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11 Embracing the Notion of Intersectionality

Josephine Boyd Bradley, Clark Atlanta University

Unlike other academic disciplines offered by colleges and uni­ver­sities, Black Studies evolved out of the struggles of Black stu­dents during the 1960s. When it initiated the first Black Studies department on a four-year college campus in 1968, San Francisco State University did so in response to the drive for more racial eq­ui­ty in educational knowledge bases. It was a call for a response to the Westernization of education in the United States and the driv­ing need for another voice, another lens through which the world could be viewed. Black Studies has been emerging since that time and seek­ing its rightful place in the academy. It has be­come the di­no­saur of intellectual integrity that will not go away. Black Studies is con­tinuously demanding its rightful place as an ac­cept­able dis­ci­pline within the academy.

Hence, for many in academe, Black Studies evolved as and con­tin­ues to represent an answer to campus unrest and a solution to a prob­lem that would not go away. Brown vs. the Board of Education of To­peka, Kansas overthrowing the ideology of separate but equal as well as earlier Supreme Court decisions that stated that racial dis­par­ities had no place in graduate school education opened up the doors for Black students to earnestly seek undergraduate edu­ca­tion that included them from the perspective of their sociocul­tural background—the African and African American experi­en­ces. The call for Black Studies demanded social change and social jus­tice. Thus, Black Studies emerged without a model to em­ulate or cours­es offered and recognized for their intellectual and academic stan­dards as known and revered by the academic com­mu­ni­ty. The lack of knowledge as to how such an area of study should be developed re­sulted in the creation of Black Studies as in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary in phil­os­o­phy and approach. It appears that it is this ap­proach, which has be­come the role model, in its efforts to “keep peace,” has re­sulted in problems such as marginal­i­zation and piecemeal cur­riculum offerings. After thirty-one years, Black Stud­ies should be a well-defined academic discipline within col­leg­i­­ate in­sti­tutions. How­ever, not unlike many disciplines it has spawn­ed, Black Studies is still emerg­ing. Important challenges still re­main.

Present challenges focus on such concerns as whether or not Black Studies is a viable area of study that therefore should be main­­tained by colleges and universities. Controversy is still alive around the validity of the discipline, the usefulness of the disci­pline as a preparatory major for students seeking careers in law, bus­i­ness, med­i­cine, and other types of employment, the concern over whe­ther or not the information being imparted as Black Stud­ies meets the standards given to academic disciplines, the cred­i­bility of the cre­dentials of scholars teaching in the field, and the value and vi­a­bil­i­ty of the discipline for colleges and univer­si­ties today.

Thus, the future directions new scholarship in the field should take provide the greatest challenge to the discipline since its in­cep­tion in 1968. The new scholarship needs to include a num­ber of precursory acts: a common nomenclature that provides the frame­work for a common theoretical perspective or perspec­tives that ultimately guide the administrative structure, the mission and vi­sion for the discipline, the curriculum offered, and the fac­ul­ty re­cruit­ment and retention criteria. Therefore, the new schol­ar­ship in the field should be based on the intersec­tion­ality of race, class, and gender. This approach to the new schol­ar­ship can, ac­cording to Inez Reed, provide an opportunity for scholarly re­vision of his­tor­ical and cultural myths related to people of Af­ri­can de­scent throughout the Diaspora. Intersectionality of race, class, and gen­der necessitate an understanding of their in­ter­re­la­tion­ship as well as their effect upon each other. This approach re­moves, it seems, the notion that Blacks can be viewed inde­pend­ent of each. In other words, intersectionality removes the as­sump­tion that one is either Black or male, or Black or female, and acknowledges that one is both Black and male or Black and female. Further, this re­moves the notion that all experiences are male/white or white/fe­male. It is just this no­tion that contributed to the struggle for Black Studies as a sep­a­rate entity and area of study.

The new scholarship is about the intellectual and academic integrity of the need for all students, not just Blacks, to under­stand that African American/Black history is American history. This inclusion would lead to more research being initiated by Black Americans about Black Americans in the Americas and through­out the Diaspora. People of African descent have given away the doc­u­men­tation of their history to the other. The new scholarship re­quires a reconnect with the history as fact and not as a romantic ide­ology whose time has arrived. This agenda calls for the le­git­i­mi­za­tion of Black Studies by college/university ad­min­is­trators, faculty, and students. This approach necessitates a call for the revision of Black Studies based on traditions and schol­ar­ship defined by those in the field of Black Studies. Further, it man­dates a revisiting of the American societal traditions that re­in­force sexism, racism, and clas­sism.

While multiculturalism and ethnic studies are the driving forces of today, Black Studies cannot allow itself to be consumed under these dimensions and thereby lose its impact on the study of race as it exists within our society. The subject area has to in­clude a thorough investigation of race and ethnicity. This sug­gest­ed area of scholarship is not about race hating, but about the chal­lenges related to the meaning of race within the American so­ciety. The new scholarship demands that per­haps the discussion begins with such a definition of racial for­ma­tion as offered by Mi­chael Omi and Howard Winant and move to­ward a def­inition that places Blacks elsewhere than as outsider. Omi and Wi­nant define racial formation as “the socio­his­tor­ical proc­ess by which racial cat­e­gor­ies are created, inhabited, trans­formed and de­stroyed … race is a matter of both social structure and cultural rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”[1] Black Studies in the new scholarship must include a more tho­rough presentation of race as a factor in other inequities such as class and gender.

Moreover, the new scholarship should include the study of Black women in the Americas, on the Continent, and throughout the Diaspora. James Turner, Delores Aldridge, Maulana Karenga, and others call for Black Studies to aggressively include gender and women’s histories in any revisions undertaken by the disci­pline. The inclusion and recognition of Black women as advocates and contributors to the revolution for Black Studies are long over­due. The inclusion of Black women, not as objects, but as equal part­ners in the building of or revision of Black life, requires academic re­form by Black men, white men, white women, and Black women. It fur­ther requires that Black women permit their voices to be heard—to represent a new lens through which to understand Black life and traditions. Black Studies, from its incep­tion to the pre­sent, has emerged as male dominated even though Black wo­men were initially involved in the struggle for inclusion of Black Studies on college campuses. The intent of the new schol­arship is not to create a divide between Black men and Black women, but rather to en­hance the learning opportunities for those engaged in Black Stud­ies. To minimize either group, that is, Black men or Black women, is a destructive act. Both must be included in the cur­riculum. The new scholarship must offer essen­tial strategies for the inclusion of women in the discourse, to teach varied course of­fer­ings and not just Women’s Studies and to solicit their input in the revamping/re­design of the discipline.

It is to be noted that “Throughout history, Black/Africana Stud­ies has opened doors for Black men and women to create a new relationship and scholarship.”[2] Laverne Gyant adds, “a re­la­tion­ship that has cross disciplines, a relationship that has made it possible for the field to grow in areas of theory, leadership, and policy. … They see their teaching and leadership in Black/Afri­ca­na Studies as contributing to and expanding the history and cul­ture of peo­ple of African descent.”[3] Another challenge confront­ing wo­men and the new scholarship is related to Delores Al­dridge’s ideas about the integration of African women into Africa­na Studies. Al­dridge notes that is a need for the “continued in­volve­­ment of Africana women with womanist perspectives in lead­er­ship po­si­tions in the pro­fes­sion­al bodies for Africana Studies so that pro­grams and policies re­flect their perspectives. … In­creased at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ing new and restructuring old cur­ricula to re­flect a balance that is inclusive of Africana women.”[4] The new schol­arship will require that gender differences are placed aside in order to en­sure the continuation of Black Studies as an academic disci­pline.

Class becomes an issue because of the disparities confronting Black Americans growing out of race and gender issues. Class dif­ferences need to be included in the new scholarship that will ad­dress the pertinent needs of Blacks and provide some strategies for helping students understand the dynamics of economics and its impact on Black Americans. Class differences have impacted the Black community and courses on Black cconomics in rela­tion­ship to the dominant group can enhance the quality of life for Black Amer­icans as a group and as a community. Class is also a mark­er in terms of how Blacks are viewed on college campuses. So, views impact how administrations, white faculty, and some Black faculty relate to Black Studies as an academic discipline. Thus, the new schol­arship can help dismantle the master’s house.

In conclusion, the new scholarship in the field of Black/Afri­ca­na Studies will need to embrace the notion of intersectionality, specifically race, class, and gender. This approach does not elimi­nate the need for continuous or new scholarship in the areas of in­ter­nationalism and environmental justice. The new scholarship de­mands that Black scholars cannot afford to address the chal­­lenges of interdisciplinarity and its impact on the continua­tion of Black Stud­ies. Black Studies scholars are now in a position to de­sign the model for departments on college campuses.


  1. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial formation,” in Lisa Held­ke and Peg O’Connor, Oppression, Privilege, and Resistance (Boston: Mc­Graw Hill, 2003), 117.
  2. J. Cole and M.M. Gordon, “Black women as colleagues in Black stud­ies,” New England Journal of Black Studies, 1981, 3–8.
  3. Laverne Gyant, “The Missing Link: Women in Black/Africana Studies,” in Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, ed. Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2000), 181.
  4. Gyant, “The Missing Link,” 200.


Embracing the Notion of Intersectionality Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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