Episode 43

ain't i a woman, by bell hooks

Published on: 3rd August, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Last week we discussed the book Women, Race, and Class, by the controversial intellectual and cultural icon, Angela Davis. That book was published in 1981, and undertakes the telling of American history with Black women as the main focal point. This week’s book was also published in 1981, and it takes on a similar project, looking at American history and culture through a Black feminist lens. It’s called ain’t i a woman, of course referring to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, and it’s by the brilliant and beloved author, bell hooks. Interestingly, although Angela Davis’ book and bell hooks’ book came out the same year and address similar topics, they are very different, and one significant difference is that bell hooks had written the first draft of ain’t a woman ten years earlier, when she was a 19-year-old freshman in college at Stanford University. She published it when she was 29, after graduating with her PhD from UC-Santa Cruz. (Angela Davis taught at UC-Santa Cruz after hooks graduated). So ain’t i a woman technically predates Women, Race and Class, and it reflects a younger voice and a different personality. And I’m so excited to talk about it today with my guests, Manuela Zoninsein and Ashley Jackson Beal. Welcome, Manuela and Ashley!!

(Hi, etc.) :)

So I’m kind of third-wheeling today - Ashley and Manuela are close friends and I think it will be so beautiful and really powerful to have you two discussing this work together. One of my hopes with this podcast is that people will actually read more of these texts and discuss them with their friends and their families, which is very much bell hooks’ vision and goal as well.

Manuela and I know each other through our husbands - Manuela’s husband Andy was one of my husband’s first friends and best friends at business school, and they are still peas in a pod and partners in crime. :) 

I’m so excited to have you here today, Manuela, because you are absolutely brilliant and fascinating, and a role model for my daughters. You’re doing so much good in the world, and you’ve been a feminist and a scholar for a lot longer than I have - your whole life really, and I hope you talk about that in a minute.

And I’m so thrilled to have you here today, Ashley! Ashley and I met recently through Manuela, and is also an incredible mind and soul, and it was Ashley who suggested this book, which I’m so grateful for.  I’ve been recommending it to everyone I talk to ever since you put it on the reading list. 

I’d like to start with introductions, so I’d love for both to talk about where you’re from not only on a map, but in terms of your family and community of origin and some things that make you who you are.

Manuela: Hi Amy! It’s such an honor and pleasure to be here. Thank you for having Ashley and me on your podcast, and, more fundamentally, for starting and leading this incredible project. 

It feels particularly special to be here because I’m just learning, as a new mom, how much the values of egalitarianism, curiosity, and what Jewish people call “Tikkun Olam” - repair the world - start early, passing from parent to child. This realization has led me to reconsider and appreciate anew how uniquely I was raised, and how important it is that I start early with my son. 

First off: I’m an immigrant, the child of immigrants, and the grandchild of immigrants. My sister and I were born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to an American mother and Brazilian father. Each one had a parent who had immigrated: my dad’s dad to Brazil from Moldova and my mom’s mom to the US from the Russian-Ukraine border. I trace some of my individual traits to their journeys: I consider myself scrappy, resourceful, frugal, curious for knowledge, hard-working, and globally oriented. I’m also pretty hard on myself and hold myself to high standards, which is one of the reasons I’ve dug in the last couple years to re-assess racial politics in the US.

My parents were activists and academics their whole lives. My father led the communist student movement in Brazil, something he started as a teenager; he then fled the Brazilian dictatorship after university for Chile, where he worked on the economic team of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government. When the US-supported coup led by Augusto Pinochet violently removed Allende’s government, my dad fled across the border to Colombia, and eventually made his way to the US where he received his PhD from the New School in New York, which is considered the most left-leaning economics department in the US (although in Europe it would be considered centrist). He became a professor of development economics and, before passing away 11 years ago, wrote a book comparing the economic benefits of affirmative action programs across the US, Brazil, and South Africa.

My mom worked with Students for a Democratic Society while studying at the University of Chicago and was a Freedom Fighter helping to register Black American voters in Tennessee. Given Bob Moses’ passing earlier this week, talking about this effort feels particularly pertinent. She attended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the Mall; she worked backstage at Woodstock; she drove a taxi cab in NYC in the 70s. So yeah, she’s a bad-ass. After finishing her anthropological field research focused on an Afro-Brazilian matrilineal religious group in the Northeast of Brazil - she focused on a specific church in candomblé - she returned to finish her PhD at the New School - and met my dad. They moved to Brazil and my mom eventually taught the first university-level courses in Brazil on feminism. She went on to help establish the field of social entrepreneurship, opening the Brazil office of Ashoka - which spearheaded the category - and subsequently shifted to philanthropy focused on women’s reproductive rights and health, working at different times for various foundations, most notably the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago where she led their portfolio in West Africa while teaching at Northwestern in their African Studies Department.

From my earliest memories, dinner table conversations discussed social inequality and the interplay of gender, race, and class - with my mother arguing that gender and race were more powerful determinants in our societal hierarchies, and my father banging the drum for class. My parents made sure I went to integrated public schools and we always had friends of different races, nationalities, and backgrounds. My godfather, for example, was homosexual and one of the first black men to study at Yale. 

In retrospect, I see that I sought distance and independence from this very heavy, complex debate; it was a lot for me growing up, especially since we moved a lot and I have struggled for a long time with my immigrant identity. I think that’s in part why I focus on climate change and environmental issues: it’s my own “thing,” but also integral to social issues: the more we understand about the rapidly deteriorating state of our planet, the more we’re also learning that the same inequalities of the past are rearing their ugly heads and dictating that those who will experience the greatest burdens and suffer the most will be, yep, you guessed it: people of color, especially Black Americans in the US, women, and the poor. 

For my day job, so to speak, I’m a serial cleantech entrepreneur. I started as a journalist in China, reporting for Newsweek and some engineering publications, then decided to start my own thing: an information service based in Beijing that covered the Chinese agtech market opportunity. We built an incredible database but it was deemed critical to national security when Xi Jinping came into power, so I sold the assets to a business partner. We had received a grant from the Brazilian government to do something in agtech, so I moved to São Paulo and helped start what is now called InstaAgro, an online marketplace for smallholder farmers in Brazil that is preparing to raise a round of funding. I’m now in the early stages of building my third company called Kadeya. We deliver convenient, quality water without the waste through a closed-loop water bottle service - think of it as Citi Bike for water bottles, but focused in offices and military bases.

With a nascent understanding that racial justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined, and during the recent racial awareness-raising and awakening of the last few years while I was pursuing my MBA - which led to a lot of difficult and important discussions with people from all walks of life - I am committed anew to revisiting a lot of the ideas and questions I had when I was younger, from childhood onward. And this time, I feel mature enough and better informed to be able to process a lot of these structural observations and apply them more directly in my life.

I also want to be sure and recognize your other guest and one of my very best friends, Ashley Beal, who has been patient and thoughtful and curious with me as we’ve discussed race relations and feminism over the last few years during our awesome book club, and for suggesting that I read bell hooks! She has an incredible, brilliant, beautiful daughter Belle - who I’m honored to call my God-daughter - so I’m realizing how much I still have to learn! It’s really because of her that we’re with you today. 

[Amy bridge]

Ashley: Bio

As a child I lived in between two states that really became two worlds. Living in California in the 90s I was exposed to many cultures, communities and varied ideologies. In Louisiana I was very aware of segregation and class inequality and most namely sexism. Because I went to an all black private school for the professors of the college I never really interacted with people who weren’t black in highschool. Because segregation was so deeply entrenched in the area my whole life was black. My doctor, dentist, nurses, teachers, and principals were all black. So my dominant experience was not daily racism(because I rarely encountered white people) but rather daily sexism. My mother who was a black feminist and a woman unafraid in every sense encouraged me to push back on the administration and my peers who reinforced in every way possible that boys were more important than girls. Needless to say I didn’t change Louisiana. But I did discover that fighting for equality felt right and felt good even if there was no net change. I decided I could do more if I were educated so I threw myself into books and study. I was always autodidactic so I chose to read books about women and by women(at that time mostly classical fiction and non-fiction physics and evolutionary theory). I found through this process that I was most interested in science and soon I discovered the story of Henrietta Lax. Hers was such an allegory on black womens simultaneous importance and degradation that I felt deeply connected to her and felt a duty to be more involved in science. I initially thought that path would be into medicine but soon discovered that as under represented as black women are in medicine we are even less represented in bench science. I decided to pursue research and development to address disparities in how black people are included in scientific research at every level. That desire led me to pursue a masters in Neurobiology and that pursuit made me understand that women in general are underrepresented in science and as a result the scientific community prioritizes development of  drugs like Viagra meanwhile birth control has been essentially the same   since the 70s. I haven’t revolutionized the science world yet but I'm heartened to see the numbers of black women in natural science research is increasing and the general awareness of the disparities has improved. Manuela is one of my best friends and a Godmother to my  beautiful black daughter so her awareness and active pursuit of knowledge in the area of black feminism means so much to me. I believe women can ban together and create real change for our gender but it requires many authentic conversations about intersectional feminism and I'm glad to be a part of that today     

Amy: What are your thoughts on breaking down patriarchy? (either the phrase or what led to your interest in participating in the podcast)?

Manuela: As I mentioned before, your podcast has given me the opportunity to revisit ideas and texts that I once attempted to understand, but couldn’t yet. It’s opened up a new conversation with my Mom, who grew up referencing these texts and raised me as a feminist. And you’ve given me an excuse to reference the phrase “breaking down patriarchy” casually, initiating some pleasantly surprising conversations with people I already consider feminists, and some shocking learnings about other people I thought were more progressive and informed than they actually are!

It’s also reminded me that, even though my mom did the work and educated me...the work doesn’t end there. In fact, it never ends. Ashley and I are both moms, and we talk about how we will educate our kids. Making this a part of our local and global conversations and awareness is a work in progress and requires constant effort and unending commitment. Thanks for making this fun and accessible for more people! 

Amy bridge

Ashley:It's a necessity for real progress for any nation to break the male dominated stranglehold on every aspect of society. Dismantling the patriarchy will solve most of the world's ills. Malcolm x observed and said that societies that uplift and educate women thrive and advance. I believe that is the best reason to break down the patriarchy. True to form we must save the world and save men from themselves. I love the idea of this podcast and love so many of the episodes. Especially the ones featuring my favorite books. I think exploring feminism through literature provides the perfect platform for real conversations that can lead to change.

Amy bridge

Amy: Intro of bell hooks:

We usually spend some time talking about the author, but when my friend Gina and I recorded our episode on “feminism is for everybody” - which will air later - she pointed out that bell hooks wouldn’t have wanted a long biography. She is an extremely modest, unassuming person - in fact she doesn’t even capitalize her name because she wants readers’ attention to be on the substance of her ideas, not on her identity. So I won’t disrespect her wishes by talking too much about her, but I do want to share just a little bit because she is such a magnificent human being and I want listeners to have some background as we discuss her work. [And I highly recommend a NYT article about her by Min Jin Lee, published on Feb 28, 2019, called “In Praise of bell hooks.”] 

bell hooks is a pen name - she adopted her maternal great-grandmother's name because her great-grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired". Her real name is Gloria Jean Watkins, and she was born on September 25, 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which was a small, segregated town (this was two years before Brown v. Board).

Her father worked as a janitor and her mother worked as a maid in the homes of white families, and Gloria was educated in racially segregated public schools, later writing that this is where she experienced education as the practice of freedom. She describes the great adversities she faced when making the transition to an integrated school, where teachers and students were predominantly white. She was an avid reader all throughout her childhood, and after graduating from high school she attended Stanford University, where she graduated with a degree in English in 1973. And as I mentioned, astoundingly, it was during her time as an undergrad at Stanford that she wrote ain’t i a woman. She then got her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976. She spent several years teaching and writing, and then completed her doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, completing her dissertation on author Toni Morrison.

She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help, personal memoirs, and sexuality. A prevalent theme in her most recent writing is community and communion: in three conventional books and four children's books, she suggests that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are crucial to developing healthy communities and relationships that are not marred by race, class, or gender inequalities.

She has held positions as Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and as Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York. She currently serves as a  Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, in her home state of Kentucky. 

Before we start discussing ain’t i a...

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.