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Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

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“A canvas of vividly impressionistic splashes of growing up young, gifted, Black, and female.” ― The Philadelphia Inquirer
In this memoir of perceptions and ideas, renowned feminist intellectual bell hooks presents a stirringly intimate account of growing up in the South. Stitching together the gossamer threads of her girlhood memories, hooks shows us one strong-spirited child’s journey toward becoming a writer. Along the way, hooks sheds light on the vulnerability of children, the special unfurling of female creativity, and the imbalance of a society that confers marriage’s joys upon men and its silences on women. In a world where daughters and daddies are strangers under the same roof, and crying children are often given something to cry about, hooks uncovers the solace to be found in solitude, the comfort to be had in the good company of books.
Bone Black allows us to bear witness to the awakening of a legendary author’s awareness that writing is her most vital breath.
“With the emotion of poetry, the narrative of a novel, and the truth of experience, bell hooks weaves a girlhood memoir you won’t be able to put down―or forget. Bone Black takes us into the cave of self-creation.” ―Gloria Steinem

208 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

bell hooks

142 books9,651 followers
bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins) was an African-American author, feminist, and social activist. Her writing focused on the interconnectivity of race, class, and gender and their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination. She published over thirty books and numerous scholarly and mainstream articles, appeared in several documentary films and participated in various public lectures. Primarily through a postmodern female perspective, she addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media and feminism.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 228 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,547 followers
April 17, 2017
This is a fantastic autobiography from feminist activist and theorist bell hooks. As all her work, it is witty and engaging and insightful. A must in our current race-baiting and woman-hating rhetoric of Drumpfism, the TV evangelist psychos and Fox&Friends.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,463 reviews8,572 followers
December 27, 2016
A slender and poetic memoir by African American feminist and intellectual bell hooks. In sparse, three-paged chapters, hooks details her experience growing up as a poor black girl in an era of racial segregation. You can see her budding feminist roots in Bone Black, as she shares poignant memories such as the joy and shame of discovering her sexuality, how people labeled queer and gender nonconforming folk as "funny," and the complex feelings she experienced whenever she saw the ways women made themselves silent and subservient around men. hooks reflects on her girlhood with a bittersweet tenderness, one that acknowledges the painful parts of her childhood while celebrating her development as a reader and a writer.

However, I did not love the narrative style of Bone Black. hooks's distance from her own story and the non-linearity of the book made it difficult for me to invest myself in her childhood. The occasional use of third person, while an interesting device to delve into her trauma, did not elevate the book as a whole. Despite these qualms, I would recommend this memoir to anyone interested in a vulnerable account about growing up as a black girl with little privilege, as well as to anyone who wants to give experimental prose a shot. I cannot wait to read more of hooks, as her masterpiece The Will to Change still amazes me to this very day.
Profile Image for Crystal Starr Light.
1,350 reviews820 followers
February 21, 2013
bell hooks is a pretty famous feminist, writer, speaker, and activist. Unfortunately because of my upbringing, I didn't actually know she existed until my sister took a women's studies class and bought a bunch of bell hooks' books. Ever since then, my sister has been pestering me to read them. Since this is Black History Month, I thought now was the perfect time to acquiesce to my sister.

The best way to describe this book is a photo album. You go to your parent's bookshelves (or coffee table) and pull out the burgundy leather bound volume. You set it on your lap, the weight like a child, eager for your attention. You open the first page and are overwhelmed by the memories. There you are with that silly Easter dress, clutching your favorite stuffed animal! My goodness, your parents look young - when did they grow old? Don't you remember how just before this, you and your sister had been arguing over who would pick out a movie to watch? And so on and so forth.

That is this book. bell hooks doesn't write her autobiography in the "traditional" manner. "I was born in X to Y and Z in the town of Smalltown South of USA." Instead, she uses the two to three page chapters to create pictures, snippets, scenes from her childhood. The time she pulled her older brother in a wagon. Seeing her mother be strong one moment but weak in the face of her father. The joys of reading - but also the isolation of being "different".

This book was so poignant and so stirring. But also this book made me realize how privileged I am. My childhood was "tough", but I never had to be escorted by National Guards into a white school just to learn. I never had to deny my past, to try to be "white". While certainly not rich, my parents had money for clothes and shoes and Barbies and books. I didn't have to share a room with three other siblings. I didn't have to experience the near and intimate death of grandparents until I was much older.

I know lately it seems books have been trying to get the privileged to see the other side by switching the sides - instead of whites persecuting blacks, we get blacks persecuting whites (Revealing Eden). Instead of straights persecuting gays, we get gays persecuting straights (I think the book is called "Out"). How about instead of trying to switch the sides doing the excluding, we instead read books, such as "Bone Black", about the life and struggles and trials that others have gone through and imagine THAT is US? That the person being persecuted isn't some nameless, faceless being, but an actual person, with hopes and dreams and desires, just like us? Maybe then, we could finally bridge the divide and learn to love instead of hate.
Profile Image for Tara.
Author 22 books542 followers
January 4, 2017
This book should be part of every high school reading curriculum, especially in these worrisome times. At the highest level, writing should stimulate empathy, and this memoir, told in carefully rendered vignette chapters, is not only beautiful on a visceral level but on a teaching level. hooks opens up her heart and mind and allows us to FEEL her upbringing in a black community in the south. We feel her pain when she is beaten, cry with her in her solitude, nod with her when she gets a sentence just right, laugh with her, and cheer her on when she finds poetry. While this is a black experience, it is also the story of any budding writer who is looking for a voice. "I am here to make words," she finally knows and declares. Highly recommend to all readers. I'm keeping this on my shelf to read again.
Profile Image for Jessie.
259 reviews167 followers
July 16, 2020
bell hooks’ Bone Black was a concise and poetic remembrance of a childhood spent being Black and poor and female and an outsider in many senses in a family that expected her to be Black and poor and female and an insider in the sense of being domestic, and obedient, and subservient to the desires of men. Balanced to the point of every chapter being exactly three pages in length, hooks explored her great loves and her great traumas with an enduring sense of survival and a deeply held belief that what she felt was right for her and alright as well, even if everyone else told her that she was wrong and what she needed was wrong too. This book was so tender and so beautiful and so telling and so perfect and I really loved it so so much, in it’s telling and it’s enduring message of building a world that is the world you need until you can step out into the sun of beloved community and belonging.
Profile Image for Meg Tuite.
Author 47 books121 followers
February 4, 2016
WOW! Okay, so this is an unparalleled memoir. This is a memoir in flash. This is a memoir of the youngest daughter on fire. She is black. She gives her life to us in short, concise sentences that bust through the macro and micro of life in every paragraph. She gives us unforgettable similes. Hooks is brilliant! We watch through her eyes. We see the injustices, the horror, and the beauty. Read this! I'm sorry I came so late to it! It will be with me always! Here are some quotes:
"She could see the loneliness in that hand. When she whispered to him that she always held that hand–the right one–because all the loneliness was stored there like dry fruit in a cool place, he understood immediately."
"I cannot stand all the secret places I have had to make inside myself."
"We watch them sink into drink as if it is a feather mattress, as if it is a clear clean lake, like Blue Lake, one that will carry them, keep them afloat. We learn early to say no when they ask us to go to the store with the note that will bring someone closer to loss, closer to no longer remembering who we are."
"They are annoyed that I am so ignorant when it comes to matters of the body. Yet they have always made us ashamed of the body, made us tuck it away under our pillows like some missing tooth for which the fairy will reward. They reward our silences about the body."
"Books, like hands in the dark place, are a source of pleasure."
"Even if I could learn not to hear the locks I am sure the smell would kill me, would take my life slowly, stealing a bit of it each day with everyone watching."
"To her, black people make the most passionate music. She knows that there is no such thing as a natural rhythm. She knows it is the intensity of feeling, the constant knowing that death is real and a possibility that makes the music what it is. She knows that it is the transformation of suffering and sorrow into sound that bears witness to a black past. In her dreams she has seen the alchemist turning lead into gold."
That is what this memoir is and does. It is the pain, loneliness, growing up, and witnessing the strange world and the unending subterfuge packed into less than 200 pgs of alchemy; GOLD!! LOVE!!
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
1,528 reviews51 followers
February 17, 2017
Bone Black is the first complete work I have read from bell hooks, although at the time of this review I am in the midst of one of her other books. I'm glad that this is the first book of hers I finished, as I feel it has given me a glimpse of where the perspective of her other works lies. Regardless of the reading order, this was an incredibly well done memoir.

As hooks mentions a quilt from her grandmother in the opening chapter, this book quickly forms into a quilt of its own. It is a glorious patchwork quilt of a book, where each chapter is the same length of three pages, and gives a different piece of insight into hooks' youth. Told from different perspectives, Bone Black is hooks' memories just as she remembers them. The choice to delve between dream and reality, first person and third person, is a brilliantly orchestrated one. It makes you feel as if you're remembering these stories of her childhood just as she does. Seeing how helpless she feels as a child, as a person of colour, as a woman, as an outsider, hooks brings you into her memories and her feelings, and you truly get an idea of how she formed the personal, political, spiritual beliefs that shape who she is today.

I would recommend this to anyone, whether it is their first book from hooks or their tenth. It is a brilliant glimpse into the formation of a brilliant woman, and just as thought provoking as what little else I've read from her.
Profile Image for Bob Brinkmeyer.
Author 9 books50 followers
October 17, 2019
As bell hooks says in the Foreword, Bone Black “is autobiography as truth and myth—as poetic witness.” In other words, it’s not a full-blown autobiography, but more a reflection upon key moments from and influences during her upbringing in rural Kentucky. The book moves in short chapters—3 pages each—zeroing in on these moments and influences, sometimes told in first person, sometimes in third person narration. This shift in narrative position is an unusual and striking tactic, and with it hooks means to evoke the complicated workings of memory. As she puts it: “Sometimes memories are presented in the third person, indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance. Examining life retrospectively we are there and not there, watching and watched.”

This is an evocative book but one that leaves the reader (at least this reader) at times wanting a tighter narrative and flow. That said, it’s filled with striking images and insights, and hooks does a fine job capturing the loneliness she felt growing up in a family that for the most part found her a problem child. Exploring that loneliness is the passionate heart of the book.

One final word: I find so instructive one of the epigraphs hooks chooses for Bone Black, a line from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: "Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods."
Profile Image for Taylor.
7 reviews
December 19, 2012
Bone Black was the most inspiring book I have ever read. It was a memoir but it was not the typical memoir. The book was written in a more poetic kind of way. She did not have sentences be she have phrases. Simple phrases that came together to tell about her childhood of being a black girl.

She grew up in the Jim Crow era. there were white only places that she wanted to go in but she could not. She also was the black sheep of the family. No one understood her she was not your average of little girl. She did not have many friends at all she just stayed home reading books.

The made me sad in some spots like when her father would beat her mother and she would try to help and would get beat too. she also talked about what little girls today go through. The fact of having “GOOD HAIR”. and being light skinned. She didn't not have “good hair” it was not long it was very course and it did not come pass her ear. She always had to wear it platted. She talked about wanting to have light skin. The light skinned girls always got what they wanted. They got the lead in plays that she always wanted, the Bride. The dark skin girls got to be the bridesmaids.

Coming from a black girl growing up in America I know where she is coming from. The women had it hard. And the dark skin women had it the hardest. We are not consider as pretty and our hair is more coarse than any other person.

Profile Image for Elli (The Bibliophile).
270 reviews128 followers
May 16, 2015
I would say this is the best book I've read this year so far!

This memoir is basically a collection of memories that bell hooks has about her childhood. They seem to be in a vaguely chronological order leading up to her senior year of high school. The chapters are all quite short- usually 3 pages long. Because of this I found it was a very easy book to read quite quickly!

I also enjoyed the writing, and found it interesting how most sections were told in first person narrative, and some in third person. I'm not 100% sure why that is yet, but it definitely got me thinking!

There were obviously many themes in this memoir- being black and female in the south, being an outsider, growing up into womanhood etc. However one theme I found really interesting is that of colour. Colour is mentioned several times in this book. For example hooks emphasizes how prominent the colour pink was in her house, but that she hated it. Her dislike of the colour pink further separates her from her sisters.

Also, hooks has this fixation on the colour black throughout the novel. She wants to wear black clothing, but her mother always tells her that black is a women's colour. Black seems to also represent her solitude,and being by herself in her room where she feels most comfortable. The last sentence references the title: " This dark, bone black inner cave where I am making a world for myself."

Overall this was a great memoir, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes memoirs, or who has read anything else by bell hooks and is interested in learning more about her!
Profile Image for Katrina.
Author 46 books621 followers
January 3, 2013
hooks experiments with her writing in this book. I wonder if this book is like her poetry. There are a lot of interesting things happening here but it can be challenging (and sometimes boring) to get through it. BUT, I think it's a serious must-read if you're interested in Black families, Black women's lives etc.
Profile Image for Amber.
2,832 reviews28 followers
April 27, 2015
I don't know how to take this book. Her experiences are so different from mine that I don't know how to understand them or whether I'm meant to understand them (being white, being priviledged). I know the joy of books, but not the struggle of integration, of fighting for those books. I can't know what it is like to be black. Will have to reread.
Profile Image for Robert Vaughan.
Author 10 books127 followers
February 21, 2016
A testament to the power of memoir. Trusting the reader. The fluctuating point of view technique explained in the forward of Bone Black was used effortlessly, though if you have ever tried to do this as a writer, it is so difficult. And the open vision, hooks' prose poetic lines, her short versed chapters, like lightening storm flashes. Like archery. And a testament to bravery, to dare to tell the outsider story of a black girl growing up in rural Kentucky, never quite fitting in, even among her siblings, her family.

Here is an example, page 48: 'Standing still, poised in anguish. I think of the beautiful girl riding a horse on the frontier, shooting straight. I am learning to be still, to give my life over to the black box. I am learning to surrender.'

And another from Chapter 61: 'She gives me Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet. I am drowning and his words come to rescue me. He helps to make sense of the pain I felt. Now it is Rilke who speaks to me and urges me to go into myself and finds the deeps into which my life takes rise. At least I am not alone. At least I have been seen.'
Profile Image for Rachel.
582 reviews68 followers
February 14, 2014
bell hooks sure can write! This book is short but powerful. It's not told in the typical autobiographical format (first person, unfolding story) but rather small vignettes with shifting perspectives. Original, smart, and touching.
66 reviews
April 19, 2017
Poignant and vivid. Takes me back. Even though bell hooks and I are from a different generation, our experience as a black girl living in the south are the same. Bone Black is going down as one of my all time favorites.
Profile Image for Briana.
132 reviews168 followers
June 5, 2022
Bell hooks was a poet
But oh my heart aches for her

468 reviews4 followers
January 15, 2022
This short memoir is a series of vignettes, each about 3 pages written as prose poems. The language is simple but powerful. There's a recounting of dreams, and sometimes there's a blurring of the lines between dreams and reality. It is not your typical chronological memoir but we do learn a lot about bell hooks' childhood in Kentucky, living with her mother and father, five sisters, and a brother. There are wonderful portraits of of extended family and the elders in her community. Her grandmother Sarah, called Saru, is a fiercely self-sufficient woman who combines her Indian with southern black heritage. There are also rich descriptions of her country school and later the integrated school, her church community, her discovery of sexuality, colorism, and her observations of the cruel side of marriage and gender. Her perception is that she is always the outsider in her "dysfunctional" family- too thin, too light-skinned, too bookish, and maybe even "funny". But there is in addition to the cruelty and denial of painful realities, a lot of love and encouragement in this family, particularly from her mother. I watched an interview with hooks, a charming presence and wonderfully clear thinker, in which she compared her early life to living under Apartheid. When you put this family in that context, you can understand why her parents and elders could be so harsh. There was real danger all around. Reading this was for me an accessible introduction to bell hooks' prolific writings.
Profile Image for Atteneri Black.
50 reviews
March 6, 2023
4.5/5 Stars.

This a sad story. A heartbreaking story of a girl living and growing in a harsh world. A harsh world full of injustices, of racism, a girl growing alone while growing in a big family. This is the story of someone who grew up misunderstood and judged for not fitting in, but who also learned to make a hard experience a love letter. This book is for the Jo March's of the world. You are not alone.
Profile Image for Blaire Malkin.
1,006 reviews4 followers
January 8, 2022
4.5 stars. I underlined many sentences in this book - not a traditional memoir but instead vignettes of memories from her childhood. The memories of integrating a school and the loss of the feeling of community she had at her all Black school were really powerful. Within her descriptions you see how she found books and began to develop her opinions.
Profile Image for Kony.
396 reviews240 followers
April 26, 2016
This memoir speaks simply, eloquently, to my heart. These scattered snatches of bell hooks's childhood cohere readily in my mind, because she embeds them in emotions and sensibilities that resonate with mine. (Although the concrete details of *my* childhood, on the outside, looked quite different.) While reading this book, I began to write more poetically, imagistically, and I think humanely. I don't presume that this book will be or do the same for you. Check it out yourself.
45 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2023
TW: violence

« …she was too smart, men did not like smart women, men did not like women whose head was always in a book. And even more, men did not like women who talked back… »

I think good writing is often that which lets the reader step into the shoes of the author, and empathize deeply with their unique struggles. ‘Bone Black’ is one such book; it is an autobiography written in poetic form. The author, bell hooks, recounts her journey from childhood as a Black woman, internally (and sometimes, externally) battling societal standards for women, while dealing with race-related struggles.

I think that a lot of the reason I enjoyed this read was that I could see parts of myself and my upbringing in the young hooks, all of which are probably universal women’s sentiments. Her interpretation of marriage, societal double standards when it came to women, from being accepting of gay men and not women, and with regard to sexual activities, all mirror flaws that are still rampant in today’s world.

« I want her to never lose what she has given me - a sense that there is something deeper, something more to this life than the everyday. »

Something I really was touched by was hooks’ description of her relationship with her mother. She seems to mourn their inability to communicate their love in the same tongue, and i thought that struggle was beautifully encapsulated.

I also liked how there were suggestions of the multiple roles that women had to juggle, while fighting their own battles. With descriptions of domestic violence (against women) in her house, and her childlike understanding of what warranted punishment, hooks’ solace in writing and books, sheltering her from the world that didn’t truly ‘see’ her, is something that has been channeled masterfully into this memoir.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was a glimpse into hooks’ torrential thoughts and her dissent against the conventions of womanhood. I would definitely recommend it.
Profile Image for Lindsey Z.
507 reviews149 followers
September 19, 2018
If you’re familiar with bell hooks, this memoir is an intriguing look at her childhood and how she was raised. She covers issues like racism, homophobia, gender expectations, domestic violence, death, and sexuality. There are 61 chapters, snippets of memory or commentary about her childhood. Each chapter is exactly 2.5 pages long, so there’s consistency in the presentation, but that meant that each vignette was incredibly short, and, as a result, felt undeveloped. She alternates between the 1st and 3rd perspectives, which I think worked to show both how she thought of herself and others while growing up and also how others thought of her (a big concern of hers because her family members were always judging her for not acting right). But at times I felt a detachment between hooks and her own stories. She delivers them in almost a sterile, matter of fact way, devoid of the emotion you might imagine they would evoke. The most effective vignettes were the ones where she discusses how her family and community perceived homosexuals and her fears that she might not be interested in men. I was also fascinated by her descriptions of going to an integrated school for the first time, but she only dedicates one chapter to an experience that I imagine is ripe for more depiction. I wish there were fewer memories and threads and that they were more richly developed. Since I love bell hooks and her scholarly work, I enjoyed reading her about childhood.
Profile Image for Bobbieshiann.
317 reviews76 followers
October 16, 2017
“deep within myself i had begun to worry that this loving care we gave to the pink and white flesh-colored dolls meant that somewhere left high on the shelves were boxes of unwanted, unloved brown dolls covered in dust. i thought that they would remain there forever, orphaned and alone, unless someone began to want them, to want to give them love and care, to want them more than anything. at first they ignored my wanting. they complained. they pointed out that white dolls were easier to find, cheaper. they never said where they found baby but i know. she was always there high in the shelf, covered in dust, waiting”.
Profile Image for Sue's Stokvel.
41 reviews3 followers
October 15, 2020
It’s an unspoken rite of passage, but every black girl coming into their own will encounter Bell Hooks one way or another. She has raised many black women through her writing. But who raised Bell Hooks? Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, first published in 1996, is a vulnerable and non-prescriptive memoir from an unlikely source. Bell Hooks is an academic and is known as such. Despite referencing personal relationships in books like All About Love: New Visions, these are often only used as examples and case studies to broach bigger subjects such as love, gender and race. Hooks’ childhood is not necessary to understanding her work, but it does shed light on the relationships that shaped her politics which is not always evident in her academic writing. We also learn about Bell Hooks’ love of reading that alienates her from her immediate family. Portraits of the older characters in Bell Hooks’ life are more interesting as they fit the style and era of the writing style Hooks is mimicking. There are a handful of quotes that can be pulled from the book which reaffirm Bell Hooks’ prowess as a writer, but overall the book was disappointing in comparison to her other work. The Point of view of the narrator is inconsistent and confusing. This particular style of writing is reminiscent of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and there is something hypnotizing about this style of storytelling that is inspired by African oral traditions. However, it is not enough to sustain the reader’s attention. There is potential for success for this book in film and audio.
Profile Image for Sarah.
50 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2022
I don't even know how to begin this...there is just so much to say about bell hook's memoir, 'Bone Black'; I know I can't truly do it justice so I will just start.

Illuminating, thought-provoking, hopeful and soul crushing all at once. Countless times I wanted to reach into the pages, into the past, and just put a gentle hand on this little girl's shoulder. Whisper to her that she doesn't deserve the hell she is living, no one does. That she is not too much, or too little, of anything. That eventually she will find her way away from the cliff's edge.

bell hooks does not spare the reader anything, as she herself was not spared in her experiences. It might not be a "fun" read but it was absolutely engrossing and as much as my heart cried reading it, I never put it down.

Thank you bell hooks, and may you be resting in peace.

Profile Image for Rachel Renbarger.
381 reviews5 followers
May 1, 2020
I love how she demonstrates that you don't have to write a lot to communicate a lot. She hits on practically every major life issue- poverty, racism, sexuality, love, you name it- with childlike description that magnifies reality. Because of this it still takes awhile to make it through the book despite how short it is. You'll want to think and write and feel after each little nibble. My only complaint, if you can really complain at all about this, is the title. Blackness and color are throughout the text but bone black is really only at the end in a short spurt. I kept waiting for more. Highly recommend this to a creative writing class or for discussions about the America we live in.
Profile Image for Veronika.
69 reviews6 followers
October 29, 2020
I loved bell hooks' clarity of thought and her well-rounded perspective on her disconsolate childhood. I thought the blackness she felt herself existing in was so uniquely portrayed especially within the heavy environment of racial borderlines. The book definitely felt like it was written by a poet with all the hard stops/ parataxis. I'm excited to read her poetry, having heard where her troubles lie.
March 18, 2017
It is in a way a precursor to Wounds of passion: A writing life. Which is my favourite bell hooks book by far. Bone black is written in short spurts which creates a division in her early life experiences and how she has perceived them. I was a little disappointed in the turnout, but that was because of my projections.

Would read again.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 228 reviews

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