Syllabus for African American Epistemologies and Pedagogies, Ed. St. 6623

University of Utah/104 OSH off. 118B MBH; mailbox 307 MBH
Autumn 1998/Tuesdays 4:30-7:30 Off. Hrs: Tu. & Th. 2:30-4 & by appt.
e-mail: phone #s: off. 581-7158 h. 355-3537
African-American Epistemologies and Pedagogies
Ed. St. 6623-001
Audrey Thompson

Course Description

The purpose of this course is to explore distinctively African-American approaches to knowledge, learning, and teaching. Because the course is designed to address conditions as well as conceptions of knowledge-making, we will take up African-American history, sociology, and the arts, as well as philosophy.

Required Texts

Copies of the required books are on reserve at the University Library and are available for purchase at the University Bookstore. The readings packets will be brought to the second class meeting.

Course Requirements

Requirements for the course are regular attendance and participation; a project/journal; one medium-length paper (8-12 pages), and a long final paper (12-18 pages).

Students will be asked to focus on some aspect of African-American culture with which they are at present relatively unfamiliar and to immerse themselves in that area — if possible to the exclusion of other traditions during the semester. For example, if you choose to read African-American novels or popular magazines, or to watch African-American movies, I ask that as much as possible you avoid non-African-American fiction, magazines, or movies. The purpose of this is to promote the kind of fluency that comes with immersion rather than sampling, comparison, or “translation” approaches. You should choose an area that will engage you and that will not interfere with your other courses. (Don’t choose novels if you’re taking courses that require you to read non-African-American novels, for example.) You will be asked to keep a (typed) journal in which you record responses to this material (and connections with the readings) and to make the journal entries available to other members of the class. Your final paper should use four or more of the assigned readings from the latter part of the course, along with the journal entries and project materials, to offer an account of at least one approach to African-American epistemology.

A working assumption of the course is that knowledge is embodied, relational, contextual, and structural, political, and abstract. The project is intended to address one dimension of knowledge (embodied and contextual), while the assigned readings are intended to address the abstract, structural, and political dimensions. The course introduces a variety of conceptions of and approaches to knowledge: it is not assumed that one approach is more reliable than others. However, each of these approaches relies upon coded practices, traditions, methods and arguments, not immediate or intuitive knowledge. Students will be expected to become familiar with these and to analyze them. The relational dimension of knowledge-making will inhere in classroom interactions; accordingly, there will be some discussion of fruitful working relationships as well as of the readings and projects.

The first paper should focus on a theme of your choosing that links at least three of the readings up to that point and that discusses the implications of the analyses given for that theme in relation to knowledge or education. For example, you might choose to focus on the implications of standpoint theory for literacy education, drawing on Woodson, Collins, and Gadsden; or you might wish to focus on the connections between politics and mothering, and address the implications for the knowledge that African-American parents may transmit to their children (again drawing on the relevant readings).

The final paper is to be synthetic, bringing to bear interpretive skills from the course and from the project to describe a particular epistemological orientation. While I do ask that you address at least four of the readings from the latter part of the course in depth, as well as the material from your project, no set framework is expected. You might choose to undertake a comparison/contrast, for example, or to offer either a critique or an appreciation of some epistemological orientation; you might use a given framework (e.g., Black Nationalism) to better understand the cultural readings/listenings/viewings you have been doing, or vice versa; or you might argue for the political, philosophical or other strengths and limitations of one particular approach. Each paper should, however, demonstrate an understanding of the different positions and traditions addressed in the course.


Tues. 1 Sept.
Henry, “Better a Maroon than a Mammy”
Hughes, “Theme for English B”
Gordon, “The Necessity of African-American Epistemology for Educational Theory and Practice”

Tues. 8 Sept.
Education and Mis-Education: The Question of Authenticity
Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro

Tues. 14 Sept.
African-American Standpoint Theories
Collins, Black Feminist Thought, pp. xi-114
hooks, Yearning, pp. 41-49, 145-53

Tues. 22 Sept.
African-American Women and the Experience of Mothering
Collins, Black Feminist Thought, pp. 115-238
James, “Mothering: A Possible Black Feminist Link to Social Transformation?”
Lorde, “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response”

Tues. 29 Sept.
A Historical and Political Experience
Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”
Davis, “Education and Liberation”
Stuckey, “Through the Prism of Folklore”
Butchart, “Outthinking and Outflanking the Owners of the World: A Historiography of the African-American Struggle for Education,” in Shujaa, 85-122

Tues. 6 Oct.
Language and Community
Baber, “The Artistry and Artifice of Black Communication”
Smitherman, “Where It’s At: Black-White Language Attitudes”
Gadsden, “Literacy, Education, and Identity among African-Americans: The Communal Nature of Learning,” in Shujaa, 245-61
First paper due at beginning of class meeting

Tues. 13 Oct.
Art, Culture, Religion
Locke, “Art or Propaganda?”
Du Bois, Criteria of Negro Art“
Cureau, ”Toward an Aesthetic of Black Folk Expression“
Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 72-110
West, ”Horace Pippin’s Challenge to Art Criticism“

Tues. 20 Oct.
African-American Pragmatism
Du Bois, ”Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?“
West, ”The Limits of Neopragmatism“
West, ”Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic“
Johnson, ”Cornel West as Pragmatist and Existentialist,“ in Gordon, 243-61

Tues. 27 Oct.
Revolutionary and Black Nationalist Approaches
Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Pt. I, Ch. 4
Malcolm X, ”The Black Revolution“
Robeson, ”Primitives“

Tues. 3 Nov.
Black Feminisms
Davis, ”Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights“
The Combahee River Collective, ”A Black Feminist Statement“
Walker, ”In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens“
James, ”Black Feminism: Liberation Limbos and Existence in Gray,“ in Gordon, 215-24 [recommended]

Tues. 10 Nov.
Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge, pp. 3-40, 43-57, 80-89, 96-98, 102-112, 136-142, [152-158], 161-163

Tues. 17 Nov.
Black Existential Philosophies, Pt. I
Readings (in Gordon, Existence in Black):
Morrison, ”Self-Transformation in American Blacks: The Harlem Renaissance and Black Theology,“ 37-47
Allen, ”On the Reading of Riddles: Rethinking Du Boisian ‘Double Consciousness’,“ 49-68
Gonzalez, ”Of Property: On ‘Captive’ ‘Bodies,’ Hidden ‘Flesh,’ and Colonization, 129-33

Tues. 24 Nov.
Black Existential Philosophies, Pt. II
Readings (in Gordon, Existence in Black):
Huntington, “Fragmentation, Race, and Gender: Building Solidarity in the Postmodern Era,” 185-202
Birt, “Existence, Identity, and Liberation,” 205-13
Carew, “Liberalism and the Politics of Emancipation,” 225-41
Boxill, “The Fight with Covey,” 273-90 [recommended]

Tues. 1 Dec.
Education for Authenticity
Readings (in Shujaa, Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education):
Shujaa, “Education and Schooling: You Can Have One Without the Other,” 13-36
Carruthers, “Black Intellectuals and the Crisis in Black Education”, 37-55
Ratteray, “The Search for Access and Content in the Education of African-Americans,” 123-41

Tues. 8 Dec.
Curriculum and Pedagogy
Readings (the first two are from Shujaa, Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education):
Harris, “Historic Readers for African-American Children (1868-1944): Uncovering and Reclaiming a Tradition of Opposition,” 143-75
Lee, “African-Centered Pedagogy: Complexities and Possibilities,” 295-318
Omolade, “A Black Feminist Pedagogy”

Tues. 15 Dec.
Final Paper Due: 4:30 p.m.

African-American Epistemology and Pedagogy:

This course accepts the argument of postmodernists, standpoint theorists, pragmatists, and others, that knowledge claims are identifiably “centered” in particular discourses, material forms of experience, and/or structural locations. For example, knowledge claims may be Eurocentric (rooted in European and European-American traditions and values), androcentric (referenced to male interests and worldviews), gynocentric (woman-identified, referenced to female relationships and values), or Afrocentric (grounded in pan-African traditions and culture); they may assume heteroreality, middle-class culture, and/or written, oral, or deaf culture. The course focuses on de-centering dominant discourses, politics, and culture in order to put distinctively African-American epistemological approaches at the center. (We will not study assimilationist or other mainstreamed African-American approaches directly, as these in fact repudiate claims for any distinctive African-American epistemology.) Thus, the focus is political rather than multicultural, in that African-American epistemology is not treated as simply a parallel approach to knowledge but as potentially challenging dominant epistemologies. While epistemology does not reduce to politics, knowledge claims are regarded as coordered with power relations, rather than simply as relative to situations.

Accordingly, one of the aims of the course is to de-center participants’ cultural and/or embodied experience as well as methods of inquiry. This applies to all participants, regardless of expertise, experience, racial identity, or relationships, since, in a racialized and racist society, all of us participate in the dominant patterns of race-centering, as well as related forms of “centrism,” such as equating blackness with black-maleness. In other words, women are not innocent of androcentricism, African-Americans are not untouched by Eurocentrism, and gays and lesbians are not automatically immune to heteroreality or homophobia, for example. The aim of the class is not to achieve “pure” de-centering, of course, but to create a space for specific re-centerings.

One of the requirements of the course, therefore, is that each participant seek to familiarize her- or himself with an area of African-American culture with which s/he is not already closely acquainted. As much as possible, this should mean focusing exclusively on African-American practices and achievements in that area. Possible areas of focus include photography, painting and other graphic work, sculpture, fashion, quilts, jazz, gospel, spirituals, blues, rap music, a cappella, poetry, novels, children’s literature, popular magazines, local politics, religion, movies, stage drama, dance, and folk stories. Biography, autobiography, and histories of performing groups are also possibilities. Some choices may be difficult to focus on in depth either because of a paucity of material (e.g., science fiction by Black authors, and to some extent mysteries) or because of the difficulty of local access (e.g., Black movies and plays). In such cases, you may wish to group together 2 or 3 compatible areas under some thematic grouping (e.g., utopian ideals, Harlem Renaissance, or Black women authors). You are welcome to work together on projects, whether that means reading the same novels, for example, or concentrating on different aspects of the Harlem Renaissance. Joint projects may involve pairs or small groups. Papers and journal entries should be individually written, however.

A cautionary note: if your project involves spending time in historically Black churches, political organizations, clubs, stores, or other community locales, check to make sure that your presence will not be an intrusion. Many groups welcome sympathetic newcomers/outsiders (including several of the Black churches and the NAACP, for example), but some groups may rely on intimate, community-based involvement and may prefer to restrict outsider access.

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