Book Review: Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism by Bell Hooks

Hooks, B. (1981). Ain't I a woman: Black women and feminism (p. 196). Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press.

In examining the title of Hooks’ work Ain’t I a Woman? , it acts as talking back to or paying homage to Sojourner Truth’s speech, which radiates throughout Hooks text. However it is crucial to notice that the title is a question—asking for validation from the masses to be considered  a woman, asking why am I not considered a woman?, and demanding attention for lack of recognition. Ain’t I a Woman—title, book, and speech—act as a call to action to include black women; to see them as equal rather than inferior.  An analysis of Bell Hooks’ work Ain’t I a Woman?, reveals the foundation of  the black woman experience in America—that black women didn’t ask for their position in society, it was forced upon them for being born black and a woman.

This book discusses the main realities that black women face today and how they got to that point. Ain’t I a Woman? Begins with an examination of the black female slave experience, this chapter introduces the reader to the critical reasons behind the condition of black women in the United States.  Additionally, as the reader begins to gain an understanding of the black female slave experience, one cannot fully grasp the concept without including how sexism impacted the lives of black female slaves. Hooks expounds on the realities of the black slave woman and sexism as she discusses that these women held no value outside of— birthing babies (breeding) to make more profit for their white masters, working domestically or in the fields, or sexual exploitation (rape and other abusive acts) – these women were in constant fear of be abused sexually, which acted as a tactic to dehumanize and dominate black slave women.

Hooks uses Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs to support and move her argument forward, when Jacobs states that slavery is worse for black women than it is for black men. She then moves to juxtapose black women and white women – the pure white woman to the immoral black woman—the root of the stereotypes (stigmas) for black women and a veil over white women’s sexuality.

The next section of the book tells the reader that the sexuality and treatment of women, both black and white, were at whims of white men, as a result of a deep hatred of women that is internalized in the psyche of white men because of patriarchy and anti-women religious ideology. In continuing Hooks investigation of black womanhood she emphasizes the false sense of power that white men bestowed on black women by giving them the title of matriarchs—providing black women with a false idea that they have social and political power. The use of word matriarch in terms of black women has redefined the word to be known as a black family without the presence of black men.

Moreover, there is a discussion that focuses on the hard work of black women—how black women were more accessible to different jobs, where black men were not—alluding to an emasculating quality of black woman. The last section of the book is the crux of the entire text—black women and feminism. At this point in the text Hooks begins a dialogue that disassembles the relationship between black women and feminist, which can be described as white women excluding and using black women to execute their own agendas.

 Additionally, the book explains how white women authors and scholars wrote black women out the category of women, claiming the term women-- redefining it to mean only white women.  This chapter of the book communicates to readers that during the first wave of feminism, white women would use the struggles of black people, especially the struggles of black women to support their own movements— using black women as a platform to propel their own issues as they silence, mask, and devalue black womanhood. Ultimately, this relationship dynamic and the exclusion of the black woman identity has resulted in black women not acknowledging what they could possibly gain by becoming involved in the feminist plight.

  In analyzing Hooks book Ain’t I a Woman? The reader beings to understand the complexities of the black woman experience in America. However with this new understanding of the black women and their relationship to feminism, it is important to consider the strength and weakness of the text.  This book does a good job explicating the realities of sexism, patriarchy, and racism as they pertain to the societal boundaries that force black women into the margins of society. Another strength of this book is how Hooks highlights the intersection of black women, using this text to defend and uphold these women, as society and their male counterparts degrade them. I think this aspect is important because even before the term intersectionality came about, she made a space in the women and feminist category that analyzed black women, without placing them in a category of the foreign.  Another aspect of the text I want to praise is Hooks in-depth examination of patriarchy as it pertains to the behavior of black women, black men, white women, and white men and their interactions with one another; the themes of patriarchy and sexism are the drivers of the text and causes of inequality.

Hank Willis Thomas, Ain’t I A Woman, 2013, Liquitex on canvas, installation view. STUDIO LHOOQ/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Hank Willis Thomas, Ain’t I A Woman, 2013, Liquitex on canvas, installation view.

STUDIO LHOOQ/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

As the text has strengths it also has weakness, in my opinion Hooks’ lack of self-insertion into the text hindered her arguments instead of helped her. I believe that it would have been in her and the books best interest for her to be represented in the book more because she is a black woman feminist and her experiences would have reached her audience on an emotional and scholarly level.

The complexities of feminism and American womanhood— excluded the humanity and identity of black women—how society—patriarchy, racism, and sexism worked to erase the integrity of black women. Bell Hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman?, recognizes and discusses why black women are the most disrespected and unprotected persons in America, as a result of being on the bottom of the social, racial, and gender hierarchy, ultimately a system upheld by white men, black men, and white women.

This text also provides social commentary and insight into why the American systems at work are negative feedback loops that decreases the existence of black women and black womanhood. A large reason why we see Hooks writing is  in order to inform, but also make space for black women in the feminist category, so black women can be fought for by the masses and be included as both women and black in efforts to be  liberated from the systems that oppresses them. Her analysis on the complexities of black womanhood proves that a change in the law and time does not equate a change in racism and sexism, specifically in terms of the black woman’s status.

As this text works to investigate the black woman experience in America it does more than analyze the history and systems that work against the black man and woman, but acts a social commentary and call to action to include the black woman rather than exclude her. Bell Hooks’ book Ain’t I a Woman? documents the evolution of black women and black womanhood in America, from slavery to the first feminist movement. In this time frame there are reoccurring themes that work against the plight of the black woman—patriarchy, sexism, and racism—that support a socialized and intergenerational consciousness that perpetuate the ideals of keeping the identity of black women in a marginalized space.  This text works to open the consciousness of its audience about the injustices and blame forced upon a group of women solely because of their race and gender. And so, as we move into the future, black woman must be written, represented, and experienced in a positive light that occupies the category of women and humanity.

Felicia taliaferro