On (the Question of) “Knowledge Itself”: Teaching Black Feminism Now
In this piece, I reflect upon the philosophical underpinnings of Patricia Hill Collins’s now classic text, “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” (1989). More specifically, I extract Collins’s interrogation of “knowledge itself”as a tool with which to critique the uses and misuses of black feminism in the contemporary American academy. I evoke what I term “the black feminist knowledge question” as a strategy with which to complicate an institutional tendency toward white-male forms of ascertaining and validating knowledge, and suggest that as we return our classrooms to the foundational black feminist texts, we elucidate how they unsettle notions of “truth” and “certainty.” I ultimately argue that it is imperative to teach students that the objective of a question that destabilizes knowledge is not to move past the question, or to provide a single solution, but rather, to make room for other questions, other knowledges. To introduce the black feminist critique to the contemporary classroom requires an account of the fact that there is no apodictic answer to the question of knowledge itself.
African American women, black feminism, black feminist thought, Collins, Patricia Hill, feminist pedagogy, feminist theory
Collins begins “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” by situating the intellectual tradition of black feminism within a philosophical imperative to destabilize (the question of) “knowledge itself” (1989, 747). For Collins, this is as African American women have long used alternative ways of producing and validating knowledge to develop their distinctive interpretation of black women’s oppression. Collins interrogates what it means to “know,” and further, [End Page 238] how black women have been historically excluded from the processes of knowledge production. Black feminism arises, for Collins, as both the critique of the knowledge-validation process and an offering of African American women’s self-defined knowledges. She argues that situating black women’s knowledge claims within an alternative epistemology is imperative as “one cannot use the same techniques to study the knowledge of the dominated as one uses to study the knowledge of the powerful . . . because subordinate groups have long had to use alternative ways to create an independent consciousness and to rearticulate it through specialists validated by the oppressed themselves” (751). Collins deploys the black women’s standpoint to unsettle (the question of) knowledge itself and reveal it as a tool of subordination, thus naming black feminist thought the ideological method with which to scrutinize hegemonic ways of knowing. “Knowledge,” Collins argues, not only “reflects the interests and standpoint of its creators” (751) but also presupposes the very discursive, political, and economic productions that facilitate black women’s subordination.
In her book-length text Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990), Collins elaborates upon her 1989 claims, detailing her recommendations for a black feminist knowledge validation process. The methods she cites include ascertaining wisdom from the lived experiences of black women; promoting dialogue and connectedness rather than isolation in working out knowledge claims; enacting an ethic of care through personal experience, emotion, and empathy; and lastly, holding people accountable for their knowledge claims. These alternative ways of procuring and validating knowledge constitute an epistemological project that is necessarily different from a white male one. It encourages students to think complexly about subjugated knowledges and further about how to use uncertainty as an opportunity to trust the lived experiences of others. Collins effectively destabilizes “knowledge’s” claim to an unqualified reality through the logics of standpoint epistemology. She notes that “black women’s political and economic status provides them with a . . . different view of material reality than that available to other groups” (1989, 747) and further that “a subordinate group not only experiences a different reality than a group that rules, but a subordinate group may interpret that reality differently than a dominant group” (748). By advancing “knowledge itself” as an interrogation of how differing realities precipitate different standards of validating knowledge claims, Collins invites readers to rethink “knowledge” as an instrument that proliferates Eurocentric-masculinist ways of knowing. She ultimately urges us to consider how knowledge’s ties to “reality” are inherently slippery.
Teaching Black Feminism Now
I offer a brief account of Collins’s critique of knowledge to preface my thinking alongside hers, about the capacity of “knowledge itself” to serve as a key [End Page 239] pedagogical tool with which to critique the status of black feminism in the contemporary American academy. I ask if a disregard of black feminism’s relationship to knowledge is what occasions its circulation as a “discipline inflicted . . . to whip the field into shape” (Nash 2019, 13), its reduction to a “stepping stone” to more exciting inquires (Cooper 2015, 12), or more broadly, the risk it faces, of losing the oppositional nature of its genesis (Collins 2016).
Nearly thirty years after the publication of “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought,” work from Brittney Cooper, Jennifer Nash, and Patricia Hill Collins comprises some of the contemporary considerations of black feminism in the American academy. Through their articulations of the current state of black feminism, they illuminate how the academy is still a precarious place for black feminist thought. Cooper (2015) reflects upon black feminism’s presence in fields and disciplines across the humanities and social science. Cooper writes,
[Black feminist scholars] have become complicit in a set of processes that allows one group of scholars to place us on a pedestal, styling black feminism as a foundational stepping stone to other more exciting sites of inquiry while another group reduces our contributions to that status of the intervention, allowing them to engage in liberal acts of incorporation and inclusion, and then moving on, in the name of progress.(12)
Here, Cooper reflects upon the limited scope through which black feminism is engaged. Even while black feminist thought has maintained a presence in the academy, it is often deployed superficially. Little credit has been paid to black feminism’s capacity to throw the very disciplines from which we work into irredeemable crisis. Rather than a challenge to the apparatuses of knowledge through which we base our perceptions of reality, black feminism, as Cooper critiques, is effectively viewed as a hurdle one must get past on the way to more critical questions. Underscoring Brittney Cooper’s concerns, Jennifer Nash (2019, 13) observes that black feminist thought has largely been relegated to the role of “remedy” in the discipline of women’s studies: “In an account where black women’s primary labor is to remedy––and perhaps even to save––the field from itself, the discipline treats black women, and black feminism, as a finite resource. Once the field has effectively reconfigured itself, black feminism is imagined as no longer necessary or vital.” Cooper and Nash’s reflections illustrate the dialectic in which black feminism is entrapped. Rather than being rightly understood as a critique of the very basis of knowledge, black feminism is deployed as a means of locating a more progressive or more accurate account of the world (i.e., a better knowledge). While Nash’s and Cooper’s accounts are not a comprehensive purview of the effects of black feminisms’ increasing institutionalization, they provide a good sense of what we might suggest is the status of black feminism now. They each illuminate how black feminism is [End Page 240] often uncritically wielded as a women’s studies touchstone, a set of criteria to incorporate and then ultimately get back to real scholarship.
Collins (2016) attends to the question of whether black feminism has maintained its commitments to problematizing existing knowledge and building new knowledge about the social world in the contemporary academy. She addresses black feminist thought’s standing amid the current period of reconfigured race relations and racial meanings whereby black women have reached unprecedented visibility in the social institutions that have historically excluded them (134). She provides the following account of black feminism’s current status:
As an oppositional knowledge project, Black feminist thought’s sole purpose cannot be only simple survival within prevailing academic norms, providing jobs and opportunities for African American and African-descended women academics or media figures. Its purpose goes beyond offering up kneejerk responses to the latest perceived insult. Instead, being oppositional means doing serious, diligent, and thoughtful intellectual work that aims to dismantle unjust intellectual and political structures.(134)
Concluding that black women’s visibility does not equal power, Collins rein-vigorates her 1989 move to critique the apparatuses of power that relegate black feminism to the pedagogical margins even while black feminist texts are now readily assigned across many disciplines. She urges black feminist scholars to “ask new epistemological questions and engage in new theoretical and methodological practices to answer them” (134). Black feminist thought, Patricia Hill Collins argues, must continue to construct new ways of doing scholarship so that its work can “remain oppositional, reflexive, resistant, and visionary” (133). It is not enough, Collins asserts, “to employ radical Black feminist thought within the business-as-usual parameters of traditional scholarship”. (138) Further, she maintains that “oppositional knowledge projects that rock the boat cannot expect to be loved, and being loved and celebrated too much can raise questions about how oppositional such projects actually are” (133). The black feminist goal is not to be admired, but to present epistemological challenges that reorient the way we approach thinking and teaching.
These contemporary accounts of black feminism’s status in the American academy illuminate how Collins’s critique of the grounds of her canonical 1989 essay are often lost in black feminism’s mobilization today. Reading black feminism as a call for remedy disregards Collins’s move to problematize the very core of our institutional common sense. Collins (1989) destabilizes knowledge’s claim to what is real and posits instead that the sign “knowledge” is reconfigured by the logics of standpoint epistemology. [End Page 241]
Conclusion: The Black Feminist Knowledge Question
Even as Patricia Hill Collins (1989) interrogates the processes that give credence to knowledge, her work underscores how there is no solution to the problem of knowledge. Instead, as Collins writes, “an alternative epistemology challenges all certified knowledge and opens the question of whether what has been taken to be true can stand the test of alternative ways of validating truth” (751). By challenging all knowledge, Collins necessarily reorients the institutional common sense away from the logics of a singular truth and toward uncertainty and questioning. Through this logic, black feminist thought cannot be read as the antidote for our disciplines, as we will never arrive at one correct knowledge. Instead, the black feminist principles allows us to introduce a pedagogy that refuses determinacy and infallibility and invokes care as a method by which to interrogate the premise and effects of our assertions. Thus, if we teach black feminist thought as a knowledge that replaces another, rather than one that upends the very basis of knowledge itself, it will continue to circulate as remedy. Returning to Collins’s essay by problematizing knowledge itself illuminates how the gesture to simply incorporate black feminism does not adequately account for the rupture that Collins (1989) stages upon the field of knowledge itself.
Collins’s (1989) critique is not a move to substitute outdated white/male knowledges with new black women’s knowledges, but rather to make room for the black feminist knowledge question. The key to understanding the black feminist knowledge question is that there is no resolution, but rather only and always room for new knowledges. Take, for example, Sojourner Truth’s repeated “arn’t I a woman?” in the seminal speech, “Arn’t I a Woman?” (1851). In this speech, Truth articulates the quintessential black feminist knowledge question, a question that Denise Ferreira da Silva (2018, 19) refers to as an “invitation to rebel,” a “refusal to disappear,” and a “refusal to comply.” By advancing Truth’s query as a “knowledge question,” it illuminates the fact that there is no absolute answer to the question of Truth’s womanhood, which is to say, her question cannot be answered without qualification. Instead, her questioning reveals a series of questions and a series of knowledges. For example, Truth’s “arn’t I a woman?” raises the subsequent question, “what is a woman?” And by extension, “how does Truth’s blackness complicate her inclusion within the category of woman?” Thus, a question that destabilizes knowledge cannot be resolved, which in this case would mean to answer simply, “Yes or no, Truth is or is not a woman,” but rather, it troubles the basis upon which the question stands so that other questions might be asked. Truth’s question illuminates the fact that womanhood is not settled. And this is precisely what black feminism does and needs to continue to do in the contemporary classroom and beyond: ask questions that unsettle the very basis upon which we situate claims to knowledge. [End Page 242]
Amanda F. Anderson is a doctoral candidate in Emory University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. Her work examines how witnessing and exposure are mobilized in black women’s literature and performance to obscure fantasies of spectatorship and rewrite the capacities of mourning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org