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5 “Moving On Up” in the Ivory Tower

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”.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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”.[4] 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.[5] 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” [6] 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”.[7] 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. 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.

  1. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983), xii.
  2. 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).
  3. Brenda Verner, “The Cultural Voice of Black Women,” in The Undeclared War Against Black Women (Chicago, 1998), 6.
  4. Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 263.
  5. Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 284.
  6. Watkins, “Womanism and Black Feminism,” 384.
  7. “Summary Lecture on Critical Race Theory,” accessed June 11, 2006,


"Moving On Up" in the Ivory Tower Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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