Activism in Literature: Angela Davis, Audre Lorde & bell hooks
By Emma Regan, Ella O’Neill, Jordan Maxwell Ridgway and Hayley Gray
In this issue, we are excited to take a look at how Black authors have powerfully used their voices throughout literature to highlight the oppression the Black community regularly faces.
Literature is one of the most powerful forces of activism you can find. Activists must use thought-provoking narratives to highlight to others where oppression lies. Meanwhile, authors respect the intelligence of their readers and use powerful literary tools that challenge them to question the world they live in.
You may be familiar with names like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, all Black authors whose books are celebrated as modern classics for their literary prowess and impactful storytelling. This article will delve into the works of some of those authors discussing their activism and why they have been celebrated for so long.
Black women have a long history of survival and resistance – from civil rights and social justice movements; slavery to emancipation; and waves of feminism – through undertaking leadership roles (especially through literature and education) as a means of imparting their knowledge and experiences to the next generations. Hence, forty years ago, activist, educator and author, Angela Davis wrote her groundbreaking book Women, Race & Class (1981) as a means of offering an alternative and intersectional perspective of feminine struggles for liberation.
Throughout Women, Race & Class, Davis traced an intertwined history of women’s suffrage and abolition movements through the examination and criticism of racism, class prejudice and homophobia inherent in traditional or white feminist ideologies. While Davis’ text does critique masculinist ideologies and patriarchal hierarchies of power, she also advocates for all forms of social inequality and exposes the disconcerting path of a “universal” notion of feminism.
Thus, Women, Race & Class became a foundational text for what is now regarded as “multicultural feminism.” Davis has allowed generations of racial and ethnic minority, working-class and LGBTQIA+ women to benefit from her radical and integrative activist literature as her work has touched, informed and empowered those who are often ignored or silenced.
Audre Lorde is probably best known for her poetry, but she was also a prolific essayist and prose writer, and her work focused on intersectional topics of race, gender, sexuality, illness, disability and ageism. Lorde was able to craft work of deep emotion, giving light to the issues she experienced in her own life and serving as another form of activism through its power to evoke empathy.
In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), Lorde gave voice to a new genre she called “biomythograhy” – a blend of history, myth and biographical details. Early in the story, Lorde is declared legally blind, and she regularly describes feeling isolated and disconnected from her family. Despite her family’s attempts to shield her from racism in Jim Crow’s America, Lorde gives detail of shocking interactions. As the novel progresses into her early adulthood, Lorde begins romantic relationships with several women, who each help her form her identity.
Zami has been routinely hailed as one of the most influential novels of all time, namely for its marked ability to confront and express pain. Her vivid use of metaphor and imagery helps to illustrate a trailblazer who was not afraid to forge her path. As The New York Times wrote reflecting on her work, “to read it is to feel one has lived her life.”
Gloria Jean Watkins was her given name. Therefore, bell hooks is the pseudonym/pen name. was a powerful cultural figure, known for her trailblazing status as a writer and cultural activist. Whilst writing and exploring intersectional topics of race, class and feminism, she centred on the Black woman’s experience and articulated, and powerfully identified such phenomena to enlighten those that had predominantly upheld liberation movements – primarily white women of class privilege – to the extent that Black women were pushed to the margins.
Ain’t I a Woman (1981) was hooks’ first major work, named after the speech Sojourner Truth delivered at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention. hooks began writing it when she was just nineteen and spoke out for the rights of African Americans and women during and after the Civil War. hooks critically examines how Black women were oppressed by white men, and Black men oppressed by white women. She rejects the view that race and gender aren’t inextricably intertwined and evaluates the historical past, examining the treatment of Black women during enslavement to provide social and critical commentary on the continuing injustices of the present.