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Abstract

Bone Black represents bell hooks' lifestory of survival amidst a harsh racist and sexist environment in the South of the United States in the 1950s. Her childhood is clearly dominated by a feeling of estrangement and loneliness together with the pain of being the different one, the problematic child, the rebel. Out of the vignettes that compose her autobiography, those related to her maternal grandparents enclose the author's most cherished memories, steeped in the magic of storytelling, quilting and the life-giving communion with the earth and the natural elements. It is in the nurturing wisdom of the old and in the embracing welcome of books that hooks will eventually find what she was most yearning for, a way to belong
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THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK:
MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
SUSANA VEGA-GONZÁLEZ
Universidad de Oviedo
ABSTRACT. Bone Black represents bell hooks’ lifestory of survival
amidst a harsh racist and sexist environment in the South of the United
States in the 1950s. Her childhood is clearly dominated by a feeling of
estrangement and loneliness together with the pain of being the different
one, the problematic child, the rebel. Out of the vignettes that compose her
autobiography, those related to her maternal grandparents enclose the
author’s most cherished memories, steeped in the magic of storytelling,
quilting and the life-giving communion with the earth and the natural
elements. It is in the nurturing wisdom of the old and in the embracing
welcome of books that hooks will eventually find what she was most
yearning for, a way to belong.
1. INTRODUCTION.
In their struggle to speak in their own voices and make them heard,
ethnic women writers have found in autobiography an apt means of storying
their lives from their own personal perspective, as subjects, providing “an
alternate version of reality seen from the point of view of the black female
experience” (Braxton 1989: 201). In Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, bell
hooks writes about the world and her black community as perceived by a
southern working-class black girl. hooks’ childhood is a story of lonelines and
misunderstanding, fear and incomprehension, but above all it is a story of a
rebellious spirit coupled with an eternal yearning for belonging. Well-known
for her outspoken insightful feminist books, bell hooks delves into the inner
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darkness of her soul to search for her “way home”, a sense of belonging as a
child, through the complex paths of memory that lead into the past. As she
wrote in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1991: 40, 147),
“memory need not be a passive reflection, a nostalgic longing for things to be
as they once were; it can function as a way of knowing and learning from the
past” and it “serves to illuminate and transform the present.” Throughout her
autobiography, black southern folk and culture are portrayed and reclaimed as
the foundations from which her selves stemmed. The power of words in
storytelling, the intertwined histories in the quilting tradition and the home
remedies all added to the magic of those childhood years that were
“sometimes paradisical and at others times terrifying” (hooks 1996: xi).
Whether paradisical or terrifying, those childhood memories must be rescued
from the past and the danger of fading into oblivion, they must be turned into
written traces of a bittersweet journey into adulthood and stand out as the
reminder that “pain can be a constructive sign of growth” (hooks 1989: 103).
Being non-conformist and speaking out can sometimes be very painful but, as
bell hooks very well knows (1993: 25), “there is no healing in silence”.
Bone Black is presented as a set of memory sketches of things past and
of things imagined and dreamed. It is an account not only of events but also,
and most importantly, of the impressions they left on the author’s mind; as she
states in the foreword (hooks 1996: xv): “[e]voking the mood and sensibility of
moments, this is an autobiography of perceptions and ideas. The events
described are always less significant than the impressions they leave on the
mind and heart”. The controversial dialectics between fact and fiction in the
autobiographic genre are thus resolved by hooks, who is also aware of the
occasional uncertainty as to the truth and reality of some memories, something
that makes her realise the extent to which each autobiography is just one of
various possible versions of a life, the storying of events as the author
remembers and invents them, rather than as they actually happened (hooks
1989: 157). Therefore, hooks (1996: xiv) acknowledges the important mythical
and imaginative components in her autobiography, to the point of arguing that
“[t]his is autobiography as truth and myth”. In this respect, she finds her text
reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s Zami in her assertion that, while she was writing
her lifestory,
I was compelled to face the ficiton that is a part of all retelling,
remembering. I began to think of the work I was doing as both fiction
and autobiography. It seemed to fall in the category of writing that Audre
Lorde, in her autobiographically-based work Zami, calls bio-
mythography. As I wrote, I felt that I was not as concerned with
accuracy of detail as I was with evoking in writing the state of mind, the
spirit of a particular moment. (1989: 157-58)
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2. ALIENATION AND THE PROCESS TOWARDS BELONGING.
Born in Kentucky in 1955, bell hooks lived her childhood years in the 60s,
a time that was marked by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts
Movement. However, the black woman was relegated to the household and
the children, and black feminists like hooks herself (1989: 5) have repeatedly
denounced the sexist nature of these movements, which cared for the interests
of black males. All throughout her autobiography, there is a recurrent
emphasis on alienation and the ensuing constant yearning for a feeling of
belonging. hooks, the child, experiences an uncomfortable estrangement not
only from her segregated school but also inside her own family at home.
Gradually she finds out that the only place where she belongs is herself and
the books she so eagerly reads, a delight that foreshadows her future as a
writer, “creating the foundation of selfhood and identity that will ultimately
lead to the fulfillment of her true destiny —becoming a writer” (hooks 1996:
xi). Her loneliness and the rejection and criticism she encountered in her
parents and siblings set the pace to the soothing welcoming refuge of
literature, in spite of her parents’ warning that reading so much would
confine her to a world of madness: “I hear again and again that I am crazy,
that I will end up in a mental institution. This is my punishment for wanting
to finish reading before doing my work” (hooks 1996: 101).
The main problem hooks presents as a child, and above all, a female
child, is her rebelliousness and her way of constantly talking back to adults.
She observes the world and, not agreeing with or not understanding some of
the things she sees, she is always ready to speak her mind and disobey the
established or expected rules. But, as she would later write (1989: 16): “It is
silly to think that one can challenge and also have approval”. Therefore, she
finds but alienation and loneliness, becoming a pariah: “They are glad to see
her go, they feel as if something had died that they had long waited to be rid
of but were not free to throw away. Like in church, they excommunicate her”
(hooks 1996: 111). Part of the alienation the protagonist feels stems from the
lack of understanding her mother shows. For her, hooks is the problematic
one, the rebel who never obeys, the transgressor of the family. This is
particularly seen during the time when her mother has to spend some time in
hospital suffering from what seemed to be a serious ailment. While all the
family members visit her, her disobedient daughter, once again, refuses to
follow suit to her mother’s despair. What she does not know then is that the
true reason for her daughter’s decision is one of love and sadness:
They say she is near death, that we must go and see her because it may
be the last time. I will not go [...] I refuse to go. I cannot tell them why,
that I do not want to have the last sight of her be there in the white
THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK: MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
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hospital bed, surrounded by strangers and the smell of death. She does
not die. She comes home angry, not wanting to see the uncaring
daughter, the one who would not even come to say good-bye [...]
Upstairs in my hiding place I cry [...] She sends me orders to stop crying
right this minute [...] that she should be crying to have such a terrible
daughter. When I go to her, sitting on the bed, with my longing and my
tears she knows that she breaks my heart a little. She thinks I break her
heart a little. She cannot know the joy we feel that she is home, alive.
(hooks 1996:144).
It is a mother alive and moving around the house, not dying, that the
daughter wants to see and remember in her future memories. However, she is
aware that even if she tried to explain herself, she would not be understood
and her mother would not believe her inner happiness about having her back
at home, alive. The undeniable emotional gap between mother and daughter
highly contributes to hooks’ alienation and enhances her yearning for
belonging, but she is adamant about being a warrior and speaking her mind,
despite familial confrontations.
hooks’ love for her mother is fully expressed in another rebellious act
after she has been beaten up by her husband. Living in a patriarchal society
and community, hooks’ mother falls prey to male domestic violence and
power, something that does not escape her daughter’s attention: “She has
chosen. She has decided in his favor. She is a religious woman. She has been
told that a man should obey god, that a woman should obey man, that
children should obey their fathers and mothers, particularly their mothers. I
will not obey” (hooks 1996: 151). This is what the daughter thinks on one
occasion when, after trying to help her battered mother, she is once again
reproached her disobedience and punished for her not understanding the
established premise that she must grow up to be a good subservient wife and
mother. This episode brings about hooks’ negation of her mother:
She says that she punishes me for my own good. I do not know what it
is I have done this time. I know that she is ready with her switches, that
I am to stand still while she lashes out again and again. In my mind there
is the memory of a woman sitting still while she is being hit, punished.
In my mind I am remembering how much I want that woman to fight
back. Before I can think clearly my hands reach out, grab the switches,
are raised as if to hit her back [...] She is shocked [...] I tell her I do not
have a mother. (hooks 1996: 152)
Finally the daughter stands still and suffers the psychological and the
physical pain since she is sorry to have hurt her mother. This scene will mark
their future relationship, as for hooks this is an unquestionable act of betrayal
she cannot understand: “I cannot understand her acts of betrayal. I cannot
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241
understand that she must be against me to be for him. He and I are strangers”
(hooks 1996: 152).
Apart from books, the distressed bell hooks also finds solace in Nature. In
keeping with her closeness to the natural realm, she implicitly and
unconsciously identifies with abandoned Christmas trees, “standing naked in
the snow after the celebrations are over” (hooks 1996: 2), as naked and lonely
as herself. In Nature she finds the understanding she is denied by her fellow
humans and this communion not only with trees but also with the animal
world is one of the childhood memories engraved in hooks’ memory:
She liked to walk to a favorite tree up the hill and play with a bright
green snake that lived there, a green tree snake. She knew how to talk
to the snake and how to listen. She told the snake about the problems
she was having learning her left from her right. The snake understood
her frustration, her tears. (hooks 1996: 11)
In her book Mythatypes: Signatures and Signs of African/Diaspora and
Black Goddesses, Alexis Brooks DeVita (2000: 51) argues that trees play a
crucial role in the life of African-descent women who have lost their mothers.
For them trees are spiritual mothers and signs of power “beyond death, and
beyond social injustice, deprivation, or personal assault”. We could go even
further here and suggest that trees represent a symbol of empowerment and
can actually be seen as spiritual mothers not only by motherless daughters, like
Celie in The Color Purple (Brooks DeVita 2000: 50), but also by daughters who,
having a mother, feel psychologically and spiritually bereaved, metaphorically
motherless. hooks’ autobiography is rich in nurturing images of natural
elements; from her grandmother Saru, the storyteller, she learns about the vital
ties with the earth and the things that come from it: “She needs to have her
fingers in the soil, to touch dirt. She tells me this is part of her mother’s legacy
[...] From her mother she learned ways to make things grow” (hooks 1996: 52).
And this is one of the legacies Saru tries to pass on to hooks: “She tells me that
the best way to live in the world is to learn to make things grow” (hooks 1996:
60) since “[c]ommunion with life begins with the earth” (hooks 2000: 16).
Apart from the tradition of storytelling and the importance of the
closeness to the earth, hooks learns from Saru about the black art of
quiltmaking. We are told that the old woman spends long hours making quilts
from scraps of outgrown clothes from different family members. To such
extent is quilting relevant for hooks that she introduces this recurrent image at
the very beginning of her autobiography:
MAMA HAS GIVEN me a quilt from her hope chest. It is one her
mother’s mother made. It is a quilt of stars —each piece taken from
faded-cotton summer dresses— each piece stitched by hand [...] Mama
THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK: MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
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tells us —her daughters— that the girls in her family started gathering
things for their hope chest when they were very young [...] I am glad she
shares the opening of the chest this time with all of us. I am clutching
the gifts she hands to me, the quilt, the beaded purse. (1996: 1, 2)
Quilting has traditionally been seen as a way of creating bonds among
African American women and, more specifically between mothers and
daughters. The delight hooks finds in sharing the opening of the hope chest
and witnessing her mother’s tears from bittersweet memories is actually one of
the best memories hooks has of her mother. But it is her mother’s mother,
Saru, the one hooks most identifies with quiltmaking and all that it implies and
one of the persons she learns more from. Her memories of Saru tell her that
she was a real warrior, a fighter, a storyteller and interpreter of dreams. About
Saru we read, “[w]hen she is not fighting she is quietly making quilts. Sewing
the small pieces of fabric together eases her mind” (hooks 1996: 54).
Quiltmaking is passed on to hooks by her grandmother as an act of healing
through which a woman learns patience (hooks 1996: 54) but also as a mode
of storytelling, since each piece contains one or several stories: “Baba would
show her quilts and tell their stories, giving the history [...] of chosen fabrics
to individual lives [...] To her mind these quilts were maps charting the course
of our lives. They were history as life lived” (hooks 1991: 120).
Like the small pieces that form a quilt, hooks’ memories are arranged
together in her autobiography. If quilts enclose bits and pieces of cherished
histories from the past, hooks’ book encloses treasured childhood memories
in the literary hope chest of her self. Quiltmaking gave black women the
opportunity to tell their particular histories and stories, apart from the history
imposed from outside by the white man. Likewise, hooks composes her
autobiography from the memory traces of past events, both real and imagined,
and also from hints of the past such as smells, colours and dreams. As Margot
Anne Kelley (1994: 66) concludes when dealing with quilting and African
American women novelists like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Gloria Naylor,
these literary women rely on partial, local, and fragmented knowledge
to make a narrative. The writers acknowledge that both the quilts and
the narratives —as well as the beings who are their makers— are
constructed. However, they regard the need to piece and seam not as a
reason for despair but as an opportunity to rework the outmoded,
whether it be in clothing, novel structures or conceptions of the self.
Like novels —and quilts— autobiographies are also constructed versions
of a life, where the author includes or leaves out certain parts, either
intentionally or because her memory does not have access to them. But even
those absent parts add meaning to the autobiography. After reading her
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finished lifestory, hooks is surprised at her not having included more incidents
involving her sisters but only her brother, something that, as she concludes
(hooks 1989: 159), is a proof of her alienation from her sisters during
childhood. This “sense of estrangement” was manifest and present in her
autobiography through absence.
3. THE RE-BIRTH OF A RE-MEMBERED SELF.
As we have seen before, hooks’ life is marked by the powerful presence
of isolation, loneliness, rejection and misunderstanding, all of which had made
her develop undesired bitter feelings towards her mother to the point of
leading to utter rejection. Her love for her mother is clearly stifled by a strong
feeling of resentment. However, by negating her mother, she is actually
negating herself, that rebellious nature inside that does not let her belong and
be completely loved by her mother and the rest of the family:
To me, telling the story of my growing up years was intimately
connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to
die. I wanted to kill that self in writing [...] It was clearly the Gloria Jean
of my tormented and anguished childhood that I wanted to be rid of, the
girl who was always wrong, always punished, always subjected to some
humiliation or other, always crying, the girl who was to end up in a
mental institution because she could not be anything but crazy, or so
they told her [...] By writing the autobiography, it was not just this Gloria
I would be rid of, but the past that had a hold on me, that kept me from
the present. I wanted not to forget the past but to break its hold. This
death in writing was to be liberatory. (hooks 1989: 155)1
Taking control over her subjectivity and identity, hooks intends to
rewrite herself or, as Audre Lorde (1984: 173) puts it, “to mother” herself,
“claiming some power over who [she] choose[s] to be”. In keeping with the
image of mothering is the recurrent metaphor of the cave. Apart from Saru,
Daddy Gus, hooks’ maternal grandfather, is a vital cornerstone in her lonely
childhood. For her, he is the exception to the rule of patriarchal oppression
which her own father so perfectly embodies: “I need his presence in my life
to learn that all men are not terrible, are not to be feared” (hooks 1996: 85).
Daddy Gus holds the key to the spiritual world and to inner knowledge. In
hooks’ memory he is associated with the realm of dreams and, most
importantly, with the multilayered image of the cave, since “[h]is voice comes
from some secret place of knowing, a hidden cave where the healers go to
1. Gloria Jean is bell hooks’ original name. In Talking Back (1989: 160) she explains how
she decided to take a pseudonym for her works, which was the name of her great-
grandmother on her mother’s side.
THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK: MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
hear messages from the beloved” (hooks 1996: 86). She remembers him
through a dream in which they both run away together holding hands; after
getting rid of their clothes and being free of family ties and memory, they enter
the darkness of a cave. Once there, they make a fire through which the old
man can communicate with the spirits while the granddaughter bears witness
silently, leaving the cave after the encounter. This symbolic passage encloses
the rite of passage of the girl into the world of self-knowledge and
self-creation out of the pain she is afflicted by. At this stage it is necessary to
point out the various implications of the cave as metaphor. According to
Mircea Eliade (1994: 58), caves are the settings of many initiation rites since
they are symbols of the womb of Mother Earth, where the novice recovers the
embryonic situation to be born again. As we have already seen, hooks’
estrangement from her mother encourages her to fill that gap with natural
elements with which she feels identified, thus undergoing a symbolic return to
Mother Earth. Notwithstanding these back-to-nature connections, the visit to
the cave mainly suggests the search for inner knowledge, the return to the
inside dark cave of the self to heal the wounds and be reborn. As a matter of
fact, this new birth comes from the protagonist’s own womb of self-
knowledge and her realisation that “inside all of us is a place for healing, [and]
that we have only to discover it” (hooks 1996: 86). And this is what hooks
discovers at the end of her childhood autobiography, the dark, bone black
inner cave which is her home.
Black also plays a crucial role in hooks’ childhood and girlhood. Being
forbidden by her mother to wear black clothes, just because “black is a
woman’s color” (hooks 1996: 176), she hankers after this colour, which is a
part of her ethnic identity. This is why she feels the comfort and reassurance
of the darkness inside the dreamed cave, far from the colour prejudice in the
adult world she does not understand. In the same way she does not
comprehend adults’ worries about money, she does not understand why she
has to play with a blond and white Barbie doll instead of a doll with her own
skin colour. Barbie dolls seem fake to her, nothing like her, so she just
destroys them. Despite her mother’s insistence that she and her sisters should
play with those wonderful Barbies, she is adamant that she will only keep
brown dolls:
She tells us that I, her problem child, decided out of nowhere that I did
not want a white doll to play with, I demanded a brown doll, one that
would look like me [...] I had begun to worry that all this loving care we
gave to the pink and white flesh-colored dolls meant that somewhere left
high on the shelves were boxes of unwanted, unloved brown dolls
covered in dust. I thought that they would remain there forever,
orphaned and alone, unless someone began to want them, to want to
give them love and care, to want them more than anything. (hooks 1996:
24)
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245
Far from celebrating her having light brown skin and almost straight hair,
as adult women tell her she should do, hooks just finds her luck a cause of
anger (hooks 1996: 9). So much is this the case that she ends up refusing to
have her hair pressed like all the other black women, as in this ritual she
perceives an act of ethnic betrayal which she will not abide by:
Secretly I had hoped that the hot comb would transform me, turn the
thin good hair into thick nappy hair, the kind of hair I like and long for
[...] Later, a senior in high school, I want to wear a natural, an Afro. I
want never to get my hair pressed again. It is no longer a rite of
passage, a chance to be intimate in the world of women. The intimacy
masks betrayal. Together we change ourselves. The closeness is an
embrace before parting, a gesture of farewell to love and one another.
(hooks 1996: 93).
From hooks’ identification with the colour black stems the very title of her
girlhood autobiography. Once again, her learning about the definition of bone
black is accompanied by symbolic associations pertaining to her female and
ethnic identity. When at school she tries to paint the paintings she had seen
inside the cave of her dreams, she thinks of black as the starting colour, in
particular bone black, “a carbonaceous substance obtained by calcifying bones
in closed vessels” (hooks 1996: 170). This definition she comes across in a
book on the history of pigments triggers off connections with the sacred
purifying fire in the cave: “Burning bones, that’s what it makes me think about
—flesh on fire, turning black, turning into ash” (hooks 1996: 170). Thus, in
bone black are contained several traditional components of rites of passage,
such as fire, ashes and the cave symbolized by the closed vessels.2Therefore,
we can argue that bone black is hooks’ own rebirth into maturation; by going
inside her inner cave, by being burnt in the fire of redemption, she is reduced
to ashes only to be reborn out of them like the Phoenix. She is reborn to a
world of potentiality and power, a world where she belongs, leaving behind
her anguished search for a spiritual home. Like Velma Henry in Toni Cade
Bambara’s The Salt Eaters,3hooks overcomes her destructive desire to jump off
2. Apart from black, the colour red pervades hooks’ account —and it is no mere
coincidence that red is the dominant colour of the book cover. According to Robert Farris
Thompson (1983: 6), “for many Yoruba, red [...] signals àshe and potentiality”. It is
interesting to note here the phonetic similarity between the terms “àshe” (spiritual power,
energy to make things happen) and “ash”.
3. When reflecting upon autobiographical writing, hooks (1989: 156) mentions this novel
as an example of the hold the past can have on a person, hindering a complete healing in
the present, as it happens with the protagonist of The Salt Eaters, Velma Henry. At the end
of the novel, however, Velma is healed with the help of a female healer.
THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK: MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
246
the cliff out of despair, loneliness and helplessness; instead she rescues
herself: “I read poems. I write. That is my destiny. Standing on the edge of the
cliff about to fall into the abyss, I remember who I am. I am a young poet, a
writer. I am here to make words. I have the power to pull myself back from
death —to keep myself alive” (hooks 1996: 182). The closing pages of the
book include a final tribute to hooks’ beloved grandfather, Daddy Gus, who
guided her in her particular journey. From him she learns that there are “lots
of ways to belong in this world” and that she is supposed to find out where
she belongs (hooks 1996: 183). The final catharsis creeps quietly, yet
unrelentingly, in the night, like a snake. The power of darkness and the colour
black embrace a recumbent body:
At night when everyone is silent and everything is still, I lie in the
darkness of my windowless room, the place where they exile me from
the community of their heart, and search the unmoving blackness to see
if I can find my way home. I tell myself stories, write poems, record my
dreams. In my journal I write—I belong in this place of words. This is
my home. This dark, bone black inner cave where I am making a world
for myself. (hooks 1996: 183)
Thus, as we have pointed out before, Bone Black is another example of
the power of the word —written and oral— and the power of memory and
imagination. It definitely proves to be what Jennifer Browdy De Hernandez
terms “a writerly form of survival” (259),4where, far from getting rid of the part
of herself and of the past she rejects, bell hooks comes to terms with it and
learns to put the broken pieces of her heart and her self back together again.
All throughout the book we can perceive hooks’ internal battle between the
self who wants to be absolutely her own free construction and the self who
yearns for belonging within family and community, only to find out that they
do not usually go hand in hand, not at least for a black woman and even less
for a black female child. hooks herself (1989: 159) makes the point when
reflecting on the act of autobiographical writing:
In the end I did not feel as if I had killed the Gloria of my childhood.
Instead I had rescued her. She was no longer the enemy within, the
little girl who had to be annihilated for the woman to come into being.
In writing about her, I reclaimed that part of myself I had long ago
SUSANA VEGA-GONZÁLEZ
4. De Hernandez (1998: 259) employs this expression to refer to Anzaldúa’s Borderlands
and Lorde’s Zami, who also use autobiography to create “a space in which to enact their
transformative vision of the self as multiple, heterogeneous, and profoundly woman-
oriented”.
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rejected, left uncared for, just as she had often felt alone and uncared for
as a child. Remembering was part of a cycle of reunion, a joining of
fragments, “the bits and pieces of my heart” that the narrative made
whole again.
4. CONCLUSION.
As her grandmother used to do when making a quilt, by writing her
childhood memories hooks rearranges pieces of her life into a liberating
whole, coming to terms with the rejected self. In this respect, this
autobiography responds to the “therapoetic” quality Kenyon and Randall
(1997: 2) attribute to the telling of one’s lifestory, since “storytelling (and
storylistening) is not merely a method for solving particular problems that crop
up in our lives, but has an importance and integrity all its own, as a means to
personal wholesness”.
Saru’s prediction that her granddaughter is to be a warrior comes true, as
she learns that you do not have to surrender to belong. While Daddy Gus tells
her that there are many ways of belonging, her grandmother lets her know that
“there are many battlegrounds in life” (hooks 1996: 51). Likewise, there may
be different heterogeneous selves within a person which must be reconciled
into wholeness. And the autobiography serves this conciliatory purpose for
bell hooks, proving that in this genre “there is a ‘pragmatics of representation’
where truth is less the issue than ‘the purpose an autobiographical statement
serves in the life and circumstances of its author and readers’” (Gagnier 1991:
4, qtd. in Anderson 2001: 91). Audre Lorde (1984: 174, 146-47) makes the
concluding point: “I have to learn to love myself before I can love you or
accept your loving [...] Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me
to diminish me. I am who I am, doing what I came to do”.
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Anderson, L. 2001. Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge.
Anzaldúa, G. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San
Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Bambara, T. C. 1992 (1980). The Salt Eaters. New York: Vintage.
Braxton, J. M. 1989. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition
Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Brooks DeVita, A. 2000. Mtythatypes: Signatures and Signs of
African/Diaspora and Black Goddesses. Westport, Connecticut:
Greenwood.
De Hernandez, J. B. 1998. “Mothering the Self: Writing through the
Lesbian Sublime in Audre Lorde’s Zami and Gloria Anzaldúa’s
THE DIALECTICS OF BELONGING IN BELL HOOKS’ BONE BLACK: MEMORIES OF GIRLHOOD
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Borderlands/La Frontera”. Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and
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Article
"In this illuminating study Joanne Braxton shows the continuity and tradition in the writing of Afra-American women. An important work for teachers and students of Literature, History, and Women's Studies." —Gerda Lerner "As black American women, we are born into a mystic sisterhood, and we live our lives within a magic circle, a realm of shared language, reference, and allusion within the veil of our blackness and our femaleness. We have been as invisible to the dominant culture as rain; we have been knowers, but we have not been known." Joanne Braxton argues for a redefinition of the genre of black American autobiography to include the images of women as well as their memoirs, reminiscences, diaries, and journals—as a corrective to both black and feminist literary criticism. Beginning with slave narratives and concluding with modern autobiography, she deals with individual works as representing stages in a continuum and situates these works in the context of other writings by both black and white writers. Braxton demonstrates that the criteria used to define the slave narrative genre are inadequate for analyzing Harriet "Linda Brent" Jacobs's pseudonymously published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). She examines "sass" as a mode of women's discourse and a weapon of self-defense, and she introduces the "outraged mother" as a parallel to the articulate hero archetype. Not even emancipation authorized black women to define themselves or address an audience. Late-nineteenth-century accounts in the form of confessional spiritual autobiographies, travelogue/adventure stories, and slave memoirs enabled such women as Jarena Lee, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Elizabeth Keckley, Susie King Taylor, as well as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to tell their own extraordinary stories and to shed light on the thousands of lives obscured by illiteracy and sexual and racial oppression. In her diaries, Charlotte Forten Grimké, the gifted poet, epitomizes the problems faced by a well-educated, extremely articulate black woman attempting to find a public voice in America. Moving into the twentieth century, Braxton analyzes the memoir of Ida B. Wells, journalist and anti-lynching activist, and the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Era Bell Thompson. They represent the first generation of black female autobiographers who did not continually come into contact with former slaves and who transcended the essential struggle for survival that occupied earlier writings. For the contemporary black woman autobiographer, the quest for personal fulfillment is the central theme. Braxton concludes with Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1996), which represents the black woman of the 1960s who has found the place to recreate the self in her own image—the place all the others had been searching for. "Braxton's book is scrupulously researched. She has been creative in finding resources and courageous in analyzing and interpreting her finds. This is the word of a diligent mind. The material is mountainous, yet the book sings. Braxton is a poet. Thank goodness." —Maya Angelou "Joanne Braxton's essays on black women's autobiographies delineate and illuminate the personal and historical dimension of an important literary tradition. Emphasizing the distinct character of Afra-American women's experience and relations with each other, she ground their writing of their lives in the struggles and triumphs of the lives they actually led." —Elizabeth Fox-Genovese "In this compelling and lucid study examining the content, context, and continuum of black women autobiographers, Braxton clears the place for it in the curriculum: at the center of black and feminist studies." —Paula Giddings "This is the fullest and most sympathetic study of black American autobiographers I know. By paying close attention to private and public history, to social networks and literary kinships, to narrative structures and patterns of imagery, Braxton leads her readers to see the black woman 'at the center of her own [written] experiences.' At once scholarly and passionate, Braxton's critique will immediately secure her a place among the leading analysts of black American autobiography." —Albert E. Stone "A highly readable and original contribution to the important fields of Afro-American studies, feminist criticism, and autobiographical narrative." —Elaine Showalter "Rich in empathy and insight, Joanne M. Braxton's trailblazing study attends to both the textual and historical dimensions of a powerful literary inheritance. She brings to bear a keen sense of the departures and continuities of which any tradition consists; and an appreciation of the distinctive Afro-American dynamic between literary convention and a vernacular substrate. Braxton doesn't just read—she listens." —Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Joanne Braxton makes a unique contribution to the scholarship of American autobiography. Her focus on the outraged mother as a figure of rebellion is a significant challenge to our conventional understanding of autobiographical acts." —Hazel Carby "This is the most inclusive and thoughtful literary history of black American women's autobiography in existence…It is not just a collection of essays; it is well knit together and displays multiple traditions as they evolved and are in the process of evolving still." —William L. Andrews "This book marks another milestone in the critical appraisal of American autobiographical writings. In tracing the evolution of a tradition of black women in autobiography in America, Braxton takes us on the first journey of this kind: the black American woman's search for a dignified, self-defining identity through the rejection of traditional female roles. This book sets the tone for future studies of black women's autobiographies." —Nellie McKay
Article
GagnierRegenia. Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain 1832–1920. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. Pp. x, 323. $35.00. - Volume 24 Issue 2 - Christopher Kent