We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks

Date Read: February 23rd 2017

Published: 2003

Publisher: Routledge

Pages: 168

The Blurb 

“When women get together and talk about men, the news is almost always bad news,” writes bell hooks. “If the topic gets specific and the focus is on black men, the news is even worse.”

In this powerful new book, bell hooks arrests our attention from the first page. Her title – We Real Cool, her subject–the way in which both white society and weak black leaders are failing black men and youth. Her subject is taboo: “this is a culture that does not love black males:” “they are not loved by white men, white women, black women, girls or boys. And especially, black men do not love themselves. How could they? How could they be expected to love, surrounded by so much envy, desire, and hate?”

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I’m glad I’ve finally been able to complete a full body of hooks’s work instead of the select essays I was assigned to read in my college Sociology classes. Even though We Real Cool speaks predominantly about Black men, bell hooks definitely wrote this with feminism soaked into every single chapter.

We Real Cool (the title is taken from the Gwendolyn Brooks poem!) is an important, critical take on how the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy (yes, it’s a mouthful) affects the souls of Black boys & men – and by extension Black girls & women. Layered with many pop culture references and voices of various Black authors and social workers, bell hooks unapologetically asserts that Black masculinity is a reflection of white domination and provides some alternative ways/solutions Black men AND women can work together to overcome the damage and hurt, with love.

At times I couldn’t differentiate hooks’s (sometimes harsh) opinions from actual facts and some examples and stances she made seemed a bit outdated. But I really appreciated the personal examples of hurt and pain she provides, based off of her family life, while growing up.

I read We Real Cool last year as an e-book (as a pdf document, actually), and highlighted LOTS of quotes while reading; but they all disappeared when I rebooted my tablet *sigh*. Perhaps when I re-read this book, I’ll share the quotes I gathered, for those who still doubt the importance of hooks’s racial & gender analysis of our society today.

I came across an article by Derek Owusu, who is one-third of the literary podcast – MostlyLit: Black men are made to feel ugly, and we need to talk about it and immediately thought of hooks’s We Real Cool. Owusu’s article further echoes hooks’s stance on how imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy affects the souls of Black boys & men – only that, he doesn’t mention how Black girls and women are affected by extension. The article tackles the emotional challenges faced by Black British men when it comes to white standards of beauty and hyper-masculinity. I love a solution he brings forth, which encourages vulnerability among men (a state of being hooks also encourages, as a solution in We Real Cool)  –

But I feel if we are able to talk sincerely about the days when we feel undesirable, a whole new world of expression will open up thereafter and we’ll be on course for a healthier emotional life.  

There’s so much to say about this dense, complex book which ultimately aims at critiquing, loving and attempting to heal the hurts of Black men from a Black feminist lens. It’s a lot to absorb, but it’s important. Feed your soul and read some hooks!

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity on Amazon

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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Date Read: June 10th 2015

Published: 1985

Publisher: Pocket Books/Washington Square Press

Pages: 295

 

 

The Blurb

Life wasn’t easy for Celie. But she knew how to survive, needing little to get by.
Then her husband’s lover, a flamboyant blues singer, barreled into her world and gave Celie the courage to ask for more – to laugh, to play, and finally – to love.

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

The Color Purple is an excellent book and it has won several awards: the Pulitzer Prize (1983), The National Book Award for Fiction (1983), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee (1982); plus a (Steven Spielberg directed) movie adaptation starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey among others! But I think I would have been more blown away by this novel if I read it when I was younger. I’m sure the plot and some incidents from this book would have been quite traumatizing to me had I read this if I were 13 years old. Anyways, The Color Purple is my second Alice Walker novel of the year and I love love love her writing! Check out my review of her excellent short stories collection: You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down.

The Color Purple is about the survival of Celie in the world, during the 1930’s over about forty years. This novel is in epistolary form where Celie and her sister Nettie write letters to each other. In the beginning of the novel, Celie mostly writes letters to God and these letters seem more like diary entries where Celie expresses her sincere feelings of joy and pain. Celie is a loving, kind, docile soul who wouldn’t even hurt an ant. She is initially perceived to be ugly, dumb and worthy of being abused by her ‘father’. At the age of twenty Celie is married off to Mr. ____ to help raise his three children.

After she moves in with Mr. ____, Celie meets Shug Avery – her husband’s lover, and they eventually form a strong bond. Shug’s sassiness and confidence begins to rub off on Celie and she starts to evolve into a brave, outspoken woman, still full of love in her heart. I believe Celie’s transformation allows her to reap huge blessings for the many years of verbal, physical, mental and emotional abuse she endured during her childhood and marriage.

In my eyes, Celie was a lesbian. The sisterhood and love story between Celie and Shug Avery was very interesting to read – I always enjoy stories that feature same-sex relationships. The same-sex relationship in this story keeps The Color Purple very relevant, even in present day 2015. This book has a lot of characters with a lot of subplots, and I absolutely loved three characters:

Nettie: Celie seems to be everyone’s heroine, but my favorite character is Nettie – Celie’s younger sister. Nettie is an intelligent, respectful, good-spirited woman. The love Nettie and Celie share is the driving force that pervades this novel. I gained a lot of appreciation for Nettie as she wrote Celie letters on the happenings of her missionary adventures in Africa with the ‘Olinka’ tribe (this is a fictional tribe). In the letters she wrote Celie, it is evident that Nettie is more educated than Celie, as she writes in standard English instead of vernacular/broken English as seen in Celie’s letters.

Shug Avery: Shug is a mystery to me. She’s the type of woman who makes men fall in love with her lustful ways of singing and crooning crowds, but would also have relations with a woman. Is Shug bisexual? Shug isn’t the typical woman of her time. I loved Shug’s ability to live her life as she pleased without allowing the public’s negative perception of her lifestyle to taint her confidence and goals.

Sofia: Sofia is Harpo’s wife (Harpo is Mr. ____’s oldest son / Celie’s step-son). I have never read about any character like her before. She is crazy! Sofia is big, aggressive, abusive, brave, loud, rude, strong, wild, carefree! She’s the type of woman that fixes the roof on a house. She’s the type of woman that makes her husband weep! (No, not tears of joy). I enjoyed reading about Sofia’s boisterous ways and I was satisfied with her character development by the end of the novel.

Alice Walker’s ability to develop these characters so thoroughly made me forget that they were fictitious beings! This classic carries a lot of (heavy) themes that I’d love to discuss! But if I say more, I will surely give away some spoilers and that wouldn’t be right. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys Alice Walker’s work, anyone who loves reading about African-Americans (of the South), anyone who appreciates feminism/womanism concepts, anyone who can stomach some pain, and anyone who simply desires to cuddle up with an uplifting book!

Given that The Color Purple was published over 30 years ago and it is such a classic, I observed that it has several lovely book covers!

(Check out the new and improved Book Covers Showcase section of the blog that features collages of colorful book covers from my favorite literature genres – HERE).

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

This is another oldie but goodie from my Mom’s bookshelf. The Color Purple can be purchased on Amazon.

The Housemaid by Amma Darko

the housemaidDate Read: May 7th 2015

Published: 1998

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writer’s Series)

Pages: 107

 

The Blurb

A dead baby and bloodstained clothes are discovered near a small village. Everyone is ready to comment on the likely story behind the abandoned infant. The men have one opinion, the women another. As the story rapidly unfolds it becomes clear that seven different women played their part in the drama. All of them are caught in a web of superstition, ignorance, greed and corruption.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I bought The Housemaid back in 2008, but finally gave this book a chance and finished reading it in May of this year. This is such a messy, messy story- but in a good way! This novel tells a story of how a poor family in a Ghanaian village decides to jilt a rich businesswoman in the city, by using their daughter – who becomes a housemaid, to attempt to steal this rich woman’s wealth. As usual, Amma Darko tackles a lot of social issues in this novel and this is why I respect her as a writer. Darko explores issues of socio-economic differences between the rich and the poor, city life versus village life, feminism, spinsterhood, gender roles, religious beliefs and superstition. I liked how the story was consummated at the end, even though this novel consists of a series of crazy events.

But I was a little disappointed with Amma Darko’s writing style in this novel. The writing was choppy and too colloquial for my liking. It was quite annoying to spot basic grammatical errors and the misusage of words like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in some chapters. Nonetheless, the social issues addressed in this book made me appreciate the story. Amma Darko’s novel Beyond the Horizon is still a gem and a more meticulously written book than The HousemaidThe Housemaid is more of a 2.5 stars rating for me.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase The Housemaid on Amazon

Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko

beyond-the-horizonDate Read: March 31st 2015

Published: 1995

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 140

The Blurb

Gazing at her naked body in the mirror, Mara reflects on her transformation from naïve Ghanaian village girl into a prostitute in a German brothel.

Mara has been deceived by her husband, Akobi, into coming to Europe to find a ‘Paradise’ but as the truth about Akobi and her new life unfolds she realizes she is trapped. The expectations of her family in Africa force her to remain, living a lie.

Beyond the Horizon is a gripping and provocative story of the plight of African women in Europe, and the false hopes of those they leave behind.

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Oh what a tragic novel this is! I don’t think Amma Darko gets the shine she rightfully deserves for this book or for her writing in general. Her novel – The Housemaid has been sitting on my bookshelf for years now. I’ll surely read it soon, as I hear its pretty amazing. With that said, Beyond the Horizon is a heart-wrenching masterpiece and a testament to some of the unfair effects of our patriarchal societies.

This is a story of a Ghanaian village girl – Mara, who enters into an arranged marriage with a man – Akobi, from the city who works at the Ministries. When Mara finally moves to the city to live in Akobi’s one bedroom shabby shelter, he constantly abuses her. Mara, who is meek, evergreen to city-life and quite stupid (that’s my opinion, sorry) cooks, cleans their home and even sells various items at the market to support Akobi while tolerating his beatings, sadistic sexual demands and sleeping on a mat on the concrete floor while Akobi enjoys his dried-grass mattress. In my eyes, Mara was Akobi’s slave.

With the help of a ‘connection’ man, Akobi travels to Europe with the intention of working to raise money to advance his social standings in the city. Akobi traveling to Europe brings honor to his village and Mara’s family as he is seen as a man of great prestige. Months after Akobi leaves for Europe, Mara attempts to modernize herself, in the attempt to make Akobi fall in love with her. To Mara’s surprise Akobi later arranges for her to join him in Europe and Mara is more than delighted since she never dreamed that stepping foot in Europe would ever be her fate. Once Mara arrives in Europe (Germany, to be exact) with the aid of the ‘connection’ man, readers witness the manipulative ordeals Mara endures in a foreign land that leave her stranded.

I’m glad I read this book even though Mara frustrated me deeply throughout the story. Mara had no sense of her worth and sadly, her fate was determined by her chosen husband – Akobi, who did not love her. Akobi was a terribly wicked, self-absorbed man who used Mara for everything that she was. I waited so long for Mara to retaliate, to come to her senses and run away, to stop fantasizing about her husband finally loving and appreciating her; but rather, she consistently endured Akobi’s verbal and physical abuse till almost the end of the novel.

Amma Darko skillfully weaves-in a lot of themes throughout this story that make this novel relevant to present day life. Some of these themes are: patriarchy, racism, colorism, domestic violence, pornography, sex exploitation, drug abuse, prostitution, the myths of living abroad (‘Europe is heaven’), immigration, feminism, womanhood, sisterhood (between Mara and Mama Kiosk in the city; between Mara, Vivian and Kaye in Germany), village life versus city life, modernity etc.

I gave Beyond the Horizon 4 stars because Amma Darko does a great job at pulling readers’ emotions with the rawness in her style of writing! She exposes readers to the horrible realities of the helpless victims of male sex exploitation with such expertise – you would think she was a surviving victim herself. But to be honest, I don’t think this book is for everyone. This is not the type of book you read for pleasure, or to relax and fill a void only enjoyable fictitious literary works satisfy you with. Beyond the Horizon is a depressing novel and wasn’t a fun read for me especially in the beginning as descriptions of domestic abuse were quite harsh. Towards the middle of the storyline, descriptions of (consensual and non-consensual) sexual encounters between Mara and Akobi and other characters in the book made me uncomfortable and slightly upset – for example:

“He was lying on the mattress, face up, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling when I entered. Cool, composed and authoritative, he indicated with a pat of his hand on the space beside him that I should lie down beside him. I did so, more out of apprehension of starting another fight than anything else. Wordlessly, he stripped off my clothes, stripped off his trousers, turned my back to him and entered me. Then he ordered me off the mattress to go and lay on my mat because he wanted to sleep alone.” pg.22

Please note: Men are generally painted as horrendous beings in this novel. I’m assuming Amma Darko wrote Beyond the Horizon as a feminist narrative because readers surely get a deep understanding of the power men hold in society, as they manipulate, deceive and use aggression in oppressing the rights of women – in this story and sometimes in reality.

Some provocative quotes from Beyond the Horizon:

“I mean, Akobi beat me a lot at home, yes, but somehow I identified beatings like this with home. That African men also beat their wives in Europe somehow didn’t fit into my glorious picture of European life.” pg. 73

“At first I didn’t understand, because here, we hear always that African people are hard workers and love work because God made them specially for the hard work of the world…” pg. 99 (this was how a white woman in Germany viewed Africans. My heart skipped a beat reading this).

“Why couldn’t I take control of my own life, since after all, I was virtually husbandless and, what did my husband care about a woman’s virtue? If I was sleeping with men and charging them for it, it was me giving myself to them. The body being used and misused belonged to me.” pg. 118 (it took Mara several years of beatings and coercions to finally realize she was in control of her own life. *sigh*).

As depressing as Beyond the Horizon is, it is definitely a relevant story that I believe everyone should read – even if reluctantly.

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

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Purchase Beyond the Horizon on Amazon

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down by Alice Walker

Alice WalkerDate Read: January 18th 2015

Published: 1981

Publisher: Harvest Books

Pages: 180

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

A natural evolution from the earlier, much acclaimed short story collection In Love & Trouble, these fourteen provocative and often humorous stories show women oppressed but not defeated. No longer do they excuse the aggression of others, no longer are they suspended in their unhappy condition. The women here claim every bit of space they make.

These are modern stories: about love, lust, fame and cultural thievery, the perils of pornography, abortion and rape; the delight of new lovers, and the rediscovery of old friends, affirmed even across self-imposed color lines.

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Lovely, lovely, lovely collection of 14 short stories. If you want to think and learn something new, this is a must-read! You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down is a classic. Most of the stories are pretty deep though. Alice Walker tackles issues from feminism/womanism to pornography to death to poverty to fame, abortion, the civil rights movement etc. All the women in these stories have some odds going against them, but find different ways of dealing with the prejudices. Even though these stories tug at your emotions, Walker ensures there are positive, humorous bits to all the stories allowing readers to see the light in the situations of each character in the stories.

I love how Walker makes references to Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde and other prominent black women who have helped shape (black) American lives for the better. I also enjoyed Walker’s writing style in this collection. The sentence structures and style of writing leave room for various interpretations of her stories. When I re-read this, I will surely learn more things that I didn’t grasp from this first reading. Besides her critically acclaimed novel – The Color PurpleYou Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down is another great novel showcasing Alice Walker’s versatility as a writer.

Note: Prior knowledge on the Civil Rights Movement would help you thoroughly appreciate the stories in this book. Also, I think you must be 18 years or older to read this book – some descriptions are QUITE explicit!

My favorite stories were:

“How Did I Get Away With Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy” – This was a sad and crazy story from beginning to end. Some women are crazy…and dangerous! Loved it.

“Coming Apart” – I think every married couple should read this story- together. It’s sooo deep! It has you thinking about sex in such a different, non-flippant way. I’ll have to read it again to fully understand the concepts discussed in the story, but I learned how pornography has terrible consequences in relationships/marriages.

“The Abortion” – I just felt sick to my stomach reading this story. There weren’t many gory descriptions, but it was just miserable. I think I resented the main character. She was a selfish woman and expected her husband to make her happy, when happiness is really from within.

“A Sudden Trip Home In The Spring” – After the death of her father, Sarah – who is the only black girl in her school, questions whether she is in the right school as she sometimes feels out of place. I loved the calmness of this story. Some bits reminded me of my undergraduate experience at Middlebury College.

Like I said, if you want to think and learn something new, read this!

Oh! Today- February 9th, is Alice Walker’s 71st birthday! Happy Birthday Alice Walker!

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down on Amazon

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie Feminist

Date Read: January 12th 2015

Published: July 2014

Publisher: Vintage Books

Pages: 23

The Blurb

In this personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-admired TEDx talk of the same name—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author of Americanah, offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century, one rooted in inclusion and awareness. Drawing extensively on her own experiences and her deep understanding of the often masked realities of sexual politics, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman now—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.

Review– ★★★★ (4 stars)

Most of us know We Should All Be Feminists was first presented by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a TED talk given in the United Kingdom at TEDxEuston in 2012. This talk became quite popular on YouTube, along with her first talk The Danger of a Single Story which she delivered in 2009. The essay We Should All Be Feminists became available to the public for purchase as an eBook in 2014 and I recently got a chance to purchase the eBook using my NookBook app.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a way of eloquently articulating complex issues by skillfully using simple words, and this is why I love her! Her essay/talk, We Should All Be Feminists is basically about her views on gender and how limited of a function society has made it. The term ‘feminist’ has had a bad rap for years, but Adichie proudly calls herself a feminist or better yet: A Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men”. In her essay, she compares how society has shaped the way girls and boys are raised and how problematic these ways can be. For example, she states that girls are taught to be likeable and not aggressive, while boys are taught to be strong, seldom showing emotion and fear.

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Adichie believes we’d be happier and true to our identity if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations on our shoulders. Men shouldn’t have to feign strength and (hyper) masculinity by always paying the bill for women or by stifling their emotions. Women shouldn’t feel invisible in the presence of men. Women shouldn’t feel shame or guilt whenever they desire to express anger or to simply state their noble opinions.

Adichie gives several examples of personal experiences and of other people she knows to further explain and prove her points on the problems of gender. I do not consider myself a ‘feminist’ and I don’t remember the last time I experienced prejudice because I am a girl, but I agree 100% with every single thing Adichie discusses in this essay. I think it will just take a long time for society to actually shift and become more flexible with the concept of gender and gender roles, but we will get there – one day.

My favorite quotes from We Should All Be Feminists:

 “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice” pg. 12

“We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys…. We teach boys to be afraid to fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak – a hard man.” pg. 14

“A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all- it had not occurred to me to be worried, because a man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.” pg. 14  [Girl, me too!]

“Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general- but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.” pg. 18

“I was once talking about gender and a man said to me, ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.” pg. 19

“Some people will say, Oh, but women have the real power: bottom power. (This is a Nigerian expression for a woman who uses her sexuality to get things from men.) But bottom power is not power at all, because the woman with bottom power is actually not powerful; she just has a good route to tap another person’s power.” pg. 20

This essay/talk is wonderful and I will surely read/listen to it again!

Watch the talk from the TEDxEuston event via YouTube below:

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great essay. Highly recommend!

Purchase We Should All Be Feminists (paperback) on Amazon

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m participating in the Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge. Expect more reviews soon 🙂