‘If Black and White feminists are going to speak of female accountability, I believe the word racism must be seized, grasped in our bare hands, ripped out of sterile or defensive consciousness in which it so often grows, and transplanted so that it can yield new insights for our lives and our movement’.
I think it’s so important to put the work in and educate ourselves about all of the ways sexism and misogyny can affect women of different races, ethnicities, classes, religions, sexualities and abilities. One of the best ways of doing this is to read, read, read the words of women whose feminism intersects with other social stratifications that can often marginalise and silence them even more. It’s our job to seek them out, read them, understand them and analyse how our own actions may feed into this system of oppression. Bell Hook’s classic, Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism, in homage to Sojourner Truth’s speech in 1827 – an early black feminist campaigner who was all but erased from the white feminist movements of the sixties and seventies, is one of the first in-depth studies on the effect of racism and sexism on black women in America.
As Hooks herself decries in 1981, Joyce Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow was the only serious book-length study of the black female experience to be found on a bookstore shelf in the women’s section: ‘All too often in our society, it is assumed that one can know all there is to know about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person’. And, what’s more, there were only a handful of black women writers willing to place their writings in a feminist framework (for example, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Barbara Smith). The amount of black women writing about race and feminism has increased since Ain’t I A Woman was published over thirty years ago, but the issues Hooks explores in her study on black women and feminism are still just as relevant today.
Beginning with slavery in America, Bell Hooks works her way through the history of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties and the racism that has been inherent in the feminist movement from the fight for suffrage in the nineteenth century to the women’s liberation movement of the sixties and seventies. Pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in both the black and the feminist communities, Hooks wasn’t always well-received by her fellow peers. Drawing on her own experiences – and those of other black women – of oppression within a patriarchal society, hooks criticises the assumption that white experience is universal, that the white female experience is synonymous with all women’s experience, and that black men and women both experience the same levels of oppression. Not only are black women discriminated against because of their race, like black men but unlike white women, they are also discriminated against because of their sex, like white women but unlike black men.
In fact, Hooks argues that it is precisely because of the racist patriarchal structure, which upholds men’s rights above all others, that black women bear the brunt of sexism from both white and black men. As Hooks highlights, many scholars of slavery have given the American public a perspective that the most dehumanising impact of slavery was that black men were stripped of their masculinity: ‘Implicit in this assertion is the assumption that the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman’. White feminism also plays into this patriarchal structure, in particular using the race card and siding with white men for their own personal gains (for example, when fighting for suffrage on the same terms as white men, white feminists were outraged when black men’s right to vote was considered before their own).
In clear, concise prose, Hooks examines these factors, highlighting the serious pitfalls in the thinking of all men – white and black – and white women. A staple in most gender studies courses, Ain’t I A Woman, is a very eye-opening and illuminating read. Although the female liberation movement did a lot in explaining women’s place within society and raising the consciousness of women, it didn’t explain much about the role of black females in American society. The focus on white feminist issues as universal experiences silenced any other marginalised groups from positioning themselves within the movement. Ain’t I A Woman by Bell Hooks attempts to address this problem by offering ‘new and alternative radical ways of thinking about gender and women’s place’.
‘I choose to re-appropriate the term “feminism”, to focus on the fact that to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression’.