Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, and Poetics

Article excerpt

BOOK REVIEW

Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. Irma McClaurin (ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001; 272 pp. Irma McClaurin and her eight colleagues have written a very important and provocative book. This volume studies the meaning of black feminist anthropology and challenges the assumptions of anthropological theory-making and feminist theory in anthropology. This Black feminist anthropology "constructs its own canon that is both theoretical and based in a politics of praxis and poetics" and "it seeks to deconstruct the institutionalized racism and sexism that has characterized the history of the discipline of anthropology in the United States and Europe" (2). McClaurin sees this book as an intervention, a form of cultural mediation between the world of Black scholars and the entire Western intellectual tradition. She views the intervention as a strategy to halt or resolve conflict. The anthropological intervention, in this case, is to: "interrupt/disrupt the elitist, sexist and racist dynamics that have plagued anthropology historically and that continue to inform its training, research funding, scholarly recognition, professional networks and publications-in a phrase, all anthropological knowledge production and reproduction" (2).

McClaurin pays homage to over 30 Black women anthropologists from the 1930's to the present. From leaders such as Carolyn Bond Day, Irene Diggs, Zora Neal Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Manet Fowler and Vera Green in the late 1960s, to Angela Gilliam (with a chapter in the book), Sheila Walker, Diane K. Lewis, Niara Sudharkasa, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Theresa Singleton, A. Lynne Bolles (also with a chapter in the book), Johnetta Cole, myself, Filomina Steday, Faye Harrison, Helan Page, Brackette Williams, and Gwendolyn Mikell of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 1990s exhibits a whole new generation of Black women, several of whom are authors of chapters in this volume. In addition to foraging a new feminist tradition for anthropology, the Black feminist anthropological tradition espoused in this book has a pan-African or global perspective in order to locate or situate the literal place of Black women in the diaspora. As hard as it is to believe, this text "... is the first to archive and compile in one place original essays that speak specifically, and from one anthropological perspective, about the way in which race, gender and sometimes class has produced an ethnographic praxis informed by identity, social race, discriminatory practices in the academy and society, and field encounters influenced by colonialism" (19).

From Zora Neale Hurston, who trained under Franz Boas at Columbia University, to the authors in this volume, it is clear that Black feminist anthropological theory is deeply ethnographic, certainly cross-cultural (diasporic) and unashamedly self-reflexive, plus it is what McClaurin calls in Chapter 2 "autoethnography," which blends autobiography and ethnography together. "It represents the speaker/writer's subjective discourse, but in the language of the colonizer" (65). By speaking in the colonizer's language, the "native" demonstrates her ability to mediate-to be the cultural broker. She characterizes this technique as a strategy of knowledge production that allows "Black feminist anthropologists, and other speakers of subjugated discourses to have voice and authority...that is simultaneously innovative, reflexive and transformative" (71).

In Chapter One, "Seeking the Ancestors: Foraging a Black Feminist Tradition in Anthropology," A. Lynne Bolles cleverly shows that while Black female anthropologist foremothers did not explicitly foreground their gender oppression, "the experiences and plights of these Black women anthropologists have been the seeds from which the current Black feminist tradition in anthropology has germinated" (25). Bolles asserts that Black feminist anthropologists today have found solace and inspiration in the research, scholarship, and courage gleaned through the lives of these foremothers. …