Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, San Francisco State University
As regards the academic areas of study identified in the question, their relationship can be determined by the degree to which each emphasizes the bonding of academics and activism as crucial to an education intended to contribute to the enlightenment of society. Moreover, Black Studies, while ethnic specific, is not taught in isolation, as some critics charge, but is approached within the context of diverse populations nationally and globally.
Experiential evidence weighs in on the pertinent role of the racial/ethnic/cultural perspectives of the educators in any academic discipline. Certainly, such factors affect the nature of the education students receive. Black Studies, thus, resonates as an academic area in which students should not have to grow frustrated trying to enlighten the instructor on what it means to live life in a world that is not inclined to spare Black people the indignity of oppression. In respect of this concern, among many concerns, it only makes sense that Black Studies must be developed and taught from the perspective(s) of the people who are the targets of such, and who have not (hopefully) internalized racial inferiority or non-Black glorification that diminishes the perspectives of Black people. In the big picture of higher education, this is in concert with the establishment of what today are commonly referred to as traditional disciplines (to distinguish them, one supposes, from disciplines established outside white or Western design). While hiring in the academy must not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, ethnicity, or personal racial politics, clearly, the outcome of an education in Black Studies must be assessed in light of the variable(s) of the racial/ethnic/cultural perspectives, politics, and personal inclinations of the various faculty charged with the responsibility to deliver the curriculum.
Black Studies (i.e., Afro-American Studies), Critical Race Studies, Diaspora Studies, African Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, and Africana Women’s Studies, to the extent that they have shared goals, objectives, and most importantly, motivation, are in a relationship — some closer than others. This is understood in the sense of various elements working in a shared mission to educate self and others about the complexities of Black experiences, and connection with the experiences of other historically oppressed people of color.
Diaspora Studies (i.e., Africana Studies), unlike African Studies, is closely related in impetus and perspectives to Black Studies. Diaspora Studies might be considered the natural evolvement of Black Studies in that it advances understanding of the historical and contemporary connections among Black people throughout Africa and the African Diaspora. African Studies, however, is not necessarily African-centered, nor held accountable to an education in respect of the perspectives of Black people, but rather is at the academic will of the instance at some colleges and universities. Africana Women’s Studies seems dependent on “feminist theory” and “feminist methodology” as if Black women cannot be studied outside the context of the white women’s paradigm. Similarly problematic are courses in Africana Women’s Studies, such as “Critical Race Feminism/Womanism,” that evoke Alice Walker’s positing of “womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender”. To decry dependency on a white women’s model for the study of Black women is not to disrespect the work of Walker or that of the many self-identified Black feminists; rather it is to stimulate the sort of bravely original thinking and activism that positions womanism in a class of its own (so to speak) — and to do so without fear of alienating white feminist matriarchy — fraternal twin of [the] white male patriarchy that European American tradition has historically held sway in American institutions of higher learning. This distinction is most demonstrative in the oppositional positions taken in the teaching of Egypt, for example. Moreover, courses that make up the major or minor in African Studies are typically drawn from throughout the college or university, thus making the teaching of Africa vulnerable to conceits endemic to a Western worldview.
The issues that are disconcerting for African Studies can be even more tedious in Africana Women’s Studies, and can determine the nature of the relationship to Black Studies. Sadly, many Black academics appear to have perhaps internalized the essentialist claims that white theorists make for feminism, and therein is a clue to the work Black Womanist scholars must undertake to bring rescue to the problem.
While Patricia Hill Collin’s work Black Feminist Thought has rightly received much respected attention for its analysis of various theoretical and practical ways of gender study about Black women, a brilliant essay that equals this book in importance is that of Valethia Watkins’s “Womanism and Black Feminism: Issues in the Manipulation of African Historiography.” Watkins’s view is sister to my position of Black women’s independence from white women’s theorizing and paradigms. Like Watkins, many other younger Black women beg to differ with self-identifying Black feminists who practice “posthumously conceptualizing” Black women forbears—such as Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and more recently Rosa Park–as “feminists.” Watkins’s research has located the little known pamphlets yearly sent out by Brenda Verner, in which, as in her many lectures on college campuses, Verner stresses, …[T]he incredible history of Africana women has provided them with a unique perspective that has inspired inordinate spiritual strength which produces tenacious cultural courage. It is this same stalwartness that prompts Black women to resist feminism, despite consistent courtship by the feminist elite and their emissaries inside Africana culture.
Watkins concurs, saying, “For the most part African women have not called themselves feminists nor have they in any significant number participated in the construction of feminist theory”. It is a bit disingenuous, and even fraudulent, if, for the sake of winning an argument, feminists of any color deliberately misread Black women and girls who reject identifying as feminist by disparaging them as not inclined to fight for gender equity, or ignorantly presuming that to fight for gender equity is to imitate white women. The fact of the matter is that Black intellectuals, who reject falling in with the self-labeling of themselves as feminists, do not tarry in such nothingness of thought and action. Black women who self-identify exclusively as womanist or Black Womanist or Africana Womanist, and who live the life they self-identify about, do have gender equity as their foremost fight, and are not in a backward frame of mind that equates taking action against rapists, for instance, with imitating white women. Yet, I have heard this “rape” rap cited as evidence to denigrate the thinking of Black women and girls who eschew feminism—many of them students who must sturdy themselves when confronted by impatient and indignant argument-savvy professors who may be distanced from challenges to their way of thinking. Such challenges, however, do not necessarily discount or disrespect those Black feminist intellectuals whose awesome work attests to the Black fact that they do not need to be shackled by “feminists,” for they have been doing womanist work all along. Of course different Black Studies programs take up this issue according to the nature of their faithfulness to the impetus that gave birth to Black Studies as self-reliant.
Some of us for sure share both Verner’s position and that of Watkins, who asserts, “While feminism may be advantageous for European women and improve the condition of their lives in America, it could work ruin for us [Black women]. The historic treatment of European women does not mirror the African construction of gender and the treatment of African womanhood from the time of Kemet [ancient Egypt] to the present. Finally, Watkins maintains that Black women scholars who “appropriate the intellectual tradition of African women under the banner of feminism should be rebuked and systematically challenged”  for such.
In yet a different critical context is the relationship of Africana or Diaspora Studies, and Afro-Latino/a Studies. Foremost, here, proponents of Afro-Latino/a Studies seem to beg the question in positing it as distinct from African Diaspora Studies. Certainly, what is exciting about Afro-Latino Studies is (1) the common situation of the Black Diaspora within the context of a shared African heritage, (2) Black struggle against oppressive forces, and (3) Black self-definition.
Finally, there is the question of the relationship between Black Studies and Critical Race Studies. Like theorists/activists in Black Studies and Diaspora Studies, “Critical Race theorists consider race upfront and personal”. They also share an appreciation for the role of narrative in helping articulate the argument for needed change, as was early demonstrated by Equiano’s eighteenth century slave narrative. Thus there is a close relationship, as Critical Race Studies deals with the same issues that Black Studies takes up.
Even more crucial to this discussion of Black Studies’ relationship to Diaspora Studies, African Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and Critical Race Studies, is the relationship of various Black Studies programs to one another. Black Studies can be strained by academics who land jobs there when all efforts to be in “traditional” disciplines fail. When we think of Black Studies being born out of Black pride, it is incredible to learn, as I did recently, that in some Black Studies programs and departments the feeling of some faculty is that Black Studies needs white academics to legitimize it and give it credence. But Black Studies must resist a “moving on up” way of thinking on the part of those who wince self-consciously at being located in what they decry as a ghetto when the perceived “ivory tower” penthouse is craved.
Summary lecture on critical race theory. http://www5.csudh.edu/ dearhabermas/lawlect03.htm. Accessed June 11, 2006.
Verner, Brenda. 1998. The cultural voice of Black women. The undeclared war against Black women. Chicago.
Walker, Alice. In search of our mother’s gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Watkins, Valethia. 1997. Womanism and Black feminism: Issues in the manipulation of African historiography. In Jacob H. Carruthers and Leon C. Harris, (Eds.) African world history project: The preliminary challenge (pp. 245–284). Los Angeles: Kemetic Institute and Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations.
- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983), xii. ↵
- Valethia Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism: Issues in the Manipulation of African Historiography,” in African World History Project: The Preliminary Challenge, ed. Jacob H. Carruthers and Leon C. Harris (Los Angeles: Kemetic Institute and Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, 1997). ↵
- Brenda Verner, “The Cultural Voice of Black Women,” in The Undeclared War Against Black Women (Chicago, 1998), 6. ↵
- Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 263. ↵
- Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 284. ↵
- Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 384. ↵
- “Summary Lecture on Critical Race Theory,” accessed June 11, 2006, http://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/lawlect03.htm. ↵