Conceptual Learning

2022-2023 Conceptual Learning: Black Feminism

I began to use the phrase in my work ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality… a sort of short cut way of saying all of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives…”

bell hooks, Cultural Criticism and Transformation, 1997

The Department of African American Studies has 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.

Conceptual Learning Overview

The Department of African American Studies selects a concept around which to organize pedagogy, intellectual exchange, and community engagement each year. 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 protests of spring and summer 2020 reflected the urgency with which we need to continue to challenge oppressive institutions to achieve justice and liberation. 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 a universal or common goal.

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 fields. Each year, core faculty members 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.

Previous Concepts

2021-2022 Abolition

Abolition is important to physical and political freedom, as well as to the future of Black knowledge production…

For black studies, abolition means far more than an end but rather a struggle over the terms of the future.

–Sarah Haley “Abolition” in Keywords in African American Studies

The Department of African American Studies has selected abolition as its inaugural concept. While challenging antiblack captivity, abolition has been a foundational concept to the earliest production of Black thought and knowledge systems in English. It has been a concept necessary to the interdisciplinary foundations of Black Studies, shaping anti-colonial, anti-racist methodological interventions into traditional disciplines. We aim to bring abolitionist thinking, abolitionist vision, abolitionist imagination, and abolitionist futures to the fore of our work this year.

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.