On 'Not Doing Too Much on Black Women Writers': Report on Survey of Teaching of Black Women Writers in Australian Universities and Colleges, 1987/88

By Ferrier, Carole | Hecate, November 3, 1988 | Go to article overview

On 'Not Doing Too Much on Black Women Writers': Report on Survey of Teaching of Black Women Writers in Australian Universities and Colleges, 1987/88


Ferrier, Carole, Hecate


This survey does not claim to be exhaustive(1), but does offer a general picture of the use of texts in English by Black women writers(2) in Australian tertiary institutions.

The Appendix below records specific texts that are studied. Generally, where Black women's texts are used at all, a very few are particularly favoured: notably, the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Keri Hulme's The Bone People and Sally Morgan's My Place.(3)

Even in those few courses, or parts of courses, specifically devoted to non-Anglo writing there is almost invariably a notable disproportion between the amount of writing by women and by men, despite the considerable amount of material now available.

While a few staff are certainly attempting to introduce more Black women's writing, the kinds of obstacles discussed in "Teaching Courses in Black Women's Fiction in Australia: Some Observations"(4) are clearly widespread.

There is also a proposal for a course...which intends to utilize some Black women's writings from the geo-political region but the course co-ordinator tells me that it will take several years for the course proposal to go through and that the amount of Black women's writing content will be very small.

Some institutions clearly didn't have, or didn't wish to have, space in their course offerings for such material:

Our tendency is towards coherence and concentration rather than towards a multiplicity of subjects -- though there are practical reasons for doing so as well (we are not a large department).

But even in larger and more ostensibly liberal institutions, the comment of one head of School stands as fairly representative of the general practice:

Although we do quite a bit of work on women writers, we do not do too much on Black women writers. Certainly no complete unit is devoted to them, nor indeed is any Black woman "done" extensively in any of the units we offer. Instead there is reference to a number of them at various times.

And it is also quite noticeable that many Women's Studies courses (often perceived as radical fronts in such institutions) offer very little writing by Black women.

A couple of the responses we received pointed up the ways in which disciplinary boundaries and traditional academic practices function to exclude Black cultural production. Some courses, especially those with a large number of non-white students, tend to use this material in a different way to how it is used in `literary' studies. Noel Loos comments:

The subject Australian Minorities today uses the writing of women from a variety of Australian ethnic groups so that students can better understand the issues. The work of indigenous and South Sea Islander Black Australian women writers allows a more meaningful comparison. Indian-American, Afro-American, African and Chilean women writers' perspectives are also presented. As the subject is interdisciplinary, the writings are not studied in the formal traditional sense.

Black women's writing is perceived in most educational institutions in Australia as lacking the right credentials for admission (or is represented as doing so), often primarily due simply to lack of knowledge.(6) In fact, if most of those currently teaching, say, American Literature courses read some of the hundreds of stunning (even by traditional criteria) novels by Afro-American women writers that are available, I think they would find it impossible not to include them in a much more widespread way.

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