Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) by Bell Hooks is another book from my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List. Bell Hooks is a black woman, a feminist and social activist. While going through school, she found that her women studies courses and the books she read did not reflect her own experiences as a Black woman. When she tried to bring in her own experiences, her voice was often ignored or disregarded. Because there were no books discussing feminism and Black women, Hooks wrote her own. I found this book to be both interesting and enlightening. Because it was written so long ago, I sometimes wished it included Hooks’ current perspective. I also found her last chapter somewhat repetitive, but it was very much worth reading.
The book is split into five sections: sexism and the black female slave experience; continued devaluation of Black womanhood; the imperialism of patriarchy; racism and feminism; and Black women and feminism. Hooks discusses how Black women have been treated since slavery, and how this treatment still affects how Black women are viewed and treated today. Negative stereotypes that arose from roles within slavery are still prevalent today. In struggles for civil rights and women’s right to vote, Black women were simply not included.
I find this a difficult review to write because I simply do not know much about Black women and feminism. I had definitely heard that white women’s feminism has been wrapped up in itself and left women of color out. I heard this specifically in relation to critiques of The Feminine Mystique, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Unfortunately, I know this is still a problem. Much of what I read in this book was pretty eye opening.
Hooks begins her book with how slavery affected women. Not surprisingly, it was a pretty shitty deal. Women either had to do “men’s” work in the field, or deal with impossible expectations in the house. Rape was prevalent and accepted. Slave women had no defenses to sexual assault, and they also had to deal with the anger of the mistress, who would blame them for “tempting” their husbands. In addition, slave women were under enormous pressure to produce children. Hooks uses a lot of primary sources to paint a picture that is particularly horrific. Essentially, slavery was as bad for women as for men–except women also dealt with the constant threat of rape.
Hooks goes on to discuss negative stereotypes of Black women that developed after slavery. There is Jezebel, the highly sexualized, temptress, and the Matriarch, the strong woman of the house. The matriarch doesn’t immediately sound negative, but any Black woman who has an opinion can be seen as a dominating shrew who wants to emasculate her man.
The parts of the book that were most memorable for me were when Hooks shows how Black women were simply left out of both the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement. This can be seen most clearly in books and essays. These sources would discuss or call for Black suffrage, but what they meant was Black men’s suffrage. On the other side, when women called for the right to vote, they were specifically talking about white women, although all they needed to say was women’s suffrage.
During the Civil Rights movement, Black women were encouraged to not muddy the waters of the fight for equality by bringing up women’s issues, In addition, they were encouraged to stay at home, out of the limelight, while the men did the work for equality. But what Black men were fighting for, was the same patriarchy that they’d adopted from white men.
And then the women’s movement was straight up racist. In order to gain support from the southern states, they wanted Black women in separate chapters, and often did not let Black women speak at events.
This book really did enlighten me regarding the very different experiences and expectations Black women have faced in the last four hundred years in the United States. Hooks includes a lot of detail and nuanced arguments that I cannot fairly sum up here, but this book has taught me some things and widened my perspective.
Finally, I am also now very interested in Sojourner Truth. The book’s title comes from a speech by her, and she sounds like an impressive and fascinating woman. I’d like to read a biography about her.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.