Barbara Smith (essay date January-February 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4141

SOURCE: "Black Feminism Divorced from Black Feminist Organizing," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 38-45.

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[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,...

(The entire section contains 29681 words.)

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