Kristal Brent Zook explores the lives of contemporary African America women from all walks of life. Based on her travels across America and years of interviewing and building relationships with women from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, she offers vivid archetypal portraits of a school principal in Georgia, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, a factory worker in Mississippi, a corporate executive in New York City, a prisoner in Seattle, and an organic farmer in Vermont, among others. Through these portraits, Black Women's Lives explores common overlapping themes while highlighting the shared dreams, hopes, and disappointments of ordinary women. This book also reveals the many challenges and inequalities that black women still face, and how far this nation has yet to travel if it is to live up to its promise to create an equal and just society for all citizens.
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Kristal Bent Zook is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City.
Ralph Ellison regarded African Americans as invisible men, but today one might argue that black women are the ones who are seen but little known. In the compelling Black Women's Lives, journalist Kristal Brent Zook tells the stories of10 little-known women who are stand-ins for millions of others, women who fight against odds to make a difference in society or to make great changes for themselves.
In some ways, the women are unusual, with extraordinary personal histories. Yet it is the sheer invisibility of African American women film directors, union workers or executives that makes them so striking. How heralded is Sarah Claree White, a woman who helped lead the largest strike of black workers in Mississippi history? Or Yvonne Sanders-Butler, a Georgia school principal who is fighting the widespread obesity of her predominantly black students by turning the school into a sugar-free, healthy food zone? Taken from a series of profiles of African American women across the country that Zook started writing in 1995 (some of which appeared in Essence magazine), Black Women's Lives attempts to present a cross section of contemporary African American women. Most, however, have at least a high school education, and many are Southerners.
Some of Zook's subjects did not even reach adulthood: Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir, who drowned on a California beach during a sorority hazing that was so foolish as to be dumbfounding; and Sakia Gunn, 15, who was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Newark, N.J., for being a lesbian. Zook's accomplishment is to tell their stories so fully that we know these women. High and Saafir, before their tragically early deaths, were among the millions of black women who have made membership in black sororities and black women's clubs a centerpiece of their involvement in civil society. In exposing the hapless events leading to their deaths, Zook brings to light the dangers posed by the hidden rites of sororities, which are among the most cherished of African American institutions, having been embraced by leaders of black society for more than 100 years. Gunn's murder, which received a fair amount of news coverage in the Northeast, offers Zook a chance to explore African American homophobia, which, as she writes, has many deadly consequences, including bashing and resistance to HIV/AIDS education.
There are two kinds of women in Black Women's Lives, those who found themselves and those who found that changing one's life can be far more difficult than enduring its hardships. While each of these women has helped someone by her example, Zook opens up the landscape around them and emphasizes the possible connections between one world and another. For example, filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood mined her early passion for hoops in her first feature, "Love & Basketball," which was the favorite movie of another subject, Sakia Gunn.
In Quincy, Fla., Zook followed Sondra Jones Anderson, a tireless AIDS education activist who works on the streets and also tries to start programs in the schools and churches of a hidebound Southern community. Ninety percent of the townspeople infected with HIV/AIDS are African American, and mostly women. Household incomes "average below $25,000, and one third of all children live in poverty." Zook tells the devastating story of a 40-year-old woman hospitalized with AIDS whose daughter is also infected. When asked how she felt about the fact that they were both infected, she answered, "It never came across my mind."
Sarah White, one of her single mother's 10 children, worked in a filthy catfish processing plant despite having finished college. She battled conditions in which workers were allowed no sick days, had to ask permission to use the bathrooms, and suffered injuries that were left untreated. A few years after White's victory in forming a union, ground gained is being taken back.
Throughout the book, these women are engaged in much the same fight -- for self-acceptance and a chance to see their own worth. When asked why she turned down the offer of a better-paying job, White said, "I haven't figured that one out yet." Candace Matthews, "the youngest of eighteen children," who became president of SoftSheen-Carson, maker of Dark & Lovely, Care Free Curl and other products, "didn't take vacations, get manicures, or shop for clothes unless they were on [the] 70 percent discount rack." Kristin High played sports, including one she didn't even like, until she won a trophy. She chose to pledge "hard" in Alpha Kappa Alpha for greater respect and contacts.
Zook's last profile is of a prisoner in a unique correctional facility, now closed, that tried to help its population -- mostly women of color -- to take stock of themselves through Buddhist meditation. The 10-day course involved living in silence and introspection for extended periods each day. In one of Zook's wise acknowledgments of the resistance to change, she asks why most African American women rejected enrollment in the program. There are mysteries in each of us that set us apart from any statistics or the bare facts that squeeze a person into a news story. Resisting a success-only gloss, Zook allows the mysteries to be seen.
In the absence of the large social movements that helped at least one generation of Americans to find themselves, uplift now seems to come more through individual rebirth. Zook's book has a place among others in this school, such as works by Haki Madhubhuti and Kevin Powell on African American men. They are asking us to confront the tragic effects and damage being suffered in black communities, even if their causes lie outside.
Reviewed by Thulani Davis
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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