Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 229-232
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Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics. By Traci C. West. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Wounds of the Spirit is a complex book about a complex and difficult topic: black women's experience of "intimate violence," a term West uses to include domestic violence, stranger rape, and sexual assault. While West asserts the collusion between intimate and societal violence, including white supremacy and patriarchy, this is not a book that focuses on blaming, or finding causes, nor on the victimization of black women. It is the experiences of black women "victim-survivors" that she wants to place at the center and use as the norm for understanding the impact of intimate violence on women and for recognizing [End Page 229] and devising forms of resistance. Many black women's voices reverberate here; the theorists I particularly hear are bell hooks, who puts black women's experiences at the center of analysis, and Kimberly Crenshaw, who calls for an analysis of the intersectionality of race, gender, class, etc.
Traci West is an ordained United Methodist minister and teacher of Ethics and African American Studies. Her book demonstrates an impressive comprehension of the literature on intimate violence as well as critical insights into the spiritual and faith dimensions of black women's varied responses to intimate violence. She sets an ambitious task for herself of bridging a wide audience: academics, researchers, feminist activists, psychologists, church leaders, and all those involved in the support of victims-survivors and/or who care about opposing intimate violence. What she attempts to create is a new methodology that blurs neat distinctions in order to understand these women and to increase resistance to violence. For the most part her methodology works well, even though I found it sometimes challenging. For instance, she uses "community" to bridge both the African American community and the larger society. Sometimes she is clearly referring to beliefs or attitudes prevalent among African Americans and at other times, those of the dominant society. Of course, there are no clear lines that set off the black community and perhaps this use of "community" is a manifestation of West's shift of focus from white to black as central. This recentering may also be behind the fact that she does not deal separately with white-on-black violence. Most of the book deals with violence within the black community, assumed to be black-on-black violence. The first chapter does begin with the history of violence under slavery where most of the violence was white initiated and/or white sanctioned. She gives no contemporary examples of white-on-black violence. She does give plenty of examples of white institutional responses to the violence against black women, including police, white feminists, counselors, etc. who exacerbate, distort, or dismiss the suffering of these women. White men still rape and abuse black women and it might have been helpful to have her insights into the differing racial dynamics.
Beyond her stated goals, what West gives us in this book is a palpable sense of both the anguish and resilience, not only of the women whose stories she frames, but of her own in grappling with the myths and stereotypes of black women and their experience of racism and violence. She is not afraid to discuss intimate violence within the black community, once taboo and historically painful for black women to discuss. Neither is she afraid to honestly deal with the religious faith of many black women, which can be supportive and/or contribute to their victimization. In describing white feminists' theories she is both critical of their distortions and inadequacies and positive about their contributions. Throughout the book she carefully avoids simplistic, one-sided formulations. West walks her bridges skillfully, staying true to the complexity [End Page 230] of black women's lives—lives lived in the variegated intersections of sexism and racism and, perhaps, classism.
The four parts of the book, while not fitting evenly into the whole, contribute to the picture that West is...