that her great-grandmother, “was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which I greatly admired.” To further the honor hooks had for her ancestry and gift, she insisted her name be written in lowercase letters to honor her great-grandmother and to express what is most important, her works, as she is quoted to say, “substance of books, not who I am."

From 2004 until her death on December 15, 2021, bell hooks was a professor in residence at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. In 2014, the bell hooks Institution was formed at the college. To raise awareness of her significant contributions, I spoke with musician, broadcaster, and folklorist Amanda Lynn Stubley.

bell hooks: I began to use the phrase in my work white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchy because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality.

Lamont Jack Pearley: That was an excerpt from the author, social activist, professor, and feminist bell hooks. The Hopkinsville, Kentucky native-born, Gloria Jean Watkins made critical contributions as a critic of an oppressive culture and system. Musician, broadcaster and folklorist Amanda Lynn Stubley says she was introduced to hooks work doing an undergraduate degree as an adult.

Amanda Lynn Stubley: in a Canadian university in London, Ontario, which is where I live at the University of Western Ontario. It was a course I was taking on feminist theory. And her readings were in a section on black feminist thought, which is an important part of post-structural feminism.

Lamont Jack Pearley: bell hooks is actually her maternal great-grandmother's name. hooks say she and many of her counterparts took the names of their female ancestors. As it relates to her voice, Stubley says, a lot of dominant feminist writing at a specific time before hers, as a scholar, had a very singular perspective.

Amanda Lynn Stubley: And so along came a number of black feminist authors who said, “Well, who's we when you say, we sit at home? And all we do is wait for a husband to come home and clean our dishes and clean our houses. And it's like, well, that's not the experience of very many people, and certainly not very many black people in the United States.” So I was just kind of like, wow, these people are being honest.

Lamont Jack Pearley: hooks perspective, also stems from her place of origin, a place some people don't know, black people, come from.

Amanda Lynn Stubley: So I love that she brought her own situatedness to her work. That's what I love. She was from black Appalachia. And she said that directly. My interest, especially at that time, was in the Appalachian study. So I was thrilled to hear somebody say that. To even to say, directly and openly there are Blacks in Appalachia, which I don't need to tell you, but some people need to hear.

Lamont Jack Pearley: bell hook's words transcend race, her actions inspired many. And even after writing many books, and teaching at Ivy League schools, she never forgot about black Kentucky.

Amanda Lynn Stubley: There are not very many people that know about the community role that she had in Berea. And her generosity of spirit in connecting with people in and around Berea and [its] college community.

Lamont Jack Pearley: bell hooks was an intellectual force that educated many through her writings. From books like “Black Looks” to “Feminist Theory from Margin to Center” hooks promoted critical thinking and observation of the treatment of others.

Amanda Lynn Stubley: And I think when we're remembering her legacy, we really have to tell that you know, the dominant culture really wants to paint her as the angry black woman. It fits the narrative so easy to grab a couple of quotes because she so bravely and directly talked about the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Like what's not true about that. On the other hand, she also said very generously as to my understanding in Kentucky, Let's talk!

Lamont Jack Pearley is an applied folklorist, ethnographer and African American traditional music historian and practitioner enrolled at WKU in the African American and Folk Studies programs. He is an African American Studies Ambassador with the African American Studies Department, hosts a weekly segment on WKU Public Radio called the African American Folklorist, and is the editor of the African American Folklorist Newspaper. He was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as Great Blues Historian and TV/Radio Producer (2017) and Great Blues Artist (2018).
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