Literary Postmortem: Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks

bell hooks hit me with some knowledge and schooled me on black feminism – what it is, the conditions that led to its existence, outlined its challenges/objectives and so much more.

This very short read is filled with pearls of wisdom and earth shattering truths that need to be shared. In keeping with the fashion of alternative book reviews, I’m going to share some of my favourite quotes and lessons learned from the book. Initially I wanted to write an essay but there’s no insight I could give that she didn’t articulate perfectly.

But for a bit of background, Hooks traces the roots of the woman’s rights struggle all the way from American slavery to the present day America (which was the 80s). Her research unearths harrowing facts about the black female experience. I would put the whole book on here if I could because it is that necessary. For example:

“Racist, sexist socialization had conditioned us to devalue our femaleness and to regard race as the only relevant label of identification… We were afraid to acknowledge that sexism could be just as oppressive as racism. We clung to the hope that liberation from racial oppression would be all that was necessary for us to be free” (page 5).

That is the precursor to a passage on how black men were given the vote before black women and white woman in the late 1800s, a show of the utter disdain for all woman – racism was put aside for sexism to soar.

Chapter 1: Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience

  • On the slave experience aboard slave ships: “After branding all slaves were stripped of any clothing. The nakedness of the African female served as a constant reminder of her sexual vulnerability. Rape was a common method of torture slavers used to subdue recalcitrant black women” (page 18).
  • Things didn’t get better on plantations: “Those black women who resisted sexual exploitation directly challenged the system; their refusal to submit passively to rape was a denouncement of the slave-owner’s right to their persons. They were brutally punished. The political aim of this categorical rape of black women by white males was to obtain absolute allegiance and obedience to the white imperialist order” (page 27).
  • “White male religious teachers taught that woman was an inherently sinful creature of the flesh whose wickedness could only be purged by the intercession of a more powerful being. Appointing themselves as the personal agents of God, they became the judges and overseers of woman’s virtue” (page 29). Damn, just damn.
  • Sadly: “Most black male slaves stood quietly by as white masters sexually assaulted and brutalised black women and were not compelled to act as protectors. Their first instincts were toward self-preservation” (page 35).

I’ve had fights with my brother about this one. I suppose women were all alone when they were sold to go on those ships and no one stopped it. He argues they weren’t in a position to fight back, they weren’t – but fucking try, If enough men had I like to believe things may have turned out differently.

  • True story: “While racism was clearly the evil that had decreed black people would be enslaved, it was sexism that determined that the lot of the black female would be harsher, more brutal than that of the black male slave” (page 43).

Chapter 2: Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood

  • Systematic devaluation of black womanhood was not simply a direct consequence of race hatred, it was a calculated method of social control” (page 59-60).

This is a referral to the structural support garnered by the myths that had been circulated around black women’s sexuality. This myth being that black women were loose, had insatiable sexual appetites and were masters of seduction. Which is why raping them was not seen as a violent offense, society had come to believe that black woman basically asked for it. Along with this black men were said to be violent rapists who wanted to harm white women, another myth to keep the races separate through fear.

  • “White Americans have legally relinquished the apartheid structure that once characterised race relations but they have not given up white rule. Given that power in capitalist patriarchal America is in the hands of white men, the present obvious threat to white solidarity is inter-marriage between white men and non-white women, and in particular black women” (page 64).

This is something I don’t think I can agree with. Given that “the power” is in the hands of white men, they don’t need the solidarity of their white women to keep it – they need them to make that grip tighter possibly. I don’t think that inter-marriage is a threat at all, in fact it’s an advantage, that shows just how all-encompassing that power is.

  • The term matriarch implies the existence or a social order in which women exercise social and political power, a state which in no way resembles the condition of black women or all women in American society. The decisions that determine the way in which black women must live their lives are made by others, usually white men” (page 72).

Chapter 3: The Imperialism of Patriarchy

  • “… Emphasis on the impact of racism on black men has evoked an image of the black male as effete, emasculated, crippled. And so intensely does this image dominate American thinking that people are absolutely unwilling to admit that the damaging effects of racism on black men neither prevents them from being sexist oppressors nor excuses or justifies their sexist oppression of black women” (page 88).
  • “At a very young ages, black male children learn that they have a privileged status in the world based on their having being born male; they learn that this status is superior to that of a woman. A consequence of their early sexist socialisation, they mature accepting the same sexist sentiments…” (page 102).

I have seen this among my own friends – they expect women to be and act a certain way – standards they definitely hold for themselves. Or the women they have “fun” with, only the ones “worthy” of taking their names one day. Le sigh.

  • “While insecure feelings about their selfhood may motivate black men to commit violent acts, in a culture that condones violence in men as a positive expression of masculinity, the ability to use force against another person – i.e., oppress them – may be less an expression of self-hatred than a rewarding, fulfilling act” (page 104). Wowzer.
  • “Since the black woman has been stereotyped by both white and black men as the “bad” woman, she has not been able to ally herself with men from either group to get protection from the other” (page 108).

Steve Biko once said of black people that we are on our own, black women especially so, I feel.

  • “While I believe it is perfectly normal for people of different races to be sexually attracted to one another, I do not think that black men who confess to loving white women and hating black women or vice versa are simply expressing personal preferences free of culturally socialized biases” (page 112). Word to big bird.

Chapter 4: Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability

  • “To black women the issue is not whether white women are more or less racist than white men, but that they are racist” (page 124).
  •  “Animosity between black and white women’s liberationists was not due to disagreement over racism within the women’s movement; it was the end result of years of jealousy, envy, competition and anger between the two groups” (page 153).

A conflict that Hooks says was driven by white males to make sure the two would not be able to find solidarity at any point. She adds that the only way to try and achieve any kind of “sisterhood” begins with actively rejecting and all stereotypes about one another.

Chapter 5: Black Women and Feminism

  • On the Civil Rights Movement: “Those black women who believed in social equality of the sexes learned to suppress their opinions for fear attention might be shifted from racial issues” (page 176).
  • “The fear of being alone, or of being unloved, had cause women of all races to passively accept sexism and sexist oppression” (page 184).
  • “We, black women who advocate feminist ideology, are pioneers. We are clearing a path for ourselves and our sisters. We hope that as they see us reach our goal – no longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid – they will take courage and follow” (page 196).

Was uncomfortable to read the criticisms of Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka, had one eye closed and everything, but ya. It’s astounding that a book written in 1982 could resonate so well with me in 2014 – that we still face many of the same challenges.

Therefore we must take courage as she said. Aluta Continua.

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