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Introducing Feminism in an African American Studies Course

This file offers suggestions for readings and films appropriate
for introducing "feminism" into an African American Studies
course.  This discussion took place on WMST-L in February 2005. 
For additional WMST-L files available on the Web, see the
WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Mon, 7 Feb 2005 15:37:05 -0500
From: Kelli Zaytoun <kelli.zaytoun AT WRIGHT.EDU>
Subject: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I am seeking suggestions for films and/or a short reading or two to
introduce the topic of "feminism" to students in an African-American
Studies course titled Race and Racism in America. I have one class
session (1 1/2 hours) to spend with them. Instead of providing a
presentation on, for example, African-American women in the women's
movement or a recasting of the chronology of the movement/s (like Becky
Thompson's very useful Multiracial Feminism), I have been asked to
engage the students (a number of them are resistant to feminism) in
discussion and was advised to perhaps show a film or give them a reading
in advance. I see this as a good opportunity to not only engage students
but perhaps to attract them to women's studies as well. Please reply to
kelli.zaytoun  AT  wright.edu. Thank you in advance for your help!

Kelli Zaytoun
Director, Women's Studies
Asst. Professor of English
Wright State University
Date: Mon, 7 Feb 2005 21:48:58 -0800
From: Tamara Dixon <dixont AT UNLV.NEVADA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies

I would recommend "A Place of Rage" by Pratibha Parmar.

T. Dixon

Tamara Dixon, PhD Candidate
Adjunct Faculty
Women^-s Studies Department
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway
Houssels House Room 106
Las Vegas, NV 89154-5055
E-mail dixont  AT  unlv.nevada.edu
Date: Mon, 7 Feb 2005 22:35:01 -0800
From: Eileen C. Boris <boris AT WOMST.UCSB.EDU>
Subject: Teaching about Feminism in African American Studies
For films, though over a decade old now, I still like "A Place of Rage"
which is about Angela Davis and June Jordan, and to a lesser extent other
feminists of color.

Selections from Beverly Guy Shaftall's Words of Fire: an Anthology of
African American Feminist Thought from 19th century onward would also
provide the voices of women themselves


Eileen Boris
Hull Professor of Women's Studies
Affiliate Professor, Department of History
Women's Studies Program--South Hall
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California 93106
boris  AT  womst.ucsb.edu
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2005 06:46:20 -0500
From: Krista Scott-Dixon <kristasd AT ROGERS.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
Perhaps too lengthy a film but my students always
enjoy the film Set it Off, about four African-American
women who rob banks. After watching the film I have
them pick one of the four main characters and write a
short piece on how class/economic status, race, and
gender intersect to shape their experiences, choices,
and actions in the film. Then we sometimes talk about
how things could have been different for the women if
particular social structures had been in place.

More about the film:

Krista Scott-Dixon
York University
Toronto, ON
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2005 14:50:33 -0500
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I strongly recommend Shakti Butler's *The Way Home* (1998). When I
show it to students, they see it as relevant, honest, and sometimes
difficult (due largely to the honesty), and also rewarding.

The video is about 90 minutes long and features eight councils of
women, identified by racial/ethnic affiliation (Indigenous, African
American, Multiracial, Arab, Jewish, Euro-American, Latina, Asian).
Each council speaks to its own history, its relationship to power
politics in the U.S., and to a series of themes around women's lives
(school, beauty standards, relationships, internalized oppression).
These moments are edited together to create a conversation on the
intersections of racial politics and other aspects of our lives.

There is a follow-up video, *Light in the Shadows*, in which a
racially/ethnically integrated group of women speak to some of the
concerns introduced in *The Way Home.* I haven't yet seen that one,
but I can only guess that it is just as powerful.

(For more info, go to http://www.world-trust.org/videos/videos.html)

Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2005 08:36:20 -0800
From: Jessica Nathanson <janathanson AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I have been using Alice Walker's _The Color Purple_,
both the novel and the film, in my lit class (I'm not
sure how it would work in an African American Studies
class).  The problem with using the film alone is
that, while in the novel the villainous character
"Mr." is redeemed, in the film he really is not (which
opened the film up to pretty harsh criticism).  To
counteract this, you could show the film and then give
them the (fairly short) section of the novel that
traces his evolution and "happy ending," and also give
your students some of the reviews and critiques of the
film (including Alice Walker's and Danny Glover's
responses to critics who said it was anti-Black men --
Tony Brown wrote an especially scathing review).
There is a new DVD edition out with some interviews
re. the making of the movie, which might also have
some useful information about this (I haven't seen it
yet, so I don't know).

At any rate, it would provide an opportunity to
explore feminism (or womanism) from an African
American perspective as well as to study a moment of
conflict among some African Americans over this
expression of feminism.

Jessica Nathanson
Jessica Nathanson, Ph.D. American Studies
Concentration, Women's Studies
Instructor, English and Gender Studies
Augustana College
Kilian Community College
janathanson  AT  yahoo.com
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2005 00:36:53 -0500
From: Janell Hobson <jhobson AT ALBANY.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I tried to think of specific suggestions for films and short readings that
would go well with the topic of "feminism" in a course titled Race and
Racism in America, but the list was so exhaustive that I realized I had to
ask: what is the nature of the students' "resistance" to feminism?

After all, can either Women's Studies or African American Studies treat
feminism and anti-racism as if they are mutually exclusive of each other?

Where would the women's rights movement be if it were not for the
abolitionist movement, from which emerged the likes of Sarah and Angelina
Grimke, Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, et al?

Where would the struggle for African American rights be if it were not for
the feminist consciousness and actions of said individuals and others,
such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (who forced the issue of woman
suffrage at Seneca Falls when Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself was hesitant
to raise it), Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the list goes on and on?

If students are resistant to feminism in a course on Race and Racism, then
the issue must be dealt with head on so as to disabuse them of the idea
that feminism is somehow a separate issue from racial
struggles.  And I'm not sure that one film or short reading is enough.

Perhaps a useful strategy - which I have done myself in a similarly titled
course that I regularly teach - is to begin with antiracist feminism and
intersectionality of race, class, and gender. I imagine if you start the
first day of class with Sojourner Truth's "A'r'n't I a Woman?" from 1851,
that speech would clear up any confusions about what feminism has to do
with race and racism and vice versa.

I like historical texts myself and would suggest writings from any of the
individuals listed above - some more than others.  Even recent history is
invaluable: PBS aired a POV program Monday night on Shirley Chisholm -
"Unbought and Unbossed," which examined her 1972 bid for the presidency. I
found it to be a truly amazing account of how feminism can be used in the
arena of race relations and politics at large.

I recently introduced my students to Ida B. Wells' writings in a course
titled Classism, Racism, and Sexism and examined her anti-lynching
campaign in terms of feminist thought, which is also argued in Beverly
Guy-Sheftall's Words of Fire anthology.  Pairing her with such white
writers from the mid-twentieth century, like Lillian Smith, who addressed
lynchings and Southern racism in general, might make for some interesting
explorations. Not to mention Angela Davis's brilliant analysis of Billie
Holliday's "Strange Fruit" as feminist antiracist consciousness.

And of course, beyond black and white feminist antiracists, the still
relevant and still radical anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, need not
be forgotten.

Janell Hobson

Assistant Professor
Women's Studies
University at Albany, SUNY
jhobson  AT  albany.edu
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2005 10:57:06 -0500
From: Kelli Zaytoun <kelli.zaytoun AT WRIGHT.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I agree, it's tough (and inappropriate even) to narrow such a topic to
one class period; however, that is all I'll have. Perhaps I should have
clarified in the original post that I don't teach the course; I've been
asked to come in as a guest lecturer. The nature of the students'
resistance is related to where we're located (the "deciding" Red State!)
and to what they are currently studying in the class~~specific examples
of how liberal feminism impeded the struggle for rights for African
Americans. Thank you all for your thoughtful suggestions...I received
many! Kelli Zaytoun, Wright State University
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2005 12:20:29 -0500
From: Diane Fowlkes <dlfowlkes AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
Kelli, I've been following the discussion evoked by your question and
appreciate all the replies to the list.  Your clarification suggests
that the inviters have already narrowed the focus of feminism in the
question they asked you to address.  Perhaps, given the suggestions of
knowledgeable others, you will be able to redirect their question and
speak of both positive and negative engagements of feminists of
different eras and stripes in the struggle for abolition and civil
rights and Black liberation.  Speak the truth to the Red!

Diane Fowlkes
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2005 10:34:21 -0800
From: Marilyn Edelstein <MEdelstein AT SCU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
I suggest something by bell hooks, who has often addressed the
importance of feminism for anti-racist struggle and of anti-racism for
feminism. For instance, you could use one or two of the chapters from
her short book _Feminism Is for Everybody_, perhaps "Race and Gender"
and "Feminist Masculinity." Or something from her earlier books _Killing
Rage, Ending Racism_ or _Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics_
or her classic _Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism_. She has a
newer book I haven't read yet called something like _We Real Cool: Black
Men and Masculinity_ which might have a useful chapter if you want to
address both the relevance of feminism for black women and for black
men. And, for a critical legal studies/critical race theory perspective,
to follow up on an earlier poster's suggestion to have students read
something on intersectionality, you could use Kimberle Crenshaw's essay
on intersectionality (reprinted in several Critical Race Theory
anthologies), which both theorizes intersectionality and applies it to
the law concretely. Marilyn Edelstein

Marilyn Edelstein
Associate Professor of English
Santa Clara University
500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara CA 95053
medelstein  AT  scu.edu
Date: Thu, 10 Feb 2005 14:25:20 +0000
From: Janice McLane <janicemclane AT COMCAST.NET>
Subject: Re: Teaching Feminism in African American Studies
This suggestion would not apply to the one-class restriction Amber
has.  However, I teach feminism courses at Morgan State University in
Baltimore, an HBCU (I am white).  The most effective resource I have
found in raising these issues as intertwined is Words of Fire: An
Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly
Guy-Sheftall (New Press, 1995).

A quotation from the book will give you a good idea why.  The first
selection is a speech from Maria Stewart, a free African-American.
She advocated that black women build schools for themselves, and
opposed male domination.  The quote is from Guy-Sheftall's
introduction to Stewart's speech, a speech that specifically
identifies links between, and condemns, racism and sexism.

"Her second speech, delivered at Boston's Franklin Hall before the New
England Anti-Slavery Society on September 21, 1832, is historic
because it was the first public lecture of an American women of any
race before a mixed audience of men and women, blacks and whites, and
preceded by five years the Grimke sisters' more well-known
anti-slavery speeches."

In other words, the first anti-racist, feminist, truly public speech
in America comes from an African-American woman.  (I assume no men of
any race were making feminist speeches then.  Correct me if I'm

When my students read this, any question of whether racism and sexism
go together stops cold.  It's so great when students light up,
realizing that American feminism is not a white thing that
African-Americans may or may not think is relevant to them, but from
the beginning, an African-American thing.  Documentation that early
American black women saw, articulated, and took action against racism
and sexism together makes a huge difference.

Janice McLane

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