Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Emerging out of Bell Hooks’s frustration with the failure of the black liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement to include the concerns of black women, Ain’t I a Woman: black women and feminism traces the oppressive forces of racism and sexism as they affect black women in the United States. It argues that race and sex are intertwined aspects of identity and cannot be understood apart from each other. Written from a feminist perspective, the book examines the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, sexism among black men, racism among white women, and black women’s involvement with feminism. In so doing, it attempts to move beyond racist and sexist assumptions regarding black women and to further the dialogue about and understanding of their experience. Finally, as it shows the deep interconnections between sex and race, the work places black women’s struggle for liberation in the context of a larger movement for the liberation of all people.

Ain’t I a Woman is structured as a critique of the dominant misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes regarding black women that white society has developed and fostered and that many black women have been socialized to accept. Beginning with the passage from Africa and slave life, the book describes the brutal methods slavers used to break black women’s will—methods that included rape, whipping, and branding—thereby establishing the origins of the devaluation of black womanhood. It continues with the horrible treatment of black women slaves, illustrating how household labor was not necessarily less degrading than field labor: Black women slaves in the household were under constant surveillance, at the mercy of the whims of their mistresses and the lust of their masters.

Looking at the repercussions of slavery, Hooks...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ain’t I a Woman played a major role in changing the direction of feminism in the 1980’s. Writers such as Michele Wallace, in Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), and Angela Davis, in Women, Race, and Class (1981), had begun criticizing the preoccupation with black male masculinity and discussing the concerns and experiences of black women. By directing many of her remarks to white feminists and adopting an explicit feminist perspective, Hooks challenged white feminists to attend to the diversity of women in whose name they speak and write. Because of Hooks’s impact, feminists are more attuned to the differences of race and class, the importance of coalition-building, and the need for inclusion.

Furthermore, a number of feminists have drawn from the arguments that Hooks develops in this and other books. They have incorporated the idea of “speaking from the margins,” or using one’s oppressed or excluded status as a position from which to critique dominant practices and ideologies; employed her concept of a “self in relation,” a nonindividualist notion of the person that attends to the importance of relationships; and abandoned the “woman as victim” mentality characteristic of some types of consciousness-raising. Other works by Hooks include Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984), Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black (1988), and Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics (1990).

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the introduction to Ain’t I a Woman, Bell Hooks says that the primary intent of the project was originally to “document the impact of sexism on the social status of black women.” As she worked on it, however, her focus expanded, and she adopted a more inclusive, holistic point of view that includesthe politics of racism and sexism from a feminist perspective . . . the impact of sexism on the black woman during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the recent feminist movement, and the black woman’s involvement with feminism. It attempts to further the dialogue about the nature of the black woman’s experience . . . so as to move beyond racist and sexist assumptions . . . to arrive at the truth of our experience.

Taking its title from Sojourner Truth’s question to white women during a speech in 1852 at the second annual women’s rights convention in Ohio, Hooks’s book attests to a long tradition of African American women fighting for their rights in a complicated web of race, sex, and class in the United States.

Ain’t I a Woman is divided into five chapters: “Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience,” “Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood,” “The Imperialism of Patriarchy,” “Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability,” and “Black Women and Feminism.” It presents a historical, social, and political critique of a systemically racist, sexist, and classist society that has excluded black women. As a black woman and a feminist, Hooks presses white women, black men, and white men to reexamine honestly their exclusion and marginalization of black women, and she presses black women to recognize their current status by learning and understanding the complexities of their history. Grounding her work in a black feminist paradigm that calls on the activism of black women in the past, Hooks begins with the American enslavement of Africans. She presents examples of the either/or dichotomous demands placed upon women of color by white women and black men who insist that they deal with issues of sex or race but not both (and who both often exclude class issues).

Hooks strategically criticizes and challenges the agendas of white feminists who ignore race and black men who push a “race first” agenda by arguing that women of color should ignore African American sexism for the sake of unified racial politics. She gives notice to the black men and white women...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Boisnier, Alicia D. “Race and Women’s Identity Development: Distinguishing Between Feminism and Womanism Among Black and White Women.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 49, nos. 5/6 (September, 2003): 211-219. Analysis of the relationship between (white) feminism and “womanism,” a term invented by Alice Walker to differentiate between mainstream feminism and that of women of color.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1991. Important overview of the development of African American feminist theory that analyzes Hooks’s writing and places it in its larger context.

“The Combahee River Collective: A Black Feminist Statement.” In The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. Manifesto of black feminist theory and practice that includes an overview of the history of the movement as well as forward-looking programmatic statements.

Ellis, Becky. “Why Feminism Isn’t for Everybody: ’Any of You Fellas Mind If I Smash Patriarchy?’” Briarpatch 36, no. 2 (March/April, 2007): 8-11. Argues against Hooks’s attempt to fashion a feminism that welcomes everyone; claims that by making feminism nonthreatening, such a stance blunts its political effectivity.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist...

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