This week, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts welcomes author, feminist, and activist bell hooks for a weeklong residency that includes seminars and public events. Lang, an institution that has questioned the status quo for decades, is a fitting host for hooks, who has advocated for socially engaged education and a radically reimagined society since the 1970s.
A piece that hooks recently published on the website FeministWire—a critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminist book Lean In—was embraced by online readers, demonstrating her enduring influence and relevance. In hooks’ compelling essay, she takes Sandberg to task for her limited conceptions of feminism, success, and equality and exposes Sandberg’s blind spot around her own immense privilege and wealth. “Unfortunately her voice is powerful,” hooks writes, “yet Sandberg is for the most part not voicing any new ideas.” The piece has been a viral hit, with more than 12,000 Facebook shares and hundreds of tweets.
The enthusiastic public response to hooks’ writing is no surprise. Over the past four decades, hooks’ unique insights into American society have earned her international recognition as a scholar, poet, speaker, and author. Her residency, which runs from November 4 to November 8, includes a talk with Eve Ensler on Tuesday, November 5, one with Tulane professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on Friday, November 8, and one between hooks and Lang dean Stephanie Browner.
Writing on feminism, spirituality, race, and class, hooks has published critically acclaimed, widely read, and influential books and articles. She has appeared in documentary films, has been celebrated as one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals (The Atlantic Monthly), and was chosen as one of “100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life” (Utne Reader). A charismatic speaker, hooks divides her time between teaching, writing, and lecturing around the world.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks published her first book, And There We Wept, in 1978. She released it under the name bell hooks to honor her maternal grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, whom she has described as being “known for her snappy and bold tongue.” The use of lowercase letters is intended to de-emphasize the author as individual and instead focus the reader’s attention on the topic hooks is addressing in her writing.
One prominent theme in hooks’ work is education. She has called for an approach to learning that nurtures “radical critical consciousness.” “To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn,” she writes in Teaching to Transgress (1994). “The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility.”
“The way she thinks about education is aligned with how we think about it here,” says Lang dean Stephanie Browner. “The phrase she uses is ‘decolonizing our minds.’ That’s what a liberal education is all about: how you truly and deeply take seriously critiques people make about a world that needs more justice and more fairness, but then also live out that vision.”
“There is no intellectual in the U.S. who would not be honored to be in residence at The New School,” hooks says. “Its past history, the present zeal, and the work of its students and committed professors offer the hope of creating progressive theory and practice that works. And I am glad to be a small light on the path of stimulating critical thinking and action that helps create a diverse culture of liberation. I look forward to returning. Until then, work for change, remember to love and serve.”
“What’s great about bell is that she takes everyone seriously,” Browner continues. “She will take every student seriously; that’s part of how she’s decolonized her own mind. She doesn’t prejudge someone on the basis of age or race or position in the world.”