It was 1851, 10 years before the start of the Civil War, and the Women’s Convention of Akron, Ohio, had an explosive surprise in store when Sojourner Truth, a brightly colored woman who had lived through and faced the excesses of the America Slavery took the stage to draw on her experiences and shed light on the different realities of women’s lives. “That man over there says you have to help women get in the cars,” she said, “and hoist them over the ditches, and have the best seat everywhere. No one ever helps me get in cars, or mud puddles, or gives me the best seat. And I am not a woman? This mocking four-word request, repeated several times, underscored the inequalities black women face as well as her right to be treated equally with all men. Almost 130 years later, it has become the title of an iconic book written by a recently deceased revolutionary writer, activist, critic, and scholar (the tiny mystifiers being his way of asserting that his books mattered more than she did).
Ain’t IA Woman: black women and feminism (1981), published when Bell Hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) was 29, took American feminism head on. hooks argued that the American feminist movement, dominated by white middle-class American women, was rooted in a racial imperialism that had misleadingly used the umbrella term “women” throughout American history while still being referring only to the experience of white women. Challenging the feminist effort to equate the oppression of women with the oppression of blacks, Hooks argued that by treating women and blacks as like feminists, showed them that the term “woman” meant white women and that the term “blacks” meant “black men”. Criticizing black male leaders for their support for the black patriarchy, hooks cited by men like Amiri Bakara for whom women’s equality was a white value to be avoided at all costs, being the work of “demons and devilishly influenced” : the “dark brother” “would rather women be women and a man be“ a ma-an. ”The uncomfortable parallels are all too familiar on a global scale in today’s fundamentalisms and misinterpreted nativisms. hooks warned against valuing black women for their presumed strength in the face of victimization: being strong in the face of oppression (which she defined as lack of choice) was not the same thing that overcome oppression, and endurance not to be confused with transformation.
On a personal level, read doorbell hooks when working on Caste as a woman in the early 1990s helped challenge the skepticism of several white feminist colleagues about the need for culturally specific feminisms, although the brackets had already argued for this in Feminist theory: from the margin to the center (1984), arguing that much of feminist theory lacks completeness because it relies on the perspectives of privileged women at the center. She viewed the ethics of Western society as influenced by imperialism and capitalism, teaching that the individual good was more important than the collective good and that individual change was more important than social change (an ethic which unfortunately infected global consciousness over time, distorting priorities in policymaking as well as issues of self-actualization, identity, choice, power, etc.). According to Hooks, the focus on the individual may have explained the feminist tendency to equate individual successes with change, even if the larger masses of women were unaffected. She warned that while the individual successes were an important step forward, they would not end “male domination as a system” – a position justified by the way things have unfolded not only in the United States but in the United States. the world in the four decades since the book was written.
The center-to-margin divide remained the focus of Hook’s eclectic production, as did its belief that unless that divide was satisfactorily crossed, meaningful change was elusive. In a passionate piece titled “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” Hooks lamented the biased way in which the experience of the marginalized has been used by Western postcolonial theorists, accusing Western scholars of wanting to know his experiences but not his own explanations: No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can talk about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Tell me only about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I’ll tell it to you in a new way. Tell it to yourself in such a way that it has become mine, mine. I write to you again, I write to myself again. I am still an author, an authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject and you are now at the center of my speech.
hooks rather offered a “message from this marginal space which is a site of creativity and power, this inclusive space where we recover, where we move in solidarity to erase the colonized / colonizer category. Marginality as a place of resistance. Enter this space. Let’s meet there. Enter this space. We greet you as liberators. It’s heartwarming that while researchers in the West may have ignored her words, the hooks gave other young women of color the confidence to find their own voices. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the most moving tribute to the hooks came from Kovie Biakolo, a young Nigerian journalist who wrote how Answer: Think feminist, Think black (1989) had touched her when she was a young student, transforming the cue from a “personal act of necessary disobedience” into “a policy worthy of being respected” and giving it a language to understand the shame and triumphs of black childhood: “For us Mrs. Hooks was a beacon, and the answer was how we found our way.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and “Family Fables & Hidden Heresies: A Memoir of Mothers and More”, and former Chair of English at the University of Mumbai.