Sisters of the Yam by Bell hooks was recommended to me by a friend who I lived with during my first post-grad year. I am thankful for her that all our conversations has been centered on healing.
On The Book
Bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam is a call to action for black women to heal their pain.
Pain that is caused by, as bell hooks describes, a white supremacist, sexist, and capitalist society.
Hooks locates where these wounds live externally and internally, such as:
- The historical shift black people had from agrarian life to industrialized life and how the shift to capitalism damages our psyche.
- Emotional needs that were not permitted due to slavery and Jim crow laws, that taught us to cut out the excersice of love, that can be transformative to our lives.
- How homophobia, internalized racism, and painful stereotypes posion the possibility of authentic connection with our black mothers, black fathers, black men, and most importantly, other black women.
Bell Hooks chisels at the debris that we traditional have always understood as black life and reveals how we are hurting.
Sisters of the Yam has its title due to a reference from Toni Bambaras’ “The Salt Eaters” explaining how the “yam” is a healing vegetable.
Her language is clear and succinct, using personal anecdotes that heightens the necessity of the internal healing she guides us towards.
Upon reading this book, I felt closer in understanding how there is a uniqueness in being black and born in America.
Although, I am a descendant of Jamaican immigrants that experience has its own specific narrative.
But regardless of wherever you may fall on the diaspora, there is something bastardizing about being born with melanin in the United States.
There’s a constant longing to feel connected to something before you, yet a small intuitive understanding to a heritage, a legacy that you can’t quite find or fully come to know.
And then there is a deeper yearning to know how it exists within you.
I never thought there would be a book that would describe that sort of mystic.
This ancient knowledge on how to be well.
Bell hooks describes this as “drawing up the powers from the deep.”
The beginning of the book, bell hooks describes a scene in Toni’s Bambara’s book The Salt Eaters.
I, admittedly, often felt embarrass, pompous, and ashamed to own that I longed for that knowledge and was in constant search for that tradition.
It is often mistaken as being hung up on my blackness.
That the pursuit of understanding myself is most accurate and proper, if the blackness is disregarded.
And that uniting myself with my blackness (as if they are so separate from each other) is an inherent misstep in connecting to the world around me.
The book gave me permission to feel unafraid of who I am, which is an act of self-love. Which I feel is a step to healing.
This book gave clarity to the dysfucntion in my everyday life that is caused by racism and class issues. Dysfucntion, that I always had my finger on the pulse on but never knew how to feel for the heartbeat.
And just like my Grandmother who would give me cerasee tea to “flush out mi stomach” , bell hooks conjured a remedy for the cleansing of my mind.
On Telling the Truth
The most powerful part of the book for me was in her “Seeking After Truth” chapter. The practice of black people’s dissmulation, or concealing ones full truth.
Bell hooks dates this survival mechanism to slavery in the States, where withholding the truth of who you are was crucial to your survival.
Although, the structure is different (aka there is no more legal slavery in the States) the psychological and social survival tactic of dissmulation is still present.
And the limitations it holds on black women to being their whole selves, causes pain and suffering on so many levels.
I didn’t even realize the subtle levels I conceal to my white friends in order to save their feelings, to protect my dignity on white gaze standards, to give myself a type of social group, to feel like I belonged–but never fully.
It was helpful to know that it wasn’t just a deficiency on my part that inhibited me to be truthful.
But that there was and is a tradition of survival that generations before me had to practice. That there are social rules that threaten my well being if I am truthful.
And although a literal death is no longer the first threat, death of genuine connection with others, death of emotional trust, and psychologocial protection is rampant.
And although I convinced myself that “I am being myself”, a voice pings in my head that says:
Only a little.
This book revealed that for me.
On Sisterhood & The Spirit
The other most crucial part of the book for me was the chapter named “Sweet Communion.”
The importance of reconciliation through building a community with other black women who are committed to self-recovery.
My longing for black sisterly bonds, I’ve always felt embarrassed by because if we are all the same, then skin color does not matter.
So much of society pushes towards eradicating the pain of racism by saying “skin color doesn’t matter” or “we are all the same inside”.
Which I feel is a future we aim to push toward, but will never reach if we continue to deny how we are, in fact, different.
That yes, we may all experience pain and even similar pain but the effects of those pains manifest and affect people of different levels.
This book helps illustrate how the need for communion with other black women is necessary.
There’s a rejuvenating spirit that comes with communicating with fellow black women and hooks describes how that is required to feeling whole.
The book illustrates how there is too many ways black women divide themselves against each other and how this deepens our wounds.
The need for our sisters to form a bond is a part of our history and there by a part of our nature.
Bell hooks also describes a seeking of spirituality, which is the hardest part for me personally to read due to my own personal fallout with Christianity.
There was no polemic on which path of spirituality to follow. Hooks simply describes how writing is a sanctuary for her. How confession, whether through prayer or writing, is a way to commune with her higher self.
She describes how this book was an act of walking in the spirit. To heal, to be set free, she committed to telling the truth of the black experience and in hope how it would heal others.
A writer after my own heart. Hooks which each word and sentence pulls back the eyelids on what black life is.
On Moving Forward
This book is a map to a land that black women have forgotten. In the process, there is a path sketched to the door of healing.
This book does a lot but it stops just shy of what happens after turning the knob.
In the book, bell hooks describes the beginning scene in Toni Bambara’s book The Salt Eaters. This scene is after a character named Velma tries to take her life and is barely alive. An elder black women who is a healer asks her: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
It is intentional that this part is in beginning of both books because it tells us the hardest part first.
The decision to be well.
How do we manifest in communion with others, in our higher selves, our total well-beings, if a community finds comfort in being sick? Or worse, chooses not to be well?
The collective effort hooks calls for in this book empowering, if only this knowledge was accessible to all black women, children, and men.
But in the mean time, isolation may continue.
This is the only qualm I have with this book.
But the empowerment and strength it gives makes the book a delightful, powerful, profound and intelligent read.