Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe

By Stephens, Jessica E. Thomas | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe


Stephens, Jessica E. Thomas, The Journal of Negro Education


Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe, edited by Joy James and Ruth Farmer. New York: Routledge, 1993. 293 pp. $17.95, paper.

Reviewed by Jessica E. Thomas Stephens, Eastern Kentucky University.

Each of the several authors in this important anthology is an African American woman who has struggled or is currently struggling against the rigid governing structures and practices at predominantly White universities. Each of their essays presents a narrative that draws upon their scholarship and personal experiences as well as a section of references that reinforce the author's conclusions. By so doing, Spirit, Space & Survival shares candid and informative insights into African American women's struggle against Eurocentric disciplines and White male academic traditions. It also reflects the isolation borne by female African American faculty members and administrators in academe and their yearning to connect with their communities, to establish relationships that include respect for their African traditions, and to acquire the positions of prominence and relevance they deserve.

Editors James and Farmer have woven the voices of women of African descent together into unison to challenge the gatekeepers at predominantly White universities. They have arranged the narratives into three distinct sections and named them, appropriately, "Spirit," "Space," and "Survival." The more theoretical essays appear in the first section of the book. These works strike at the spiritual and theoretical themes that lay the foundation for the more pragmatic contributions that follow. They begin with an essay by Kaylynn Sullivan Two Trees, an African American-Lakota teacher of ceremony and religion, who writes of the lack of ritual and spiritual connection in academe. Two Trees emphasizes that a spiritual connection with one's ancestors-in her case, with African American and Native American women of yore-can equip the younger women of these cultures with the basic tools of self-identification and self-respect, which she maintains are so essential for their learning and well-being. Following that, artist Joyce Scott challenges mainstream pedagogy by emphasizing in her essay the influence of family tradition in art. Scott's words both encourage young African American women artists to explore broader definitions of art and bring readers to a new understanding of culture, specifically that of African Americans and African American women. In the last essay of this section, Joy James, who teaches theory in Women's Studies, explicates the connection between African American culture and women's political activism. Like Two Trees and Scott, she too stresses the essentiality of a spiritual connection between African American women academics and their cultural communities.

In section two, the theme of "making space" for African American women in an elitist, White, male-dominated society is explored. Elizabeth Hadley Freydberg, a professor of American Studies, begins by discussing the lack of representation of African American women in both academe and the curriculum. Her essay is followed by that of anthropologist Helan Page, who, in distinguishing between people of African descent in the Caribbean and the United States, couples this comparison with a womanist perspective that extends knowledge beyond the typical structural confines of male-centered academic thinking. Next is psychologist Kim Vaz's intriguing critique of the stories of African American women that were passed on to her by her mother and grandmother. Her analysis is useful in that she applies it to the struggles of African American women in academe and thereby suggests the importance of rethinking a discipline such as psychology, which she contends is dominated by patriarchy, racism, and elitism. …

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