2 The Praxis of Africana Women’s Studies: Lessons from Clark Atlanta University

By Stephanie Sears, Clark Atlanta University

Illustration of author Stephanie Sears in a black shirt, looking forward
Stephanie Sears by Nicole Carter

It is an all too common exchange. An uninformed student stumbles into treacherous terrain during a class debate, searching for that proverbial origin story which supposedly introduced massive, perhaps even dysfunctional, change into society. Invariably, that student will announce blunderingly, “it all started when women left the home to enter the workplace.” To such a comment, I offer my standard query, “Which women are you talking about?” I consider exchanges such as this serviceable because they invite fruitful discussions which, for me, validates why teaching Africana Women’s Studies in a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) is so vital. Most students are confounded when reminded that Africana women have historically worked outside of the home and that their political activism anticipated the 1848 gathering of women at Seneca Falls. Students need only to be prodded a small measure to think about their own family histories to find evidence for Africana women’s labor, creativity, and advocacy in both public and private domains. As students grow in awareness, they are confronted by the ways in which they have accepted and internalized a dominant narrative about women (Matias et al, 2019). They eventually grasp how dominant narratives eclipse aspects of their own histories and their newly awakened consciousness compels them to acquire alternative narratives. In this essay, I discuss the significance of the Africana Women’s Studies (AWS) program at Clark Atlanta University by highlighting its role in correcting for the marginalization and erasure of Africana women’s narratives. I maintain that AWS’s presence contributes to HBCUs and Women’s Studies in general, and Africana women’s scholarship in particular.

The Africana Women’s Studies program at Clark Atlanta University is the only of its kind. In 1982, in collaboration with faculty, students, partner HBCUs, and funding agencies, Dr. Shelby Lewis founded the AWS program. Its nascent objective was to identify the intellectual history, activism, and contributions of Africana women. In 1985, as director of the Africana Women’s Center, Lewis edited a four-volume series entitled “Africana Women’s Studies Series” which included course syllabi, bibliographies in Africana Women’s Studies, and assessments about teaching and researching in Africana Women’s Studies. In addition, the Series incorporated documents that highlighted themes in Africana Women’s Studies in literature, business, health, history, media, music, political science, psychology, sociology/criminal justice, and social work. Lewis intended the Series to be a resource for the planning and development of Africana Women’s Studies. As such, the Series represents one of the earliest examples of formal curricular conceptualization and organization dedicated to the graduate study of Africana women. Today, the Africana Women’s Studies program remains “the only degree-granting women’s studies program located in a historically black college in the United States, the only women’s studies program in the United States which offers the doctoral degree in Africana Women’s Studies and the only Africana Women’s Studies program in the world.”[1] To be clear, Clark Atlanta University claims this distinction because it is the only program that contains the term Africana in its program name. Not only does the qualifier set the program apart from other Women’s Studies programs, but it also prioritizes its unapologetic sole focus on the experiences of Black women.

As an unparalleled curricular destination, the AWS program offers important conceptual and theoretical resources to graduate students and plays a critical role within an HBCU superstructure. Motivated by research on social problems, AWS is poised to draw attention to black affirming spaces that seek to address racial disparity, but may also obscure its neglect of issues such as sexism, heterosexism, and other social problems deemed marginal to its institutional focus. HBCU campuses draw a variety of students from diverse backgrounds, many of them not having been exposed to Africana culture in their previous educational experiences. Therefore, many of the students come to our program seeking what they feel lacking in other institutions—occasions for cultural affirmation and identity validation as a complement to their educational training (Campbell et al, 2019). Thus, students enter the program receptive to a black affirming space but not always prepared to critique it.

The relationship between AWS and HBCUs mirrors the historic relationship between Black Feminism and black men—a relationship fraught with both love and frustration. While acknowledging the solidarity black men claim with black women in the continuing struggle against racism, black men have not always acknowledged their role in sexism within hegemonic masculinist systems (Johnson, 2010). AWS teaches the critical tools necessary for identifying intracommunal problems such as these, and requires that students grapple with all the ways in which cultural membership within Africana communities does not preclude scrutiny from within. In fact, AWS strikes a delicate balance between cultural affirmation and critique, preparing students to identify and challenge problematic institutional and cultural practices. In these ways, students learn how to deconstruct idealistic and romantic notions about their own culture in order to champion for its improvement. Students gain the necessary analytical tools in the AWS program to tackle systemic bias within communal contexts as well as without. Because many AWS students resonate with the need for praxis-oriented activism, they incorporate into their research questions a self-reflexive drive to see solutions to both internal and external forms of oppression.

As a problem-solving discipline, AWS also equips students to question the largely singular narrative often associated with Women’s Studies generally, e.g. one-dimensional narratives centering White middle class, heterosexual women desiring to escape the limitations of domestic life for a world of work. Even as Women’s Studies has always been about more than this one narrative, popular culture has played a role in mythologizing this narrative, further obscuring the realities of Africana Women’s experiences and the need to focus upon them. As such, AWS serves to redress dominant narratives which marginalize Africana women’s stories. White women’s narratives have influenced the academic landscape of Women’s Studies, rendering white women’s experiences of oppression with white men and systemic patriarchy as representative for all women’s struggles (Garcia-Rojas, 2017). Too often, Africana experiences are relegated to token acknowledgement in curriculums, textbooks, college/university courses and course syllabi. AWS extends Women’s Studies discourse not only by including Africana women’s experiences but also emphasizing that women are not monolithic. As a critical discourse, AWS demonstrates how observing phenomena through the lens of particular standpoints adjusts views of reality, favoring the multiple over the so-called universal. For instance, examining social circumstances through the lens of black women’s unique standpoint facilitates critical examination of social structural forms of institutional oppression predicated upon multiple social identities in hegemonic systems (Hill Collins, 2000). Because curriculum choices are often political ones, AWS prepares students to deconstruct embedded power structures of institutions, including colleges and universities. As such, students take note of the ways in which academic institutions minimize the contributions of Africana women via offering very little coursework and opportunities for research relevant to Africana women. As a constructive platform dedicated to amending such institutional oversights, the AWS program encourages research that highlights unique epistemologies of freedom, resistance, activism, and creativity. In these ways, AWS documents the tremendous contribution that Africana women make to Women’s Studies and serves to help broaden the world’s collective capacity for social activism and change.

Despite its seeming marginalization in black men’s and white women’s movements, the AWS program’s existence cannot be reduced as reactive. It is not merely a corrective for erasure and devaluation of identity in other intellectual spaces. It is important to emphasize that AWS has always been exceptional in its own right. The AWS program nurtures ongoing research which centers Africana women’s distinct experiences because such insight is interesting and compelling. In particular, the concentration upon Africana women enables the AWS program to institutionalize Africana women’s history, intellectual achievement, creative contributions, scholarly work, and cultural content. By institutionalizing the work of Africana women, AWS creates its own canons, theories, and critical frameworks. Africana scholars, activists, and artists become sources onto themselves and for one another. This point cannot be stressed enough. When using the canonical sources and theories espoused by peripheral frameworks, analyses about Africana women fail. Africana women, as seen through the lenses of external analytical structures, are woefully conceptualized as deviant, difficult, and defiant, to name a few unflattering stereotypes (Davis et al, 2018). However, when using foundational texts and theories endemic to Africana women’s experiences, students are equipped to not only critique and challenge the negative stereotypes written against them, but also to document more representative ontological and epistemological frameworks.

As a resource, AWS provides the fitting context for nurturing innovative, interdisciplinary research for its graduate students. AWS encourages developing researchers to reach for solutions to systemic social problems that affect Africana communities generally and Africana women particularly (See Stevenson et al, this collection). The benefit of AWS to graduate students within the wider HBCU experience is intellectual license to propose research studies of relevance to them. AWS dissertation, thesis, and capstone projects range from Black Girlhood studies, Black motherhood, Africana women in social media, Black transwomen, Sexual Assault, and Black Cultural Criticism, to name a few. Expansive in its scope, the research projects developed through the AWS program engages canonical black feminist and womanist works as well as extends the discourse through innovative and unique scholarship. As we look to the future of the AWS program at Clark Atlanta University, we expect to expand our offerings on gender and sexuality, contributing to ongoing conversations which seek to promote greater equality, justice, and social transformation.

As Graduate Advisor and Assistant Professor in the program, I see myself as a committed steward of Africana Women’s Studies at Clark Atlanta University. Just like the devoted stewards occupying their roles prior to me, I see myself as primarily doing my share to maintain this prestigious program while adding to its value. During my tenure, I have sought to strengthen student research by direct mentorship, modeling both curiosity and creativity in scholarship. By creating aligned coursework, I have helped facilitate not only an increase in the number of students completing their conceptual capstones, theses, and dissertations, but I have also endeavored to reengage the historic CAU legacy of excellence in engaged and relevant research. It is my hope that my contributions will leave the Africana Women’s Studies program better than I found it. In an ongoing process of evolution and innovation, future stewards will add their constructive enhancements to the program, ensuring it persists for the benefit of future generations. I am grateful to be forever bound together with past, present, and future stewards in an AWS tapestry woven by our collective labor of love.

All in all, AWS does not exist in a vacuum. It has a unique relationship to GWSS. The history of the intellectual and activist traditions of African diasporic women incorporates the history of GWSS, especially as it relates to US-based activism. Afterall, Black women and white women worked together towards abolition and the women’s right to vote. However, the political, racial and structural justifications for the necessity of the separate agenda of AWS continues to echo larger societal traumas of systemic racism, sexism, and economic oppression. Because of its particular focus on the ubiquity of sociocultural and political trauma, AWS can play a larger role in shifting consciousness away from oppressive ruling systems. As a result, GWSS can only be strengthened by ensuring that programs and curriculums similar to AWS be implemented at other institutions. The earnest inclusion of Africana and Indigenous voices in GWSS departments beyond token efforts augurs well for continuing relevance of GWSS generally. It is important everywhere that GWSS programs teach that difference does not mean deviance (Lorde, 1984). GWSS programing might learn from AWS how better to appreciate, respect, and celebrate ontological and epistemological differences in ways that root praxis at the heart of every strive toward equality, justice and social change.

Works cited:

Campbell, Santiba. D., Adrienne Carter-Sowell, and Jericka. S. Battle. 2019. “Campus climate comparisons in academic pursuits: How race still matters for African American college students,” in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 22(3): 390-402.

Davis, Ashlee. W., Ronald F. Levant, and Shana Pryor. 2018. “Traditional Femininity Versus Strong Black Women Ideologies and Stress Among Black Women,” in Journal of Black Studies. 49(8): 820-841.

Garcia-Rojas, Claudia. 2017. “(Un)Disciplined futures: Women of color feminism as a disruptive to white affect studies,” in Journal of Lesbian Studies. 21(3): 254–271.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2000 [1990]. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, second edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Johnson, Billy, II. 2010.“Toward an anti-sexist Black American male identity,” in Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 11(3): 182–194.

Lewis, Shelby and Hinton Hoytt, Eleanor. 1985. “Africana Women’s Studies Series.” Vol. 1-4.  Africana Women’s Center, Atlanta University.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference.” In Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press.

Matias, Cheryl, Danielle Walker, and Mariana del Hierro. 2019. “Tales from the Ivory Tower: Women of Color’s Resistance to Whiteness in Academia,” in Taboo: The Journal of Culture & Education. 18(1): 35–58.

  1. Clark Atlanta University, 2020. Department of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies and History. Accessed 7/14/2020 from https://www.cau.edu/school-of-arts-and-sciences/aawh/index.html

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