Ain’t I a Woman – bell hooks
The site at which Black women experience subjugation has been historically, and continues to be, located at the crossroads of, at the very least, their race and their gender. In her book, Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks argues for the recognition of the intersecting oppressions Black women encounter by analyzing the context of significant historical events in the lives of Black people, and particularly Black women. In addition, she emphasizes the hardship this divide of oppression causes Black women on a regular basis as it at times requires them to choose between prioritizing their Blackness or their being a woman. Hooks divides the book into five major sections, Sexism and the Black Female, Slave Experience Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood, The Imperialism of Patriarchy, Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability, and Black Women and Feminism in order to pinpoint the origins, and trace the lineage of the very specific intersectional race and gender based oppression experienced by Black women.
Hooks’ begins by focusing on the ways in which Black female slaves, although not historically remembered so, had to endure very harsh, anti-woman treatment, in addition to the racist one that the Black men endured (7). While the male slaves were exploited for their labor on the field, females slaves exploited for their labor the field, in the houses as a caretakers or housekeepers, or as ‘breeders’ of new born slaves (28-9). While the male slaves experienced intense physical brutality in order to achieve submissiveness, female slaves endured this as well as well as sexual assault, most prominent between the ages of 13-16, and the harming of their children; relatedly, they were coerced into “prostituting themselves” in exchange for their safety, safety of their children, food, and water (26).
It is important to note here that this would not have been these women’s first encounter with sexist behavior as that was something they most likely has already experienced at the hands of Black men, rather, this might have been their first experience with sexist behavior inspired also by racist hatred; thus, marking the start of a race and gender based subjugation that continues to haunt the lives of Black women in contemporary Eurocentric societies (87).
Although patriarchy did in fact exist on its own in Africa, and African women were consistently subjected to it, the slave owners introduced news ways of subjugating women (87-8). These new forms of female subjugation when taken up by Black men, worked to create a form of male bonding between Black and white men. So, as described by hooks, while racism has always been a force that has worked to separate black men and white men, sexism has always been a force that has united them (99). Unfortunately for them, Black women continued to be the target of violence and assertion of male dominance by both of these groups of men.
Black women’s subjugation and violation continues to be diminished and minimalized through its being referred to as a thing of the past, rather than as a thing with a long lasting impact (30). This inaccurate claim works to discount the reality that the violently sexist and racist brutalities that Black women endured throughout slavery set a precedent for the now deeply rooted institutionalized marginalization and sexual exploitation faced by Black women on a daily basis; contemporarily, Black women continue to be used as means to an end for achieving the ultimate levels of control and conformity, and thus profit, by those in power. It is important to actively emphasize that, because of this, most Black women constantly find themselves without allies that are sensitive to their intersecting identities; they are often forced to either identify with their Blackness, in which case their experiences with sexist behaviors are discounted, or they identify with their woman-ness, in which cased their experiences with racist behavior are discounted.
It is because of this sense of dysphoria felt in both Black movements and women’s movements that there was a need for the creation of specifically a Black feminism. Inspired by the likes of Sojouner Truth, “a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights activist,” Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a black woman activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, a Black woman suffragette, and Anna Cooper, a Black feminist in support of higher education, Black feminism centers around the lived experiences of Black women and addresses both Black women’s race and gender (160-73). These Black women’s rights activists differed from most of the white feminists in that they possessed the lived experiences necessary to properly inform their activism, and performed their activism in a manner that was non-exclusive of other populations.
Kerry Washington performing Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman”