Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: Ain't I A Woman by bell hooks

 Rating: 5/5 stars

In my review of Blackshirts and Reds, I wrote "There are things that I have spent so much time thinking about, that I can speak or write of them in an impassioned and organized way whenever prompted. This book read like that to me." Ain't I A Woman reads with the same cadence. Hooks has identified a very real problem, and presents it clearly, and passionately.

I've commented before that it can be tricky to review foundational books. Ain't I A Woman is forty years old. I've read a lot of feminist theory, and a lot of intersectional feminist theory. The core thesis of the book was not new to me. But I never felt that I was wasting my time revisiting the same old thing.  The focus of this book was, I felt, very much on the internal rationalizations of every-day people, rather than the public speeches of the movers and shakers of a particular time. For this reason, although there was a considerable amount of overlap with Race, Women and Class by Angela Davis, which indeed hooks cites, I view them more as good companion novels, rather than one being a replacement for the other. 

Nor did I feel like society has really changed so much in the intervening four decades that hooks' observations no longer ring true. The following passage, if it were written in 2021, would be just as searingly true as it was when first written:

When feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimized and in the same breath emphasize their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact of oppression by being strong—and that is simply not the case. Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.

Still, I found myself wishing for a follow-up essay - where have we come since?

I wish I'd read this book earlier - perhaps as a chaser to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I really struggled with Malcolm X's misogynist depictions of women (even women he claimed he admired and respected), and hooks' analysis of his position towards women, and the role of women more broadly in the Black Power movement, gave me a sense of closure and healing.

My most recent non-fiction, non-autobiography read was Stamped From The Beginning,  and Ain't I A Woman was a much-appreciated follow-up to that. Ain't I A Woman made it all the more starkly clear the limitations of focusing solely on the writings of academics and politicians and other people of power when trying to understand the experience of those oppressed by colonialism and patriarchy. Stamped From The Beginning also falls victim to its chronological organization gimmick. hooks is far better able to trace the history of racist thinking by following one idea from its roots in slavery to modern reincarnations of the concept, then move on to another idea.

There was one line that made me laugh out loud - "No other group in America has used black people as metaphors as extensively as white women involved in the women’s movement." I thought immediately of Kate Manne's Down Girl and its questionable use of the murder of Michael Brown to discuss victim blaming of rape survivors.

I liked that hooks did not remove herself from her writing. Academic writing encourages this practice - and I think it is a shame! Research is not carried out in a vacuum from which all subjectivity can be removed. Nor are academics just brains on sticks. When women and/or people of color encounter philosophy that erases them or minimizes their experiences, it hurts. I appreciated hooks relating her reaction to reading and researching these topics.

The writing was approachable, and ideas were presented in intuitive ways. The thesis of intersectionality should be obvious to everyone, but frustratingly (often intentionally, as hooks demonstrates) isn't. Go read it.


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