Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Ain't I a Woman Analysis
Ain’t I a Woman analyzes how racist and sexist oppression have prevented a positive valuation of black womanhood. As it does so, it critically engages a variety of authors and assumptions, indicating their racist and sexist blind spots. A major theme of the book is how a preoccupation with black male masculinity has hidden and distorted the experiences of black women, leading to mistaken assumptions regarding “strong black women” whose dignity rests on their capacity to cope with and endure oppression and degradation. These assumptions, Hooks argues, have led to the erasure of black women’s identity. The term “women” tends to refer primarily to white women; the term “black” or “Negro” tends to refer primarily to black men.
Hooks develops her argument by confronting the widely held view that the predominant damage caused by slavery was the demasculinization of the black male. She shows how, in fact, white patriarchy enabled African males to maintain a semblance of their societally given masculine role; they performed only “masculine” tasks and were encouraged to adopt traditional sex roles in the slave subculture. In contrast, many African women were assigned heavy labor. They were usually bred like cattle. Furthermore, those who worked as “house slaves” were often raped by their owners and brutalized by the owners’ wives. To this extent, they came to be seen as the “other,” the opposite of the real lady as idealized by the “cult of true womanhood.” This patriarchal value system held that women were delicate, chaste, and feminine. Since black women were hardworking, sexually available, and “nonfeminine,” they did not count as women at all. Thus, Hooks points out that far from demasculinizing black men, the experience of slavery masculinized black women.
Hooks also shows the continuation of the devaluation of black womanhood after slavery, taking white feminists to task for ignoring the sexist oppression of black women after manumission. For example, she criticizes Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and...
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Masterplots II: African American Literature Ain't I a Woman Analysis
Not only does Hooks highlight what separates and divides black and white women and men, but she also calls for responsibility, accountability, and honest dialogue from all. In her last chapter, “Black Women and Feminism,” Hooks recounts the feminist acts of black women throughout American history. Referencing the works and words of Mary Church Terrell, African American club women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Anna Julia Cooper, and the source of her title, Sojourner Truth, Hooks provides account after account of black women’s disillusionment with the white women’s movement. She emphasizes, however, that in spite of those frustrations, these black women continued to work against sexism, racism, and classism.
After five chapters of highlighting the inadequacies of the (white) feminist movement, Hooks calls for space and voice. She calls for an eradication of the fear hampering black women and a push for action to change the thoughts and behavior of white women and black men in order to achieve liberation that is inclusive of all. She does not naively expect people to hold hands and sing together; instead, she calls for an honest conversation that will push all concerned groups beyond fear, intimidation, circumspection, and stereotypes into action. She calls for black women to be seen in all their multidimensionality: as black, female, poor or middle class, and of differing levels of education. She calls for black women to look to their history for strength and to come out of the closet as feminists. She calls for a redefining of feminism to be more inclusive, expansive, and flexible to the multiplicity of women’s lives—black and white.
Written in the late 1970’s while Hooks was an undergraduate student and first published in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman presents a critical, challenging, and honest examination of the intersections that determine and identify identity, politics, and culture. By engaging carefully and in detail with the body of literature on issues of particular importance to black and white women and men, Hooks highlights the consistent omission of black women from discussions of race and gender in America. Hooks was among the first to write so forcefully on the inextricable link between race and sex on every level of American society, but Ain’t I a Woman was not initially well-received by either white feminists or African Americans in the academy. Her essays boldly accused white women of being racist, black men of being sexist, and white men of being both; Hooks even went on to highlight the often elitist and classist perspectives of both groups. Her book demanded a shift in critical perspective for which the academy was not yet ready.
Since its publication, the contribution and impact of Ain’t I a Woman has become increasingly evident. Academic discussions of feminism, womanism, imperialism, racism, and capitalism have increased in quantity and quality, allowing Hooks’s complex analysis to gain traction and relevance. The canon of African American literature has expanded and benefitted from this groundbreaking analysis, which helped establish that there is no single, authentic composite black woman and no composite black woman’s voice. Hooks reiterates the complexities, multilayeredness, and depth of black women’s experiences and voices. Ain’t I a Woman has become widely quoted and referenced, influencing the work of others as well as providing a foundation for Hooks’s later writing. The book opened the door for increased, improved black feminist thought and practice.