Black Women’s Studies: From Theory to Transformative Practice

Rose M.


The current period of global capitalist crisis presents daunting challenges for struggles against transnational capital, white supremacy, and global heteropatriarchy.1 A complex theoretical and practice-oriented understanding of Black Women’s Studies is needed. The call for Black Women's Studies was first articulated by Anna Julia Cooper in the early 20th century. The “Combahee River Collective Statement” of 19772 was a major landmark, and For Some of Us Are Brave (Hull et al. 1982) became the leading conceptual volume in the field. But too little has been added to this in the new century. A recent volume, Still Brave (James et al. 2009), makes an initial attempt, but leaves unanswered a number of questions around social transformation.

The current crisis has produced some of the most vicious attacks on Black women – our lives, our children. The Katrina travesty publicly exposed the disposability of poor African Americans. The move to the right in the US and the public attack on all working people have been especially hard. The dismantling of a social wage not only forces exploitative labor and poverty onto millions of women in the US, but takes away basic rights – to food, shelter, housing, education. This is a world where universal healthcare does not exist and where an increasing number of children, men and women, live in the streets. The burning issue for Black Women’s Studies is not only why this situation exists, but what’s to be done.

Given these realities, some difficult questions are certainly in order: How much, in fact, has the still developing field of Black Women’s Studies touched the lives of everyday women? Has the field extended its reach from thinking through the theoretical positioning of African-descent women to engaging in movement-building for social change within the US and across Africa and the African diaspora? Have its insights been deployed in transforming the lives of working-class and poor women? To what extent is its theoretical framework relevant to everyday life? Is the multiplicative/intersecting and relational lens of gender, race, sexuality, and class being deployed meaningfully? What is the relationship between Black feminist intellectuals and women on the ground? Are connections being made to grassroots women who often confront and resist the harshest expressions of racist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal systems?

These questions, I contend, are key to crafting a complex 21st-century agenda for Black Women’s Studies. While I cannot here go into detail about possible answers, I ruminate on the idea of a praxis for moving the field forward. Although too little has been done in applying Black Women’s Studies to organizing for social change, there are some instances in which this is occurring. Across the African diaspora and within Africa, theory and practice have come together in organizing against sex trafficking of Black women and girls. Within the US, there has been organizing for the rights of women working in domestic labor as well as for those in catfish and chicken farms, and in nursing homes.

The theory of intersectionality can be a guiding frame for this organizing work, but is that happening? One promising example is Ella’s Daughters (2010), an organization of women of color (heavily Black) operating in the tradition of Ella Baker. They take seriously Baker’s insight into “the extraordinary potential of ordinary people.” The related research of Assata Zerai and Zakia Salime (2006) is also worth highlighting. They examine on-the-ground efforts to use the race/class/gender frame as an organizing approach, giving several examples of its successful application.

While not all Black women’s studies deploy a revolutionary Black feminist frame, I embrace this frame because it places capitalist exploitation at the center of a 21st-century agenda. This is crucial to radical social transformation, which is imperative for addressing our problems. We must not only give visibility and voice to the experiences of African-descent women, but must also take on thornier questions such as: Whose interests are served by Black Women’s Studies? Who is at the center of organizing and struggle? How do we engage these issues? I suggest that the field’s radical roots developed outside of the academy. How can the connection between academy and society be infused with new life today? We need to look back at the early history of the field, its activist roots, its move into the academy, and the challenges facing its scholars. Where are the connect and the disconnect?

The 20th-Century History of Black Women’s Studies

Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Patricia Bell-Scott in “Black Women’s Studies: A View from the Margin” (1985) articulate Black Women’s Studies as a new field that filled in the vacuum left in Black Studies and Women’s Studies. They assert that neither field dealt with the experiences of Black women. They note:

Black women's studies is the scholarly investigation of the history, cultures and experiences of Black women. This new field confronts the problem of gender bias in Black studies and racial bias in women's studies and analyzes the ways in which gender/race form an "otherness" both in relationship to Black men and in relationship to non-black women. All three of these movements call into question the philosophical frameworks and values of the American college curriculum. (1985: 205)

They go on to discuss the curriculum at Spelman University, pointing out:

A thorough examination of the Spelman curriculum revealed that despite the presence of women's studies courses (which far exceed such offerings in other Atlanta colleges and in most Black colleges), the curriculum was still not "gender-balanced" or sufficiently sensitive to Black women's studies. Furthermore, most of these courses were electives in the major or minor. Relegating attention to women, and Black women specifically, to a set of elective offerings at the margin of the curriculum had not provided our students with a comprehensive understanding of the diverse experiences and contributions of women generally or an appreciation of the roles of Black women in society as a subject of scholarly inquiry. (212)

Spelman subsequently received a Ford Foundation grant for its Curriculum Development Project, and a viable women’s studies program was developed. The curriculum is now conceptualized in terms of Africa and the African diaspora. Thus, work on Black women globally as well as domestically is at the heart of the major and research at Spelman. But it took vision and struggle to make this happen.

Patricia Hill Collins articulated “the emerging theory and pedagogy of Black Women’s Studies,” arguing:

...that the crux of the new work was a holistic, theoretical foundation for Black women’s studies that deals with the simultaneous effects of race, gender, and class in shaping the reality of Black women’s lives… [and] that the second [aspect] centers on methodology, the search for a process that will be the transformer of consciousness essential for social action. (1986: 50)

This Collins piece established the field’s major analytical frame – an intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender – and was also a call for action. It challenged the tendency to perceive the Black struggle in purely racial terms. It disrupted the comfort of the singular trope of racism and white supremacy, viewing an intersectional approach as essential for fully understanding Black communities.

But what are the obstacles to establishing the university/community link? Here I take a brief look at Black women in the academy, with a focus on those occupying spaces within white institutions. Of course not all Black women’s studies emanate from Black women in the white academy, but a number of the field’s major theoreticians are located in these often problematic spaces.3

Locked in the Walls of the White Academy: Constraints to the Emergence of a Revolutionary Black Women’s Studies

Any discussion of the challenges facing a revolutionary 21st-century Black Women's Studies involves looking at the social context of academic training and theorizing, so as to understand how racism and sexism are inscribed in academe. A number of African American women scholars are situated today within the white academy. This is not an easy space. Black women's place within the academy in general, within Black studies in particular, and as an independent Black women’s studies tendency reflects: l) the larger economic, social and political forces at play historically and in the current political moment, 2) the interlocking oppressions of race, gender and class in the training and socialization of Black women scholars, and 3) the interplay between biography and oppression in a particular juncture of the transnational capitalist system.

The political impetus for Black women's placement in white academe grows out of the racial struggles of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement, Black Studies, and the push for women’s studies. The struggles for Black Studies and Women's Studies owe a great deal to struggles on the ground. Theoretically core here is the idea of intersecting oppressions of (a) gender/patriarchy, (b) sexuality/heteronormativity, (c) class/economic exploitation, and (d) race/white supremacy/imperialism, operating in multiplicative and relational dynamic. These are conceptualized as dialectical, not additive processes.

Most tellingly it was outside the academy that these ideas first took root. Two examples stand out: The Combahee River Collective and the Third World Women’s Alliance that emerged out of SNCC. The radical Black women of these formations understood quite clearly the import of intersectionality in theorizing and taking action.4

A related move within the academy was to place Black women at the center of the analyses of Black Studies. As Elizabeth Minnich (a non-Black scholar) points out, the disciplinary canons in Western knowledge production systematically and intentionally exclude women. Minnich argues (2004) that women should be at the center of knowledge production. This articulation informed the argument made in the field of Black Women’s Studies, producing a powerful analytic shift. Our understanding of Black life in Africa, the US, and the African diaspora would change substantially.

To some degree this perspective reflects the standpoint approach formulated by Collins (1990). In this frame, the space Black women occupy opens up a particular way of seeing. The margins are the sites in which Black women’s knowledge is produced. And, so contends Collins, Black women who are not normally represented as intellectuals have been able to rearticulate the organic knowledge of everyday Black women as Black intellectuals. A large number of scholars from working-class or poor Black communities entered the academy during the period of social upheaval of the 60s and 70s. A political space opened up in graduate schools through struggle, and traditionally white departments in the social sciences and the humanities expanded admissions. Thus, African-descent women entered white universities in relatively greater numbers during this period and into the current period (Hamilton 2001).

The growth in numbers, along with a shifting consciousness around race and gender, positioned Black women thinkers to challenge their historic erasure in knowledge production and university teaching (Hull et al. 1982; Carty 1991). Nonetheless, their numbers remained low. And while more attention is paid to the gender dimension of Black women’s lives, still too few Black studies programs have developed well articulated gender analyses; nor has Women’s Studies substantially incorporated race. Black women remain exceedingly under-represented in the academy, even as the absolute numbers rise for women. Independent programs of Black women’s studies remain virtually nonexistent. The program at Spelman is exceptional. Too many faculty who do this work are located in part-time positions, or as instructors or lecturers (Hamilton 2001).

Financial cutbacks have reduced the number of African Americans able to pursue higher education. Equally significant has been the attack on affirmative action, which has closed off programs in institutions such as UC Berkeley, Texas, and Michigan. The downturn in graduate enrollment by African Americans (especially male) foreshadows even fewer Black faculty in the future.

Nonetheless, despite these hurdles, a number of Black women scholars have committed to developing Black Women’s Studies (Aldridge & Young 2003), subverting traditional notions of what counts as knowledge (hooks 1990; see also Lorde 1984, White 2001). We continue to press key questions such as: Where are the Black Women? How might we shift the center of Black Studies from its focus on racialized men to embodying the nexus of race, class and gender? How do we render visible the history of lived experiences of Black women? (Butler & Walker 1991) And yes, African and feminist centered knowledge(s) underpin a good deal of current thinking in Black Women's Studies for analysts such as Oyeronke (2004). She locates the centrality of Africa in knowledge reconstitution; others are more concerned with the African diaspora, as well as “New World” Africans (Boyce-Davis 2003). Yet, I believe too few have made a commitment to building beyond the academy and persuading emancipatory movements to link gender and class with race (Brewer 2010).

Black women intellectuals must make common cause with women in struggle on the ground. What a powerful connection if the women of LIFFT, poor black women fighting for rights in Liberty City, Florida were to be joined in struggle by Black women in the academy committed to social transformation (Miami Workers’ Center 2010). This would return Black women’s studies to its activist roots.

A long-standing tradition of oppositional cultural representation of Black women (pioneered by Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells Barnett) is central to the work of many Black feminist intellectuals (Collins 1990). The resistance to historic and contemporary stereotypes of African American women is core to this intellectual work. A number of the current Black scholars grew up in the midst of the social change during the 60s and 70s. The African American community as a rich fabric of life and culture is remembered, lifted up and rearticulated in scholarly work. These scholars attempt to overturn the pathology/problem paradigm which is still central to much of the social science investigation of Black life.

Theorizing Black Women’s Studies

Not all Black women who do Black Women’s Studies are feminist, but many are sensitive to gender and race as interlocking realities. It is arguable, however, that a number of critical Black thinkers are changing the face of research, teaching and knowledge production in the academy. Although Black women's activism and everyday lived experiences have been the spawning ground of Black feminist thought, what is notable today is the more systematic incorporation of this knowledge into disciplines and fields largely disconnected from struggles on the ground. The arts, humanities, history, the social sciences, Black Studies, and health among other fields have been affected by Black feminist frames. Unfortunately, the key trope of Black women’s studies, intersectionality, is often superficially incorporated into the fields, even as canonic representation of intellectuals such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins is occurring. What is too often missing is taking these frameworks back to the streets of African America. This is the fundamental building assumption of Black Women’s Studies: Black women as actors and agents in the world, yet the disconnect from these self-same community actors is palpable. We definitely need a field that carefully articulates the relationships between structure and agency – activists and scholars – and which offers a radical vision for social transformation.

The potential of an insider analysis and research agenda must give way to a discussion of who benefits from this same insiderism. Professional and collegial relationships may become difficult if research and connections move beyond the academy. The expectation is not too much engagement “with community” (Brewer 2010). Black women scholars often lack power in major universities and are under-represented in the higher professorial ranks. This under-representation is ultimately reflected in the kind of research questions that will be explored and the kind of commitments the scholar will make. Rather than crafting a research agenda deeply connected to community issues, Black women scholars are pressed to focus narrowly on disciplinary notions of appropriate research (Benjamin 1997).

In short, the current hard realities of introducing Black Women's Studies in established university and research settings are centered in issues of power and inequality. The challenge is to reconnect to Black radical perspectives that understand a complicated political economy and cultural terrain, working closely with community struggles. Crucial to this agenda is the fight for a history of African American women’s experiences and for remaking the educational and struggle terrain to reflect these experiences. True naming and speaking becomes an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of domination in a world that quite often would render Black women nameless and voiceless. How this naming occurs has been a source of debate among analysts of Black women’s studies.

Next Steps: Out of the Academy into the World

It is clear that sectors of the Black population throughout the world are confronting social and economic catastrophe. A recently released study found that the average wealth-holding of a black single woman in the US is $5 (Huffington Post 2010). In the starkest of terms this figure reminds us how little wealth has ever flowed into the hands of African American women in particular and the Black population in general. It captures how in advanced capitalist societies wealth expropriation began early and continues into the present. Currently it is exacerbated by the dismantling of the social wage, deep levels of unemployment, and destruction of affordable housing. In the global south, the legacies of colonialism and neocolonialism and the contemporary realities of global capital are strikingly evident, with devastating consequences for the people of those societies. This poses a challenge for Black Women’s Studies. It must connect to an emancipatory commitment that understands a complicated global economy framed by empire.

Black women of the academy must struggle around the constraints of careerism and the imperative of social responsibility. This issue is central to the relationship between academic insiders and the communities we profess to represent. The founding vision of Black Women’s Studies is again relevant here. In the early years there was a deep call for decolonizing social research and seizing research channels to further the cause of Black life in this country (Hull et al. 1982). The call continues in the scholarship of analysts such as Carole Boyce-Davies (2003). Today, Black Women’s Studies is drawn into the circle of domination simply by existing within and attempting to negotiate the rules of the academy. This reality is not peculiar to Black Women’s Studies; it is shared by Chicano/Latino, Asian and Native American Women’s Studies. Yet because the stakes are so high for scholars coming from an oppressed people, it has profound consequences for the field.

The colonization of Black women’s and other Third World women’s intellectual lives along race, class, and gender lines continues unabated within the academy (Mohanty 2003). Our interests are by definition connected to those on the ground—the women most exploited under racist capitalist patriarchy. Fighting back requires not only our scholarship but movement-building for social change. This means connecting deeply with women organizing to create a different social order. Yet, the requisite emancipatory political core of a race/class/gender analysis is too often missing. We cannot simply think our way out of this. Theory and action cannot be delinked. We must commit to building beyond the academy (James 1997).

Black feminist thought now centrally articulates the multiplicity of oppressions. Its intellectual agenda challenges existing frameworks in all academic fields (Black Studies, women's studies, ethnic studies, and a range of other disciplines), imagining from the bottom up and creatively drawing on a rich African tradition of polyrhythmics and improvisation. This contextualizing spawns at once (a) the transformation of knowledge

And (b) a decentering and restructuring of the education process.

The tradition of radical Black thinking and practice has been nearly erased from current academic discourse (Kelley 2002). To overcome this situation, we must move away from the text and from the almost two-decade dominance of discourse analyses delinked from structural understandings and systemic critiques. The previously mentioned article by Zerai and Salime (2006) raises the question of how “black feminism [can contribute] to methods of organizing to end oppression and specifically [to end] war, racism and repression.” The authors respond by asserting two principles:

Black feminist organizing is built from women’s use of alternative resources, often necessitated by their marginal social locations. The process of embracing alternative strategies developed by women emerging out of their experiences at the margins leads to new solutions….

Black feminist organizers self-consciously employ integrated analysis in their organizational strategies and political discussions. (2006: 503, 505)

Zerai and Salime interrogated several cases to make their point. These included the Black Radical Congress Anti-War Campaign, the work of the Women of Color Resource Center, INCITE! and other groups such as SISTER RISE UP! They discovered that we have a good deal to learn about how these principles can be applied on the ground. How we might work closely with grassroots women requires deeper study. We must connect the theory of Black Women’s Studies to the practice of movement-building. Indeed, this task must define the next phase of Black Women’s Studies. The Black woman’s presence in the academy and the changed curriculum is only the first phase of a longer term, difficult struggle, tied to the goals of liberation for all women and all people.


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Boyce-Davies, Carole. 2003. Decolonizing the Academy: Africa Diaspora Studies. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Brewer, Rose M. 2010. “The Social Forum Process and the Praxis of Race, Class, Gender and Sexualities.” in Social Change, Resistances and Social Practices. Richard A. Dello Buono and David Fasenfest, eds. Leiden: Brill, 57-72.

Burnham, Linda. 2001. “The Wellspring of Black Feminist Theory.” Southern University Law Review 28:3, 265-270.

Butler, Johnella and John Walker, eds. 1991. Transforming the Curriculum: Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Carty, Linda. 1991. "Black Women in Academia: A Statement from the Periphery." in Unsettling Relations: The University of a Site of Feminist Struggles. Himani Bannerji ed. Boston: South End Press, 13-44.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1986. “The Emerging theory and pedagogy of Black Women’s Studies. Feminist Issues, 6:1.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Back Feminist Thought. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Combahee River Collective Statement. 1977.

Cooper, Anna Julia. 1988. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ella’s Daughters. 2010.  “Support Ella Baker Day” (December 17).

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly and Patricia Bell Scott. 1985. “Black Women’s Studies: A View from the Margin.” in Educating the Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education.

Hamilton, Kendra. 2001. “Doctoral Dilemma,” Black Issues in Higher Education, vol. 18, 34-38.

Hooks, Bell. Yearning. 1990. Boston: South End Press.

Huffington Post. 2010. “Women of Color Have Media” (March 11).

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. 1982. But Some of Us Are Brave. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

James, Joy. 1997. Transcending the Talented Tenth. New York: Routledge.

James, Stanlie, Frances Smith Foster, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. 2009. Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. New York: Feminist Press.

Kelley, Robin D.G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lorde, Audre, 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Miami Workers Center. 2010. “Liberty City: A People’s History” (December 4).

Minnich, Elizabeth. 2004. Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mohanty, Chandra. 2003. Feminism Without Borders. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Oyeronke, Oyewummi. 1997. The Invention of Women. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

White, E. Frances. 2001. Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Zerai, Assata and Zakia Salime. 2006. “A Black Feminist Analysis of Responses to War, Racism, and Repression.” Critical Sociology 32:501-524. Notes 1. Patriarchy locates oppression in male domination and control. Heteropatriarchy articulates itself as the hegemonic norm infused as it is with practices of male domination and the suppression and exclusion of the homosexual.

2. Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) understood quite clearly the co-mingling of race and sex. She articulated this understanding early on, though the term Black feminist was not in use. The leading edge of Black feminist thought came out of Black Radical Lesbian Feminists who organized in Boston in the mid 1970s in the wake of the murder of 13 Black women in the Boston area. They articulated the most sophisticated construction of intersectionality to date, rooted in the dismantling of imperalism, hetereosexism, racism and classism. Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).

3. Even the work being done at Spelman University (formerly Spelman College), noteworthy as it is, can be thought about, to some extent, in relation to what is going on in the white academy. A full Spelman case study is in order and should be high on the agenda of future research.

4. See Combahee River Collective Statement 1977, Burnham 2001, and Minnich 2004.