Bell hooks | Critical Essay by Barbara Smith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
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Critical Essay by Barbara Smith

SOURCE: "Black Feminism Divorced from Black Feminist Organizing," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 38-45.

Smith is an American editor. In the following essay, she criticizes hooks's antagonism toward black men and white women as well as her apparent homophobia in Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

In 1973, when I began to identify as a black feminist and to do black feminist organizing, there was barely a word in print that spoke about black women from a feminist perspective or which even admitted that sexism was a daily factor in our lives. In women's movement literature there was a stray sentence here or there. And in writings by black women and men black women were occasionally discussed without, miraculously, ever breathing a word about male privilege or women's lack of it. The best source for those of us who were dying to read something about ourselves that made sense was black women's creative writing. Hurston, Lorde, Petry, and Walker at least told the truth, perhaps theory would have to wait until we got our movement off the ground.

In 1982 there are more things to read that supposedly address the sexual politics of black women's lives, but too often the writing seems peculiarly untouched by a Third World feminist movement that is now at least ten years strong. Such disconnectedness is not surprising in books from trade and academic publishers. Unfortunately, Bell Hooks' Ain't I A Woman; Black Women and Feminism from South End Press, an alternative, left publisher, is also full of the contradictions that result when one attempts to talk about black feminism divorced from black feminist organizing.

Before going any further, I have to admit that this book has worried me nearly to death and reviewing it is no easy task. I wanted Ain't I A Woman to be good, incisive, and, most of all, useful. The fact that Hooks provides information about black women's historical oppression and asks some significant questions about sexism and racism raised my hopes. But from the very beginning I found myself questioning the conclusions she draws from the factual material she presents and being constantly surprised by her answers to the questions she poses. It soon became clear that despite its subject I was in profound disagreement with the assumptions of this book.

The book is divided into five chapters which potentially address pivotal black and feminist issues: "Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience"; "Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood"; "The Imperialism of Patriarchy"; "Racism and Feminism"; and "Black Women and Feminism." The first two chapters contain interesting documentation of black women's continuously inferior status in the U.S. I was mystified, however, to see that in these first chapters, as throughout the book, there are numerous quotations, but no footnote references and at times not even references to the author or book from which the quotations are taken. These omissions make Ain't I A Woman much less useful for research. Such an oversight is not merely the author's responsibility, but her publisher's, and is just one indication that this book was editorially handled in such a way that was a disservice to all.

The book's analytical difficulties are apparent in the first chapter. In order to disprove the familiar argument that slavery and racism were worse for black men than for women, simply because men are inherently more valuable beings, Hooks attempts to show not only that black women suffered more in slavery, but that black men suffered less than is commonly believed. This is tricky territory that scholars continue to debate: what was slavery actually like and what was the typical slave experience? I basically agree with Hooks that because of sexual oppression, systematized rape, forced breeding, and responsibility for domestic tasks, black women suffered in more ways than black men. What I find so upsetting is the contempt that Hooks shows for black men in the process. For example, in refuting the concept that black men suffered from a loss of masculinity in slavery, she writes:

Enslaved black men were stripped of the patriarchal status that had characterized their social situation in Africa but they were not stripped of their masculinity. Despite all popular arguments that claim black men were figuratively castrated, throughout the history of slavery in America black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role. In colonial times as in contemporary times, masculinity denoted possessing the attributes of strength, virility, vigor, and physical prowess … That white people recognized the "masculinity" of the black male is evident by the tasks assigned the majority of black male slaves.

Of course Hooks conveniently ignores power and autonomy as essential components of masculinity and male privilege. Being an unpaid and terrorized beast of burden has never had much to do with exercising power. Hooks continues:

The sexism of colonial white male patriarchs spared black male slaves the humiliation of homosexual rape and other forms of sexual assault. While institutionalized sexism was a social system that protected black male sexuality, it [socially] legitimized sexual exploitation of black females.

If the system protected Black male sexuality so thoroughly, what in the world is the history of lynching all about? This statement is disturbing on a number of levels. One is that it's not clear what is humiliating—the rape or the homosexuality. If the word homophobia had been used instead of sexism to explain why black men were not victimized in this way, it would be obvious that the author is critical of negative attitudes toward male homosexuality and lesbianism. But as I will discuss in more detail subsequently, she is not.

It isn't necessary to prove that slavery wasn't so bad for black men in order to prove how very bad it was for black women. It is obvious, however, that Hooks' conclusions are affected by her animosity toward black men which surfaces repeatedly throughout the work. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize, even castigate, black men for their oppression of black women, but I found the author's unveiled hostility shocking.

Hooks obviously has an ax to grind with black men and to an even greater extent with white women. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does not make for sound theory. Why do I constantly get the impression that Hooks sees Ain't I A Woman as an opportunity to finally put black men and white women in their place? Certainly her tone is a factor. Another is the major and minor inconsistencies of the book, the way that Hooks in building her case reshapes logic and history. According to the author even black women are culpable for perpetuating their own oppression.

At the conclusion of the first chapter Hooks states:

The fact that enslaved black women were forced to labor as "men" and to exist independently of male protection did not lead to the development of a feminist consciousness.

Her evidence for this assertion is that black women wanted the "considerations and privileges given white women" and that as soon as slavery ended many black women "refused to work in the fields." Hooks seemingly does not consider that "forced" equality under the horrors of the slave system, which she has just vividly described, might not automatically lead to higher consciousness, but merely to a desire for some relief. The ex-slave women probably did not want to be Miss Ann as much as she wanted to stop being sexual and economic chattel. Hooks also does not consider that a desire to leave the fields might have been a desire to have only one full-time job—childrearing and housework—instead of two. Ignoring these realities, she concludes the chapter:

By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and victims of these crimes.

Who are these black women who "completely accept[ed] the female role" and who are their descendants? I haven't met them. What I always find so heartening about black women, no matter how nonfeminist they might be in their pronouncements, is how seldom they unthinkingly conform to conventional feminine behavior. We've always had too much sense for that. Nevertheless, in the book's introduction Hooks states unequivocally:

Twentieth century black women had learned to accept sexism as natural, a given, a fact of life. Had surveys been taken among black women in the thirties and forties and had they been asked to name the most oppressive force in their lives, racism and not sexism would have headed the list.

To cite just one piece of evidence to the contrary which indicates that black women were indeed concerned about sexual discrimination in the 1940s, I refer readers to an article by novelist Ann Petry, published in March 1947, entitled "What's Wrong With Negro Men?" Petry's article appeared in Negro Digest, a widely distributed publication, and attacked head-on black men's bad attitudes about women, including sexual harassment on the street and unfair division of labor at home. For further evidence of black women's criticism and resistance to male dominance, as well as commentary on a host of other social problems, I refer everyone to the blues.

Hooks' interpretation of events to suit her purposes is most blatant in her discussion of the women's movement. She describes a movement I find barely recognizable. Hooks collapses the totality of feminism into its most conservative manifestations: bourgeois, reformist, professional, and self-aggrandizing. It is the equating of the women's movement with its least progressive elements (long a tactic of the slick media and certain varieties of anti-feminists) which I think most distorts the impact of the book. Hooks describes the women's movement and white feminists in such derogatory terms that it is hard to imagine why any black woman reading this would want any part of it or why any white woman would be inspired to change. Yet ostensibly it is Hooks' purpose to encourage feminist opposition to sexual oppression in the black community and racial accountability among white women. It is necessary to examine how this fundamental contradiction in the book came about.

First, I want to validate Hooks' perception that the women's movement has indeed been and continues to be racist. And since being racist in this country is thoroughly interlocked with being white, this racism has affected all sectors of the movement, from conservative to revolutionary. What Hooks does not acknowledge is that the differing politics of white feminists have resulted in many differing responses to the issues of racism and cultural difference, ranging from merely cosmetic to absolutely serious. Hooks never admits that there are parts of the women's movement, especially in the last five years, that define taking responsibility for racism as a top priority. Instead she makes the following statement:

Few, if any, white women liberationists are willing to acknowledge that the women's movement was consciously and deliberately structured to exclude black and other non-white women and to serve primarily the interests of middle and upper class college-educated white women seeking social equality with middle and upper class white men. While they may agree that white women involved with women's liberationist groups are racist and classist they tend to feel that this in no way undermines the movement.

                       [Italics added by Smith]

There are countless statements like this in the chapter "Racism and Feminism" which combine partial truth with opinion so as to undermine understanding of this crucial issue.

One of Hooks' cherished beliefs which reinforces her negative view of the movement is that all white women are better off than all black women dating from slavery. Not surprisingly she also believes that: "No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women," thus completely erasing the existence and struggles of Native American, Asian-American, and Latin women. Hooks makes no effort to examine parallels in the experiences of all women of color, which, at the very least, would have strengthened the work analytically. Instead she puts all her energy into emphasizing the gulfs between women, black and white. She writes:

Prior to slavery, patriarchal law decreed white women were lowly inferior beings, the subordinate group in society. The subjugation of black people allowed them to vacate their despised position and assume the role of a superior.

Consequently, it can be easily argued that even though white men institutionalized slavery, white women were its most immediate beneficiaries.

As in her previous statements about black men's masculinity, the factors of autonomy and power are completely ignored. Hooks firmly believes that:

In America, the social status of black and white women has never been the same. In 19th and early 20th century America, few if any similarities could be found between the life experiences of the two female groups…. In fact, white racial imperialism granted all white women, however victimized by sexist oppression they might be, the right to assume the role of oppressor in relationship to black women and black men.

The first sentence in this statement is absolutely accurate. The second sentence overlooks the reality of obligatory child-bearing, rape, and battering, to name only a few common female life experiences. Both the second and third sentences astonishingly do not take into account class as a factor in white women's oppression. Class oppression is certainly something poor and working class women of all races have in common, no matter how much the system tries to obscure this fact. In the period Hooks refers to there were poor white women on farms south and north, white women working in unspeakable conditions in factories, white women domestic servants and prostitutes, and millions of women immigrants from Europe who came here with nothing. Yes, they had white skin privilege and were no doubt racist, but why doesn't Hooks examine the complexities of being white combined with being economically and sexually exploited instead of acting as if no such women exist? For one thing, integrating an analysis of class would not support her opinion that white women are not oppressed.

The lack of a realistic perspective on class is one of the book's major theoretical flaws. It's not that class isn't mentioned at all in the work, and this is what makes Hooks' mode deceptive, it's that it is never integrated into her analysis, but only invoked to prove that white women have it over black women. So much of Ain't I A Woman is based upon a "pitting against" mentality, black women against white women and black men, which simply would not hold up if class oppression was taken into account. Hooks writes:

In fact, the contemporary women's movement was extremely class bound. As a group, white participants did not denounce capitalism. They chose to define liberation using the terms of white capitalist patriarchy, equating liberation with gaining economic status and money power. Like all good capitalists, they proclaimed work as the key to liberation. This emphasis on work was yet another indication of the extent to which the white female liberationists' perception of reality was totally narcissistic, classist, and racist.

How does socialist feminist analysis and practice, campaigns to organize clerical workers, other unionizing efforts, the exposing of sexual harassment at the work place, and a general desire to equalize women's salaries, working conditions, and job opportunities fit in with "total narcissism, classism, and racism"?

But Hooks does not seem to know anything about these aspects of the movement. Her examples are overwhelmingly drawn from "women's studies classes", "conferences," "books," and "groups" whose purposes are never identified. I have often been frustrated when talking with black women about feminism that they have little knowledge of the activist women's movement with which I am most familiar. Ain't I A Woman, which could have provided such information, perpetuates this problem. Even in relying on printed matter, Hooks could have drawn from a vast array of feminist periodicals and books from feminist presses. Of the more than one hundred sources she lists in her bibliography, however, only one could be considered a women's movement publication. Almost all of the works cited in the bibliography also appeared before 1975, the very point at which Third World women's organizing began to take hold.

According to Hooks, however, even black feminist organizing is neither positive nor important. I found her criticism of autonomous black women's groups absolutely heartstopping. She writes:

Some black women who were interested in women's liberation responded to the racism of white female participants by forming separate "black feminist" groups. This response was reactionary. By creating segregated feminist groups, they both endorsed and perpetuated the very "racism" they were supposedly attacking. They did not provide a critical evaluation of the women's movement and offer to all women a feminist ideology uncorrupted by racism or the opportunistic desires of individual groups. Instead, as colonized people have done for centuries, they accepted the terms imposed upon them by the dominant group (in this instance white women liberationists) and structured their groups on a racist platform identical to that of the white-dominated groups they were reacting against. White women were actively excluded from black groups. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of the black "feminist" group was its focus on issues relating specifically to black women. The emphasis on black women was made public in the writings of black participants. The Combahee River Collective published "A Black Feminist Statement" to explain their group's focus.

                       [Italics added by Smith]

Hooks then quotes from the opening paragraph of the Statement which affirms a commitment to coalition politics and a multi-issued approach. She then comments: "The emergence of black feminist groups led to a greater polarization of black and white liberationists."

Obviously she does not comprehend the meaning of the word coalition. As a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, I can verify that this particular organization was never racially separatist, that it always considered itself a part of the women's movement, and that it practiced coalition building in countless ways.

Why is Hooks so scathingly critical of contemporary black feminist organizations, accusing them of "anti-white racism," yet quite supportive of nineteenth century independent black feminist efforts? Of these groups she writes:

In fact, black female reform organizations were solidly rooted in the women's movement. It was in reaction to the racism of white women and to the fact that the U.S. remained a society with an apartheid social structure that compelled black women to focus on themselves rather than all women.

There may be other reasons for this inconsistency, but one I suspect is that those early black women organizers were ostensibly heterosexual while many contemporary black feminists are also lesbians. In a book of over two-hundred pages Hooks does not mention the word lesbian once. This is the other crucial key to the author's perspective on feminism, her overriding homophobia. Her constant attacks on the women's movement are no doubt tacitly motivated by her anti-lesbianism, although her position of course is never clearly stated.

Why is it when a black woman dismisses lesbianism, she acts as if she is not attacking a single black woman? There are hundreds of thousands of black lesbians and hundreds of thousands more black gay men for that matter alive and well in the U.S. at this very moment, not to mention the millions of us that cover the globe wherever people of African descent live. To attack lesbianism is not merely to slap the wrist of the "white" women's movement, it is to eviscerate us.

By ignoring lesbianism and lesbian-feminism, Hooks conveniently ignores some of the most vital and radical work of the movement. Because of my involvement with Third World and white lesbians who are radical activists, I can, despite all its failings, feel positive about the movement we've created. In 1981, Hooks, on the other hand, writes in her conclusion:

Right now, women in the U.S. are witnessing the demise of yet another women's rights movement. The future of collective feminist struggle is bleak. The women who appropriated feminism to advance their own opportunistic causes have achieved their desired ends and are no longer interested in feminism as a political ideology.

Hooks' homophobia not only eliminates essential theory and facts, it totally distorts the history of contemporary feminism. For instance, it allows her to avoid mentioning an organization like D.A.R.E. (Dykes Against Racism Everywhere), the kind of racially mixed antiracist group she implies does not exist, or citing Elly Bulkin's important article, "Racism in Writing: Some Implications for White Lesbian Critics." Homophobia also results in a narrowly heterosexist perspective on the issues she does address, leading to yet another level of distortion. Heterosexist solipsism results in the following statement:

White and black women have been socialized to accept … fierce competition between the two groups; a competition that has always been centered in the arena of sexual politics, with white and black women competing against one another for male favor. This competition is part of an overall battle between various groups of women to be the chosen female group.

What does it mean for lesbians that all racial conflict between women can be reduced to vying for male favor?

The closest Hooks comes to suggesting that lesbians exist is not surprisingly in a general put-down of the women's movement. She writes:

Attacking heterosexuality does little to strengthen the self-concept of the masses of women who desire to be with men…. The women's movement has become a kind of ghetto or concentration camp for women who are seeking to attain the kind of power they feel men have. It provides a forum for the expression of their feelings of anger, jealousy, rage, and disappointment with men. It provides an atmosphere where women who have little in common, who may resent or even feel indifferent to one another can bond on the basis of shared negative feelings toward men.

                        [Italics added by Smith]

So feminists and lesbians are nothing but man-haters who make life difficult for women with heterosexual privilege. Haven't I heard this somewhere before? This comment seems particularly ludicrous in the context of a book which itself evidences so much negative feeling toward men. I also find Hooks' image of the women's movement as "a kind of ghetto or concentration camp" appalling because she completely trivializes the suffering of the Jews and the experience of every group that has been forcibly segregated, at the same time she uses the image to attack another group. Didn't anyone read this manuscript and react to the devastating implications of these words?

This brings me finally to the issue of the publisher's role in the problems with this book. Why did South End Press, a publisher known for its high-level primarily white-male theory, demand so little from a book on feminism by a black woman? The answers are no doubt themselves lessons in the racism and anti-feminism that pervade white-male-left establishments. Some left/socialist groupings have made sincere efforts to integrate an understanding of sexual and racial politics into their theory and practice. In this case, however, South End's desire to appear "politically correct" with minimal effort is transparent. Clearly an insidious double-standard was operating that led the editors-publishers to overlook the book's grave analytical and ideological problems, which would never have been permitted in another work—for example, not requiring footnotes or a concise approach to class. I despise the kind of racism that says, "black people are just different. We can't ever understand them and it's not our place to question or challenge them." This attitude no doubt explains why the book's homophobia was allowed to stand and why such a blatant deficiency did not lead to a serious questioning of the politics of the work as a whole, before it was published. But how better to disavow the significance of the women's movement than through the words of a black woman who is supposed to be a feminist? The fact that there are countless women who need a good book about black feminism was clearly of little concern. From all accounts Ain't I A Woman is selling well and spreading confusion and division in its wake.

The problems with Ain't I A Woman lead me to ask what is theory and what comprises good analytical writing? Theory and analysis are not merely the listing of opinions, but this is generally Hooks' method. She never says what kind of organizing is to be done, what kinds of political issues are crucial, how black women might be brought together around feminism, or what issues and organizing she herself has been involved in that have contributed to the formation of her analysis. Ultimately, I find this and similar books so worrisome, because they make the real work of black feminist organizing so much more difficult than it needs to be.

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