I was 22 when I enrolled in a Black Feminist Thought graduate class. I’d just discovered journalist Joan Morgan’s seminal book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, which writer Kia Miakka Wood describes as a text “that addressed the complexities of being a Black woman in the hip-hop generation.” When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down greatly resonated with me, so I was eager to immerse in a class focused on the importance of Black Feminism.
I had few expectations coming into the course. I’d taken a Critical Race Theory in Communications class with the professor, so I knew her Black Feminist Thought course would be thorough, informative, and engaging. However, I wasn’t prepared for my entire world to be blown up. In Black Feminist Thought, I discovered that Black women face oppression at the intersections of our race, gender, class, sexuality, and religion, and we’ve developed an unparalleled view of the world as a result. Black Feminist Thought uses the knowledge of Black women to theorize everything from how Black women fare in higher education to the historic role of First Lady Michelle Obama.
We read, analyzed, and discussed several formative Black Feminist texts, including Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s foundational essay about intersectionality and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf. The professor also used popular culture texts, like news broadcasts and music videos, to supplement the written work we were grappling with. In choosing to see Black Feminist texts as more than books, magazine articles, and academic journal articles, the professor made the class more accessible and engaging
I’d never felt more confident as a writer and a scholar than when I was enrolled in Black Feminist Thought. Participating in discussions was easier because my perspective as a Black woman was valued. I was encouraged to recall personal experiences to fuel my analyses. I left the class with an A and a firm grasp on a theory that I continue to use. I also wondered how many Black women have access to academic spaces where their knowledge is privileged above their white male classmates. I imagine there are few, especially as Black Feminist Thought still struggles for legitimacy in academia.
The ceaseless battle to include Black Feminism as a vital part of academic discourse reached Rutgers University this week. Rutgers decided not to offer the popular “Politicizing Beyoncé: Black Feminism, US Politics, and Queen Bey” course for the winter semester. Doctoral candidate, Kevin Allred, designed the course in 2010, and has taught it for a consecutive 11 semesters. In the class, Allred couples Black Feminist works from several important figures, including Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and bell hooks with Beyoncé’s music and public persona to explore the importance of the pop superstar as it relates to race, gender, class, and sexuality.
“I started the class because I was looking for a fun way to engage and inspire students to learn more about the history and political realities of groups of people that are usually marginalized, in the world and in college classrooms,” Allred told Jezebel.
“I wanted the students to look at the history and politics of black feminism as told by black women themselves,” Allred continued. “I only assigned black feminist texts and I wanted to change the way the students were learning and thinking about how history and politics are constructed. I also wanted them to see that the pop culture surrounding them everyday also plays into the ways society values and devalues certain groups of people over others.”
Professor Allred’s syllabus only features Black Feminist writers and theorists, which is a political choice that might have persuaded Rutgers University to cancel the course. Allred is also writing his dissertation on Beyoncé and Black Feminism, and was encouraged to use citations from white scholars.
“The whole point of my work was that Black feminist thinkers and writers have been doing all the things that these white men were doing,” Allred told the Guardian. “So, to have to make citations beyond Black feminist thinkers and writers seemed to discount Black feminism in general.”
Kevin Allred reads as a white man, so his privilege undoubtedly assisted in having the course approved, especially since he’s a doctoral candidate rather than an assistant professor. Yet, even his white male privilege couldn’t keep administrators at Rutgers University from delegitimizing and canceling the course. Canceling Allred’s ‘Politicizing Beyoncé’ course speaks to how white male knowledge is considered superior to that of Black women. Few scholars question why Plato and Socrates’ philosophical theories are still relevant and useful. Yet, a syllabus full of Black Feminist theorists and writer isn’t considered worthy of inclusion. In discounting Black Feminism, opponents are simply reinforcing the importance of Black Feminist Thought.
In her book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins insists that the theory positions Black women as “agents of knowledge.” Despite the historical ways that Black women have been subordinated, Black Feminist Thought centers our lives, voices, and experiences. It is powerful to have a theory that tells white men, white women, and Black men that their knowledge isn’t superior to ours.
Yet, Allred is facing an uphill battle to offer Beyoncé’s work as a lens to discuss important social justice issues. When Black women theorize about Black women, validity is questioned.
“Some of this certainly has to do as well with a general social ire toward Beyoncé,” Brittany Cooper, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, told the Guardian. “Disdain feels appropriate to [detractors], because they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just because we don’t like Beyoncé and don’t think she’s serious. But it turns out that, structurally, we don’t take very many black women seriously in university curriculum. Period.”
Professor Allred moved the class to Rutgers Department of American Studies, but the canceling of the class proves what I know after taking Black Feminist Thought. Black women have to fight for legitimacy in every aspect of our lives, including our education.