Less than a year after my arrival to the U.S.A, and soon after the inauguration of the country’s 45th President, hundreds of thousands of women decided to send a message to the new administration. In what was dubbed the “pussyhat” riots, women across the country marched wearing pink pussy-hats in an attempt to demonstrate solidarity against the President who had confessed on tape to grabbing women by their pussies. I was, as always, in the thick of things – by which I mean I was comfortably sitting at home scrolling ardently through social media trying to catch the most widely shared clicks, clips and bytes. One particular YouTube video caught my eye, and has stayed with me since. In this video, a black man confronts some of the protesting women, and questions their knowledge of the history of the feminist movement in the U.S.A. Scrolling through the comments on the video, I grasped, based on the authority of YouTube commenters, that the women's suffrage movement, a.k.a., the first wave of feminism in the U.S.A, was tainted with racism.
Words and phrases are pliable. Since they work by association, concerted efforts to link a word or a phrase to a certain connotation are often successful in drawing unwarranted reactions against it. Take “political-correctness”, for instance. Taken by itself, it is a meaningless phrase. However, the rightwing ecosystem in the U.S. has so successfully associated a disagreeable meaning to the term that supporters of fascists across the World use the term. “He", for it is usually a he, "says it like it is, and that’s why we like him.”. Does he really? Will he still say it if it is politically inconvenient for him? If it is so politically incorrect, why did so many people support him despite saying it? What about all those times when he demonstrably lied? Try asking such questions and you will be met with circular reasoning. “Feminism” is another such word. By the use of convenient straw(wo)man arguments, the word has been sullied so much that some people disown the word, despite finding nothing disagreeable with what feminism actually entails.
Bell Hooks was an 18-year old right in the middle of the second wave of feminist movement in the U.S.A. when she started writing “ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism”. She would eventually publish it ten years later. The effort spanned a time when African-American women were skeptical of feminism which was largely spearheaded by white women and represented their concerns. The civil rights movement was in the recent past, and racial identity took precedence over gender identity for many African-American women. Bell Hooks argues that sexism and patriarchy are as harmful, if not more, than racism. “Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation— a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology”, she concedes. But faced with a word tainted by association with racism, she does not forego the word. And in that spirit, this book is both a criticism of the feminist movements and a defense of it as a political ideology that needs to be reclaimed. Hooks calls attention to the struggle of being at the intersection of two marginalized groups : “When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” Though I had understood the modern term “intersectionality” in general terms, Ain’t I a Woman is my first scholarly introduction to the concept.
The title of the book is borrowed from Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech of the same title in the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention. Apparently, recent consensus by historians is that the speech was not delivered in the context and not with the words it has been believed to be. But there is definitely a folklorish impact in the words quoted by Bell Hooks. Hooks starts by describing the treatment of black women in slavery, and argues that they were treated worse than black men. She also theorizes on the complex dynamics between white women and black women in a slave household.
It was hard for me to read this book, mostly due to my unfamiliarity with the feminist moment, and more broadly, the history of the U.S.A. This was further complicated by the fact that this is a theoretical book. Bell Hooks rigorously inspects speeches and writings from a wide variety of personalities and finds aspects in them that highlight either a patriarchal or a racist mindset. On one hand, she questions popular feminist literature and surveys of women as focussing solely on white women. “While it is in no way racist for any author to write a book exclusively about white women, it is fundamentally racist for books to be published that focus solely on the American white woman’s experience in which that experience is assumed to be the American woman’s experience”, she points out, and adds that a survey focussing on black women, on the other hand, needs to be qualified as such. Bell Hooks also makes a very relevant argument that applies to privileged people across the World : “In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem that their experience is representative”.
On the other hand, Bell Hooks also points out the sexism within the black community and propagated by its leaders. Starting with Frederik Douglas who, despite his support for women’s suffrage, prioritized voting rights for black people. Implicit in this is the exclusion of black women’s vote. Hooks is more severe on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed and the black power leaders. In this vein, Hooks writes extensively about black male sexism that discourages, among many other things, black women being friendly with white men. Many of these leaders felt having a white female partner, on the flip side, as dominating the white male.
The author makes more interesting observations. For instance, when white women started demanding equal working opportunities, they ignored the fact that black women had been working for long – first as slaves, and then as breadwinners for their families. The fact that black women earned, often in lieu of black men, led to scholarly articles on the "emasculation" of black men by their women, and the "matriarchal" setup of African-American families. Hooks contends that though both these assumptions were readily accepted even within the black community, they were harmful.
ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism is an extensive book that covers a lot of aspects of American culture. Bell Hooks is severe on the very foundations of American ideals - imperialism, racism, sexism and even capitalism. On the desire to find meaningful work, she says “For a few lucky men, for far fewer women, work has occasionally been a source of meaning and creativity. But for most of the rest it remains even now forced drudgery in front of the ploughs, machines, words or numbers—pushing products, pushing switches, pushing papers to eke out the wherewithal of material existence.” Personally, this book was my first step in understanding intersectionality and feminism. I have a lot more to read and learn, starting with Hooks’s other works.