Bell hooks | Critical Essay by Barbara Smith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Bell hooks.
This section contains 3,804 words
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Critical Essay by Dorothy Randall-Tsuruta

SOURCE: "Sojourner Rhetorically Declares; Hooks Asks; Kizzy Spits in the Glass," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 46-52.

Randall-Tsuruta is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, she expresses disappointment with the lack of documentation and the abundance of unsubstantiated opinions in Ain't I a Woman, stating "the book is a disgrace to American publishing."

A startling foretelling of Bell Hooks' Ain't I a Woman comes in the Acknowledgements and Introduction. She begins by sharing how when out to dinner she discussed with companions the subject of the book in question and "one person in a big booming voice, choking with laughter exclaimed, 'What is there to say about black women!' Others joined in the laughter." The author does not tell us if these were friends or strangers, but the liberties they take, and the fact that she dines with this sort is an indication of what she can stomach.

The excellent thing about Hooks' book is that it pinpoints annoyances over which many black American women daily sigh, yet repress, in an attempt to get through the work day without flying off the handle. Then just as we begin to vent our rage through Hooks', she confounds us by drawing conclusions, to her experience, which are either damaging to black women or unsupported by black experience in America.

Point in fact. In the introduction Hooks' own chagrin belts to crescendo her "white sisters" for among other things feeling:

… comfortable writing books or articles on the 'woman question' in which they drew analogies between 'women' and blacks…. By continuously making this analogy, they unwittingly suggest that to them the term 'woman' is synonymous with 'white women'

           [Italics added by Randall-Tsuruta]

Any black woman who has ever had to deal with white women in an organizational setting, or neighborhood, or friendship, knows that whites—women and men—do not "unwittingly" assert a racial complex. However cathartic Hooks' anger is at times, she nonetheless reasons wildly—thus the troubled complexion of her study.

Hooks is so mad at her white sisters that she cannot sit still; yet prefers them to black feminist thinkers who "responded to the racism of white female[s] … by creating segregated feminist groups … and structured their groups on racist platform." Hooks expounds:

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.

Besides being flabbergasted that Hooks should think it wrong for black feminists to organize independently, I find it scandalous that Hooks places in quotes the word "feminists" referring to black women. Is this a slip of tongue, a scoff of sorts, a denigration translated, "if you ain't white (nor under white umbrella), you sho ain't no feminist?" But most incredible is Hooks' wording which singles black feminists out, for "creating segregated feminist groups." This despite her own words denouncing white feminists as "reactionary." Half the time while reading this book I kept asking the author if she was for real—and not rhetorically either.

According to Hooks, slavery was worse for black women than for black men because while black men may have had their testicles cut off this was not as frequent as rape, nor were they forced to perform homosexual acts. (Hooks' way of knowing this last suggests she is reincarnated with a clear memory and omnipresent.)

Ain't I a Woman contains five chapters: 1—Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience; 2—Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood; 3—The Imperialism of Patriarchy; 4—Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability; and 5—Black Women and Feminism.

The historical data on slavery provided in chapter one is bereft of documentation, and is further reduced by argumentation which begs the question; specifically whether slavery was worse for women or men. The author plays down the suffering of black male slaves saying, that "individual black men were castrated by their owners or by mobs" for the purpose of setting "an example for other male slaves so that they would not resist authority." But she contends that white "women and men" were not "obsessed by the ideal of destroying black masculinity" for they did not force "black men to assume 'feminine' attire or perform so-called 'feminine' tasks." And she argues, comparatively, that they were obsessed with destroying black femininity for they forced "black women [to] perform the same tasks as black men," plowing, planting, and harvesting crops. When I was approaching graduate school, the noted scholar St. Clair Drake counseled a gathering of black students, saying when it comes time for dissertation, don't waste your time researching where slavery was worse—Brazil or the United States: it was horrible in both to the extent that figuring the degree is ludicrous.

In this chapter Hooks also criticizes black parents for their failure to "warn their daughters about the possibility of rape or help them to prepare for such situations." On and on she controverts. She concludes:

The slave parents' unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality.

Hooks has the galling habit of allowing enslaved ancestors choices of action no master allowed them. Further she demeans her ancestors, without benefit of documented evidence. Who told her this about slave parents?

Hooks singles out slave men for chiding, reasoning they did not move to protect female slaves from rape because in Africa they were socialized to aid only the women of their own tribe. No mention of how in America they were restrained. Alas, more global reductionism for Western anthropologists out to prove the heathen's halo is an Afro. Hooks thus aptly reads down the white sister's ancestor for her role in all this.

Chapter three plunges into "The Imperialism of Patriarchy." Here Hooks wins my applause for taking on Baraka and Jim Brown for their rationalizations bereft of admission that the white woman fills their dreams. Hooks submits for review, almost as an effigy, Baraka's response to the question concerning militant black men and white women:

Jim Brown put it pretty straight and this is really quite true. He says that there are black men and white men, then there are women. So you can indeed be going through a black militant thing and have yourself a woman. The fact that she happens to be black or white is no longer impressive to anybody, but a man who gets himself a woman is what's impressive. The battle is really between white men and black men whether we like to admit it that is the battlefield at this time.

While no footnote is provided, the bibliography implies that Baraka's quote is taken from Black World, 1970. Seeing as how this is dated material, its purpose is limited, but does attest to what yet pains black women.

In chapter four, "Racism and Feminism," the author returns to her overriding contention with white feminists, taking on black feminists as well. Here the book succeeds in painting a graphic, and in this informative, sketch of her coming to grips with her "white sisters" as well as black feminist sisters who split off into race related groups—she calls the latter "Others." Considering the chapter—indeed the entire book—reads in large like an angry cry to white feminists, it smacks of a letter from an unrequited love. The reader feels at times like an eavesdropper, seeing the author seated miserably amongst "white sisters" whom she depicts as coolly indifferent to truths with which she confronts them. She exclaims they are just apt to turn on such as herself, snorting, "We won't be guilt tripped."

Yet Hooks bad raps black women who, "to express their anger and rage at white women" evoke "the negative stereotypical image of the white woman as passive, parasitic, privileged being living off the labor of others as a way to mock and ridicule the white women liberationists [sic]". In this chapter poet Lorraine Bethel is singled out for chastisement because of her poem "What Chous Mean We White Girl? Or, The Cullud Lesbian Feminist Declaration of Independence." (No reference given for this work.)

Interestingly here, Hooks suggests that hostilities between blacks and whites involved in the women's liberation movement, were not only due to disagreements over racism, but were also due to "jealousy, envy, competition, and anger, which took root during slavery." She explains how, as she sees it, slavery provided white women with creatures who were more denigrated by white men than they themselves. She seems to be saying this drove white women to sadistic acts, resorting "to brutal punishment to assert authority," which yet "could not change the fact that black women were not inclined to regard the white female with the awe and respect they showed the white male." She seems to be saying black slave women preferred their male torturers to their female torturers—you remember, those men who brutally raped them, beat them harder than they did men, hung their babies upside down until dead if they did not eat their food, and made them harvest the ground along with the men to the loss of their femininity. The point here is Hooks' penchant for arguing the degree of difference in the face of unmentionable horrors.

Hooks romanticizes slave owners much as Capote does criminals in In Cold Blood. Pretty soon these sadists start to emerge as personalities. If they were alive they might be able to turn a pretty profit from their crimes as did the John Deans and Richard Nixons, and presently the Dan Whites (George Wallace convinced a needed black voter-ship of having changed for the better).

Finally in chapter five, "Black Women and Feminism" Hooks returns to the theme begun in her introduction, that black women passively stand outside the women's movement because they lack sexual esteem. She also returns to her witness of what whites "unwittingly" do, this time rendering the white man who yelled at Sojourner, 'I don't believe you really are a woman.' Hooks reasons he "unwittingly voiced America's contempt and disrespect for black womanhood." Since Hooks again offers no documentation for this quote, one can only assume it is hearsay across generations. But in what context and at what event was Sojourner being thus read down? Hooks' book would be better if such documentation were supplied. It leaves one wondering at the publishing motive which dumps on the public such poor black scholarship.

Besides not documenting evidence, Hooks, throughout the book, works quotes which do not even serve her intent—like a puzzle piece forced into a pattern. For instance, referring back to her discussion of white women flaunting a "women and blacks" analogy, in her introduction, Hooks asserts that:

When black people are talked about sexism militates against the acknowledgment of the interests of black women; when women are talked about racism militates against a recognition of black female interests. When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.

But then for proof she offers (from William O'Neill's book Everyone Was Brave):

Their shocked disbelief that men would so humiliate them by supporting votes for Negroes but not for women demonstrated the limits of their sympathy for black men, even as it drove these former allies further apart.

Whatever the point she was trying to make becomes lost in the scathing "humiliate" (in this reference) incites.

But Hooks has some interesting things to say about black women's organizations—how they changed over the course of history from being concerned with social services to focus instead on social affairs like debutante balls and fundraisers. In this she is instructive, and given a second attempt might even embed this information in a book more carefully organized, researched and edited. Yet, even as she sounds promising, in chapter five, she also reduces Angela Davis to "a poster pinup" who Hooks says was not admired for her intelligence but for her beauty. Again Hooks shows herself not contained by her own opinion, but wallowing in the stew whites would make of blacks. She offers further antagonism toward black women who dared deem themselves free, criticizing now black sociologist Joyce Ladner, and essayists Ida Lewis and Linda LaRue. Even charging this she insists that black women today are afraid to "openly confront white feminists with their racism." Deaf and dumb to her own conflicting charges, priding herself on being able to turn the other cheek, Hooks closes the book on the hope that black women everywhere will take courage from her pioneering in feminist ideology and follow suit.

While the book straddles five chapters, it is the essence grasped in the Introduction that essence recalls its passion long after the book is closed. For it is here that the author springs an admirable spirit let down by a sputtering intellect. The section also alerts the reader to Hooks' summation of blacks, that lack of racial esteem which so intrigues social scientists rent with wicked purpose. If the black reader approaches the book with the understanding it is addressed to Hooks' "white sisters," she or he may only wince seeing red when coming across such fabricated confidences as:

Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women's rights because we did not see 'womanhood' as an important aspect of our identity.

and further along:

When white men supported giving black men the vote while leaving all women disenfranchised, Horace Greeley and Wendell Phillips called it 'the Negro's finest hour' but in actuality what was spoken of as a black suffrage was black male suffrage. By supporting black male suffrage and denouncing white women's rights activists, white men revealed the depths of their sexism—a sexism that was at that brief moment in American history greater than their racism.

Is Hooks serious? Is she really so naive as to believe white men ever embraced the needs of black men in preference to those of white women, suffragette or not? And could this mean she actually believes white men neglected to build into the system control of black men—vote or no vote?

What emerges here is the embarrassing probability that Hooks derives hope for a united women's movement by drawing analogy from white males' support of black males which she contends for a brief moment relegated sexism more important than racism: thus if white men can do this perhaps their womenfolk can as well.

This glimmer of hope lurks in the shadow of her voice, when vicariously reliving the words of toxic pig Elizabeth Cady Stanton whom she quotes cringing aghast that "'niggers' should be granted the vote while 'superior' white women remained disenfranchised." Though purporting to be alerting her sisters to racism, her voice betrays something akin to despising what the enemy despises, a condition sadistic biographers report gave strut to Hitler's walk, and entertained him in idle moments.

Concluding observations turn first to Hooks' title. As the words are Sojourner Truth's, taken from her famous speech it does us well to review them in context:

That man over there say that woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me a best place … And ain't I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me … And ain't I a woman? I could … eat as much as a man when I could get it, and bear the lash as well … And ain't I a woman? I have borned thirteen children and seen them most all sold off into slavery. And when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard … And ain't I a woman?

Speaking this, Sojourner stepped into the limelight asserting the will of a visionary disgusted with the charade before her eyes. Clearly in her phrasing "ain't I a woman?" she is not asking a question but asserting indeed I am! Here we are presented with a wonderfully proud woman. She was no tail along feminist-hopeful, but a leader who as Hooks admits "could refer to her own life as evidence of woman's ability." Her patience, desire for certain comforts, sturdy arms firmed by plowing, equal footing with men, motherhood, and sufferings which none but Jesus heard are strengths she claimed. Sojourner delivered this speech in 1852 before a group of white women who Hooks informs, "deemed it unfitting that a black woman should speak on a platform in their presence screamed: 'Don't let her speak! Don't let her speak! Don't let her speak!'" Seeing as how that was 131 years ago, yet the picture Hooks paints of white feminists reveals them significantly unchanged today, it seems this would suggest something to her—other than that her patience is meritorious.

For many black women Sojourner's message has been instructive as they grew keen on living embraced by a compassion which yet never undermines that spirit of fight Sojourner resounds. You see these black women everywhere; some grouped for action in clubs or organizations which bear witness to our having come a long way since the only organization addressing female concerns was a band of white women. My early years as a teacher in a community college in Northern California saw my coming into a newly built school and helping to form a women's organization concerned with directions for black women, though open to other Third World women and working class women of all races who joined us from time to time in a common cause. Our group served the entire campus and community, providing model to middle class whites who that first year were enlightened at our conference, and the second year started a women's program of their own—then commenced to fret because we were separate. But we yawned perplexed by their behavior, continuing purposefully and intact until their tactics debilitated those in our ranks who believed "white folks water wetter and their ice cooler." A reading of Hooks' book leaves the impression she knows only of black women organizing in reaction to negative treatment from white women. The group I helped form, typical of many in this nation, came together quite naturally as a first impulse.

In contrast to the firm declaration Sojourner's "ain't I a woman?" sounds, Hooks' adaptation is marked by uncertainty. In the latter's delivery neither contextual clues, nor content reveal a sense of self. Indeed it is a sob in her mouth, revealing one painfully in doubt which could be eased if only her white sisters would mend their ways.

Hooks defines feminism, then goes on, ignoring the connotation, to label so many of our black female ancestors "feminist." While a fine title for contemporary women who self proclaim this attuned to problematic aspects, it is not fair to those dead who cannot be consulted. She goes on and on about "black feminist Mary Church Terrell," when here I sat holding that woman's autobiography aptly titled, A Colored Woman in a White World. The pervasive theme of the work is injustice endured, fought, and survived by blacks, with much focus on the black family. Here and there is constructive analysis of purposeful uses of suffragette agitation, but in no way does she paint her life as one given to feminist impulse. Black women have long been organized in the silent manor of prisoners of war—signaling when conversation meant death, and passing on to daughters ideas and remembered models that kept them from going mad; from standing on the corners burning bras. Much of what black women have long known about how to raise a family while holding down a job, white women are presently celebrating as some new discovery. In her introduction Terrell states, "this is the story of a colored woman living in a white world." Note she does not qualify it solely a white male world. In fact the first paragraph suggests an analogy of "women and whites." The second sentence reads, "It cannot possibly be like a story written by a white woman."

Terrell continues the paragraph with:

A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race. I belong to the only group in this country which has two such huge obstacles to surmount. Colored men have only one—that of race.

Since Terrell speaks posthumously telling the group to which she belongs—black women—her example serves better black feminist groups (which Hooks decries) than white feminist groups (though Hooks ignores history insisting otherwise). In the page before the last of Colored Woman in a White World Terrell boasts being made an honorary member of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and how she happily complied with that organization's request for her to write their creed. Thus further proof of the racial group with which she identified, and felt significant impact on her womanhood. The final thought Terrell leaves us with, however, in her autobiography focusses not on sex but race. The final paragraph reads:

While I am grateful for the blessings which have been bestowed upon me and for the opportunities which have been offered, I cannot help wondering sometimes what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, but had allowed me to reach any height I was able to attain.

When referring to contemporary black feminists, as shown, Hooks is not very kind. She is particularly competitive with Michelle Wallace (Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman), saying of Wallace's book:

While the book is an interesting provocative account of Wallace's personal life that includes a very sharp and witty analysis of the patriarchal impulses of black male activists, it is neither [sic] an important feminist work nor an important work about black women.

To this condescending assessment of Wallace and her work, Hooks adds (inadvertently perhaps), "All too often in our society it is assumed that one can know all there is about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person." Yet in her acknowledgement she admits Ain't I a Woman is about her own "lived experiences."

Of Wallace's book "sister" Steinem has praise. Hooks, however, is miffed that Steinem could value Wallace's book comparable to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. (Seems ole Steinem makes out the report cards.)

As stated in the outset Ain't I a Woman gives vent to much that is daily suppressed by black women who look askance on white feminists, while accepting of black feminists as exercising their right to join the movement which best attends their needs. Given time to rethink some of her conclusions, to add documentation, to have edited, and to reconfront her identity, Hooks might just write a book we all can be proud of. As is the book is a disgrace to American publishing. One wonders the motive backing its release.

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Buy the Critical Review by Marlene Nourbese Philip
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