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Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism [Book Review]

Ain’t I a Woman by Bell Hooks explores the impact of racism and sexism on Black women. Not as separate factors but through the lens of intersectionality. The book charts the history of how “sexism operates both independently of and simultaneously with racism to oppress us” (Black women).

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One point that really stood out to me was dispelling the idea that Black men being stripped of their patriarchal status by White men during slavery resulted in the disruption of the Black family structure.

“To suggest that Black men were de-humanized solely as a result of not being able to be patriarchs implies that the subjugation of Black women was essential to the Black man’s development of a positive self-concept, an idea that only served to support a sexist social order.”

Ain’t I a Woman does a good job of exploring the fallacy of the Black community being a matriarchy. Hooks discusses patriarchy in historical Africa, slave society, and in present-day America. This false concept of Black women’s superhuman abilities downplays the social and economic oppression we face. It also portrays us as having a power within the Black community and mainstream society that we don’t. Hooks

Hooks points out how racism and sexism misrepresented the necessary independence of Black women. Shifting responsibility for Black male underemployment to Black women, absolves White supremacy of responsibility. This allows White racists to bond with Black men through sexism. Which socializes Black men to view Black women as threats to their masculinity.

Ain’t I a Woman also discusses sexism within Black activism. Many Black male leaders fought for racial equality but not gender equality. Black female activists were often dissuaded from direct involvement in movements. And those who were active outside the home were still expected to assume primary domestic responsibilities.

Some Black male activists actually allied themselves with White male racists based on sexism. Hooks explains that many Black men who express anger towards the White male power structure are not actually upset that it exists. But, rather that their race prevents them from full participation.

There has been a push to rebuild and redefine Black society beyond the reaches of White supremacy. Yet, White American society’s traditional gender values serve as the foundation of this new society. The image of “Black power” that Black male activists took pride in actually played into old stereotypes of Black men. The focus wasn’t restructuring Black society to achieve equality for all Black people. Instead, facets of the Black power movement promoted the emergence of a Black patriarchy.

Some Black women also support and promote patriarchy, outraged by Black men’s inability to earn wages on par with White men. They disdain having to work outside the home. And lament Black men’s unwillingness or inability to fulfill the stereotypical male role of provider and protector.

Media has moved away from the chivalrous male hero to celebrating men who exploit and brutalize women. Hence pimps are now heroes while upstanding men who respect women are simps. In media, Black men represent Black people as a whole to the point of being stand-ins for Black women. Black men often portray Black women in a mocking manner where they wear fat suits, are loud, and aggressive. Also, Black men and women are rarely together and when they are, it’s often in an unhealthy dysfunctional relationship.

Ain’t I a Woman is at its strongest when discussing the history of the Black women’s experience with intersectional racism and sexism. I also applaud Hooks for her attempts to do more than restate societal problems. Yet, Hooks’ logic contains flaws and her ideas contradict when it comes to how things should move forward.

Hooks states that the Black community dissuades Black women from involvement with White men. The historical exploitation of Black women is used to promote the idea of all White men being predatory rapists. This is another way for the Black community and society in general to control Black women. She uses this idea to explain some Black women’s difficulty relating to White men. I found that rationale to be true and took no issues with it.

Hooks also made a good point by stating that a history of predatory behavior causes Black women to shun White men. Yet, Black women tolerate and in some cases encourage this same behavior from Black men. Racism may play a part in White men’s predatory behavior towards Black women. But, sexism plays a part in predatory behavior from all men, Black men included.

Yet, she then went on to state that women’s awareness of men’s ability to rape without impunity is necessary for survival. But, it’s even more important for women to realize that they can prevent and defend themselves from rape.

I re-read this part of Ain’t I a Woman several times thinking that I’d misread or was misunderstanding Hooks’ point. It seems that she was saying that women should be wary of men’s ability to rape without consequences. But, women shouldn’t worry about men being rapists because they can protect themselves from rape. I couldn’t understand the importance of the point she was trying to make and cast it aside as one of the book’s weak points.

If I correctly understood this section, it details how Black men’s predatory behavior towards Black women is downplayed. But, then goes on to downplay the history of White men’s exploitation of Black women. I agree that predatory behavior is wrong regardless of race or gender. Yet, Black women have a right to decide who they do or don’t want to have relationships with and for whatever reason. Also, the responsibility for preventing rapes should always rest with the would-be perpetrator of an assault.

Hooks points out that White society isn’t threatened by Black men and White women having interracial relationships. Because in a patriarchal society, women adopt the status of their husbands. White men and Black women don’t marry at similar rates as Black men and White women. This is due to historical stereotypes causing White men to view Black women as undesirable wives. There might be some truth to this. But, Hooks also discusses how and why Black women view White men as being undesirable for intimate relationships. It’s more likely that both sides just aren’t that into each other.

Hooks mentions Black male and White female relationships but doesn’t detail why they seem so interested in each other. Now, this section of Ain’t I a Woman should be taken with a grain of salt as much of the content is opinion presented as fact. I didn’t get the point of trying to convince Black women and White men to take an interest in each other. These relationships should develop on their own without guilting either side into taking an interest in the other.

I found it interesting that Hooks stated that White women represent a powerless group when not allied with White men. As a result, them marrying Black men is no great threat.

White women might have less power than White men due to their gender. But, they have equal or greater power than other groups due to their race.

Hooks also argues that society frowns on marriages between Black women and White men because they would upset the White power structure. White women are white but their gender has prevented them from upsetting White male power. How then would Black women marrying White men upset the White male power structure? Black women might bypass some limitations of their race by marrying White men. But, their gender would still present limitations.

Also, it’s sexist for Black men to become involved with White women to get revenge on White men. Wouldn’t it also be sexist and all kinds of hypocritical for Black women and White men to become involved for the same reasons? Black women would be getting back at whom by becoming involved with White men? If the reverse is a case of Black men exploiting White women, would we then be advocating for Black women to exploit themselves?

Recommendation

In my quest to read more Black literature, I’ve been especially drawn to books by and about women. But, I haven’t explored many books about gender studies. In the past, I would’ve considered myself a feminist, due to my belief in gender equality. But, as I read more about the Black experience, I’ve come to define myself as being more of a womanist. One of the first authors that I became aware of was Bell Hooks. Several sources recommended Hooks and Ain’t I a Woman as a good introduction to Black feminism/womanism.

Ain’t I a Woman contained some good points but also seemed to talk in circles. It pushed the idea that Black women should be able to decide who they want to be and whom they want to be with as long as that choice doesn’t exclude anyone. (Except maybe Black men.) Understand and fight against both sexism and racism. But, the fight for gender equality should be in partnership with White feminists. Even if White feminists aren’t willing to join or at least acknowledge your fight against racism. Be open to relationships and friendships with White men. Even if White men have a history of sexist and racist oppression and aren’t interested in joining your fight against either.

You might enjoy Ain’t I a Woman if you’re interested in gender studies, especially Black feminism/womanism. It shares some similarities with At the Dark End of the Street. But the books take different approaches to charting the journey of obtaining equality for Black women.

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