Concept Learning Overview
Beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year, the Department of African American Studies at Georgetown University formally introduced its concept learning initiative. Complimenting our individual courses offerings, faculty vote annually for a concept from around which to organize pedagogy, intellectual exchange, and community engagement. We use concept, rather than theme, because we are influenced by the productive tensions, conversations, and questions that arise from Black conceptual art projects, from visual artist Kara Walker’s silhouette series to poet Kevin Young’s meditation on Brown, to the concept albums produced by a range of musical artists, including Nat King Cole, Millie Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, Raphael Saadiq, and Jamila Woods. Concept work, on route to offering insights on one unified theme or concept, challenged institutions and genres that actively refused change. These projects offer a methodological map for investigating complex issues and demonstrate how unbounded conceptual thinking can lead to political, artistic, and institutional change.
We also take our inspiration from Black concept art because of the critical moment in which we find ourselves as Black Studies scholars and Black people. The continued attack on Black knowledge production and Black communities demonstrates why we need to continue to challenge how and why educational institutions produce or advocate for certain types of research, modes of learning, and study. Because Black concept projects refused categorization and existing paradigms and models, they presented a challenge to institutions–galleries, publishers, corporations–that wished to commodify them. The Department of African American Studies embraces this refusal, eschewing more acceptable concepts and investigatory practices for ones that are not understood as universal (universally good) or for a common (good).
Influenced by these innovative and transformative practices, an annual conceptual approach allows a robust discussion of a single but complex subject from the vantage point of multiple different fields. Each year, core faculty members select a concept around which intellectual life programming and community engagement will be organized and one common text on the chosen concept to use in their courses. In turn, each faculty member will investigate the concept with students from perspectives shaped by their respective course topics and disciplinary expertise. Students will spend a semester intellectually and culturally engaged in activities related to that year’s concept. This strategy aims to honor the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the field of Black Studies while underscoring the communal and transformative impetuses that animate Black Studies concerns beyond the academy.
2022-2023: Concept Black Feminism
The Department of African American Studies selected Black feminism as its concept around which to organize pedagogy, intellectual exchange, and community engagement for the year. Black feminism insists on the complexities of black lived experiences, imaginings and knowledge production as too capacious to be contained solely within the rubrics of race or anti-blackness. As theory, activism, cultural practices and cultures of care Black feminism/Black feminist draws upon a long history of black women’s challenges to imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy and radical visions expansive enough to free us all. It is in this context that we can fully comprehend the Combahee River
Collective oft quoted declaration that, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” From theorizing the nuances of coalitional politics to intersectionality, black feminism takes seriously the structuring of power through difference (race, gender, sexuality, economic and citizenship status) as it also remains attuned to the ways we must push against the very limits and narrowness of such categories.
In its most powerful formulations black feminism does not posit a solution but a process, it doesn’t provide the answers but invests in study and struggle, it does not anoint leaders but requires global solidarities in charting a path to alternative ways of knowing and liberation. This year we center these Black feminist insights and commitments as we continue to respond to urgent issues and conversations relevant to Black people, and Black Studies, and the field’s mission to transform the world.
2021-2022 Concept: Abolition
the Department of African American Studies has selected abolition as its inaugural theme. Our choice is intended to respond to urgent issues and conversations relevant to Black people, Black Studies, and the field’s mission to transform the world by intervening on white supremacist patriarchy, settler colonialism, and anti-blackness. We also hope to challenge the Georgetown community to move beyond the rhetoric of reconciliation and reform that has left many problematic institutions and policies, and therefore harm, in place. As part of this latter hope, we ask, can Jesuit traditions and institutions make space for abolition, as their counterparts the Quakers did? Abolition has been a foundational concept to the interdisciplinary of Black Studies, as well as important to black methodological intervention into traditional disciplines, since some of the earliest African American written work in the field. The slave narrative, a fundamentally abolitionist genre, is but one beginning to understanding how Black people have conceptualized, organized, and worked for liberation. What do Black literature and film teach us about abolition? What do history and sociology have to say about abolition, and how do these fields communicate it? What about political science, economics, urban studies? What does abolition sound like, look like? How does it feel? Is it a state? How is it embodied? Abolition is important to physical and political freedom, as well as to the future of Black knowledge production.