Anthropology and Womanist Theory: Claiming the Discourse on Gender, Race, and Culture

Anthropology and Womanist Theory: Claiming the Discourse on Gender, Race, and Culture

by Cheryl Rodriguez 

(An Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, Cheryl Rodriguez has done research on urban economic development, activism, gender, and race. She has published Women, Microenterprise, and the Politics of Self-Help (Garland, 1995). Her courses include: Field Studies and Research Issues, African-American History, and Black Women in America.)

Anthropology is an ambitious science which, from its earliest origins, has sought to answer questions about the infinite complexities of the human experience. While scholars often trace the origins of the discipline to the Greek philosopher, Herodotus (5th century B. C.), there is evidence that every group of people (including those who would become the "primitive" subjects of anthropological inquiry) has questioned the human condition and sought to derive explanations for human behavior and human purpose. Thinkers from every group of existing people have sought to understand the meaning of human constructs such as kinship, war, migration, social structure, and political organization. Further, anthropological explanations of the human condition by nonliterate people have been expressed through art, mythology, religious practices, ceremonial displays, and, of course, through the oral tradition.  

The formalization of anthropology as a scientific discipline in the late nineteenth century meant that the observations, hypotheses, and theories of "the study of man" were generated from and based upon that which we now call empirical data. Such data gained great respectability over so-called "superstitions" as people of the Western world became influenced by rationalist thinking during the eighteenth century's Age of Enlightenment. As the discipline developed, a number of plausible -- if not problematic -- theories traversed the anthropological terrain, exerting various degrees of influence and inciting further theorizing from proponents and critics alike.  

Thus, anthropology has been shaped and influenced by such diverse theoretical perspectives as evolutionism, historical particularism, structural-functionalism, cultural materialism, and Marxism. Additionally, there are the paradigms of psychological anthropology, symbolic anthropology, and structuralism. This wealth of theories has led some scholars to label anthropologists as eclectics: that is, as scientists who are unable to commit to any particular epistemological or theoretical principles (Harris, 1979). Murphy describes the lack of a dominant theory by defining anthropology as "a pluralistic discipline that loosely shelters a plethora of interest and which lacks a center" (Murphy, 1976, p. 19).  

Despite scholarly critiques of the state of anthropological theory, the anthropological project is a fundamentally discursive one whose task is the production of knowledge on every aspect of culture. Harrison (1995b) has referred to anthropology as the most interdisciplinary of all social sciences. However, in both theory and application, anthropology continues to replicate the model of the (white) scholar venturing into Third World communities1 to observe, probe, interpret, and change. Critiques of anthropology's colonialist and imperialist implications have been numerous (Asad, 1975; Drake, 1980; Harrison, 1991; Huizer and Mannheim, 1979; and Hymes, 1972, among others).  

Nevertheless, anthropologists who are members of oppressed groups are attracted to the discipline because of our "growing understanding that rigorous analysis and documentation of the cultures and histories of our peoples can be essential tools in the quest for progressive social change" (Gordon, 1991). Feminist and womanist theorists also have critically examined the discipline's historical connections to hegemonic systems as well as its value in knowledge production and representation. For example, Mohanty contends that anthropology "is an example of disciplinary knowledge which signifies the power of naming and the contests over meaning of definitions of the self and other" (Mohanty, 1991, p. 31). 

As such, anthropology has the potential of being a crucial tool for struggle and resistance. Harrison argues for a reconsideration of anthropology's multiple knowledges (especially that knowledge created by anthropologists of color) and a recognition of the "silences and subjugations that influence the discipline's development" (Harrison, 1995a, p. 54). In another scholarly essay, Harrison identifies the invisibility and silences of women of color in the anthropological canon and concludes: "In the process of redefining anthropology's critical project(s) and of reconstituting anthropological authority, we must offset the persistent pattern of relegating the work of women -- and that of women of color in particular -- to the discipline's periphery" (Harrison, 1995b, p. 242).  

In the tradition of those womanist scholars who have sought to broaden the meaning of feminism2 and of those anthropologists whose work examines the interlocking hierarchies of gender, race, and class as well as the subjugated knowledges and alternative methodologies of anthropology (Bolles, 1987; Harrison, 1995b; Mikell, 1982; Steady, 1981), I began exploring the implications and challenges of identifying and articulating a womanist voice in anthropology. As a graduate student, my womanist perspective was subsumed by the discipline itself. Recognizing the centrality and the authority of whiteness and maleness in the discipline, I struggled with my own questions about the roles of people of color as creators of knowledge in anthropology. Further, Black women's presence in anthropology (as the focus of research or as researchers) was virtually unrecognized in my program of study. Consequently, my development as a potential contributor to anthropological scholarship involved a conscious process of independently seeking out radical and alternative knowledge. 

Now, as a scholar with some intellectual freedom, I seek to participate in the paving of a path for myself and others who would define themselves as womanists. This path is paved with womanist ideas on Black women as scholars, researchers, leaders, and active creators of culture and communities. I define womanist ideas as those informed by the interaction of Afrocentric, multicultural, and feminist theoretical interpretations of political, economic, historical, social, and cultural phenomena. According to Collins (1991), the foundation of womanist thought consists of specialized knowledge created by women of the African diaspora which clarifies a standpoint of and for Black women. That standpoint consists of "the experiences and ideas shared by [Black] women that provide a unique angle of vision on self, community, and society" (Collins, 1991, p. 22). Womanist thought is informed by the legacies of awareness, activism, intellectualism, struggle, and self-definition of women of Africa and its diaspora.  

Yet, what does it mean to be a womanist anthropologist? How does one define, create, and operationalize womanist theory in anthropology? In the following discussion, I will address these questions by describing some of the ways in which womanist theory can inform teaching and research in cultural anthropology. I argue that womanist theory in anthropological pedagogy and research is congruent with a relevant, holistic, and humanistic anthropology. As a womanist, I am professionally, politically, and personally concerned that the discipline of anthropology is one that embraces the multiple cultural interactions of all women of color, especially women of Africa and its diaspora.  

I will begin my womanist reflections with some brief historical perspectives on Black women's images in anthropology. Not unimportantly or incidentally, Africa is the primary focus of this discussion. Second, I will explore the meaning of womanist theory and its foundations in anthropology. Third, I will describe the merging of theory and action by providing examples of my own teaching and research in cultural anthropology, which is informed by the work of other womanist anthropologists. 

Anthropological Images of Black Women 

Regardless of sexual affiliation, a researcher cannot really escape the ideological and cultural influences that are contributory factors in the formulation of concepts, values, orientations, and methodologies. 

  --Filomena Chioma Steady, The Black Woman Cross-Culturally 

Historically, Black women have been represented in anthropological and related social science research in a number of ways that appear to be authoritatively or empirically based. These representations include: Black women as the exotic, primitively sexual Other; Black women as the dysfunctional or pathological Other; or Black women as the invisible, passive Other. To emphasize the notion of Black women as the exotic, primitively sexual Other, Black women's bodies were examined and displayed in the name of science. Giddings (1994) cites the degrading treatment of Sarah Bartmann (1790-1815), a South African woman, who in 1810 was publicly exhibited in London. Fascinated with the size and structure of Bartmann's buttocks, European scientists displayed her for five years until she died in Paris at age twenty-five. As the dysfunctional or pathological Other, Black women have been portrayed by sociologists as the domineering matriarch, solely responsible for the demise of the Black family (Giddings, 1988, pp. 325-35). As the invisible, passive Other, Black women's creative and complex contributions to culture in Africa and the Americas were ignored.  

In more benign representations, Black women have been included among the oppressed without deep considerations of the interlocking hierarchies that affect Black women's lives. It only has been in the mid-twentieth century that Black women in social science research have become active as scholars attempting to document liberatory and humanistic data on lives of women of Africa and its diaspora.  

In the following discussion, I will examine the scholarship of two very theoretical and historically diverse groups of anthropologists: the British structural-functionalists and American feminists. The purpose of this discussion is to introduce some general observations on the ways in which Black women have been represented in the research of these two groups of anthropologists. I examine the early works of the structural-functionalists and feminist anthropologists because these represent two periods in which anthropologists were generating new questions, exploring new theories, and feeling quite free in expressing their interpretations. Second, these two groups were selected because of their anthropological foci: A significant body of anthropological literature on Africa came from the British structural-functionalists, and a significant body of work on women came from feminist anthropologists. Black women are a part of both of these extensively examined populations.  

Finally, these groups were selected because of the distinctive historical and political time periods in which these anthropologists developed theories. It is important to understand that in every historical period, scientific inquiry is influenced by the state of the larger world capitalist system (as well as by attempts to challenge the systems of Dower). Historically, this capitalist ideology has depended upon the free or low wage labor of Black women and other people of color, while simultaneously denying and devaluing the contributions of these same people. Since politics, economics, scientific inquiry, and knowledge are intricately interconnected, this devaluation of nonwhite people is sometimes reflected in social science research. Anthropology has been no exception.  

Although misrepresented, Black women were a critical foundation of early anthropological inquiry. Steady (1981) argues that long before the advent of a feminist focus on women, Black (African) women had been the undefined or unacknowledged Other: "It can even be claimed that to some extent she was used, directly or indirectly, as a guinea pig for the development of a significant body of anthropological theory in Africa and sociological theory in the United States and in the Caribbean" (Steady, 1981, p. 1).  

The use of the Black woman indirectly is illustrated in early British anthropology. Using structural-functionalism as a theoretical framework, British anthropologists attempted to make sense of living societies by adopting an organic analogy. That is, institutions such as kinship, religion, politics, and economics interacted with each other in the same way that organs of the human body interact (Radcliffe-Brown, 1965). These scientists believed that the components of a social system had specific purposes that maintained the integrity and stability of the entire system (Lett, 1987). One edited text consisting of detailed descriptions of the social structures of eight African societies was produced by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940). In the same paradigmatic tradition, Middleton and Tait (1958) produced a text that included six studies of "the reciprocal relations between descent groups and local political groups, between lineages and clans and local and political communities" (Evans-Pritchard, 1958, p. x).  

One example of African women's invisibility or misrepresentation is taken from Bohannan's chapter in the Middleton and Tait text. Bohannan describes the social organization of the Tiv, a tribe in Northern Nigeria. The chapter is an excellently detailed description of geography, language, housing compounds, genealogy, political structure, warfare, leadership patterns, and the maintenance of peace and order. Based on Bohannan's narrative, men were her only informants and women were mentioned in passing only as the bearers of men's children (Bohannan, 1958, pp. 33-66).

African women's centrality to various forms of human organization (as maintainers of economic systems; as producers of food, social order, children, culture; as partners in leadership with men) is not apparent in the ethnographic descriptions of any of the fourteen studies of the aforementioned texts. In their zeal to develop scholarship on so-called "primitive" or "simple" cultures in Africa and in their quest to be among the first to categorize these systems for the literate world, these anthropologists assumed that men were the key actors in the creation and maintenance of social structure. Even when African women's presence was acknowledged, their contributions remained peripheral. Further, these anthropologists worked assiduously to describe African political systems even as these systems were being destroyed by colonialism and imperialism.  

Yet, it would not have served the economic and political progress of their country for the structural-functionalists to acknowledge the destruction of African political institutions by European colonizers. It would not have served the scientific aims of these anthropologists to determine how the colonial era was disrupting the lives of women as well as men. It would later be determined that African women suffered tremendously from colonialist and imperialist changes, "for after having had a role in traditional forms of organization, under colonialism they discovered themselves systematically excluded from any participation in the new set-up" (Okonjo, 1981, p. 86).  

The success of early anthropological research in Africa owes much to the European expansionist ideology of the fifteenth century. This forceful and violent expansion (which stimulated the practice and business of transatlantic slave trading), followed by white rule of various African countries, opened up the continent to the very curious eyes of those who wanted to compare European culture to that of primitive or simple societies. Willis contends that anthropology's formalization in the latter nineteenth century "coincided with the shift from 'booty' colonialism to imperialism, which stressed profit from the control, exploitation, and preservation of cheap colored workers and consumers" (Willis, 1972, p. 122). While these early European anthropologists were strongly influenced by the structural-functionalist paradigm, they also were influenced by an increasingly imperialistic ideology that was working to the advantage of European countries. Further, these anthropologists set off on their adventurous explorations of Africa with the unchallenged assumption that universally, whether in complex or so-called simple societies, males were dominant, militaristic, necessarily oppressive, possessed of the most coveted positions in those tasks associated with the division of labor, and ascribed the rightful policymakers in their own particular hierarchies.  

Much later in social science history, the feminist anthropology of the 1970s emerged. As di Leonardo explains, "The political source of feminist scholarship, early 1970s feminism, was not the first but the second major wave of women's rights thought and activism" (1991, p. 2). As a relatively homogeneous group (white female scholars), Western feminist anthropologists of the 1970s sought to "expose sexism in public and private life, [and] to alter the male-biased presumptions of scholarly and popular culture" (di Leonardo, 1991, pp. 1-2).3 Similar to their non-feminist anthropological predecessors, these anthropologists believed that universal male domination did exist as a cultural phenomenon. However, feminist anthropologists sought to identify this domination and explain its manifestations, as well as its political, economic, and social impacts on women. Informed primarily by Western women's political, social, and economic issues, feminist anthropologists developed theories on universal sexual asymmetry (Rosaldo, 1974). Some feminist anthropologists such as Ortner (1974) argued that women's subjugation by men was a universal phenomenon because of women's association with nature. Rosaldo (1974) attributed universal male dominance to a dichotomy between the domestic sphere, which associated women with nurturing, homemaking, and related activities, and the public sphere, which has been viewed as the male domain in societies.  

Another similarity that feminist anthropologists shared with the British structural-functionalists was in their mutual fascination with nonwhite people as the subjects of their scientific curiosity. Yet it is true that this fascination is anthropology's legacy: "To a considerable extent, anthropology has been the social science that studies dominated colored peoples -- and their ancestors -- living outside the boundaries of modern white society" (Willis, 1972, p. 123; emphasis in original). Feminist anthropologists were strongly committed to the comparative method in order to prove universals or to explain common themes across cultures in women's lives. In the anthropological tradition (inspired by evolutionist theory), feminist anthropologists compared the beliefs and practices of women who anthropologists felt represented simplified versions of Western culture.  

As just one example, in a 1974 essay, Tanner compared the roles of women in kinship systems among Indonesians, Africans, and African Americans (Tanner, 1974, pp. 129-56). Focusing on the concept of matrifocality (the structural centrality of mother roles within a kinship system), Tanner concluded that there are social, economic, and cultural factors that determine this phenomenon. She also concluded that women's centrality in kinship systems among the Javanese, the Atjehnese, the Minangkabau, the Igbo, and among African Americans is not an indicator of pathology or marginality. However, do African-American women have to be compared with women of different cultures in order to refute the myth of a Black matriarchy? How does one compare kinship systems of Black Americans across the United States with ethnic groups residing at the northern tip of Sumatra or even in eastern Nigeria?  

Similar questions surround the early feminist literature on women of color. One problem was that feminist anthropologists were so consumed with asserting themselves (in a very sexist, male-dominated discipline) and with changing anthropology, that their universals became generalizations. Black women and other women of color were no longer invisible; but, inadvertently, their lives were made to seem simplistic.  

While Western feminist theorists posed ideas that served to legitimize the study of gender and focus the blurred images of women in the anthropological picture, African women anthropologists developed scholarship in a womanist inspired tradition. That scholarship was developed without exploitation or use of the comparative method. African womanist anthropologists examined their own cultures for the inherent truths and realities that are evident to one who is both native and scientific observer. Even today, African anthropologists are challenging Western feminist assumptions. 

First, African womanists have contributed to the anthropological literature by describing the communal structure of traditional African societies which assumed egalitarian interactions among African women and men. They also have shown that in some traditional African societies, certain politico-religious roles are gender-determined (Okonjo, 1981). Second, African womanists have shown that a close connection with nature served neither to subordinate nor to heighten women's status in traditional African societies, since the rhythms of African life were guided by nature. Thus, the problematic nature/culture dichotomy did not manifest itself in traditional African life as it did (and still does) in Western culture. Ultimately, colonialism, imperialism, and their legacies continue to be the primary oppressors of African women, argues Steady (1993). Discussions of the experiences of the majority of African women must focus on multiple forms of oppression, not simply sexual asymmetry.  

This brief discussion of the early work of structural-functionalists and feminist anthropologists has been purposely narrow. Indeed, there are many laudable insights from and enlightening dimensions to the research and theories of these scholars. Moreover, anthropology has changed significantly since its formalization in the late nineteenth century, and it continues to evolve as the human experience changes. Structural-functionalism outgrew its usefulness as a theoretical analysis because it did not address the inevitable impact of change on societies. Western feminists are still firmly developing a place in anthropology as they reexamine their assumptions about the universality of the female experience. Further, the anthropological literature on ethnicity, women, and gender has matured considerably. Although not widely recognized, some of these changes can be attributed to womanist epistemology. 

  A Womanist Epistemological Framework in Anthropology  

We must act with deliberation and commitment in order to ensure that all women have a voice and an audience for the telling of their lives. 

  --Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, Black Women's Life Stories  

A significant aspect of womanist epistemology is understanding the ways in which Black women's lives are affected by many complex interlocking hierarchies, including "slavery, imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, poverty, racism and apartheid" (Steady, 1993, p. 97). Another aspect of womanist epistemology is the awareness and analysis of stereotypes and images of Black womanhood that justify and perpetuate these forms of oppression. Womanist epistemology also is influenced by a need to elucidate the multiple roles that Black women play in the struggle for the survival of the Black community and in the struggle for institutional change (Collins, 1991). Theorizing by womanist thinkers is a way of speaking out and shedding light on these hierarchies, stereotypes, and negative images, while simultaneously acknowledging Black women as capable contributors to humanity. James contends that womanist theorizing emerges from Black women's experiences with racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Moreover, womanist theorizing is transformative for Black women and their communities, even as Black women challenge their own communities to eliminate oppressive beliefs and practices (James, 1993).  

Yet, before addressing the significance of a womanist epistemological framework in anthropology, it is necessary to clarify terminology. One of the problems with the term "feminism," as political identity, is that Black women generally associate feminist analyses and politics with white women, who, along with white men, are benefactors of systemic racism.4 In response to this term, "womanist," "Black feminist," "African feminist," and "Third World feminist" have been used in a number of contexts to denote the liberatory theories, perspectives, and actions of Black women who are particularly concerned with Black women's historical, cultural, social, economic, and political realities globally. These terms are used to address a feminism that often has been characterized as "liberal, bourgeois, or reformist [with a] narrow conception of feminist terrain as an almost singularly antisexist struggle" (Johnson-Odim, 1991, p. 315). For Black women activists and scholars, there is an ongoing challenge to develop a lexicon that describes an autonomous, relevant, humanistic, and community-focused epistemology.  

The development and use of unique and culturally grounded terminology does not distract from the larger issues involved in Black women's liberatory work. Rather, the use of the term "womanist" clarifies our connection and commitment to understanding our own cultural realities as Black women. Thus, Walker's (1983) spirited and succinct definition of the word is more than just a response to the narrowness of traditional feminist ideas. The word derives from "womanish," a term used by Black women to describe the boldness of some Black girls. Politically, a womanist is one who calls attention to the multiple oppression of Black women, but also is committed to the survival of all people. A womanist understands that the well-being of her own folk is related to the larger struggle of the human community (Walker, 1983, pp. xi-xii).  

Womanist anthropologists are reconceptualizing feminist ideas and identifying the centrality of the feminine in African and African diasporan culture. For example, as an anthropologist and native of Sierra Leone, Steady (1987) argues that there is an "African feminism" which she defines on two complementary levels. On one level, African feminism is a traditional way of knowing that is embedded in African life. Thus, in pre-colonial African societies, the dominant ideology of group survival dictated balance and egalitarianism: "Men and women in traditional African societies had spheres of autonomy -- in economic, social, ritual, and political terms -- ensured by various mechanisms of checks and balances" (Steady, 1987, p. 8). Women's importance in all aspects of African life was understood. Steady's arguments are supported by Aidoo (1981), Okonjo (1981), and Sudarkasa (1987), each of whom provides detailed historic or ethnographic descriptions of women's roles in African societies.  

On another level, Steady defines African feminism as Black women's awareness of multiple oppression in post-colonial Africa. Black women researchers, in particular, operationalize African feminist (or womanist) thinking by developing liberatory scholarship on Black women in Africa and its diaspora and by counteracting the destructive impact of research that has been used to dominate Black people (Steady, 1987, pp. 3-24).  

Collins (1991) argues that because knowledge has been defined by white male scholars, thinkers, and institutions, womanist ways of knowing have been suppressed, distorted, and silenced. Thus, in intellectual domains, womanist knowledge is subjugated knowledge (Collins, 1991, p. 202). While womanist knowledge has been subjugated in all of the social sciences, this subjugation particularly has been evident in anthropology. In addressing anthropology's historical relationship with Black people, Drake contends that at the turn of the century, African-American intellectuals considered anthropology to be their enemy, "much as African intellectuals have tended to consider the discipline an adjunct to oppressive colonialism" (Drake, 1980, p. 2). Thus, until the early 1920s, there were no Black scholars in anthropology. Blacks everywhere were viewed not as creators of knowledge, but as subjects for the advancement of ethnographies and research careers. Further, we know that Black women's lives were distorted, minimized, or rendered invisible by anthropology.  

How then, can one argue for the development of a womanist voice in anthropology? First, I contend that there is a womanist intellectual tradition in anthropology. This tradition was created by the first Black women who dared to claim anthropology as their discipline and whose work contributed to the idea that this discipline could be changed. Second, I argue that there are contemporary scholars of anthropology who have legitimized the concept of native anthropology and whose work I implemented in a liberatory (i.e., womanist) tradition. I will now expand upon each of these points.  

Although never attaching themselves to the descriptor "womanist," the first Black women anthropologists represent womanist ways of thinking and knowing in their research interests, methodologies, and interpretations. When we seek out the work of the Black foremothers of anthropology, we reclaim a Black women's intellectual tradition which consists of expansive and explosive concepts and ideas on all aspects of humanity. The reclaiming of this tradition means moving beyond what has been offered in traditional academic discourse and rediscovering the works of extraordinary Black women thinkers. In anthropology, this rediscovery entails examining Black women's research and ethnographic work as well as exploring the thoughts of Black women not previously considered to be intellectuals (or even real anthropologists).  

Of great relevance to the professional development of womanist anthropologists is the exploration and examination of the works and lives of the women who began the foundation of a Black women's intellectual tradition in anthropology. Drake (1980) cites Caroline Bond Day (1889-1948) as possibly the first African American to achieve a Ph.D. in anthropology. During a time in which white citizens were consumed with fears about the evils of miscegenation, Day produced genealogical data on interracial families in America. Working within the climate of a racially divided society that was driven by a need to categorize Blacks based on skin color, Day's research, entitled A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (1932), revealed kinship ties between Blacks and prominent Southern white families. Harrison (1995a) contends that Day's work contributed to the developing antiracist research in anthropology by refuting notions of the degenerative effects of interracial offspring.  

Little is known about the responses to her work during the time of its publication. It would be fascinating to have access to any reactions to Day's research by Black leaders and thinkers such as Du Bois (1868-1963) and Garvey (1887-1940), who wrote and spoke about color issues in the Black community. However, it is interesting to note that Day provided an intellectual perspective on a topic that continues to influence relationships in American society even into the latter part of the twentieth century.

The usefulness of Day's research in illuminating the culture of that anomalous minority known as free Blacks during the antebellum period probably has not been explored to its fullest extent. It certainly has not been utilized in traditional anthropological pedagogy. Yet, as recently as 1991, Day's 1932 research was cited in Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 (Alexander, 1991). Despite her contributions to physical anthropology, very little is known about this scholar and her self-determined struggles to become an anthropologist during the Jim Crow era.  

Somewhat more is known about the struggles and self-determination of another Black woman who came to anthropology shortly after the publication of Day's research. What we know of this woman primarily occurs through the study of her novels, short stories, and folklore collections. Of this woman, Drake writes:  

It was hard for those who knew her after she was a success to visualize Zora Neale Hurston submitting to the pedestrian humdrum grind involved in getting a Ph.D. She didn't. But she must have played the academic game to some extent because Langston Hughes once remarked that Zora was the only person on earth who could have gone up and down the streets of Harlem as she did, with her strange instruments, actually persuading people to let her measure their skulls and lips. . . . (1980, p. 17)

Despite her very successful resistance to the "humdrum" of academia, Hurston's vibrant creativity, her fascination with the humanity of poor southern Blacks, and her unconventional analysis and presentation of Black English, made unprecedented contributions to the cultural and linguistic anthropology of the Black South. Emerging feminist scholars such as Visweswaran (1994) argue that Hurston's work is one of the ignored classics of the anthropological canon, and should be examined by anthropologists for its ethnographic value.  

However, Hurston's ethnography continues to be unrecognized in traditional anthropological pedagogy. It is critical, however, that those seeking to create a womanist vision in anthropology know of Hurston's uses of anthropology. Further, it is of consequence that womanist anthropologists become familiar with the impact of anthropological training on Black women like Day, Hurston (1891-1960), Katherine Dunham, Ellen Irene Diggs, and Vera Mae Green.5 Certainly, these women may not have called themselves Black feminist or womanist thinkers, yet they were indeed revolutionary in choosing nontraditional paths for their professional lives. The choices made by these nontraditional scholars form the foundation of a Black women's intellectual tradition in anthropology.  

The work of contemporary Black women anthropologists also supports the idea of a womanist voice in this discipline. Black women's work in anthropology is characterized by diversity in subject matter (including works that advance alternative methodologies and experimental writing, works that represent analyses of educational systems, and works that represent political economy and class analyses); by ongoing theoretical analyses of gender, race, and class issues; and by an understanding of the potential liberatory value of anthropology.6 More important, womanist anthropologists strive to transform the discipline by acknowledging a Black women's intellectual tradition and addressing the marginalization of Black women's scholarship in anthropology. For example, in response to those who dismiss Hurston's anthropological endeavors, Mikell (1982, 1983) shows that Hurston's anthropological training influenced and enhanced her ability to portray the distinctive culture of rural Black people.  

Womanist anthropologists also explore the contributions of womanist interlocutors to anthropology. Thus, Harrison (1995b) analyzes Walker's connections to anthropology not only because of Walker's rediscovery of Hurston's work, but also because of Walker's novel, The Temple of My Familiar (1989), "which should be seen as an integral part of the broader literature on the politics of representing gender, race, and cultural history" (Harrison, 1995b, p. 237).  

The anthropological idea challenges the researcher to observe, ask questions, and document various realities from the perspectives of those who live those realities. Womanist anthropology brings a unique and very necessary dimension to the discipline in several ways. First, by exploring and recording the cultural interactions of Black women and the Black community, womanist anthropologists counter charges that one cannot effectively study one's own people. In the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, womanist anthropologists believe that "the best researcher [is] one who [has] an element of commonality with the people being studied" (Mikell, 1982, p. 218). Second, while critiquing anthropology's colonialist history, womanist anthropologists move beyond the critique and seek to transform anthropology by introducing new subject matter, implementing alternative methodologies, and refusing to be relegated to a peripheral space in the discipline. Third, through research, womanist anthropologists challenge the images of Black womanhood that have been created by social science in order to control Black women politically and economically. This is done by asserting Black women as legitimate subjects of study, by identifying the multiple oppressive forces in Black women's lives, and by creating a space for the visible representation of Black women as active participants in the creation of culture, knowledge, and power. 

  Womanist Theory in Anthropological Pedagogy and Research 

This is the responsibility: to keep remembering that to be human, to say nothing of being scholarly, is to be constantly moving toward the light.

  --Vincent Harding, Responsibilities of the Black Scholar to the Community 

Collins (1991) has developed and articulated a womanist epistemological framework that defines some of the key elements of womanist theory. These elements of womanist theory can serve as principles for the development of sound social science research, and have strengthened my development as an anthropologist. Among the principles that compose the foundation of womanist theory is a "recurring humanist vision" (Collins, 1991, p. 37) which speaks to autonomy rather than separatism and a commitment to the survival and wholeness of all people. The nineteenth-century Black feminist thinker Anna Julia Cooper (1859-1964) expressed this humanist vision in an 1893 speech in which she declared, "We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism. The colored woman feels that woman's cause is one and universal . . ." (Collins, 1991, p.37).  

This womanist principle can guide the womanist anthropologist in seeking an anthropology that is both humanist and whole. As a womanist anthropologist, I believe that I must empower myself through knowledge of anthropological history and theory, knowledge of the political and historical contexts in which anthropology has developed, and knowledge of Black people's historical relationship to anthropological ideas, despite the apparent invisibility of people of the African diaspora in the founding of the discipline.  

Obviously, knowledge of anthropology's historical and theoretical roots is critical to the development of a contemporary anthropological scholar. We must know the questions posed by our disciplinary predecessors, and we must have more than a passing familiarity with the written records of their observations and ideas. We also must know of the passion with which the early anthropologists pursued their interests, and the forces that allowed them to follow their curious and brilliant minds. However, does this knowledge provide a balanced historical perspective for all contemporary research interests? As anthropology evolves, can traditional theories provide cogent theoretical foundations for contemporary anthropological analyses?  

The answers to both of these questions are "no" and "no." One of the ways in which I have sought to address the issue of humanness and wholeness in anthropology is through pedagogy. In the spring of 1993, I developed a course which focuses on African-American anthropology (Rodriguez, in press). Because "Field Studies" is offered through the Africana Studies Department, the students who enroll in the course are typically Black and Africana Studies majors as well. These undergraduates engage in action-oriented, ethnographic research in Black communities.

While the students are introduced to anthropological theory and methodology, they also explore the role of anthropology in race relations and the ways in which people of the African diaspora have participated in anthropology since the nineteenth century. Equipped with this historical awareness (which is rarely presented in anthropological teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level), the students consider some of the issues facing Black anthropologists who choose to study people of the African diaspora. Students also are challenged to consider some ways in which their research can provide some solutions to problems facing the communities they study.  

Upon completion of the class, students typically are intrigued by anthropological inquiry and often consider double majors in Africana Studies and anthropology. As a result of their research experiences, several students have applied to graduate programs in anthropology. More importantly, the womanist vision of wholeness and humanness has contributed to a class in which students are able to generate or regenerate interest in communities from which they themselves may have come. Through this vision of wholeness and humanness, Black students may be more likely to consider their social and political responsibilities to their communities, rather than view education as a means of separating themselves from their communities.  

Another womanist principle that contributes to the creation of a womanist voice in anthropology is not only self-determination but self-definition. Collins (1991) contends that having the power of self-definition is essential for Black women. This concept supports the understanding that the womanist scholar must shape an anthropology that speaks to her interests despite others' concerns about "objectivity" in studying subjects so similar to herself. The issue of the Black scholar's objectivity in studying people of the African diaspora is one with which early Black anthropologists grappled, and one which contemporary graduate students often discuss. 

As an example of the historical nature of this issue, Drake (1980) maintains that the few Blacks who practiced anthropology in the 1950s were discouraged from conducting fieldwork in Africa. Black scholars received little support to study in Africa, because it was felt that their presence might offend the colonial powers who were highly visible on the continent during the imperialistic 1950s. Further, it also was felt that anthropological inquiry by Blacks in Africa would not be valid because Black scholars could not be objective about Africa (Drake, 1980, p. 24). In this case, both politics and science teamed up to prevent the study of Blacks by Blacks.  

With America's growing conservatism, and with the gradual but steady increase in Black conservatives who are rewarded with leadership positions, we as scientists once again may hear that our interest in people of color does not warrant fellowship or grant dollars. It is very clear that current political forces are attempting to define our scholarly and intellectual boundaries even more stridently than ever, and to dictate what does and does not constitute scientific inquiry.  

Nevertheless, the womanist principle of self-definition informs womanist anthropologists that our intellectual interests in the lives of people of Africa and its diaspora are both scientifically legitimate and socially valuable. This womanist principle by no means dictates that Black and/or womanist scholars only must study women and men of Africa and its diaspora. Rather, the principle of self-definition in womanist thought encourages womanist scholars to study any aspect of any culture, with the knowledge that such research is legitimate and valid. Further, regardless of her scholarly interests, the self-defined womanist anthropologist must be aware of the politics of her interactions with any group she chooses to study.  

In my quest to create and define womanist anthropology, I have designed a study that examines the lives, the work, and more important, the thoughts of Black women activists in Tampa, Florida. History paints pictures of Black women who are forced into political action by extremely oppressive living and working conditions. Yet, the notion that Black women become activists spontaneously in the drama of emotionally challenging events diminishes the intellectual aspects of their activism. This self-defined womanist study seeks to listen to and determine the intellectual processes that shaped Black women's activism in Tampa. 

As I interview older women who worked during the Civil Rights era, I am nostalgic, stimulated, inspired, and awed by these women -- whose remarkable thoughts and stories never have been recorded. As I interview younger women who are activists of the 1990s, I become aware of how the issues and strategies in the fight for human rights have evolved. This is shared knowledge, created and recorded in a womanist tradition. Studying these women's lives will contribute to the development of leadership skills by younger Black women when this research becomes a part of the schools, libraries, and local workshops in the larger community.  

Teaching activist community research and developing historical ethnographies on local Black women activists are two examples of anthropological work that is informed by a womanist epistemology. Both of these projects speak to the merging of theory and action, which is indeed one of the most important goals of a transformed anthropology. 


This article has presented some of the most salient aspects of womanist theory that can facilitate the creation of a womanist voice in anthropology. Like other theoretical perspectives, womanist thinking continues to evolve, and the implications of its theoretical contributions to anthropology are not limited to the principles presented here. While supporting our development as scholars and teachers, womanist anthropologists must continue to theorize individually and collectively. As hooks (1992) asserts, theorizing is fundamental to self-recovery and collective liberation. Womanist anthropologists must continue to claim the discourse on cultural analyses and develop theory that leads to action on domestic and international issues, particularly as those issues affect the lives of women, people of color, and other historically disenfranchised people.  

The fact that womanist theory is not a formalized and widely recognized part of traditional anthropological thought should not dissuade the theoretical development of womanist thinkers. There is a place for womanist thinking in anthropology that must be nurtured and asserted. Through the development of this self-defined womanist voice in anthropology, those who would be nontraditional scholars can contribute to anthropology from visible, unmarginalized positions. More important, those who proudly would be nontraditional scholars can contribute to the continuing emergence of an empowering and liberatory anthropology. 



1. Like Mohanty (1991), I use the term "Third World" to emphasize hegemonic, hierarchical relationships between dominant political entities and oppressed people in both developing and developed countries.  

2. See Guy-Sheftall (1995) for a substantive anthology of classic and contemporary writings by African-American feminists which attempts to document the development of womanist thought.  

3. See di Leonardo (1991) for a discussion of the development of Western feminist anthropology.  

4. See McIntosh (1992) for a discussion of "white privilege" as a phenomenon similar to male privilege.  

5. For biographical and bibliographical data on these scholars, see Gacs, Khan, McIntyre, and Weinberg (Eds.) (1988).  

6. A very limited list of examples of anthropological works in a womanist tradition include: Bolles, 1987; Fordham, 1993; Harrison, 1990; Henry, 1995; Mikell, 1990; Moses, 1981; Rodriguez, 1995; and Walker, 1990. 



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