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Although hooks has always drawn very effectively on her past in her trenchant social and political essays, this book is the first of her works to deal at length with what it was like growing up black in the South in the 1950s. It is also, she writes, about her struggle to create a self and an "identity distinct from and yet inclusive of the world around me . . . a rich magical world of southern black culture that was sometimes paradisiacal and at other times terrifying." Telling her story in brief vignettes, hooks illuminates each of the elements that composed that world, describing her parents, torn, sometimes to the point of violence, by the pressures that married life brings; an extended family that provided her with room to dream at the same time that it fed her a range of conflicting cues about how to live; a black subculture that instilled a series of painful lessons in color-driven self-evaluation; and finally, a white majority culture that could offer both the benefits of literature and the punishments of racial discrimination. As a child hooks was a loner, a little girl who loved books but who possessed "too much spirit" to suit her father. Fortunately, her extended family offered her many female role models: Grandmothers, aunts, and others helped prepare her for life in a harsh world. Alternating between first- and third-person narratives, Bone Black is as much about deciphering the secret languages and sign systems of adulthood, about learning how the larger world works, as it is about creating one's identity.
The narrative voice is oddly disembodied, somehow disturbingly disengaged; there are moments of real force and pain here, but they are not sustained. A book of great intelligence, Bone Black's power is somewhat diffused by this reticence of tone.