Relationships Among Afro-American Studies, Critical Race Studies, Diaspora Studies, African Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, and Africana Women's Studies
James B. Stewart, Penn State University
As disciplines evolve, sub-disciplines develop enabling researchers to pursue specialized inquiries. However, sub-disciplines subscribe to a set of shared values and interests that provide a coherent macro-level disciplinary identity. Distinctive schools of thought typically develop within disciplines as a result of differing interpretations of some aspects of the discipline’s mandate, for example, disagreements regarding the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative research. Different schools of thought can also exist within individual sub-disciplines. In several disciplines there are disagreements within sub-disciplines regarding the relative importance of race and class in perpetuating disparities.
Africana Studies can be appropriately characterized as an “academic discipline” with distinctive intellectual assumptions and values. Afro-American Studies, Critical Race Studies, Diaspora Studies, African Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, and Africana Women’s Studies can be treated as sub-disciplines within the discipline of Africana Studies and rational judgments can be made about whether a school of thought within each sub-discipline is best identified with Africana Studies, per se, or some other intellectual tradition. I focus on Africana Women’s Studies and African Diaspora Studies to illustrate these distinctions.
The Nature of Disciplines — Africana Studies as an Academic Discipline
At least five characteristics can be used to differentiate Africana Studies analyses from other types of inquiries: (a) rejection of “victimology” orientations in favor of approaches focusing on efforts by African Americans to shape their own destiny (Africana agency), (b) interpretation of contemporary developments through a framework of analysis that explores the effects of historical forces in shaping current conditions (continuing historical influences), (c) use of multiple analytical methods and modes of presentation to understand and articulate the complexities of the experiences of peoples of African descent (wholism/multidimensionality), (d) exploration of policy implications (simultaneous pursuit of academic excellence and social responsibility), and (e) exploration of historical and continuing cultural and political linkages between Africans in Africa and Africans in the Diaspora (pan-Africanism).
Obviously no individual investigation can be expected to incorporate all of these elements. However, the absence of characteristics (a) and (b) generally suggests that a particular research study is more appropriately identified with a field of inquiry other than Africana Studies, per se.
Africana Women’s Studies
Africana Studies faces a continuing challenge of combating the invisibility of Africana women in the public sphere and the marginalization of their historical and contemporary voices. This challenge is not unique to Africana Studies, rather it is one that derives from the patriarchal nature of most societies and is reflected in all fields and modes of inquiry. As Omolade argues:
The historical oppression of Black women and men should have created social equality between them, but even after the end of slavery when the white patriarch receded, maleness and femaleness continued to be defined by patriarchal structures, with Black men declaring wardship over Black women.
An Africana Studies approach to analysis would be expected to reflect the emphases on agency and the importance of historical forces in shaping current conditions and also be self-critical about the ways in which research studies have marginalized Africana women. Black Feminists are generally more closely aligned with feminism and Women’s Studies than with Africana Studies, per se. Ideologically, this feminist approach, while clearly recognizing the devastation associated with oppression based on race, often prioritizes the issue of oppression based on gender and emphasizes the study of patterns of gender oppression among people of African descent. Africana Womanist scholars also recognize the importance of gender-based oppression, but emphasize its intersection and overlap with racial oppression as intertwined forces diminishing the well-being of Africana women.
Although Africana Womanists and Black Feminists still interpret the historical and contemporary record through different lenses, there are indications that the variance in interpretations is narrowing. Additional progress in resolving tensions can be facilitated through additional social science-based research that makes creative use of both quantitative and qualitative methods. Non-conventional approaches are absolutely essential to overcome existing biases that constrain the understanding of the gender dimensions of identity development, especially as it relates to women of African descent outside metropolitan capitalist countries. As Vaz opines, “alternative methods of carrying out research [are needed] that are not heavily dependent on technology, [so that] our information about women in developing countries [does not] become [simply] the study of women’s behavior in the developed world.” Vaz’s comments emphasize the need to extend the scope of inquiry beyond the experiences of people of African descent in the United States.
African Diaspora Studies
Expanded study of populations of people of African descent living in parts of the African Diaspora other than the United States is an important recent development in the continuing evolution of Africana Studies. One of the most important contributions of this collective body of research has been to introduce a comparative perspective into discourses about race, identity, patterns of oppression and exploitation, liberation struggles, and other issues. Comparative perspectives are imperative for refining constructs and perspectives in Africana Studies developed from studies focusing exclusively on descendants of Africans directly transported into what is now the United States through the Atlantic slave trade.
As is the case for Africana Women’s Studies, there are different schools of thought informing research agendas. The school of thought least aligned with Africana Studies has been advanced by “Black Atlantic” proponents. This school of thought is informed by the European postmodernist “Cultural Studies” movement. Black Atlantic scholars challenge the usefulness of traditional racial classifications and emphasize hybridity as a construct for interpreting the experiences of people of African descent (outside of Africa). Interest in this approach within the US has been fueled, in part, by the increasing contemporary immigration of people of African descent into the US whose personal identities and reference group orientation differ from those of domestic African Americans and by the emerging domestic biracial movement.
The cultural studies-influenced approach to African Diaspora Studies can be usefully contrasted to one championed by Walker. Walker’s volume is the product of an international conference on the African Diaspora and the Modern World held in 1996. Contributors to the volume include historians, linguists, creative writers, and literary scholars; social, cultural, and physical anthropologists; journalists, filmmakers; music and dance scholars; and political and cultural activists, reflecting the multidisciplinary emphasis of Africana Studies. Walker describes the overall thrust of the volume as “the beginning of a comparative analysis of African Diasporan societies and phenomena from an Afrogenic perspective that focuses on African and African Diasporan agency, participation, and contributions.” For Walker, “Afrogenic simply means growing out of the histories, ways of knowing, and interpretations and interpretive styles of African and African Diasporan people.” Note that Walker’s approach to the study of the African Diaspora prioritizes the original involuntary formation of the Diaspora rather than the late twentieth-century voluntary migration that cultural studies approaches foreground. Collectively, Walker insists “the comparative study of African Diasporan societies and their roles in their nations, in addition to demonstrating similar patterns of misrepresentation, also highlights significant commonalities in both sociocultural forms and in the underlying principles that give them meaning.”
There is obvious greater alignment between Walker’s approach to African Diaspora Studies and the specification of Africana Studies presented previously. Whereas Walker’s approach emphasizes cultural similarities and historical continuities originating in Africa, the Black Atlantic model is an example of what Walker characterizes as the imposition of Eurogenic meanings rather than recognizing “the deep structural Afrogenic meanings of the same phenomena”.
Space does not permit a comparable discussion of the sub-disciplines of African Studies and Afro-Latino/a Studies. However, a similar type of analysis can be used to identify those schools of thought and approaches within each sub-discipline most closely aligned with the Africana Studies disciplinary matrix. As Africana Studies continues to evolve, new sub-disciplines will emerge, and as this expansion proceeds, the pursuit of disciplinary coherence should continue to be one of the overarching objectives if Africana Studies is to achieve first-class status as a distinctive and valued intellectual enterprise.
Aldridge, Delores, ed. 1989. Black women in the American economy. Special issue of the Journal of Black Studies 20(2).
______________. 1991. Focusing, Black male-female relationships. Chicago: Third World Press.
______________. 1992. Womanist issues in Black Studies: towards integrating Africana women into Africana studies. The Afrocentric Scholar, 1(1), 167–182.
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gordon, Vivian. 1987. Black women, feminism, Black liberation: which way? Revised edition. Chicago: Third World Press.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. 1995. Introduction. In B. Guy-Sheftall (Ed.) Words of fire, an anthology of African-American feminist thought (1–22). New York: The New Press.
Hill Collins, Patricia. 1991. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Hudson‑Weems, Clenora. 1989. Cultural and agenda conflicts in academia: Critical issues for Africana womens studies. Western Journal of Black Studies, 13(4), 181–189.
____________________. 1993. Africana womanism: Reclaiming ourselves. Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers.
____________________. 1997. Africana womanism and the critical need for Africana theory and thought. The Western Journal of Black Studies 21(2), 70–84.
Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia, and Smith, Barbara. 1982. All the women are white, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave: Black women’s studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.
Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Omolade, Barbara. 1994. The rising song of African American women. New York: Routledge.
Stewart, James. 1992. Reaching for higher ground: Toward an understanding of Black/Africana Studies. The Afrocentric scholar 1(1), 1–63.
____________. 2004. Foundations of a “Jazz” Theory of Africana Studies. In James Stewart (Ed.) Flight in Search of Vision, 191–202. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Vaz, Kim. 1993. Making room for emancipatory research in psychology: A multicultural feminist perspective. In Joy James and Ruth Farmer (Eds.) Spirit, space & survival, African American women in (white) academe, 83–98. New York: Routledge.
Walker, Sheila. 2001. Are you hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan-American discourse. In her collection, African Roots/American cultures, Africa in the creation of the Americas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- See James Stewart, “Reaching for Higher Ground: Toward an Understanding of Black/Africana Studies,” The Afrocentric Scholar 1, no. 1 (1992): 1–63; James Stewart, “Foundations of a ‘Jazz’ Theory of Africana Studies,” in Flight in Search of Vision, ed. James Stewart (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004). ↵
- See Stewart, “Reaching for Higher Ground.” ↵
- Barbara Omolade, The Rising Song of African American Women (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15. ↵
- See, for example, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “Introduction,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991); Gloria Hull, Patricia Scott, and Barbara Smith, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982). ↵
- See, for example, Delores Aldridge, ed., “Black Women in the American Economy,” special issue of the Journal of Black Studies 20, no. 2 (1989); Delores Aldridge, Focusing: Black Male-Female Relationships (Chicago: Third World Press, 1991); Delores Aldridge, “Womanist Issues in Black Studies: Towards Integrating Africana Women into Africana Studies,” The Afrocentric Scholar 1, no. 1 (1992): 167–182; Vivian Gordon, Black Women, Feminism, Black Liberation: Which Way? rev. ed. (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987); Clenora Hudson‑Weems, “Cultural and Agenda Conflicts in Academia: Critical Issues for Africana Women’s Studies,” Western Journal of Black Studies 13, no. 4 (1989): 181–189; Clenora Hudson‑Weems, Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves (Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers, 1993); Clenora Hudson‑Weems, “Africana Womanism and the Critical Need for Africana Theory and Thought,” Western Journal of Black Studies 21, no. 2 (1997): 70–84. ↵
- Kim Vaz, “Making Room for Emancipatory Research in Psychology: A Multicultural Feminist Perspective,” in Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe, ed. Joy James and Ruth Farmer (New York: Routledge, 1993), 96. ↵
- E.g., Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). ↵
- Sheila Walker, “Are You Hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan-American Discourse,” in African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001). ↵
- Walker, “Are You Hip,” 38. ↵
- Walker, “Are You Hip,” 8. ↵
- Walker, “Are You Hip,” 41. ↵
- Walker, “Are You Hip,” 29. ↵