Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood.
Evelyn E. Shockley Duke University
All memoirs are autobiographical, but not all autobiographies are memoirs. That bell hooks's Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood falls into both categories is clear from its first pages. As a sub-genre of autobiography that focuses on the selected events of a life, the memoir underscores the agency of the author, freeing her from the constraints of the conventional chronological structure of autobiography. Thus, the writer of a memoir has more control over the representation of her life, and so it is not surprising that hooks - for whom control emerges as a crucial issue - chooses this form in which to tell her story.
hooks's preface explains that her purpose in writing Bone Black was to add substance to the inadequate documentation of the lives of black girls. Noting that, lately, feminism has taken great interest in studying girlhood, hooks expresses concern about the extent to which conclusions based upon the conditions of white girlhood will be generalized and may result in assumptions about the raising of black girls that are culturally inaccurate. So she offers her story, not to stand as the representative black girlhood - because, as she points out, black girls' experiences, like black women's, are diverse, varying according to class and other factors - but rather to begin the crucial work of documenting some of those experiences.
hooks's impulse to justify writing her memoir on the grounds that it will be useful to others is typical of women autobiographers. Also, her memoir resembles many other African Americans' self-written/self-told life-stories in that she emphasizes a desire to record and share black culture, as it was produced and experienced in her Southern community. Nonetheless, however standard her motivations and concerns, hooks's narrative is quite unusual in style and structure. The result is a moving story, written in a vivid, incantatory voice that bridges the distance between poetry and prose, which takes us into the mind of a young black girl and unflinchingly shows us her world through her eyes:
[Mama] 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. Only grown-ups think that the things children say come out of nowhere. We know that they come from the deepest parts of ourselves. Deep within myself 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.
Bone Black consists of a series of short sketches, religiously organized into chapters exactly three pages long. hooks takes advantage of the license that memoirs need not be arranged chronologically. She gives us a picture of her girlhood that begins in her earliest schooldays and concludes toward the end of her high school career. Her narrative meanders around the terrain between these two points with no sense of urgency, though with a general, albeit inconsistent feeling of forward motion. She cites no dates; the only clue we receive as to time comes in a chapter near the end of the book in which hooks describes the advent of school desegregation. To add to the narrative's dislocatedness, hooks does not name the town, or even the state, in which she grew up. Very few of the people with whom she interacts are named, including her brother and sisters. Bone Black is as much a dreamscape as a landscape, then, and we move through it on the wheels of hooks's memory, obliged and permitted to linger only where it is arrested.
We learn that hooks's family was relatively poor economically, although she didn't understand this for several years: The isolation of her rural home and the tightly knit weave of her family circle shielded her from the knowledge that not everyone washed with "heavy, unsmelling, oddly shaped pieces of homemade lye soap." We see the church that gathers her community together, and the encouragement and support that a young black girl could receive in that venue. hooks describes Miss Erma, one of the church founders, who rewards her for reading scripture in church service by giving her small gifts which express "her confidence that the god voice that came out of me and touched her beating heart would go on speaking and name itself in this world." We see hooks being nourished with the love of her great-grandmother, Big Mama, and her grandmother, Saru. Saru is an important figure in hooks's young life, teaching hooks how to interpret dreams and telling her about the heritages that belong to her as a woman, as an African American, as someone who is part-"Indian."
These sources of support are important to hooks because she grows up feeling increasingly isolated from her family and community. She refuses to accept the message she is pounded with: that she, as a black girl, is unable or unworthy to have any substantial control over her life, that it is wrong to want something different for herself than what other black girls want or what her family wants for her. hooks is the "problem child." She shares with us the pain of her difference, the willful sense of self that drives her to rebel against the people she would like so much to please. She describes the consequences of her rebellions: beatings received at the hands of her father, with her mother's approval, intended to break her spirit so that she would grow up to be the kind of woman a man would wish to marry. We sense the adult hooks's understanding of the genuine concern motivating her parents; she knows that they are attempting to prepare her and her siblings to survive a world in which "they are children . . . black . . . next to nothing." Nonetheless, hooks does not hide her condemnation - both as girl and as woman - of their actions.
As she negotiates adolescence, hooks is faced with the blunt injustice of racism, sexism, and classism, in her family and her community. She rages over her lack of privacy, the privacy she needs to explore her sexuality, to write poems about her feelings without worrying what her family will think when they find them. She is confronted with domestic violence between her parents, with interracial dating, with death. We see the importance of books in her life, both as a way of making sense of the world and as a training ground for the writer hooks will become. Religion - her relationships with God and with the community of believers she belongs to - also provides her with comfort and escape. She shares not only her pain, but also her dreams, and they symbolize her strength and foretell her survival.
We do not know, after reading Bone Black, her sisters' names or ages, her father's occupation, or what kind of grades she received in school. What we do know, however, is how it felt to her to grow up as a black girl in a traditional, Southern, working-class family - and that is what it is important for us to know. Both as a documentation of one black woman's girlhood and as a beautifully crafted narrative, Bone Black is a significant addition to the traditions of autobiography by women and African Americans.
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|Author:||Shockley, Evelyn E.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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