The Alumni Association at UC Santa Cruz is proud to present this year’s honorees of the UCSC Alumni Awards. These awards recognize and honor alumni who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements, made distinct contributions to society, provided impactful contributions to UCSC, and who have embodied the values and spirit of the university.  

For her remarkable legacy and lifelong contributions in the fields of literature and feminist studies, bell hooks posthumously received the Alumni Achievement Award on Oct. 27, 2023. Her family accepted the award on her behalf.

bell hooks fit many achievements into her 69 years of life. 

The author—born Gloria Jean Watkins but best known by her pen name, dating back to the 1970s—published dozens of novels and books of poetry, including renowned classics “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1981) and “All About Love” (2000). She shared her texts with her ever-rising number of fans, speaking at post-secondary institutions around the world and teaching at Yale, UC Santa Cruz, Oberlin, and the City College of New York before taking a tenured position at Berea College in her childhood state of Kentucky in 2014. 

In December 2021, the author passed away in Berea, which led to an outpouring of tributes from colleagues, friends and dignitaries, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

Prior to her successes and global recognition, hooks completed her doctorate in literature at UC Santa Cruz in 1983—and, on October 27, 40 years later, her family received an Alumni Achievement Award in her place.

“bell hooks was a luminary whose profound contributions to the fields of race, feminism, and class transformed our understanding of intersectionality and systemic oppression,” said UCSC Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder. “Her incisive writings and impassioned advocacy resonated far and wide, challenging us to confront and dismantle the structures of inequality that persist in our society. Her work continues to inspire and guide generations of scholars and activists. We are honored to posthumously recognize her with the UCSC Alumni Achievement Award, as her legacy will forever shape the discourse in the humanities and beyond.”

Gwenda Motley attended the ceremony to receive her late sister’s award, and shared a humorous anecdote regarding the university’s acknowledgement. 

“She received tons of awards that a lot of times she didn’t even go to accept,” she said through laughter, a month prior to the event. “She was not the person who enjoyed ceremonies…there are awards that we didn’t even know she received.”

In 2021, the UCSC Humanities Division selected bell hooks to receive the Graduate Student Alumni Award. Professor Emerita and friend of hook’s, Bettina Aptheker, accepted the award in her honor. 

Gloria before bell

hooks was born to a working-class African-American family in 1952, one of six children living in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Her father Veodis Watkins worked as a janitor, whereas her mother Rosa Bell Watkins was a maid for white families.

While hooks had an early love of reading and writing that helped her reach her potential as a renowned author, her sister clarifies that she and the rest of the Watkins family grew up with Gloria. Motley was three years younger than Gloria, and she saw her older sister frequently fit into her role as the family’s bookworm, only later learning how Gloria’s love of literature would transpire into a lifelong career.

“I did not realize that she would become who she was, but she did always tell us that she was going to be famous,” Motley said.

In the Watkins home, Gloria slept closest to the steps of the girls’ shared bedroom with sisters Valerie, Sarah and Angela, which allowed Gloria to keep a light on later in the night for reading and writing. The siblings’ weekly visits to the library gave the other girls the chance to pick up one book apiece, like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, but gave Gloria the chance to check out up to 10 books of Shakespeare, Dickinson and the like.

“Even as a young child, I can remember that she was very advanced,” Motley said.

Years later, in high school, Gloria won a contest called “I Speak for Democracy,” where she wrote a piece that she then shared on the local radio station. It was the first time a Black person had won the contest, but Gwenda remembered Gloria was upset after receiving her prize.

“The radio announcer told her, ‘well, if they had seen you, you probably would not have won,’” Motley said. “That really put a damper on her winning, and she thought, why not? Her piece was the best of the best—she was always shaking off the rest.”

Becoming bell

Even with the hardships of growing up in integration, Gloria was always keenly aware of what she could do and what she wanted to do. As Motley said, it was clear from childhood that her sister was “an intellectual genius,” and that fact was made even clearer when she left Kentucky for California.

Gloria enrolled at Stanford University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in English in 1973, before returning to the Midwest to receive her Master’s in English from the University of Madison-Wisconsin in 1976. It was during this time that she began writing her first book, “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,” which was then published as bell hooks in 1981.

Motley visited Gloria in every place she lived, seeing her older sister come into her own as an author through each experience. She recalls visiting Gloria at Yale University during one of her reading events, where there were “over 2,000 people” in attendance. Two young women behind Motley whispered incessantly, ultimately tapping her on the shoulder and asking if she was bell’s sister.

“I said no, and they looked at me so strangely,” she recalled. “Finally, I said, ‘oh, you mean Gloria?’ And that was my introduction to her being called bell…that was truly my awakening to, wow, she is bell hooks.”

The author chose her pen name based on her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, who Gloria was compared to from an early age; she put the name in lowercase letters both as a tribute and to focus on her work over herself. From the Yale reading onward, Motley knew her sister as the pen name the world called her by, but the family continued to call her Gloria. 

Her sister’s vision

Over the next few decades, the Watkins family saw bell’s influence continue to rise, but the relationship between sisters always remained strong.

“She never put on with us, she never expected us to worship her—sometimes, she even annoyed us,” Motley said, laughing. 

Even still, it seemed as though bell was never able to “turn off” her intellect, let alone her ability to retain information about other people. Those traits helped her to become such a worldwide force.

“She was able to connect and relate to anyone no matter who you were,” Motley said. “I think that’s what made her so phenomenal and internationally famous.”