Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology


In her introduction to Black Women Writers at Work, Black literary critic Claudia Tate (1983: xxvi) quotes a few lines of the Langston Hughes poem “Note on Commercial Theater” that reads “someday sombody'll Stand up and talk about me, and write about me—Black and beautiful.” Furthermore, an old African American adage reminds us that one must speak for oneself if one wishes to be heard. “Telling the Story Straight” addresses a group of anthropologists who are “Black and beautiful” women whose scholarship needs to be talked about so they can be heard, recognized, and valued in terms of their contributions to anthropology and to women and gender studies.1

More than half of all members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) are women, who by and large adhere to the basic principles of equal access, rights, and opportunities regardless of gender.2 However, White privilege, the dominant systemic ideology of the United States is embedded in all levels of the academy. It is White privilege that allows White feminist anthropologists to carry out normative practices of exclusion of their Black feminist counterparts from the activities that count in the academy such as recognition and citation. I contend that all Black women anthropologists are politically aware of their status as being both raced and gendered in departments of anthropology and in women's and gender studies. I use the terms Black and African American interchangeably. Therefore, this discussion has two broad missions. There is the matter of the right to be heard and to have one's presence acknowledged that helps explain why the Black female voice in anthropology is not fully included in the reading and the teaching of anthropology. Second, this discussion begins to set an agenda for articulating a Black feminist intellectual thought in anthropology.

The concept of “double jeopardy” (Beale 1970) (being Black and female) is a good explanatory tool to decipher the situations faced by Black women anthropologists in the politics of the academy where exclusionary practices are not often challenged, despite AAA committees. This current work demonstrates how the female academic intellect that is raced Black is relatively excluded in the scholarship of European American feminist anthropology colleagues. Despite employing analytical tools that dissect the structural and cultural implications of race, gender, ethnic, economic, and other forms of social inequality found across the globe, these same feminist anthropologists have basically rendered Black feminist anthropology almost invisible. I argue that “race” trumps “gender” in departments and in significant feminist publications over the past 30 years. Subsequently, there continues to be a struggle to gain respect, recognition, and prominence in the field of anthropology by Black feminist anthropologists. Over 10 years ago I wrote (Bolles 2001:14) that “for as long as there have been graduates of anthropology departments, there have been Black women who studied this field of inquiry.” According to my informal accounting, there are now almost 100 Black women who earned the doctorate in anthropology. Besides my own counting, I also put a call on the Association of Black Anthropologist listserv to contribute to this act of discovery. The late anthropologist John Gwaltney (1981) remarked that “telling the story straight” was a way of correcting history and correcting the stereotypes and dominant paradigms that often misaligned and misrepresented Black people. Here, this work of “telling the story straight” focuses on Black women anthropologists and including them into a more inclusive history of anthropology.

This work combines different elements of the self-reflective, the informal sharing of information and experiences among Black feminist anthropologists, with the intellectual production of African and African American women anthropologists. At this juncture of the 21st century, our students and colleagues need to know the lifework of African American women anthropologists and more importantly, the contributions they have made to this discipline.

Decolonizing feminist anthropology

To borrow a concept from the eminent historian Carter G. Woodson, there is a problem of “miseducation” in anthropological thought and pointedly in feminist anthropology in instruction, research, and writing about Black anthropology and Black feminist anthropology. The ways of “miseducation” in anthropology are the glaring omissions in citations, and exclusion from discussions that establish recognition in the field. And my goal in this article is to examine the how, why, and where exclusions occur and the consequences of omission.

To “tell the story straight” requires contextualizing and laying a foundation. To do so, we must unpack how exclusion, racism, and elitism can be carried out in the name of feminist anthropology. There is “homework” to be done on the home front, meaning in the politics of the department and in the structure of courses, particularly those critical to the development of the discipline. I use the notion of “homework” beyond Kamala Visweswaran's use of the phrase (1994:101). Here, homework refers more than anthropological fieldwork into U.S. life and culture, but to literally casting a critical eye and ear in the office, in the classroom, in the departmental meeting, and in the entire academic praxis. Brackette Williams (1995:25) captures the expansive concept of “homework.” She says that doing one's homework is to “gather information in order to be an informed citizen capable of acting in a morally conscientious manner toward a particular category of persons who share the identity fellow citizen.” Homework in this instance is about understanding “what must be done, why it must be done, and what are the consequences are doing it one way and not another.” Williams purposely left aside the ongoing dilemmas of fieldwork among the primarily non-White, indigenous, poor, and working-class women whose lives and experiences that anthropologists represent on the printed page, on film, or in other discursive texts. In this context “homework” must be applied to all situations particularly when those fellow citizens are one's own colleagues.

In their introduction to Situated Lives, editors Louise Lamphere, Helene Ragone, and Patricia Zavella (1997:3) remark that second-wave feminists and critical anthropologists “now question the nature of our relationship to our subjects and examine the way in which our writing reflects the power relations embedded in the research setting.” The question is does the power relations on the home front of the department, for example, between advisor and graduate student and in other academic politics, garner equal attention as in the fieldwork scenario? How can we motivate ourselves to be “morally conscientious” doing the best “homework” possible for our “fellow citizen” who is a Black woman anthropologist?

Clearly, over the past three decades, a rich literature emerged examining many women anthropologists, including both those few who have entered the canon and those who have not (Lewin 2006; Mascia-Lees and Sharpe 2000). The work of decolonizing anthropology runs parallel to this process of feminist recovery; it too includes a strongly historical component which focuses on lost figures. I argue that we presently face a critical juncture in feminist anthropology by which the hard-won lessons gleaned from a recovery of female ancestors and validation of their work is just one way to contribute to the way we decolonize the field. What does decolonizing really mean and how can it help feminist anthropology in terms of addressing the issue of “miseducation/omission”?

Faye V. Harrison's (1991[1997, 2010]) introduction to Decolonizing Anthropology presents the paradigm enacted by decolonizing efforts of progressive anthropologists. The work calls for the transformation of anthropology, the child of imperialism, at a time when post modern claims question the validity and worth of the discipline—the most humanist of the social sciences, and the most scientific of the humanities (Wolf 1964). However, it is that same unique history and praxis that calls for transformative efforts from within the discipline that comes from the experiences and struggles of people of the global south, or so-called developing world (Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean), and the “belly of the beast,” namely the internal colonies within the advanced industrial north, the location of the majority of anthropological research to date.

Identified are four major streams that contribute to decolonizing efforts in anthropology, but are applicable to any field of study. It draws on a neo-Marxist political economy; it experiments in interpretive and reflexive ethnographic analysis; it includes a feminism that underscores the impact race and class have upon gender; and it has traditions radical of Black and (other) global scholarship which acknowledges the interplay between race and other forms of invidious difference, notably class and gender (Harrison 1991:2–4). It becomes imperative to revisit and to critically build upon a body of knowledge produced by anthropologists who were generally forced to work and struggle on the intellectual periphery, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Vera Green, all of whom were anthropologists and African American women. Hurston, Dunham, and Primus developed as humanist anthropologists and as cultural producers who pushed the boundaries of the discipline of their era with their creative innovations. Their self-reflexive and politically nuanced interpretations of African Diaspora cultures challenged an objective science approach, valued by their peers and mentors. Vera Green's commentary of the misrepresentation of impoverished people in U.S. social policy countered the prevailing stereotypes of poor Black Americans (Green 1972). Collectively, they became peripheral and invisible due to their race and gender. It behooves contemporary anthropologists to become acquainted with these marginalized scholars as their careers addressed the issues of the “miseducation/omission” specifically in feminist anthropology and in anthropology.

A decolonized anthropology recognizes and promotes development of theories based on non-Western precepts and assumptions. This underscores the point made by John L. Gwaltney (1981), Bolles (1987, 1996), and echoed by Patricia Hill Collin's (1989) Black Feminist Thought, whereby history and intellectual authority rest with the people in the community, legitimizing those everyday standpoints as valuable in and outside of that setting. A decolonized feminist position articulated in a feminist anthropological study has no boundaries of what it can do and say, by and for the populations it represents.

Over 20 years ago Aihwa Ong (1988:80) argued that Western feminists tended to objectify non-Western women by relegating their status to “other.” Contemporary feminist anthropology has been trying and continues to try and readdress this history through a process of recovery and historical analysis. However, as mentioned earlier, it might be easier for many feminists to follow democratic practices in the “safety” of the field where female anthropologists may pass as honorary males in some societies, or as persons of higher status based on their membership in a Western culture, (Visweswaran 1994:29) than on the “home front” of the department.

Early on, decolonizing efforts on the home front was a perspective argued for by Black anthropologists and their allies. African American feminist anthropologist Diane Lewis (1973) stated “‘First World’ anthropologists need to study their own cultures and (how their) involvement in his (her) culture has affected the development of theory and method in the discipline, but it may turn out that this seriously skewed perspective in other cultures.” In her chapter in Decolonizing Anthropology, Deborah D'Amico (then Samuels) (1991:69) argues that we (anthropologists) need to stop talking about “the field” as separated from the academy and “real life.” She says that boundaries are constantly blurred as anthropologists research, write, and think in a variety of locations. The illusion of separation between the field and the academy is dangerous and expensive to the people under study. Gina Ulysse (2007:7) demands that we ‘flip the script’ of dominant discourses. In other words, the privileges accorded in the field setting may provide the basis for continuing to “other” women. Or, despite democratizing the fieldwork experience, women anthropologists are not able or willing to apply decolonizing efforts back home in the academy. Therefore, “othering,” White privilege and the reproduction of omission and other exclusionary practices abound. How does this happen, when feminist anthropology and the field of women and gender studies has argued for understanding experiences through an intersectional lens and being champions of cross-comparative analysis?

One of the issues facing women and gender studies in the United States has been its own history (circa the late 1960s) that promoted a narrow vision of women's lives and experiences that centered around being White, middle class, educated and often from the northeast. Over the years women's studies broadened its scope of vision and embraced an analytical framework that focused on the complexity of social factors that intersect an individual's circumstance and identity, and reduced a binary perspective. In the late 1980s, Black and Latina feminist sociologists applied what they called an intersectional approach to understanding the situations of the women featured in their scholarship (King 1988; Brewer 1989; Garcia 1989; Segura 1987). More broadly, they used this framework to understand their own lives and experiences. This concept became a valuable analytical tool because it was relevant to understanding aspects of scholarship and research, including examining the structure of the academy. Consequently, feminist anthropologists, particularly those who were housed in women's studies or have affiliation with that interdisciplinary field were now fully equipped with three important paradigms. The first was to critically address issues of “othering” other women in the fieldwork setting that came with true incorporation of a decolonized effort in feminist anthropological scholarship. The second paradigm was the ability to apply an intersectional lens not only in their scholarship as a way of understanding social structures but also to be of use while encountering a range of social formations in their own everyday life. Finally, when adopting Brackette Williams’ concept of fellow citizenship, whereby what must be done, why it must be done, and what are the consequences of doing it one way and not another became an essential habit in doing one's “homework” in both research in the field and on the home front in the department and the academy at large.

There is no doubt that the discipline of anthropology reinvented itself to address the populations and issues traditionally studied, by whom, in what ways, and toward what end (Cole 2001:x). The substantial changes over the course of two decades (1960s–1970s) laid the foundation for feminist anthropology. However, despite all of the embracing of differences among folk in the field, and the use of various theories to understand the variation in humankind, the determining locus and structure of power still is in place. Suggested practices of decolonization, intersectional thinking, and doing one's fellow citizenry homework conflict with White privilege, the dominant discourse of everyday living in the United States. Almost all anthropology departments3 are profoundly situated in predominately White locations and the majority of anthropologists are white women. Was it different when the majority of anthropologists were canon-setting White men? Yes. When the vast majority of anthropologists were White men, their female counterparts (of course there were exceptions) were often marginal to the benefits of membership and their scholarship was devalued as examined by numerous authors (Morgen 1988). As the predominately White academy expanded to include women's studies and African American studies more Black women entered the field of anthropology. Given the history of the marginalization of White women scholars in anthropology, it seems “expected” that the discipline would embrace the Black women who chose the field as a career. There are great champions among women anthropologists who took great strides to open the doors allowing more women to enter the academy and who remained in departments. If this is the case, why are feminist Black anthropologists excluded among those scholars who are cited? I contend that the White privilege of European American feminist anthropologists is at the root of this exclusion.

Critical race theory posits that White privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that Whites accrue as on the disadvantages that people of color experience. White privilege views European Americans—the dominant group—as the social, cultural, and economic experience as the norm and the model that everyone else should experience. Its reliability rests on White appearance as a marker of social consent. It is an overarching, comprehensive framework of policies, practices, institutions, and cultural norms that undergird every aspect of U.S. society (www.the Furthermore, institutional racism ideologically shores up and reconfirms White privilege that operates on the ground in daily activities reinforcing this dominant systemic cultural practice (Rothenberg 2004; Lipsitz 1998: Brodkin 1998).

Let us just consider Peggy McIntosh's popular classic piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”( that demonstrates how White privilege works on the ground. First published in 1988, “The Invisible Knapsack” is used in high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States in all kinds of classroom settings, and cited in a wide spectrum of academic publications. It serves as a mainstay in Women's Studies because it is a good illustration of how racial and gender dominance works in U.S. society, particularly for those who question this fact. My use of the familiar “the Invisible Knapsack” demonstrates the power of White privilege to those who may teach it, but do not actualize or realize its message in their own daily lives. The normative power of White privilege is conveyed in overt racist practices, as well as in the subterranean quietly hidden ways of benign and subtle tendencies of racism. Understanding this normative power helps to validate the “but I should have realized” comment often rendered by colleagues in defense of their exclusionary practice of White privilege in feminist anthropology.

Peggy McIntosh admits that she chose skin-color privilege over class or religion to best illustrate the most obvious daily practices of White privilege to drive home her point. There are 26 social conditions she wants us to consider. From my own use of “the Invisible Knapsack” in the classroom, just the last one, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin” was taken care of by the health aids industry as was the issue of “flesh” tinted crayons. Several of McIntosh's conditions are applicable to the experiences of most Black feminist anthropologists in the predominately White academy. Included are issues of physical and social isolation, constantly being asked to speak for and represent one's race, feeling outnumbered and unheard in professional organizations, and taking a job without suspect of a affirmative action agenda by coworkers.

The importance of understanding power and who controls it is a critical element in understanding “the Invisible Knapsack” and its applicability in contemporary feminist anthropological practice. As theoretically minimalist as the “Knapsack” might be, the contents of the concept demonstrate how White privilege is conveyed in ones’ own personhood and actions. Without an intense understanding of the ingrained power of White privilege by European American anthropologists their exclusionary practices continue and the efforts of decolonizing feminist anthropology, effective intersectional research, and acting as fellow citizens will be muted. The self-acknowledgement of the power of White privilege cannot be overrated. The next generation of White feminist anthropologists needs to unpack the invisible knapsack to challenge the politics of the department that explicitly impact the status of the Black woman intellectual in academy.

In her essay “Balancing the Personal and Professional,” Black feminist anthropologist, Adrianne Andrews (1993:179) states, “I have been plagued with feelings of ambivalence surrounding my membership in the group of others known as anthropologists.” She goes on, “there was a certain arrogance, associated with the assumption of the right to ‘study people,’ that is yet another outcome of the European pursuit of an identity by using the ‘other’ taken literally and with Caucasian implicit.” Andrews still found something of value in her wide reading of anthropological texts. She concludes that African and African American anthropologists can enable Black people to reflect on “our multifaceted selves.”

In many conversations with other Black women anthropologists, similar concerns are often repeated. How complicated the story becomes has to do with the depth of my personal relationship with the teller. Nonetheless, many of these stories are survival stories passed down from one generation to the next. This is critical point because most Black women anthropologists work in isolation. This isolation begins in graduate school and can continue into the fieldwork experience (complicated by nationality, education, class, gender, and other differences) and on the job, particularly in predominately White institutions. The case of the isolated Black woman anthropologist is changing somewhat as more women than ever choose the field of anthropology as a career. Still, many young women must still meet their first fellow Black woman anthropologist at the annual AAA and Association of Black Anthropology (ABA) meetings because of the overall low numbers in departments across the United States.

Politics of the Academy

In her coauthored book with Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life bell hooks remarks about the invisibility of the Black woman intellectual. She (1991:151) states, “This is why it is so difficult for students to name us.” The term “intellectual” here refers to being dedicated to activities of reading, writing, producing knowledge, and conversing on subjects as an expert. In the discipline of anthropology, this dictum is profound and complicated further if the individual woman identified herself as a feminist or “womanist” (code for being a trouble maker) in these isolated academic settings (hooks 1991:149).

This persona of the Black woman intellectual counters the historical perception of the Black woman whose body is to be controlled through physical or stereotyped innuendo. It is the body that is expected to selflessly serve others, cleaning up, and “mothering” (McKay 1997). The “mind” was something included in the package, but received little recognition. The production of knowledge emanating from a Black female intellectual body has relatively little sway in the large scheme of the academy. Hence, as hooks suggests, our students cannot name Black women anthropologists or other Black women intellectuals outside of the handful who have crossed over into the mainstream in the past 20 years. Who gets to cross that road of acceptance?

Without a doubt, the academy is a hierarchical system that rewards those who it deems worthy of celebrating and providing the opportunity for promotion, particularly when individuals fulfill more than the usual faculty duties. How this system operates depends on each institution and its internal politics. This means that all scholars in the system are under scrutiny and expected to perform at some rate that is valued by that institution. Recognition on an international level, publication in preferred journals and book publishers, acquiring large grants and funding from prestigious agencies including the U.S. Government, placing newly minted graduate students in top-tier institutions as their first site of employment, and quality teaching are just some of the criteria for this kind of reward. A similar evaluation system applies for small liberal arts colleges, where a premium emphasis is placed on good teaching. Clearly, there are a limited number of individuals who garner all of those qualifying valued elements. What does this mean for Black women in higher education at large? According to an article by Sheila Gregory (2001) only one percent of full-time Black women faculty are members of academic departments in predominately White institutions (PWI) whereas the rest are found in historical Black colleges and universities (HBCU). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education collected data in 2007 that looked at the 27 highest-ranking institutions in the United States. Only five had a Black faculty of at least five percent ( Those institutions were Columbia, Brown, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and all offered the doctorate in anthropology. And according to the five department websites, only three Black women were listed as members of that faculty. The 2011 National Research Council (NRC) report ( used data collected in 2005/6 and ranked institutions of higher learning by the productivity of their doctoral granting departments. The ranking is based on the scholarly output of their faculty with emphasis on who cites whom, how often they were cited, and the stature of the publication in which they were cited. There were 83 anthropology departments in the NRC report. Clearly, the burden and the standards of scholarly productivity make it difficult for any scholar in the academy to be rewarded. According to Journal of Blacks in Higher Education ( thirty-five percent of Black faculty held tenure in 2007 compared to 44.6% of Whites. The JBHE report also noted and commented that in a period of economic crisis, nontenured Black faculties are disproportionately vulnerable to tenure denial. Therefore, in addition to a structure that is discriminatory in the first place, Black women in anthropology must also contend with exclusionary practices within the discipline and deal with the politics of publication.

As any woman faculty member can attest to, being multitask oriented is the key to survival in the academy. Whether on a tenure track line or hoping that an adjunct position will become one with a promise of permanent status, the pressure of succeeding in the academy is real. Although the role of teacher, advisor, and department representative to every diversity initiative on campus earns status points in both historically Black and predominately White institutional settings, a Black woman being too intellectual is another matter. What to do with the Black female body with a mind? Dull her wits with countless collegial duties on top of everything else, such as a personal life and a professional career? Collectively, these kinds of activities undermine any capacity to convey skill and intellectual abilities and of course, drain personal energy. The late Black feminist literary critic Nellie McKay wrote (1997:21) “the Black women I know complain constantly of overwork, more is expected of them than of others by students, other faculty, administrators, and the professional organizations to which they belong.” Significantly, what this suggests is “being weird, strange and dangerous,” (intellectual) all the while unselfishly serving is something only a Black woman who can double (race and gender) or triple (race, gender, junior or senior level hire) a departments’ human resource accounting. Former president of the American Anthropological Association, Yolanda Moses (1997) analyzed the situation in a monograph for the Association of Colleges and Universities on the Status of Black Women Professionals in Higher Education. Moses examined quantitative and qualitative data regarding the amount of service to the institution, heavy advising and mentoring loads, and the paucity of citation of Black women scholars by the majority in their fields. The study concluded that Black women serve more leadership and subservient roles in university life than their Black male colleagues or White female counterparts.

Maxine Baca Zinn, Lynn Weber, Elizabeth Higginbotham, and Bonnie Thornton Dill (1986: 290-300) warn, “Without serious structural efforts to combat racism and classism so prevalent in our society, women's studies will continue to replicate its bias and thus contribute to the persistence of inequality.” These founders of the Center for Research on Women in Memphis implore colleagues (1986:302) “we must commit ourselves to learning about each other so that we may accomplish our goals without paternalism, materialism, or guilt …take the personal and professional risks involved in building alliances, listening to and respecting people who have firsthand knowledge of how to cope with oppression.” That 1986 essay came at an important developmental moment in Women's Studies, and over the years, the process has seen some success stories and some dismal failures across the disciplines of the academy.

Marilyn Saunders Mobley, a Black feminist literary critic examines the institutionalized privilege that benefits Euro-American feminist scholars. Mobley's chapter in Sister Scholar (2002:231-253) looks at the politics of labor for Black women scholars as they shift from identities of professor to administrator, to institutional service workers and who are then alienated in their own disciplines. Citing Black feminist critic Anne DuCille, Mobley says (2002:247), “We experience both hypervisibility and a super isolation by virtue of [our] racial and gender difference,” on one hand, even as we find ourselves “drawn as exemplars and used up as icons [and]…find [ourselves] chewed up and spit out because we did not publish.”

Mobley also examines the ways in which Black women's scholarship often goes unnoticed and unquoted in the work of other literary scholars. She remarks, “When Black women are quoted, it is often our anecdotal human interest contributions rather than our scholarship that is valued.” How can Black women interrupt this dominant pattern so that their scholarship can be heard/read/used/included/critiqued? Mobley argues that the critical weight of writing and publishing books is a double burden for the isolated Black scholar who must survive (self and family), take care of departments, be mentors, and often be responsible for all of the students of color and their issues on campus.

Historian Deborah White-Gray's Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008) is a collection of essays written by 16 prominent women scholars and their trajectories in the profession of history. Wanda Hendricks notes (2008:153) that a senior White colleague insisted that as her minority status was in two categories this meant that she had responsibilities to the department, the university, the students, particularly African American students, and to Black people in general. He did not ask any junior White faculty to meet these criteria nor did he engage in similar discussions. In her own essay, Deborah Gray White (2008:99) writes, “I can still go to AHA (American Historical Association) conventions and wonder if I am in the right professional place. After thirty years, it still feels alien. I can still open books, even those written by feminists, and not find African American women in places they should be.”

The absence of African American women in the field of anthropology is similar to that of literature and history. Anthropologist Catherine Lutz (1991:611-627) points out that writing, citation, and other canon-setting patterns in the recent literature of sociocultural anthropology reveal the impact of gender relations. Let us push this argument a bit further than Lutz proposed. The scholarly production by certain groups of anthropologists does reveal gendered situations, but these are compounded by race. Scholars of color, in this case African American women anthropologists, are in very specific locations for becoming faceless and voiceless in the anthropological record. It is no longer the case that there “aren't any” Black anthropologists available to hire as the trends show otherwise. The number of Black anthropologists found in any one department is still in the low single digits or in the case of University of Maryland where there are four ( According to my own counting there are at least 76 Black women anthropologists with doctorates, currently employed on various faculties in higher education. (Supplemental Information: BOLLES: LIST OF BLACK WOMEN ANTHROPOLOGISTS). At issue is not if they are better than, or equal to their White counterparts. Rather, the issue is that because of their “double jeopardy” status Black women work under the burden of double duty, as mentioned by our historian colleague Wanda Hendricks (2008). They often work in isolation and are still required to fulfill the standard expectations for promotion and tenure. Furthermore, these women work under the weight of White privilege systems that are reinforced by the academy, which reproduce the isolation?

The intellectual work of Black women feminist anthropologists competes against this combination of forces by which academic success is measured. One does not receive tenure for the number of committees one serves, or for the number of students one mentors. What counts is acceptable scholarly production, the standards of which vary according to different institutional expectations. The assessment of what counts in the academy may not satisfy the scholar, or represent what are that woman's own scholarly pursuits.

Sometimes Black woman intellectual's work is more oriented toward activism rather than toward the academy. Clearly this kind of work is not rewarded by the academy's scheme of what “counts” as scholarly production. However, it serves as a model of what scholars could be doing as public anthropologists and not be discounted by the academy. Given the scope of concerns addressed by Black women anthropologists, these issues often require two kinds of submissions for the same set of materials. One submission may be in a popular format (verbal or written) whereas the other attends to an academic audience. There are numerous examples of publications written for multiple audiences. Irma McClaurin's 2002 ethnobiography of Zora Neale Hurston appeared in popular publications whereas her academic study was slated to appear elsewhere. Leith Mullings and Alaka Wali's publications of their Maternal Health Project in Harlem arrived in three formats: one report for the sponsoring agency, one report for the community, and one book for the academy, Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem (2001). In a similar fashion, the multiple-authored book In the Shadows in the Sun (Deere and Safa 1991) also came in three versions—one written in popular language (English and Spanish) for dissemination to the rank—and file of U.S. organized labor—one written for members of congress on “the Hill” in Washington, DC, and one for the academy. The incomparable Angela Gilliam publishes in various forms and in different languages. For example, her article “From Roxbury to Rio—And Back in a Hurry” first appeared in the Journal of Black Poetry (1970). The work was expanded for an academic audience as “Black and White in Latin America,” published in Pan-African Journal (1974), then republished in French for Presence Africaine and then once again in English as a chapter in the edited volume, African-American Reflections on Brazil's Racial Paradise (1992). Gilliam's scholarship, written in Portuguese and other languages, appears in Brazilian popular and academic texts.

In addition, Black women have long made unaccounted for theoretical and methodological contributions. Black feminist anthropology has been engaged in discovery, and has used all of the theoretical trends that have captured the anthropological imagination to assess if they were the answer to the social nemesis—racism. After all, looking for the cure for racism and other forms of inequality has been the focal point of Black anthropological discourse since the time of Caroline Bond Day. She was a “race woman” and a graduate of Atlanta University in 1912. She went on to earn an undergraduate from Harvard (BA Radcliffe 1919). Bond Day became the first Black American to earn a graduate degree in anthropology in 1932, also from Harvard (Bolles 2001:29). Her work argued against eugenics and the biologizing of racial differences that was the prominent theory of the day.

There is more recent examples Black women anthropological vanguard work. For example in 2010, the School of American Research hosted a seminar, “Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment, and Social Engagement” organized by Elizabeth Chin. This seminar, out of which an edited scholarly production is forthcoming, includes the work of three Black women anthropologists, A. Lynn Bolles, Aimee Cox, and Dana Ain Davis. During the June seminar at the Santa Fe campus, the participants performed an interactive, interpretative presentation of Katherine Dunham's scholarly production in anthropology and her artistic contributions. The group also took part in the National Dance Institute in Santa Fe participating in a master class on the Dunham technique, led by Elizabeth Chin. They danced the research to performance method that is fundamental to Dunham's production of anthropological theory. But who teaches Bond Day and Dunham in anthropology departments?

Another example of multimethod scholarship is Deborah A. Thomas's film “Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens” and her book, Exceptional Violence (2011). The volume includes a chapter on the Coral Garden incident, an almost forgotten story in Jamaican history except within Rastafari communities. The chapter provides the methodologies used to make the film and its use of participatory research techniques.

Some of the new bodies of theories, such as self-reflexivity, poststructuralism, and multiple methods, are not particularly new from a Black feminist anthropological perspective. Alternative methods in anthropology were a mainstay of the Black women pioneers, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Irene Diggs, and Vera Green. These pioneers developed theories that were fashioned through their political actions as artists, leaders, teachers, and policy critics, all of which made them public anthropologists before it was in vogue.

Setting the standard of the discourse on colonialism and imperialism, Diane Lewis’ article in a 1973 issue of Current Anthropology predated the discussions of world systems theory. The intersection of class, nationality, gender, and racial relations between the woman “native” anthropologist and the kindred folk in the fieldwork experience was explored by Niara Sudarkasa (nee Gloria Marshall) during the 1960s, well before feminist reflexive anthropology came into being. And the list continues on as the pioneering work of Black women anthropologists goes unrecognized by not only the mainstream of the discipline but also those who considered these issues decades later and thought that they had invented the wheel. Some of these critical theories are taken up by contemporary Black feminist anthropologists (e.g. Thomas 2002; Slocum 1999; Simmons 2009; Williams 2011) and has hopefully expanded everyone's knowledge.

Invitation to Contribute, Citation, and Recognition

The important work of Black feminist anthropologists is not only marginalized or made invisible by the canon-setting White men, who, until quite recently, controlled anthropology and are its primary practitioners, but as I emphasized earlier, also by their European American feminist counterparts. As I suggest below, many of the writers of the key canonical texts in feminist anthropology reproduced the practices of exclusion practiced by the discipline at large. A quick review of six major texts of women, gender, and feminist anthropology provides a clue to the answer.

The two foundational texts in feminist anthropology were published within months of each other, Women, Culture and Society (1974) edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere and Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975) edited by Rayna Rapp (then Reiter). Between the two, only one of the contributors was African American—Susan Brown, who like many of the contributors to the text was advanced anthropology graduate student at University Michigan. At the same time, Black women anthropologists, as graduate students, untenured and the few tenured ones were working toward building the Association of Black Anthropologists as their research on women was embedded in the struggles of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and racism at home and abroad. They knew each other's names and supported one another. Outside of Susan Brown, they were not invited to join the feminist anthropological publishing collaborations of that time.

During the 1970s, the classic text All the Women were White, all Blacks were Men, But Some of us were Brave (1982) edited by Black feminist scholars, Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, was published. Although this text relies more on literary scholarship, it attested to the fact that Black feminists were not on the agenda in nascent women's studies programs. This kind of feminism was an outgrowth of Black women's activism in the 1960s Black power movements. Many White feminist anthropologists did not know just how brave Black women anthropologists really were as they tried to bridge, to appease, and to satisfy the demands of the academic units of anthropology, African American/Black Studies, and women's studies programs.

The two foundational texts, Women, Culture and Society (1974) and Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975) drew criticism from Black feminist anthropologists and sociologists, with most of the disapproval directed toward some of the chapters in the Rosaldo and Lamphere volume. For example, Sherry Ortner's essay was faulted for its supposed universality of the gendered domestic division of labor and supported by a theory of universal sex asymmetry (see Sudarkasa 1987). Toward an Anthropology of Women did not contain any research coming from Black America, but the Black world was represented in chapters on Nigeria, Colombia, South Africa, and the Dominican Republic. Outside of Brown's chapter, the only readily identifiable Black scholar cited in the bibliography was Black womanist anthropologist, Diane Lewis.

Fast forward to 1988, when The Association for Feminist Anthropology (AFA) became a section of the American Anthropological Association. Feminist Anthropology gained credibility as a body of knowledge, and gender studies relied heavily upon feminist anthropological resources for its scholarly production. During those years, more anthropologists than ever before joined Women's Studies departments, programs, and clusters across the globe. Sandra Morgen's (1989) Gender and Anthropology made a deliberate effort to be inclusive of Black feminist scholars and scholarship. The text was written as a guide to anthropologists to be inclusive of feminist work in the discipline and to transform introductory course offerings. There are two Black American (A. Lynn Bolles and Leith Mullings) and one African-born (Lina Fruzzetti) women contributors to the volume. Morgen's exceptionally thorough and edifying introduction (1989:1-20) provided an up-to-date, state-of-the-art discussion of feminist anthropological research as it challenged the dominant paradigms in all subfields of the discipline and its relationship to Women's Studies scholarship. It was in those pages that British feminist anthropologist, Henrietta Moore's book, Feminism and Anthropology (1989) surfaced as an important text.

Moore's text provided a significant amount of information about the history of anthropology and its women contributors. However, it was a great disappointment in terms of the way women of Africa and those of African descent become subjects from the “field” and any other theoretical contributions were viewed as “just” identity politics. Moore contributed to the invisibility of Black feminist anthropologists because she relied on White feminist anthropologists to provide her material, all of who drew a blank on the scholarship of their Black feminist colleagues. As a scholar of great stature herself, Henrietta Moore could have looked more carefully into who was excluded from feminist anthropological scholarship and included those scholars in her own work. There are seven Black women anthropologists, six of whom are African born or based (five working on the continent, one primarily in India), and one is African American, Diane Lewis. Moore found herself relying on the theoretical contributions of Black American literary critics such as bell hooks, and the But Some of us Are Brave contributors to make her argument. U.S. feminist anthropologists did not cite their Black feminist colleagues; therefore, their body of work was excluded from this influential, but exclusionary scholarship.

Another example of exclusion came from a highly acclaimed volume, Michaela di Leonardo's (1991) Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge. In her introduction, Di Leonardo recounted her perspective on the theoretical shift staking place in feminist anthropological projects and its relation to the history of the discipline at large. A point is made that unlike the “early bibles of feminist anthropology, not all the contributors are White women.” Here in Gender at the Crossroads the contributors include one man, and two women of color, (Patricia Zavella and African American biological anthropologist Nadine Peacock). In terms of the inclusion of Black feminist anthropological thought, there was none. There were no references in the introduction and a handful of names were randomly scattered in citations throughout the essays.

Following the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the two foundational texts, Louise Lamphere, Helena Ragone, and Patricia Zavella published Situated Lives Gender and Culture in Everyday Life (1997). The chapters of this volume position the constructs of gender in relation to the historical and material circumstances where race, class, and sexuality intersect and impact on everyday life. Of the 26 chapters only one Black feminist anthropologist is included in the text. In her chapter, Faye Harrison cites her sister Black feminist anthropologists, especially those who work in the Caribbean. As a matter of fact, the invisibility was more apparent in the index that only references the following Black scholars: anthropologist, Delmos Jones; literary giants, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison; and feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins.

In 2006, Ellen Lewin edited Feminist Anthropology, A Reader. Overall it is a collection of some of the valuable contributions of feminist anthropology to the larger body of feminist and gender research across the disciplines. Lewin's “Introduction” is an act of recovery and reconnection. It takes a genealogical approach that contextualizes and positions the contributions made by a numerous groups of anthropologists in the United States and Europe that led to what is now called feminist anthropology. Ellen Lewin recognizes the relevance of positioning the work of marginalized scholars of old in this context for continuity purposes and for understanding gender in its most varied forms. Despite the inclusive referencing to Black foremothers and citing Black feminist anthropologists in the introductions and indices there is but one chapter written by an African American feminist anthropologist, Paulla Ebron, whereas Afro-Surinamese Gloria Wekker offers the African Diaspora contribution.

The point still remains clear, as revealed in the review of six important texts in feminist anthropology that even though African American feminist anthropologists publish, their works fail to be adequately recognized and cited by anthropologists, including those who count as allies and colleagues. The verification of the merit of the work—the citations that references to the original work—is absent in the majority of those six influential texts. Anthropologists, like other scholars cite authors whose opinions they concur with, or are of use value to them in their research. This is a practice learned in graduate training. Renato Rosaldo (1989) notes that the site of canon formation is in the history of theory course. In that setting, graduate students learn who is “good,” become skilled at presenting evidence to the contrary, and become critical in their analysis of methodology, theory, and other aspects of research and scholarship. Without exposure, there is no scholarly location to provide evidence for assessment.

A quick perusal of a combination of graduate course syllabi posted on the web gives a hint at the absence of Black anthropological thought and specifically of Black feminist contributions to the discipline in this critical course. This was a totally unscientific exercise, but it does illustrate my point. There are two graduate syllabi found under a Google search for “syllabus for history of anthropology theory.” Retrieved are two highly ranked departments, Michigan (…/core_seminar_final.doc; Cohen et al. 2005) and Rutgers (…/305-505mascia-lees2008). Both syllabi paid good attention to feminist anthropology. Black anthropologist and historian of the discipline, Lee Baker, and theoretician Michel Rolph Trouillot were found on these graduate syllabi. However, none of the syllabi cited the scholarship of any Black woman anthropologist. In the United States, there are 83 departments of anthropology that offer the doctorate. These two cases do not make a case of precedence, but they do direct our attention toward the practices of exclusion.

Citation indices are an important source for documenting the differential rates of citation of anthropologists, including feminist anthropologists. By and far, anthropologists of color, especially those of African descent, have been out of this citation loop. As mentioned earlier, African American feminist anthropologists tend to cite each other, particularly in similar subfields, but often their contributions to the wider field are not recognized—virtually absent. If the citation wars have meaning in the modern academy, as Lutz and others who have carried out similar research claim, then in both short and long runs African American scholars are/will be faceless and voiceless in the anthropological record.

In the US academy, the citation count is used as an essential mechanism to do three things for scholars: they render respect within the community of anthropologists, provide recognition of productive contributions (writing) which then leads to prominence in the field and the academy at large. A central part of academic writing is citation—the evaluation of the written work of others. Lutz states, “To engage in scholarship is to involve oneself with the ideas of others, to attempt to support, amend, or overturn them, but first of all to take them under consideration. The citation is an index of a judgment made by an anthropologist of the article in which the citation appears, that the persons cited has been taken seriously.” Citations implicate relations of power, both based on race and gender, and form of symbolic capital, for the cited author, as scholarly status or reputation depends, in part, on the frequency. Citation capital can be transformed not only into respect, recognition, and prominence but also into real capital in the form of higher salaries and merit pay, even for those whose institutions that are in financial distress.

I examined data from the 2001 Social Web focusing on 15 Black women anthropologists featured in Irma McClaurin's 2001 “Introduction” to Black Feminist Anthropology.4 The Social Web categorizes journals and authors under headings, such as education, race, history, and area studies (e.g., Latin American Perspectives); anthropology, sociology, the social and behavioral sciences, and law reviews; and feminist studies. Overall, there were 409 citations considered. Not unexpectedly, the two former presidents of institutions of higher education, Johnnetta B. Cole and Yolanda T. Moses, were cited in two-thirds of the listings in education (N = 27). Legal scholars, along with social science medicine, nursing, sociology, and psychology showed significant numbers (N = 128) citing the work of Black feminist anthropologists on issues of gender and race. Area studies and history journals noted (N = 67) citations across the two headings. The category with the least number of references of Black feminist anthropologists was in feminist journals (N = 34). Furthermore, most of the authors who referenced Black feminist anthropologists were themselves, Black women anthropologists. Of the 153 citations in anthropology journals, 40 percent resulted from two authors, Faye Harrison and Audrey Smedley. The numbers came from two pieces of work, Harrison's review in the Annual Review of Anthropology (1995) and Smedleys’ text Race in North America (1993). Again the majority of scholars citing these works were indeed other Black anthropologists, both women and men and their allies.

Another example of how recognition in the field works is the volume Gender and Anthropology by Frances Mascia-Lees and Nancy Johnson Black (2000). After telling their stories of how they became college-educated women, how they found anthropology and other self-reflexive positions, the authors render a history of feminist anthropology. Reclaiming foremothers was an important part of this effort. Mascia-Lees and Black mention the reclaiming of Zora Neale Hurston as a foremother of feminist anthropology, but do not cite Black feminist anthropologist Gwendolyn Mikell whose writings addresses Hurston in the discipline (1999). The authors frame Hurston as a novelist, essayist, and playwright but not as a Boasian anthropologist. It is not that the artist stance is incorrect, but that Hurston is not put in a comparative position with the other anthropologists on the author's foremother reclamation list.

In a chapter on women's social organization that challenges male dominance, Mascia-Lees and Black cite Irma McClaurin's 1995 ethnography on Belize, and mention Faye Harrison in the bibliography. Chapter eight examines the reflexive approach, and notes (2000:93) that the roots of these efforts began when “many African Americans began to associate their own oppression with that of Black Africans fighting colonial domination in other parts of the world and fueled the US civil rights movement.” Here there is an implication of familiarity with 1960s Black activism without a Black intellectual history as a foundation.

Exotic at Home (1998) by Michaela di Leonardo comes close to giving Black feminist anthropology credit. In the chapter entitled, “The Dusky Maiden and the Post war American Imperium” Di Leonardo spends a good deal of time on Margaret Mead, “virtually a mother figure of anthropology.” According to Di Leonardo none of Mead's biographies are critical of her work or life except for Leonora Forestal and Angela Gilliam's text, Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy (1992). With that citation, Di Leonardo does not even examine the work for further comments, which implies that their work is not worthy of exploring.

Hiring and Tenure

Beyond the initial struggle to get hired, there is also the struggle to get tenure. The following are a few tenure stories that will help to reinforce why decolonizing must begin at home. I cannot identify the scholars whose stories are repeated here because the sources were gathered around the intellectual watercooler. Nonetheless, every story told about the tenure process has a message and conveys a lesson that needs to be learned by all.

By the early 1970s, a sizable cohort of Black women anthropologists came of age. This number doubled the number of Black women in the field5. They received their doctorates from prestigious graduate programs, and often their advisors made very little effort to help make their entry into the profession uneventful. For many of them, there was no old boy networking, no old girl networking on their behalf. Nonetheless, on their own merit, other prestigious universities hired them. Doing what junior faculty do, these women did more so because they were Black activist/scholars. Three with prestigious credentials were all turned down for tenure. Between them, there were five books, and an ample number of articles. Each case was resolved; one changed jobs and the other two had their decisions reversed after massive lobbying efforts by the senior Black anthropological community. None of the cases acquired the notoriety of the Lamphere et al. vs. Brown decision because they never reached litigation stage.

In one promotion and tenure case, one department solicited and received 50 letters from senior scholars. One senior woman reviewer remarked that she already knew the manuscript included in the tenure packet because Cambridge University Press had sent the book in its dissertation form for her evaluation for publication. She wrote a letter for tenure based on that reading. The interesting part is that the junior scholar up for tenure never submitted a manuscript to Cambridge. Therefore, the letter used in consideration for her promotion and tenure was based on somebody else's book. The actual author of the Cambridge submission was also a young Black woman anthropologist who was also coming up for tenure at another prestigious institution. Clearly, this senior woman reviewer could not tell one Black woman anthropologist a part from another. The young Black woman did not receive tenure at that institution. The woman who was caught in the confusion did not pursue the process, left academics and the country. In personal conversations with three of these women they remarked on feelings of isolation, second-class citizenship, and being overburdened with student responsibilities.

Black women who continue in the academy are often pressed to show their allegiance to at least two other fields of study—African American/Africana/Black Studies, Women's Studies, and whatever is their subfield. All of those constituencies claim possession of time, energy, and ideas. There is the doubling up of students and the college/university committees that need the “double-dip” point of view. In the past, when book manuscripts were produced it is hard to find a publisher willing to take a “chance,” especially if the contents were on Black subject matter. It was assumed that the audience would be “too specialized” or “too small” and not worth the investment, particularly for university presses or even trade publishing houses. Foremother Black anthropologist Irene Diggs recalled with great bitterness that she sent her manuscripts out to countless numbers of publishers, but no one was interested even in her life history of the seminal Cuban anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz. Even today when the rejection letters arrive, it is either straight to the point, or it includes the reader's comments. Here, academics enjoy being rather viscous. A reviewer for a recently rejected manuscript on anthropology, racism and the academy implied on how could a well-respected (read White) feminist scholar be associated with such ridiculous ideas and worthless scholarship.

When the work is finally published the publisher becomes a cause for concern, especially for consideration for tenure and promotion. This policy is repeated in the evaluation of journals. Even though Transforming Anthropology is a referred journal, published under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association, an institution engaged in a debate whether or not considered in a Black scholar's promotion and tenure file.


The goal of “Telling the Story Straight” was to address the omissions, the exclusions, and extra burdens faced by Black feminist anthropologists who, as Langston Hughes reminds us, are “Black and beautiful.” White privilege permeates the very fabric of U.S. society and is found in the personal and politics of anthropologists and in the academy. Without understanding this fundamental aspect of U.S. culture and society, the efforts of decolonizing feminist anthropology, entails doing homework in every field of endeavor, particularly at home, in the office, and at the university. There must be broad transformative practice of inclusion in hiring, earning tenure, inviting contributors on annual meeting sessions and in editing collections, reviewing processes, and in the practice of citation. When these efforts are in place in one's mind and actualized in practice then we can all move forward to a more equitable place. As of 2011, there were approximately a dozen Black women anthropologists who hold the rank of full professor. The academy, as a reflection of society, is not a crystal staircase for women, especially if they are non-White. Naturally there are exceptions and they have their own stories to tell. Included in the group are those who not only achieved the highest level in the academy but also maintained that stature, such as Johnnetta B. Cole, Claudia Mitchell Kernan, Yolanda T. Moses, and Leith Mullings.

A number of years ago, after presenting a paper at Barnard College, a senior colleague asked if I realized that most of the research I discussed was by Black women anthropologists? The reply was yes, as most do not recognize their existence, somebody has to do it. My colleague, who is a supporter, thought the answer was a bit flippant, but in fact it was the truth.

Consider this a challenge to young scholars. Expand your list of whom you cite on a particular topic and the politics of that decision. Black women anthropologists are productive and are in need of all the support they can garner by their peers and colleagues. If feminist anthropology is going to learn from the past, it must maintain a constant vigilance of the process. The cost of not doing so continues the practice of miseducation and omission in the field and the invisibility of Black women's intellectual thought in the field of anthropology.


  1. 1

    Thank you to the anonymous reviewers, Cheryl Mwaria, Alaka Wali, Karen Brodkin, and my Sister Black Women Anthropologists, especially the ancestors.

  2. 2

  3. 3

    The Department of Anthropology at Howard University, a Historical Black College/University (HBCU) was targeted for elimination in 2011.

  4. 4

    Research on citation by and on Black women anthropologists using the Social Web as a primary source is an aspect of new project.

  5. 5

    Among this group are Leith Mullings, Gwendolyn Mikell, Sheila Walker, Patricia Guthrie, Carolyn Martin Shaw, Yolanda Moses, Susan Brown, Yvonne Jones, and Victoria Durant Gonzalez.