Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667
The analysis of sexism in the black community is one of Hooks’s strongest themes. She observes that black male sexism is analyzed differently from white male sexism; popular assumptions in the “liberal” establishment that racism is more oppressive to black men than to black women are based on the acceptance of patriarchal notions of masculinity. These, she notes again and again, are life-threatening to black men. The continuing argument over sexism versus racism misses the point of the interlocking nature of oppressions: They cannot be ranked.
Her stance between various points of view—between black and white, between positions in the black community, between positions in the feminist community—is a foundation of her political belief. This view has characterized her work at least from the time of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. In Yearning, however, she is clearer about the choice to stay on the boundary: “Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people.”
The critique of Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986), edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, provides a practical example of the kind of analysis done by cultural critics. Hooks’s assessment, which focuses on the omission of articles by non-Western or feminist theorists, spotlights the cover as an ironic visual metaphor for the position of the book. The cover reproduces a photograph of a white male fieldworker taking notes on darker-skinned people who watch him from a distance. Although the brown man seems to be watching with admiration, the brown woman’s face is blocked by the graphics of the cover. Although the book itself critiques the traditional exploitative stance of the anthropologist, the cover seems to undercut that critique by reinscribing or reinforcing the colonialist power position.
The cover of Yearning also lends itself to analysis, especially considering Hooks’s critique of the cover of Writing Culture. The image on Yearning’s cover appears to be a portion of a nineteenth century etching, in which a barefoot darker-skinned woman, seated on an oriental carpet, tells the fortune of a white woman, lying on a couch above her. The darker-skinned woman is wearing a loose jacket, open to show her cleavage; loose pants with her legs crossed above her bare feet; scarf; and earrings. She is holding out a card to the lighter-skinned woman. More cards are spread around her. The lighter-skinned woman, dressed in white, reclines on pillows. In this image, the darker-skinned woman is made to seem a sexual object (on the floor, breasts showing, begging), while the lighter-skinned woman’s position is literally higher (arms and chest covered, eyes downcast, passive). But to whom is the darker woman a sexual object? To the white woman? Or to the audience of the etching, playing out a stereotyped notion of the exotic Other? The lighter woman is no less stereotyped: The passive lady, on a couch instead of a pedestal, constricted by corsets and clothing, is taking no active role in public life. Although the cover almost certainly shows a colonial scene from Turkey or Egypt, it could just as likely stand for the situation of the southern United States during slavery—house slave entertaining plantation mistress.
Read in a different way, the cover could also be saying that the darker woman is prophesying a different future to the white woman, a more egalitarian one in which the colonial world of which the white woman is a part will be overturned by the “underside of history.” Perhaps both women are “yearning” for a radical change to their very different oppressive situations.
In all this discussion of cover images undermining ideas of the book, Hooks has not recognized the market forces that usually preclude the author’s choice or even approval of the cover. Thus, seeing significance in the cover should perhaps be prefaced by a recognition of the prevailing system. In this particular case, according to South End Press’s editorial department, Hooks herself helped to choose the cover.
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