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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 54 When I tell a friend I’m going to interview bell hooks, she says, “lower case, right?” By taking a pen name that honors her ma- ternal great-grandmother—and writing it in lower case—hooks hoped to decrease ego-investment and create some distance be- tween herself and her work. Twenty-five books or so later, “bell hooks” has become a brand and an icon. But when I try to find the buzzer for her apartment in Greenwich Village, there is no bell hooks. In spite of all I have read by her and about her, in that small moment I find myself wondering who “bell hooks” really is. Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, she grew up in the south- west corner of Kentucky, in the small city of Hopkinsville, in tobacco country about an hour and half drive north of Nash- ville, Tennessee. And when I make my way up to her apartment, that’s the first thing she wants to talk about: her return to the rural South, to home. She spent more than thirty years mostly in cities and big universities: she earned her B.A. at Stanford, her master’s at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s been on the faculties of Yale, Oberlin, and City College. But in the fall of 2004, hooks returned to Kentucky to take a position as Distin- guished Professor in Residence at Berea College. Located in a small town just south of Louisville, Berea was founded in 1855 as the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Its aim, the college says, is to promote “understanding and kin- ship among all people, service to communities in Appalachia and beyond, and sustainable living practices which set an ex- ample of new ways to conserve our limited natural resources.” It’s also smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. hooks refers to her modest Greenwich Village place, which she purchased when she taught at City College and returns to from time to time, as a pied a terre. But she makes very clear that her feet are now deeply planted in the terra firma of Ken- tucky. “It has been really sublime for me to return home,” she says, “to that Kentucky landscape, to a world of nature that I grew up in, where I was able to roam, and where I felt formed and very free.” hooks says she has also returned to the place that she escaped from, a difficult place of “dysfunction, madness, and trauma,” and a place where Buddhism is thought of as de- monic by many, and where people ask fewer questions because the big questions have already been answered. bell hooks 101 begins there, in Kentucky, where she strug- gled to find herself in the impoverished home she shared with