No Country (or graduate degree) for Black Feminists

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In a few short months, I’ll have to make a very important decision. I’ll have to write a personal statement that shares why I want to pursue a particular course of study, and I haven’t decided on the course of study. My interests are multi-disciplinary, and they could be interdisciplinary, perhaps even should be, but some recent hashtags tell me they’re worlds apart.

Last week, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen and #HarrietTubmanSexTape trended on Twitter. In case you missed the excitement, Mikki Kendall started the first trend in response to yet another pop culture incident I know nothing about, but it expanded to a call for an end to the exclusion of women of color in mainstream feminism. A day or so later, editor Jamilah Lemieux created #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen. Lemieux explains, it was “aimed at intra-racial sexism and men who can talk a good game when it comes to race, but are incapable to see the oppressive and harmful impact of patriarchy on Black women.”

And wouldn’t you know, the day after Lemieux’s topic sparked wide discussion (most of which I’m catching up on 5 days later), Russell Simmons’s All Def Digital YouTube channel released a video of comedians imitating how Tubman won her freedom–by pretending she was faking her resistance all those times her master raped her and threatening to expose the affair. I haven’t seen the video–Simmons pulled it at the NAACP’S request–but other writers’ descriptions, like this one and this one, provided enough visual cues for me to get the idea and know I wouldn’t want to see it if I could.

All three of these trending topics send a signal that black women are out of place in circles where practicing identity politics isn’t welcome if you have two (or more) identities.

To make this about me, this is bad for a woman who finds Pan African Studies and Women and Gender Studies her two most appealing options at a time when she could pursue either of them without paying tuition. Though I’m at the point where I want to have a better grasp of stuff I just believe and of theories that I practice in my work as a feminist writer and in my job in social justice research, I’m afraid WGS will have me learning about more whiteness and that PAS will omit women or downplay their contributions to black history.

This should not be a concern. I should note, 80 percent of my concern is not due to anything I’ve heard about the respective departments. (I start a course called “History of U.S. Feminisms” in one week, as a non-degree-seeking student, and the plural in the title is enough to give you a clue.) It’s the known lack of intersectionality in the areas of study themselves and the continued examples of how white women and black men just don’t get or don’t care about black women.

Again, this should not be. It shouldn’t take a national social media campaign to get white feminists to see the impact of their silence when The Onion editors called Quvenzhané Wallis a “cunt.” Black men, and especially a black man who’s backed social justice causes in recent weeks, should know better than to greenlight a Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, and other black men should know better than to think this is funny.

Obviously, I need a graduate degree because I’m having trouble articulating WHY this is a problem. I lack the theoretical language and socio-cultural-historical-political context to explain to you that rape isn’t funny and that black women’s lives matter. I need the words. I need the knowledge. And if the madness causing these hashtags continues, I guess I’ll be applying for master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies to learn what I want to learn and to avoid abandoning my blackness or my womanhood in the process.

Anyone out there face a similar choice? How did you decide what to study? What was your experience in the program? Did you feel like part of you was left out of what you were studying? Share your comments, insights, etc., please!

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2 thoughts on “No Country (or graduate degree) for Black Feminists

  1. I graduated with an MA in African-American Literature. Even with Af-Am Lit, I had to take more English lit and American lit courses, which exclude many writers in the black diaspora. I think the core curriculum of Women’s Studies is more likely to center on mainstream (read: white) feminist leaders from Simone de Beauvoir to Betty Friedan, simply because their histories have been acknowledged. Ours, black women’s, notsomuch.

    The good thing about graduate study is that you eventually create your own path for thesis/dissertation. Whatever scholarship you undertake will be a product of your thirst for understanding, and you will design your own reading list. I think that Africana/Pan African studies, by nature, may be a good fit because black women have a deep engagement with critical theory and feminists like bell hooks, Alice Walker, and Michelle Wallace ARE the canon for this field.

    As for me, I wanted to major in poetry but was selected for literature, which turned out to be a blessing. The lack of space in American Lit for writers of color annoyed me. I took Af-Am, African Diaspora lit classes whenever I could and made that my focus. My thesis explored black women’s spirituality in Black Arts Movement Poetry, so I got my intersectionality in 100%! 🙂

    1. Your thesis study sounds heavenly! You know, I had a chance to go to Chicago State University for an MFA in creative writing, and as Illinois’s unofficial HBCU, much of the focus would have been on black literature. I think the school would have been the wrong choice for me, or perhaps it was just the wrong time, but I often regret not going because, where else am I going to get African American literature as the focus of the classes I’m required to take, as opposed to what I pursue on my own for my thesis after three semesters of learning everything else?

      I didn’t note in the post that I’m neglecting literature and creative writing either way, save electives, which is also a concern. But since I didn’t major in English as an undergrad (psychology) and most of my literature courses were in Spanish, I would have to repeat at least a year of undergraduate study to qualify for most MA programs in English or in literature. But your comment gives me some hope I can tie it in! Thanks for sharing!

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