hanging out with bell hooks in kentucky

Ten years or so ago, I heard bell hooks speak at Berea College as a visiting scholar. Her lecture, about why You’ve Got Mail was a deeply cynical movie, struck a cord. Although I wasn’t the pert blond owner of an independent bookstore (played by Meg Ryan in this version), I had run an independent press and was printing my own artist’s books. I wasn’t about to be seduced into giving up my press (or bookstore) by the likes of Tom Hanks, but I was spending time wondering about what I was going to do in my 50s, especially since I found myself leaving Los Angeles as much as I could and spending time in Kentucky, where I grew up and where bell grew up.

In the 1970s I’d moved to Los Angeles for the first year of the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building and stayed to work at the Women’s Graphic Center there and at other art venues but was now feeling a pull back home, something I’d never expected. I’d found a place to live and work, wanting my own artist’s retreat surrounded by the sound of crickets rather than police helicopters and the incessant roar of the freeway. At the time of bell’s lecture I’d read that she had wanted to come home, too, but felt Kentucky was still too racist. I ended up writing her a letter, telling her some of my experiences returning and my strong feeling that Kentucky needs some of its exiles to come back home.

We both left Kentucky to seek our fortunes and now were back. Part time at least.

It took several more years for us to become friends. We were both still tied to the places we’d left, and to teaching and lecturing out of state. In the last few years we’ve both had parents pass, discussed how to build a supportive community in a place we both love, expressed despair at the lack of good conversation about art and writing, driven to Lexington for Vietnamese food and wondered aloud what our futures hold during this last major productive part of our creative lives, the 50­-to-80-year-old part. What we do know is that it isn’t at all like the earlier decades of life, the striving of the 30s and 40s. We’ve done that, now we both want something else.

Last weekend I took bell to meet a friend, Suzanne, who is a freelance photographer. Suzanne and I have been photographing together during this long hot Kentucky summer and I thought bell and Suzanne would appreciate one another. Suzanne has seen newspaper jobs evaporate as news goes online and she comes to this question of “what IS next?” from a different perspective. We spent a pleasant afternoon sitting in a small town coffee shop, talking about some of the amazing times we’ve lived through, how we want to feel the energy of the 1970s but re-incarnated in new projects or paths we each might choose. Of course we don’t have anything neatly figured out and that is as it should be, but this conversation is definitely to be continued. …

Photo of bell hooks and Suzanne at a small town cafe in Kentucky by Susan E. King.


  1. Is bell hooks missing? No, she will be right here in Oxford, Mississippi on September 13, 2010

    The Ms blog’s “bell hooks week” synchronizes with the Sarah Isom Center’s 16th annual Lucy Somerville Howorth Lecture in Women’s Studies at The University of Mississippi in Oxford. Our university community is excited that bell hooks will give the lecture, titled “Talking Race and Gender: Ending Domination,” at the Ford Center for Performing Arts at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, September 13!

    As a middle-aged feminist and the Isom Center director, I empathize with and appreciate Gina Ulysse’s remarks. Yet I am discouraged by the funereal implication that bell hooks is "missing." Though Gina intends to mean hooks’ public presence, her nostalgic perspective brings up negative memories for me of Time magazine’s notorious cover story published in June 29, 1998, “Is Feminism Dead?” Predictably and thankfully, this issue set off much commentary about “post-feminism” and the viability of feminism. I am l heartened by Yuri Sagawa’s immediate reply, urging activists to “be more belle-esque” themselves
    I am more encouraged by a guest blogger’s challenge of the whole notion that bell hooks is “missing.,” citing her new book released this yea r as evidence that she “hasn't completely disappeared…” I agree with this blogger—that bell hooks’ public presence is embodied in her written words—which are never missing—at least, not to those of us who have access to public libraries, if not bookstores and the internet.
    I would add that hooks certainly is present for those who make up the Berea College community where she has been the distinguished scholar in residence since 2004. Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea offers to hooks the possibility of becoming “the beloved community,” as she expresses in Belonging: A Culture of Place (2008), her beautiful book about her return home to Kentucky.

    bell hooks is certainly present for the University of Mississippi where the number and variety of co-sponsors of her visit here attests to her currency and aliveness.

    She will literally be live on the Ford Center stage on September 13!

  2. Susan, you hang out with bell hooks in Kentucky and I know you hung out with Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico–you have truly walked side by side with the great women of our times!

  3. Pauline Klein says:

    I have admired bell hooks for years, but I have to say that I have hung out with my friend Suzanne for about 35 years now, and our conversations and fun have been a highlight of my life. What a great feminist and thinker she is.

  4. I just thgouht that I would let u guys know that I had a Great time at the concert, all bands did a great job, and I will for sure be back next time.

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