bell hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman”

1981

hooks’ text takes its title from a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth. hooks explains the way in which the convergence of racism and sexism placed black women on the bottom of the social ladder in every sense (think Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). By disentangling race and gender, hooks’ text opens onto an important critical turn in identity politics. hooks begins with slavery, exploring how its tropes and stereotypes survive to this day (for example, the way the division of woman into madonna/whore is often drawn along white/black racial lines, displacing the negative quality onto black women alone).

hooks notes that scholarship has talked about slavery as though it only had psychic effects on black men, emasculating them. Instead, hooks argues that slavery masculinized black women by forcing them to do hard labor like men. Furthermore, she points out that while white men raped black women, so did black men – they were not their advocates, but often also their aggressors in a social world where family ties were severed by slave owners. Both were involved in the dehumanizing practices of “breeding” that characterized enforced sexual culture in slavery. “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 the victims of those crimes” 49.

While the black power and civil rights movements were largely patriarchal, asking black women to erase their gender in the service of black male interests, white feminism was not concerned to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. White feminists overlook the rape of black women as stemming from the image of their sexual “availability” in ways that are different from white women. Relatedly, white women who marry black men are seen as open minded, moving against a history of stereotypical “rape” of white women by black men, whereas black women suffer from both communities when they marry a white man, seen as allying themselves with a traitor. The two stereotypes available to black women are mammy and Sapphire – the first desexualized and maternal and happy, the other seductive, evil, and cunning. Both are characterized by the fear of appearing vulnerable (“available”).

hooks concludes her text by arguing not that black women should distance themselves from feminism because it is racist, but that feminism should distance itself from racism. Black women should reclaim the pioneering tradition of 19th century black feminists like Sojourner Truth for the problems of today.

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