Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read more book reviews like this on my blog shelit.com. Bone Black is a she lit book club selection.
Bone Black by bell hooks is a raw narrative of a Black girl navigating a world that seems to not be able to accept who she is.
bell hooks’ girlhood memoir starts in the countryside of Kentucky where the author is given a keepsake from her late grandmother and sensing the talk around why she gets the beaded purse when she wasn’t her grandmother’s favorite, nor her mother’s favorite. The book opens with a foreword emphasizing how the author’s behavior as a Black girl among six daughters and a son in a poor family came off as rebellious as she pushed against the frustration her family felt for not being able to understand her behavior.
She was sent to bed without dinner. She was told to stop crying, to make no sound or she would be whipped more. No one could talk to her and she could talk to no one. She could hear him telling the mama that the girl had too much spirit, that she had to learn to mind, that that spirit had to be broken.
The main theme throughout the memoir is the loneliness she feels within her family. She is considered the bad girl in the house, and that accusation eats away at her though she tries to conceal it through finding her comfort in raising her voice. She asks her family for a Black doll. Instead of happiness that she wants a doll that looks like her, she’s met with aggression; the White dolls are cheaper and easier to find. But somehow she gets her Black doll, Baby. This example shows bell’s young self fighting for what she wants, something that shouldn’t be a hassle, but her family processes her asking for a Black doll as a hassle. And those conflicting perspectives make bell look like the “problem child.”
She wants to express herself—to speak her mind. To them it is just talking back. Each time she opens her mouth she risks punishment. They punish her so often she feels they persecute her.
Backtalk is a cornerstone of one of her books, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black , that explores the concept as a way to silence people, especially people of color, who have been taught to stay quiet and not talk to others with equal authority. In her memoir, her family targets her for backtalk, but she feels she’s just expressing her thoughts. Because of her tongue, her family brands her in essence an “old soul,” or how she puts it as an “old woman born again in a young girl’s body.” How she speaks seems to scare her family, according to her, to the point she is believed to be a witch. That leads to her being given a book of fairy tales that describe old female characters as cannibalistic and evil. But a book in her hands transports her to another world, a world where she doesn’t have to be with her family. And reading so much inspires her to start writing.
Loneliness brings me to the edge of what I know. My soul is dark like the inner world of the cave—bone black. I have been drowning in that blackness. Like quicksand it sucks me in and keeps me there in the space of all my pain.
The color black is a recurring theme. Not necessarily about race, but more about the darkness she feels as being treated like she’s too different to understand. “Bone black” is a color she learns about in art class. She defines it as “a black carbonaceous substance obtained by calcifying bones in closed vessels.” To burn bones into ash is like disappearing altogether. Her art teacher allows her to paint with all the black she wants. Her mother doesn’t allow her to wear black because it’s a color only for women. bell rebels against this notion, but it becomes a point of contention between her and her mother. While her mother may not think it’s appropriate for a girl to wear black, bell thinks she should be able to express herself the way she wants.
Overall, the memoir, told mostly in third person, observes everyday acts and unpeels the trauma of a Black girl trying to use her voice when it’s restrained by others. The restraint becomes overwhelming, as in she knows her faith in believing her voice could be stomped out, and that conjures feelings of invisibility and unimportance. Instead of her voice being valued, it’s devalued with her family saying she’s too weird, incomprehensible. Though it’s set in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Kentucky, the pain points of being misunderstood, being silenced, being depressed, being poor, being female, being Black resonate beyond its time, unfortunately since these issues remain commonplace for many children in American households. The writing is simple, but every word conveys more meaning than what meets the eye.