Black Girlhood in ‘Bone Black’ by bell hooks, and ‘Zami’ by Audre Lorde

Francesca Sobande

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Olivia Twist:

For some, the work of bell hooks needs no introduction. It may have represented their entry into Black feminist media and cultural critique, or the starting point of their understanding of the intersections of sexism and racism. I will always remember when I first came across the writings of hooks. I found such excitement in reading a distinctly Black feminist voice that is rarely found in university curricula. As I read hooks’ engaging analysis of media and consumer culture, I thought to myself “I never knew that academic writing could be like this!”.

Amongst the extensive list of hooks’ books are, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies (1996), and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994). During my time as an undergraduate student, the necessary words of Black feminist scholars and critical thinkers, such as hooks, seemed frustratingly absent. With this in mind I write this short essay, as a Black (and mixed) woman, about the beauty and insight to be found in hooks’ memory-infused book Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1997) as well as Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) by Audre Lorde.

I discovered Bone Black during my PhD, which focused on the media representation and experiences of Black women in Britain. This research process expanded my awareness of how many Black feminist writers, artists, and activists are missing and erased from university curricula. I scoured the internet for Black feminist resources which my undergraduate experience had not provided. Having savoured hooks’ work on race, representation, and the spectator gaze of Black women, I was intrigued by the idea of reading a book that focused on her childhood. I ordered Bone Black and impatiently waited for its arrival.

When the book finally came through the post, I unpacked it and gazed upon the red and black cover that framed a black and white photograph of a small young Black girl. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a book adorned with a photo depicting an everyday moment of Black girlhood. Her hair reminded me of mine as a child. When was this picture taken? What was this little girl thinking? Before I had even opened the book, I knew that its content would envelop my thoughts.

Bone Black is one of those books that stays with you. It is rooted in hooks’ memories and, as such, has an intimate and dreamlike quality which brings each paragraph to life. As hooks states, this book “is not an ordinary tale. It is the story of girlhood rebellion, of my struggle to create self and identity distinct from and yet inclusive of the world around me” (hooks, Bone Black xi). In learning about the life of hooks as a young child experiencing Southern Black culture, the reader is taken on a journey of self-reflection as they explore “the inner life of a girl inventing herself — creating the foundation of self-hood and identity that will ultimately lead to the fulfilment of her true identity—becoming a writer” (hooks, Bone Black xi). There is an empowering sense of self-actualisation underpinning this book.

Bone Black touches on a broad spectrum of themes, such as issues concerning colourism. Colourism relates to how light-skinned Black women are societally favoured in comparison to dark-skinned Black women, who bear the brunt of oppression at the intersection of racism and sexism. Rightfully so, hooks does not shy away from exploring similarities and differences between the lives of Black women, whose experiences have often been reduced to oppressive stereotypes throughout history.

I read hooks’ Bone Black and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde in close succession. Navigating through their brilliant works transported me into a world of memoirs of Black women’s childhoods. While these books convey memories filled with the joy that can pepper some childhoods, they do not steer away from issues including angst and confusion, religious influences, sexual exploration, traumatic education experiences, as well as the abusive power that is all too readily wielded over young Black girls. Just as hooks paints a vibrant picture of her childhood, so too does Lorde. Through Zami, Lorde also captures the difficulties involved in the lives of Black girls who do not fit the prescribed patriarchal and heteronormative mould they are expected to.

Writing about both hooks and Lorde in this essay seemed essential as the decolonisation of curricula is dependent on a range of resources extending far beyond the text of one writer. Both Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name are part of a wider canon of literature on Black girlhood and the memoirs of Black feminist writers-particularly those of Black lesbian activists. This literature offers much to a range of disciplines, including Gender and Sexuality Studies, Women’s Studies, Education Studies, Sociology, Media and Cultural Studies, Child and Youth Studies, and English Literature. These disciplines would benefit from embracing further work concerning the lives of Black women, especially written in their own words. I believe the writing and self-reflective spirit of hooks and Lorde can facilitate the development of learning and teaching environments where the contribution of Black women plays a driving role rather than simply being acknowledged.

Works cited

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press, 1981.

—. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.

—. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Feminism. Routledge, 1994.

—. Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. Routledge, 1996.

—. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Crossing Press, 1982.

About the author

Dr. Francesca Sobande is a Lecturer in Marketing and Advertising (Edge Hill University). Her research focuses on issues regarding identity, ideology, and inequality. In particular, her work explores the experiences of Black women, and the intersections of racism and sexism amidst digital, media, and marketplace settings.

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