Rock My Soul : Black People and Self-Esteem

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9780743456050: Rock My Soul : Black People and Self-Esteem

World-renowned scholar and visionary bell hooks takes an in-depth look at one of the most critical issues of our time, the impact of low self-esteem on the lives of black people.

Without self-esteem everyone loses his or her sense of meaning, purpose, and power. For too long, African Americans in particular have been unable to openly and honestly address the crisis of self-esteem and how it affects the way they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.

In her most challenging and provocative book to date, bell hooks gives voice to what many black people have thought and felt, but seldom articulated. She offers readers a clear, passionate examination of the role self-esteem plays in the African-American experience in determining whether individuals or groups succeed or self-sabotage. She considers the reasons why even among "the best and brightest" students at Ivy League institutions "there were young men and women beset by deep feelings of unworthiness, of ugliness inside and outside."

She listened to the stories of her students and her peers -- baby boomers who had excelled -- and heard the same sentiments, including deep feelings of inadequacy. With critical insight, hooks exposes the underlying truth behind the crisis: it has been extremely difficult to create a culture that promotes and sustains a healthy sense of self-esteem in African-American communities. With true brilliance, she rigorously examines and identifies the barriers -- political and cultural -- that keep African Americans from emotional well-being. She looks at historical movements as well as parenting and how we make and sustain community. She discusses the revolutionary role preventative mental health care can play in promoting and maintaining self-esteem.

Blending keen intellectual insight and practical wisdom, Rock My Soul provides a blueprint for healing a people and a nation.

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About the Author:

bell hooks is a distinguished professor of English, cultural critic, feminist theorist, and writer, who divides her time among teaching, writing, and lecturing around the world. She is the author of more than twenty books and lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Healing Wounded Hearts

Self-esteem is not a sexy term. For many folks it conjures up images of self-help issues that were popular "back in the day." Indeed, in our nation public talk about self-esteem was at its highest in the sixties. Then the United States, one of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world, was producing citizens who were simply discontent with their lot in life, who saw themselves as failures. Many of these individuals had come from upper-class backgrounds, were educated at the best schools, prospered in jobs and careers, moved in elite social circles, and yet found themselves unable to feel truly successful or enjoy life. They went to psychologists seeking a way to gain health for the mind. These individuals were white Americans. Psychology of the fifties had little to say about the psyches and souls of black folks.

In 1954 Nathaniel Branden had a small psychotherapy practice. His clients were all white but from diverse class backgrounds. Working with their issues, he began to focus on the issue of self-esteem. Branden recalls: "Reflecting on the stories I heard from clients, I looked for a common denominator, and I was struck by the fact that whatever the person's particular complaint, there was always a deeper issue: a sense of inadequacy, of not being 'enough,' a feeling of guilt or shame or inferiority, a clear lack of self-acceptance, self-trust, and self-love. In other words, a problem of self-esteem." He published his first articles on the psychology of self-esteem in the sixties.

Racial integration was hotly debated in the early sixties. The issue of whether black people were inferior to whites and therefore would be unable to do well in an integrated work or school context was commonly discussed. Racist white folks insisted everyone did better when they stayed with their own kind. And there were black folks who agreed with them. When the issue of self-esteem was raised in relation to black people, it was just assumed that racism was the primary factor creating low self-esteem. Consequently, when black public figures, most of whom were male at the time, began to address the issue of self-esteem, they focused solely on the impact of racism as a force that crippled our self-esteem.

Militant antiracist political struggles placed the issue of self-esteem for black folks on the agenda. And it took the form of primarily discussing the need for positive images. The slogan "black is beautiful" was popularized in an effort to undo the negative racist iconography and representations of blackness that had been an accepted norm in visual culture. Natural hairstyles were offered to counter the negative stereotype that one could be beautiful only if one's hair was straight and not kinky. "Happy to be nappy" was also a popular slogan among militant black liberation groups. Even black folks whose hair was not naturally kinky found ways to make their hair look nappy to be part of the black-is-beautiful movement. Capitalist entrepeneurs, white and black, welcomed the creation of a new market -- that is, material goods related to black pride (African clothing, picks for hair, black dolls). Market forces were pleased to support the aspect of black pride that was all about new commodities.

Now pride in blackness already existed in every black community in the United States. While its cultural power may never have eliminated internalized racial self-hatred, the movement for racial uplift that began the moment individual free black folks came to the "New World," combined with the force of slave resistance, had already established the cultural foundations for black pride way before the fifties, even though the term self-esteem was not a part of the popular discourse of racial uplift. Writing on the subject of black pride in "Credo" in 1904, W. E. B. Du Bois declared,

I believe in pride of race and lineage and self....I believe in Liberty for all men, the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of God and Love. I believe in the training of children, black even as white; the leading out of little souls into the green pastures and beside the still waters, not for self, or peace, but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth.

Du Bois advocated working for racial uplift because he was not afraid to examine the ways racism had kept black folks from fully realizing their potential for human development.

This same demand for holistic self-development rooted in black pride was the foundation of the black women's club movement. Speaking in 1916 on the subject of "The Modern Woman," black woman leader Mary Church Terrell shared her vision of the special mission of educated black women: "We have to do more than other women. Those of us fortunate enough to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. We must go into our communities and improve them; we must go out into the nation and change it. Above all, we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together." A militant spirit of racial uplift was the unifying principle of the black women's club movement throughout the nation. The issue was not just to confront and resist racism but to create a culture of freedom and possiblity that would enable all black folks irrespective of class to engage in constructive self-help.

The call for racial uplift in the early twentieth century was not a superficial evocation of black pride; instead it was truly a call for this newly freed mass population of Americans, African and those of African descent, to strive to be fully self-actualized. To some extent the black pride movement of the sixties, with its intense focus on representation, shifted attention away from the moral and ethical demands of racial uplift, its spiritual dimension, and focused solely on the issue of gaining equality with whites. The psyches and souls of black folks needed to be nourished as much as did the individual's need for material goods and basic civil rights in the public sphere. Yet more often than not the inner psychological development of black folks was ignored by those black public figures who were most concerned with gaining equal access within the existing social system.

No wonder then that after major civil rights were gained and militant black power movement had increased social and economic opportunities, the focus on black pride diminished. The need for an organized ongoing program of racial uplift, though acknowledged, never gained meaningful momentum. This may have been a direct consequence of the waning power of black female leadership, especially the political leadership fostered by the black women's club movement. Though often guilty of class elitism, black women in the club movement held values focused on holistic self-development for black people of all classes. Black folks were encouraged to have proper etiquette and manners, to be people of integrity, to educate themselves, to work hard, to be religious, and to value service to others. Indeed, the phrase "racial uplift through self-help" was a common slogan used in black women's organizations.

In the early twentieth century prominent black male leaders began to demand of black women that they cease working in an egalitarian manner alongside black men for racial uplift. This demand changed the tenor and tone of black civil rights struggle. In the twenties patriarchal black male leaders pointedly told black women to step back from the social and political realms. Black nationalism became the vehicle to push black patriarchal values. As a new leader Marcus Garvey used his newspaper, The Negro World, to advocate sexist thinking about the nature of women's role. Articles ran in the paper urging black folks to "go back to the days of true manhood when women truly reverenced us." This resistance to partnership in struggle reached a peak in the early sixties.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his role as assistant secretary of labor, wrote the report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," his intent, as explained in Too Heavy a Load by historian Deborah Gray White, was "to alert government policy makers to the problems in black America that went beyond desegreation and voting." She contends: "He aimed to demonstrate that neither the Civil Rights movement nor Civil Rights legislation had made an impact on black everyday life. Indeed, the report's survey of unemployment, housing, school dropout rates, crime and delinquency, and intelligence tests revealed that over ten years of Civil Rights protests and national upheaval had not changed the fundamental living conditions of most African-Americans."

Following in the wake of conservative black male patriarchs (in particular the sociologist John Hope Franklin), Moynihan felt the key to black underdevelopment was the lack of patriarchal gender arrangements in black homes. In his report he stated: "Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage." When black liberation struggle moved from a focus on mutual racial uplift of black males and females to an insistence that black men dominate and black women maintain a subordinate position, the focus on holistic development shifted to gaining equality with white men. Civil rights movement coupled with militant, patriarchal black liberation struggle successfully challenged the nation so that black people gained greater rights. Racial integration effectively created a cultural context where it was at least clearer to everyone that given equal opportunity, black citizens would excel or fail depending on circumstance just like white citizens.

Ulitmately, like their white counterparts, black folks in this nation gained greater economic privileges, civil rights, all manner of equality, and yet found that even with all these progressive changes all was not well with their souls, that many of them were lacking in self-esteem. In many cases black females subordinated themselves to black males, but black men were still discontent. Two-parent black families had many of the same woes as single-parent homes. Yet while white folks were looking to progressive psychology to soothe their psyches, their discontent, black leaders more than ever before in African-American history named racism as the central culprit disturbing the peace in our lives.

These same leaders responded to struggles for gender equality by acting as though greater freedom for black females was a covert attack on black males. Prior to such thinking it was merely assumed that any gains black females made were gains for the race as a whole. In all their activism black women in the early part of the twentieth century continually insisted that gender equality enhanced the struggle for black liberation. Such thinking lost momentum as patriarchal thinking became more an accepted norm for black males and females. Militant black power Panther spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver told the world in his 1968 international bestseller Soul on Ice that the black woman was the "silent ally...of the white man," who used her to destroy black manhood. Labeling black females "race traitors" should have galvanized masses of black females and males to protest. Instead, there was widespread agreement on the part of black males and females who were socialized to accept patriarchal thinking without question that black male development would be furthered by the subordination of black women.

Plenty of political black women responded to the black male insistence that patriarchal domination by black men was the only way to heal the wounds of racism by standing behind their men. Activist Margaret Wright clearly saw the contradictions: "Black men used to admire the black woman for all they'd endured to keep the race going. Now the black man is saying he wants a family structure like the white man's. He's got to be head of the family and women have to be submissive and all that nonsense...the white woman is already oppressed in that setup." The lone individuals, female and male, who had the foresight to see that gender warfare would undermine the historical solidarity in struggle between black women and men and lead to more havoc in black family life could not sway political opinion in a progressive direction.

Black women who joined feminist movement, whether in separatist or integrated contexts, risked being labeled race traitors, but that did not lead to silence. By the late seventies and early eighties individual black women active in feminist movement were making our voices heard loud and clear, but we were no longer recognized as leaders or would-be leaders in our diverse black communities. Just supporting feminism, and using the word, allowed many black folks to ignore the valid social and political critiques that we were making.

Being labeled a race traitor was devastating to the self-esteem of black women who had found in antiracist struggle a basis on which to build positive self-concepts. To be told that the black woman's efforts to end racism were detrimental to the race was incredibly confusing to many black females. Black nationalism alone did not give credence to patriarchal thinking. Fundamentalist Christian thinking about gender roles had been deeply embedded in the social thought of black folks from slavery on into freedom. That rhetoric joined with the patriarchal rhetoric of conservative black nationalism, reinforcing in the minds and hearts of black males and females alike that male domination of women should be the norm.

Ironically, the insistence that patriarchy would heal the wounds inflicted by white supremacy and racial terrorism gained momentum at precisely that historical moment when affluent white women were telling the world that all was not well in the homes of Dick and Jane. Domestic violence, incest, depression, and all manner of addiction and mental illness were identified as the plight white females suffered in affluent marriages. Concurrently, feminist movement made it possible for more men than ever before in our nation to protest the way patriarchal masculinity crippled the psyches and souls of men. Progressive white men questioning patriarchy were not listened to by black males who wanted patriarchal power. The equation of power with self-esteem was the faulty thinking that would ultimately trap black males.

Even though Martin Luther King, Jr., had warned black folks and all citizens of this nation in his collection of sermons Strength to Love, first published in 1963, that we would endanger our souls if we ignored the interrelatedness of all life, if we chose violence over peace, hatred over love, materialism over communalism, his words were not fully embraced. Yet his insights were clearly prophetic. Now, more than thirty years later, his declaration that "we have foolishly m...

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