Gloria Jean Watkins is a social activist who became one of the first authors to compile the black female experience though slavery and political emancipation in America. She wrote under the pseudonym of bell hooks, a name borrowed from her maternal grandmother to honor female legacies, and written in lowercase to draw attention to her message rather than herself.
In her book, ‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism’, bell hooks sheds light on the life of the black woman in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. We are introduced to a figure who starts off as a physically and sexually abused, overworked slave, who then becomes a dutiful, sexually abused, overworked mother and further into capitalism’s overworked puppet, who continues to be sexually abused more often than not.
hooks brings out the clumsiness that not only accompanied the infantile stages of feminist ideology but also clung through two whole centuries of struggle. Almost till the end of its vigor (and more often than not, even today) it was only recognized as a white women’s movement. Unfortunately, for black women an active participation in the feminist movement often meant compromising the integrity of the black rights movement and vice versa. Siding with white women implied endorsing their racism while supporting black men further enabled the patriarchal social order. Because the term ‘blacks’ referred to black men and ‘women’ referred to white women, black women existed neither on paper, nor in speech.
bell hooks’ book elaborates how slavery has often been shockingly described as emasculation of black men. This notion leaves the aggressiveness of black female oppression entirely obscured. bell hooks clarifies that it wasn’t sexual lust that instigated the mass rape of black girls/women by white men but the need to obtain absolute allegiance to the white imperial order instead. The terrorism was situated in the demoralisation and dehumanisation of black women. I, a far more privileged 21st century citizen of the world, continue to hear about or witness the demoralisation of women belonging to oppressed caste communities through caste-based sexual violence at close quarters.
‘In fundamentalist Christian teaching woman was portrayed as an evil sexual temptress, the bringer of sin into the world.’ Subsequent socialisation of white men allowed them to rationalise the rape of the female slaves whether they were 14 or 41. Since every black woman was considered one with loose sexual morals, abusing her sexually was deemed not only justified, but also logical. A sociological study of low income black male-female relationships had revealed that most boys referred to black women as “that bitch” or “that whore”, says hooks. Besides acknowledging how demeaning that is to prostitutes, I must ask if such vituperation is all so archaic and unheard of today.
The portrayal of women in the media today has its roots in how women have been identified as sexual temptresses historically. It is quite possibly also why the actress is often scantily clothed and why lives of women on TV revolve entirely around men and why pornography increasingly presents the male perspective.
‘In the 19th century, the growing economic prosperity of white Americans caused them to stray from the stern religious teachings that had shaped the life of the first colonizers.’ hooks alludes that women who were once seen as sexual savages began to be praised as the ‘nobler half of humanity whose duty was to elevate men’s sentiments and inspire their higher impulses.’ The price that women had to pay to transcend to this pedestal was to completely forgo any sexual desire lest their “true motives” be exposed. This explains why we are often compelled to simply respond to romantic advances but not make any of our own. If we are too candid, then we’re too slutty. While white women were comparatively allowed to assume these noble roles, black women were heavily stereotyped in the media, either as overweight women with distorted features or long-suffering, self-sacrificing maternal figures.
This portrayal was used to romanticise the strenuous life of black women, much like our mothers are often revered for managing their children, kitchen, household chores along with full-time jobs. It is not beautiful or godly, it is abuse, it is entitled unpaid labor and it is exploitation.
A recurring theme in the book is the theory of the existence of a black matriarchy. Male social scientists needed to justify ‘the independent and decisive role black women played within the black family structure.’ hooks mocks them by comparing girls playing house/acting as the mother with matriarchs, ‘for in both instances, no real effective power exists that allows the females in question to control their own destiny.’ Today, this myth surfaces when bridegrooms are jokingly warned about their soon to be lost freedom and independence. It is a hackneyed ice breaker during middle and upper class gatherings. Meanwhile, the tunes of “zamana toh hai naukar biwi ka” (“the world today is a servant of the wife”) have motivated many a man into melodramatic dancing at evening parties. Black women were left debating whether they still needed a feminist movement after all.
The book was published in 1981 and discusses the late 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries but the themes taken up in the book are very relevant today. hooks discusses how it wasn’t feminism that got women working but capitalism that needed women to work alongside men to pay the bills. She exposes capitalist patriarchy that fools men into punctually performing dehumanising duties. They restore their lost sense of power by performing violence against women. Furthermore, bell hooks suggests that feminism then offered women ‘not liberation but the right to act as surrogate men.’
She ends on a relatively hopeful note by declaring that the women who have the strength to see past the rape and slaughter must persevere to be ‘no longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid’ so that others can take courage and follow. The book’s titular speech by Sojourner Truth questions why black women aren’t treated with respect. She protests about her thirteen children being sold, she argues against the inhumane treatment at the Women’s Rights Convention in Old Stone Church, Ohio in 1851 and she asks, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Ahsas is a software developer for Morgan Stanley for 8 hours of the day (sometimes 13) and anxious for the rest. She wants to be a writer and/or a professor and/or a sociologist most days of the week, it’s a work in progress. She likes to read and is currently juggling between Sylvia Plath, Rohit De and Swami Vivekananda (debating the ‘Swami’ still). She is scared of people and conversations but if you’re super smart/sensitive/famous/think she should make at least one friend, hit her up on LinkedIn.