Hooks wrote Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism when she was only 18. She was in college at the time, in the 1970s, and had grown increasingly angry over what she saw as the constant mistreatment of black women.
Although hooks wrote the book then, it was not published until much later when she was more established. In the book, hooks identifies everyone as the enemy of black women. Even black women themselves are to blame in some ways for their continued mistreatment because they permit it to go unchecked. Black women who have children with men who are then permitted to abandon them are to blame because they should stand up for themselves. The message that hooks sends is more empowering than that, however, as she argues that these women have become so accustomed to mistreatment that it is difficult for them to see past it to empower themselves.
White people have wronged black women in a number of ways. White men are the center of racism, hooks argues. She traces the sad and violent history of African women who were brought to the United States on slave ships and then raped and beaten and forced to work the fields alongside the men. These African women became American women who helped build the nation but never saw the fruits of their labors. White women have contributed because they have denied their gender in order to hold hands with their race. White women have seen black women being mistreated and have done nothing, and hooks believes that idleness is wrong.
Black men are not exempt from the book either. They have in general bought into the notion of black as degraded and bad. Black men, hooks believes, try to emulate white people in their behavior and their desire for white women.
Hooks begins the book on the slave trade ships, and she ends it in her contemporary America. Along the way she discusses the role of the black woman in slave times. Black women often worked in cotton fields 14 or more hours per day. Many of them cooked for white families and cared for white children while being forced to abandon their own children.
Hooks moves her story into the post-Civil War era and explains how sharecropping and the Jim Crow system continued to cause the mistreatment of black women. They now worked on rented land, often on their own, and still could not make ends meet.
Although hooks has since taken a step back from the radical positions she took in Ain't I A Woman, titled after a Sojourner Truth speech against slavery, she contends that she stands by the basics truths of the book. Black women have been treated unfairly, and she believes that they need to learn to stand up for themselves. Black women are still the victims of domestic violence at alarming rates. They make less on average than white people or black men. They are not represented well in higher education. Hooks believes that all of these problems can be traced to the way black women have been treated since their arrival in the United States.
This book has become a foundational text in many gender studies and African American studies courses across the nation. It serves as an introduction to the idea that feminism is not all the same and that black women sometimes have very different needs from either white women or black men. Her work is one of the first to address the need of feminism to be multicultural. Today, however, her work stands among many celebrating all women of color, including Latinas, Asians, and Africans.
Hooks remains one of the foremost experts on the experiences of black women in the United States. She continues to write and teach and continues to preach the message of empowerment to black women, and now all women, across the country. Her work gives credence to the message in this book as she is the empowerment she discusses.
By Julia Mercer