Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Politicization of Narrative Location in bel hooks' "Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood"

Jessica Mason McFadden
English 348 Ethnic Literatures
Dr. P Kelsey - WIU
March 7 2006

Personal-Political Literature:
The Politicization of Narrative Location in Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

Characters assume locations just as humans do—locations that are not only physical and geographical, but also social. Writers create narrative locations for characters by utilizing various stylistic techniques. Some writers emphasize the locations of their characters with metaphor, poetry and poetic prose, and imagery, while others do so using point of view, sentence structure, and repetition. In Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, bell hooks centralizes the experiences of one young black girl, capturing the struggle with pain and the invention of self through various social locations. Social locations may include race, class, gender, and age. Hooks emphasizes the social locations of her characters, particularly the young girl, in order to make personal-political statements. In Bone Black, hooks develops a chosen identity through her narrative constructions of location. She constructs social locations through the arrangement of time and plot, point of view and symbolism. The unique and intersecting social and emotional locations that hooks constructs renders her narrative both personal and political. Whereas other writers often convey social locations to achieve personal goals, hooks establishes and explores meaningful social locations throughout the construction of her narrative in order to politicize her personal stories.

Time does not determine the order and arrangement of bell hooks’ memories— hooks separates each snapshot into short chapters according to events rather than placing each event within a clearly defined time line. The simplicity of her arrangement makes the narrative accessible and stresses the essence of each chapter. Through this strategy, she makes it clear that there are integral moments during our childhoods that deeply influence our interior makeup, and that these moments are of personal and political significance.

Chapter fifty is clearly personal and political in that hooks explores familial and gender roles through a snapshot of a fight between a young girl’s mother and father. It only takes one moment, one snapshot for hooks to convey the girl’s pain—that “all that she does not understand about marriage, about men and women, is explained to her in one night” (hooks 148). Here, both plot and point of view convey the social locations of the characters. Although all of the characters are visible, hooks stresses the point of view of the young girl, describing what she sees and feels. By placing the young girl in the middle of a violent interaction between her mother and father, hooks not only creates a neutral party to observe the fight, but also stresses the far reaching ramifications of the social construction of marriage.

Through this one experience, the girl is forced to consider her mother’s conflicted state as a mother and wife. When she “feels that a fire inside the woman is dying out,” the girl realizes, to some degree, that traditional gender roles and social institutions that reinforce those gender roles (marriage, in particular) are harmful to women (hooks 150). While witnessing her mother’s powerlessness in relation to her father, the girl also witnesses her mother in a role of subjugation. In her essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” hooks describes her parents as a “young black couple struggling first and foremost to realize the patriarchal norm (that is of the woman staying home, taking care of the household and children while the man worked) even though such an arrangement meant that economically, they would always be living with less” (hooks 37). Here, hooks summarizes the struggle caused by certain locations, especially when those locations destabilize the functioning of a household. As a poor, black man in a patriarchal society, hooks’ father takes out his frustration and anger on his family. Her mother’s social location, as a poor black woman in a patriarchal society, renders her a second class citizen who is therefore powerless against her husband. Hooks demonstrates the effects that social locations have on one another, stressing the economic suffering that is caused and reinforced by the patriarchal norm.

Even though the girl’s mother is powerless in relation to her husband, the narrator asserts that “she is in her role as mother” (hooks 148). Hooks uses the third-person narration to question and critique the nature of socially constructed gender roles. The daughter, as hooks’ narrator describes, no longer trusts her own mother in her role as mother. Because she sees her mother losing control, the girl cannot help but question the meaning of social roles such as mother, wife, and daughter. In this traumatic experience, the child looses her mother, as well as her ideals about the social roles that have put her mother in the position of being abused by her father. She not only sees her mother mentally and emotionally drained, but also “that the man owns everything, that the woman has only her clothes,” and in this realization “she witnesses the death of love” (hooks 149). Through the simple, yet dramatic language of her narrator, hooks conveys the devastating effects that male-dominance has on the family unit as well as on women in the family. Hooks writes as a third-person narrator to give adult words to a childhood experience. Her narrator identifies the consequences of strict gender roles that allow men to assert violence against and domination over women, roles that create imbalance within the family because of power dynamics that allow men to claim ownership over the home and the family. The socially constructed roles that hooks’ explores throughout her childhood memories signify standards for behavior as well as degrees of power. Hooks exposes and challenges gender roles through her simple narrative arrangement and alternating narrative voices.

Hooks is a feminist theorist and activist, and her work as such is evident in Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. In “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” hooks describes her personal-political relationship with theory as a location through which she can heal from the pain of her childhood (hooks 36). Writing theory allows hooks to work through painful memories in order to liberate herself and others. Her memoirs also possess the ability to heal, so they, too, may be considered an alternative form of feminist theory, and therefore, political. The social and emotional locations that are expressed in each chapter serve to convey experiences that are personal and political.

Another part of hooks’ narrative construction is her inclusion of and emphasis on symbols. Symbols are easy to remember and identify, and they allow readers to take notice of locations that are personally and politically relevant. Childhood memories are typically grounded in the senses, and only as adults are we able to analyze those sensory experiences in order to uncover and discover the emotional, psychological, social, and intellectual implications that they possess. Hooks’ symbols reflect social locations such as gender, class, race, sexuality, family, and spirituality.

When the young girl and her brother were given a red wagon to share, they both struggled with how they were supposed to share it. The wagon symbolizes traditional gender roles because they could not use the wagon in the same ways—“she was to ride in the red wagon and he was to pull it” (hooks 19). Neither child felt comfortable using the wagon because there were symbolic, patriarchal gender roles attached to it. Hooks explains the roles (as princess and prince) that she and her brother were expected to assume through the use of the wagon. Though the wagon is simply an object, a toy, it symbolizes strictly dichotomous gender roles. The roles prescribed by the wagon mirror patriarchal gender roles in a larger social setting that suggest that women should be passive—incapacitated and bound to a private sphere of the home—and that men should be active and engaged in activities in a public sphere.

Though the girl’s brother wanted to be pulled in the wagon, he was criticized and punished by his grandfather for doing so. This created an unnecessary hostility in him toward his sister, and in his frustration he abused her. He demanded that she pull him in the wagon when they were out of their grandfather’s sight, and even though she complied he continued to “tell her when they were alone that he hate, hate, hated her because she was a girl” (hooks 21). It is not only the childishness of the struggle and abuse that is disturbing, but also the role that the adults play in creating the abusive situation by transforming the wagon into a tool to force adult (not to mention unnecessary and uncomfortable) roles onto the children. Both the girl and her brother suffer because they are not allowed to be themselves—they are not allowed to take turns and enjoy in an equal partnership in their possession of the wagon. She suffers particularly because her brother takes his frustration out on her by blaming her for being herself. Hooks politicizes her personal experiences, challenging traditional gender roles by conveying the discomfort that the red wagon caused and describing how the young girl and her brother rebelled against the social rules that it personified.

While the red wagon symbolizes the harmfulness of dichotomous gender roles, hooks also uses other symbols to examine issues of race and ethnicity. Hooks’ narrator describes her discovery of a crayon labeled as “Flesh,” observing that “we learn to tell the difference between white and pink and a color they call Flesh…Flesh we know has no relationship to our skin” (hooks 7). The Flesh crayon symbolizes the widespread messages of racial dynamics as white superiority and black inferiority by white institutions, especially in the educational system. The message that the crayon conveys suggests that flesh can only be one color, and that any other color is not human. It is only one example of the dehumanization of African Americans, but it resonates because it exists in a childhood context. The narrator is present in various social locations, but two that are relevant in examining this symbol are that she is a child and she is African American. Hooks weaves these social locations together because they play a role in her memories and compliment each other when it comes to exposing the personal-political relevance of the crayon as a symbol. As a symbol of racism, the Flesh crayon reveals the narrator’s social, physical, and emotional locations in the context of one memory. Hooks’ narrative construction of symbols paired with the social locations (that are created within and that create further symbolism in her memoirs) serves personal and political purposes. The narrative construction of location through symbolism is personal because the main characters experience emotions as a result of their locations, but it is also political because those locations carry import that is relevant to various political struggles regarding race, class, gender, sexuality, and age as separate and intersecting issues.

Feminist theory provides us with an understanding of women’s issues and a tangible body of principles to achieve goals of social and poetic justice through the analysis of women’s struggles and creation of terms and strategies. One project of feminist epistemology is to question how social locations (race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and ability) intersect and affect the attainment of knowledge, as well as how knowledge is produced through those locations (Kolmar 45). In this sense, our exploration of social location allows us, as readers and observers, to understand and analyze the personal experience and political impact of women’s lives. For bell hooks, the personal is political, which is evident in her narrative constructions of social and other locations.

Works Cited

Hooks, bell. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996.

Hooks, bell. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw- Hill, 2005. 36-41.

Kolmar, Wendy K., and Frances Bartkowski. “Lexicon of the Debates.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 42-60.

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