Picture Perfect: The Erasure of Black Women in White America

Deriving its name from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech, bell hooks’ ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ reproduces and fleshes out some of the same ideas. She (bell hooks) continues Truth’s conversation, condemning the devaluation of black women in feminist associations, the maltreatment of all slaves (and former slaves), and of all women. The century (and thirty years) difference between the two works is proof that although the feminist paradigm had evolved (over those years), the status of black women in the society had not changed. Hooks’ 1981 ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ contributes to standpoint theory (the notion that the oppressed group stands at a “privileged location” from which it can understand a hegemonic system and epistemology), as well as black feminist theory (which embraces people from all backgrounds who share the same philosophy: the consciousness of black feminism). At a time during which the word ‘Intersectionality’ was not yet formed (or at least, was uncommon), hooks conceptualizes it, bringing into conversations ideas of epistemic violence regarding race, gender, class, age and location.

Hooks discusses this by addressing the erasure of black women (both in conversations and in history) by educational institutions (i.e. schools). Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge – in their book ‘Intersectionality’ – discuss educational systems in America to great lengths. They mention how there are certainly two types of students: one, the ones prepared for life, to whom the teachers give all the time and attention and to whom bright futures belong; and then there is the other kind, the ones destined to fail or end up in prison, the ones for whom education is not a right, but a gift, a priviledge to be begged for. Bell hooks writes about women who belong in the latter group. In the last two chapters of ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ (four and five), hooks starts by drawing from her own personal experiences to criticise racism in America – from the root of it all, school. She writes that, “for most women, the first knowledge of racism as institutionalised oppression is engendered either by direct personal experience or through information gleaned from conversations, books, television, or movies” (119). Because no one taught them in school – because in the public schools they attended, the history books used were tributes to the romantic notion of “the American Dream.” Hooks continues on to point out the loopholes of her education – “we were taught that Columbus discovered America, that “Indians” were scalphunters, killers of innocent women and children; that black people were enslaved because of the biblical curse of Ham, that God “himself” had decreed that they would be hewers of wood, tillers of the field, and bringers of water. No one talked of Africa as the cradle of civilization, of the African and Asian people who came to America before Columbus. No one mentioned mass murders of Native Americans as genocide, or the rape of Native American and African women as terrorism. No one discussed slavery as a foundation for the growth of capitalism. No one described the forced breeding of white wives to increase the white population as sexist oppression” (120). Hooks expands this in the last chapter, declaring that this denial of truth, rewriting of History – this unforgivable way in which America victimizes herself – provides a platform from which black women (in America) can draw raw experiences when they speak about institutionalized racism, imperialism and patriarchy. Therefore, when people like herself, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Sirma Bilge and others write about these things, they are providing seats for black women to not only exist in literature, but also in history.

The expository style hooks adopts in writing ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ enhances the book in different ways: it makes it factual (as it uses quantitative data to support arguments and quotations from certified sources) and easy to read (as every idea is explicitly communicated and not implicitly inferred). But the most stylish and important technique hooks uses is the placing of the book in a global context not only by translations, but also by challenging epistemic violence. When hooks denounces the erasure of black women in history, she is not only doing this for the remembrance of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, she is also extending it to the former European slave owners who have systematically rewritten slavery. When teaching about (or speaking of) the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ it is told from the perspective of charitable, public-spirited white Europeans who introduced clothings, progressiveness and Jesus to black, African savages. No one speaks about the civilization of the (African) continent before the ruthless arrival of the colonizers. Refusing to teach about Queen Dido of present-day Tunisia, Cleopatra of Egypt, or civilizations that existed before the colonization – the Egyptian, the Great Zimbabwean, and the Aksum, among others – is stealing African-Europeans. This identity theft disallows them (the African-Europeans) to place themselves in the society. This same idea is also applicable to Brazil, where the government has denied the existence of race – a deed that not only erases the history of the black people, but also denies the existence of racism, by forbidding its naming. By criticizing epidemic violence (and blaming not individuals, not institutions), hooks’ book makes itself relevant in societies outside hers.

 Reading this book was an interesting and relatable experience for me as a Nigerian-born female living in Paris and reading a black feminism book for a class taught by a white, American woman. Reflecting about my educational experience now, I, too, can relate to hooks. In Nigeria, I went to schools that followed the British educational system – writing IGCSEs in my high school and graduating with a brain full of American presidents from the 1920s, what they did and what they did not do. But at the time of my graduation – at seventeen-years-old – I could tell you which side of Africa Nigeria was in. I could also not name any other African country besides Kenya, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon and South Africa. I had been to Egypt prior to graduation, but I did not know that they were Africans because they were so “white” to me. Because I never discussed colonization with my parents and the books I read were entirely British and American (and I read so many of these), my idea of colonization was that it was for the benefit of the Africans. It was not until I was a student at the ‘African Leadership Academy’ that I learnt that the educational system I could have vouched for had stolen from me and had failed me. This epistemic violence of which hooks so eloquently writes is an imprisonment and the refusal of giving one his/her identity (which is a birth right) is a way of castrating them. Her denouncement of epistemic violence is refreshing.

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