Black feminism

On Black Feminist Pedagogies

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy,” asserts bell hooks in her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress. In the book, hooks offer engaged pedagogy as an approach that challenges the conventions of western teaching techniques and curriculum in higher education. Whereas pedagogy, in its broadest sense, refers to the science or methods and practices of teaching, engaged pedagogy also includes an active commitment to students’ spiritual well-being and empowerment in the pursuit of self-actualization via critical thinking. Teaching to Transgress is only one work in the canon of Black feminist pedagogies, which rely on Black women’s lived experiences to create learning practices that promote equality and a multiple consciousness to counteract the chauvinism and elitism of western education. In this blog post, I touch briefly on some principles of Black feminist pedagogies, explaining the uniqueness of these approaches relative to traditional education, including my own practice of digital Black feminist pedagogy.

The Principles of Black Feminist Pedagogy

For me, as a Black woman, my pedagogy is not only a political act, but an act of courage.”
– Annette Henry

Professor Annette Henry of the University of British Columbia Vancouver Campus offers up this statement in her 1994 Action in Teacher Education essay “There are no safe places.” According to Henry, Black women educators navigate a perilous, politicized, and unsafe terrain while teaching critical analysis on race and class injustice. Black feminist educators base their curriculum on the reality of misogynoir, complicating western feminist assertions about the classroom as a safe space. 

Black feminist pedagogies are diverse, but they share certain commonalities. As Henry notes in her essay, Black feminists recognize the power of pedagogy to transform consciousness and destabilize existing power relations by getting students to:

  • raise consciousness to understand or challenge how oppression and domination occur and the political consequences of their work 
  • develop a critique of the matrix of domination and an understanding of how it shapes their lives
  • envision alternative social relations and their role in transforming society

In a 2005 essay for Counterpoints overviewing Black feminist pedagogies, Henry explains that Black feminist epistemology transforms and expands beyond the formal classroom in ways that support pedagogies of liberation and protest. Through a critical and feminist approach to learning, progressive Black women teachers draw from a diversity of thinkers to articulate alternative visions of social relations in dialogue with their students.

The Role of Black Women Educators

The commitment to raising consciousness resonates with Black feminist educators across disciplines. Barbara Omolade, Dean of Multicultural Affairs at Calvin College, outlines this principle in her 1987 essay “A Black Feminist Pedagogy” published in Women’s Studies Quarterly. Omolade emphasizes that dedication to cultivating the Black women’s standpoint provides a means for fostering equality and critical consciousness through teaching. Such an approach necessitates applying learning strategies informed by the ways intersectionality and multiple jeopardy have historically shaped Black women’s experiences. It also includes Black women teaching other Black women and others about Black women.

Omolade’s essay outlines a paradigm in which students bring their life experiences and standpoints to the classroom and the instructor acts as a consultant in the learning process. Black feminist pedagogy in particular draws on this style of engagement to promote literacy that spans differences and enables Black women to connect to each other and to themselves. This approach provides relevant educational material and promotes rigorous academic demands for the purpose of liberating working people, especially Black women:

By making available knowledge of their own history as well as that of the ruling elite, knowledge of men and women and Black and white people, we can give students a sense of their worth and their power to affect their position and condition. The worker can become a scholar who does not have to abandon her class in order to become educated.
– Omolade (1987:36)

A liberatory classroom environment involves embracing varied, global perspectives to encourage new ideas and scholarly models, especially for Black women students. Teaching Black women about themselves and their history empowers them to transition from the academic periphery to cutting-edge knowledge bearers.

Challenging Western Models of Education

Black feminist epistemology leads to pedagogies that reject chauvinist and elitist western intellectual traditions. Black women integrating higher education spaces exposes contradictions between students and instructors in terms of similar yet disparate experiences of race, gender, and class. As Omolade explains, these tensions create a rift between student expectations and instructors’ sense of student needs within the context and politics of learning in higher education. Black feminists struggle for the authority to pursue a feminist pedagogy that informs in research, study, and development of Black women in academia.

Writing under the umbrella of womanismJoy James‘s 1991 Feminist Teacher article “Reflections on Teaching: Gender, Race, & Class” analyzes these issues from her perspective as a visiting researcher at a largely white elite public university in the midwestern U.S. While in this role, James participated with a team of professors in the execution of a multicultural and interdisciplinary course titled “Gender, Race, & Class: Perspectives on Oppression, Power, and Liberation.” James highlights how the values of western education differ from an antiracist and antisexist approach:

Critical thought (particularly that of womanist theorists) and critical teaching do not append to Eurocentric patriarchal “education.” They dismantle it. Teaching critical theory that analyzes the interrelatedness of oppression and liberation is a political and subversive act. Integrating critical theory into one’s worldview is likewise political and helps to transform the irrationality and anti-democratic bias that shapes, if not dominates, our encounters with each other.
– James (1991:15) 

Black feminist pedagogies that stress community values alongside analytical abilities challenge biases and encourage ethical action. However, James cautions that institutional barriers hinder the full potential of liberal education programs like race, class, and gender studies, particularly when some students refuse or disregard antiracist and antisexist components of the course when learning from Black women.

A key task of Black feminist pedagogies is to encourage students to examine the power relations of institutional structures. This task informs themes of Black feminist critiques of education Annette Henry highlights in the Counterpoints essay:

  1. The education system functions as a patriarchy that serves a white elite.
  2. White academic feminist pedagogy often ignores issues of class and race, thereby failing to have relevance for the majority of Black women.
  3. Black educational thought privileges masculinist discourse in ways that minimize the educational concerns of Black women and girls. 

For these reasons, Henry explains that antiracist pedagogical practice and education are critical to the well-being of Black women. Yet, traditional curriculum erases and misrepresents them, instead promoting western masculinist thought that rationalizes us-versus-them politics to maintain the eurocentric patriarchal status quo. Therefore, traditional curriculum functions undermine all students’ ability to drive progress by making them unaware of social injustices and economic inequalities affecting certain social groups. Teaching is very much a political and spiritual act for Black feminists, in the face of varying degrees of hostility or resistance. 

Black Feminist Pedagogy Today

Several years ago, I blogged about the ways I felt my teaching aligned with what I then referred to as Black cyberfeminist pedagogy. At the time, I expressed that I used digital technology in my teaching in ways inspired by longstanding Black feminist educational practices. Carmen Kynard, a Professor of English at Texas Christian University, offers a fantastic resource at that delves deeper into the broader literature on the topic. 

In my view, Black women intellectuals actively use digital technology as pedagogical tools and produce intellectual thought from a Black women’s standpoint offering starting points for the development of critical consciousness among learners within a digital society. 

Have you experienced or practiced Black feminist pedagogy in the classroom? I welcome your voice about the experience in the comments!