I met the late bell hooks, the influential Black feminist scholar, only once. Some years ago, she came to Washington University as an Assembly Series Speaker, which meant she was invited to speak to the entire university and was not just a guest of a particular department or school. This indicates how well-known she was. I do not remember what campus groups invited her but I was asked to introduce her, probably because I was the prominent Black professor at that time. I was not especially eager to do this. I was not conversant with her works and I thought, as hooks was such an important feminist, that probably a woman should do this. In fact, I was concerned that there might be some resentment in some quarters in having a man introduce her. But I was pressed into service despite my misgivings. I familiarized myself with her work, read commentary about it, and worked hard on the intro. I had introduced other people for the Assembly Series—Wynton Marsalis, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou—and realized two things: first, important speakers pay close attention to how they are introduced and will tell you if they did not like it; second, the audience pays close attention to how important speakers are introduced and will also tell you if they do not like it. It is no casual job. Intros for important people have to be substantial. You have to please the speaker, please the audience, all without bringing attention to yourself because no one came to hear you.
On the day of her address, I met her for the first and only time in my life in the green room before she spoke. I did not need to bother to introduce myself as she knew who I was. ”Of course I know you, Brother Gerald,” she said. She was quite lively, vivacious, and amused by my presence and by the idea that I was to introduce her. Indeed, it pleased her greatly. “Wow, you’re going to introduce me, huh? I’m impressed.” I was even more nervous than I was before we chatted.
I did my introduction, which I thought was pretty good. I had certainly worked on it long enough. She came to the podium. I shook her hand, as is customary, and turned to leave but she stopped me. She then praised the intro, saying it was one of the best intros she had ever heard. She gushed about it. That was mortifying enough but then she said, “Isn’t he cute?” put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me (on the cheek). People later told me I blushed five ways to Sunday. I awkwardly left the stage. I was initially annoyed that she did that. I felt like a fool. But I became more and more amused by it, even flattered, as I sobered and felt less self-conscious about it. She was showing her regard for me, which actually touched me very much. It was important to her to show the audience not only how much she liked the intro but how much she liked and appreciated the person who did it. It was as if she were protecting me from the people who may have resented a man doing it. She wanted to show I had endeared myself to her. It was very decent and humane of her, even caring. I do not remember a word of my intro and I do not remember a word of what she said, but I will never forget her gesture and I will never forget her.