I came to bell hooks' new book, "Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood," with a certain apprehension. As a critic, hooks excels at making others uncomfortable, unsettling their easy assumptions about race, class and gender. But she's not always so good about questioning her own assumptions, and all too often she falls back on formulaic ideological constructs like "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" in lieu of real analysis.
My apprehension about the book was misplaced. "Bone Black" is a thoughtful and eloquent evocation of the pleasures and the sorrows of one girl's childhood, from the hazy fog of her earliest years to her fumbling attempts at sex in the back seat of a car. (The boy, a dark-skinned basketball player, flees from her advances.)
It's the small things that touch the reader most: hooks writes of her first encounter with "sweet-smelling... milky white Ivory Soap"; at home, they have to use lye. She writes of the "tasting parties" held on Fridays at her school, where she got to try exotic treats like cottage cheese. "We go home from the tasting parties telling our parents what it was like, telling them to buy this good new food, better food, better than any food we have ever tasted," hooks recalls. But Mama can't buy this new food; she doesn't have the money.
hooks examines and reexamines her memories; she doesn't take their truth for granted. After reporting in loving detail the extended psychological tug-of-war she waged with her brother over who would ride in a little red wagon, hooks reports her later discovery that "the red wagon of her memory had never existed." Searching through family photos, she finds no such wagon; what she does find is an old red wheelbarrow -- the raw material upon which her memory improved.
There are times, particularly in the book's awkward and unsatisfactory introduction, where hooks lets ideology get the better of her, where she attempts to reduce the complexity of her past to the simple lessons of a sociology lecture. At these moments, one feels her ideology as an intervention from outside, an imposition of adult understanding (and misunderstanding) upon her child's world. These moments ring false; they jar the ear. Luckily, there are few of them. hooks, instead, is courageous enough to let her memories speak to her -- and, through her, to us.