Barbara Smith (essay date January-February 1983)
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:...
(The entire section is 4141 words.)