By Nicole Chen
AFRICAAM 54N: “African American Women’s Lives” allows students to examine the role African-American women have played throughout history and through the contemporary era.
Assistant history professor Allyson Hobbs teaches the course during the school year and also as an intensive six-week summer class. According to Hobbs, the main purpose of the course is to raise awareness of African-American women and uncover their history.
“I’ve always felt that we haven’t paid enough attention to the particular and sort of distinct uniqueness of African-American women, so I was really excited about the opportunity to … correct some of the preconceived ideas and stereotypes about this history,” she said. “I really want my students to take away that African-American women have a history, and they have a history that is worthy of studying, worthy of researching and worthy of writing about.”
The course is built on the foundation of spirited discussion and student participation. Students sit slightly facing each other to more effectively invoke group discussions.
“I like that it’s not a lecture; we’re all conversing with each other,” DiJonai Carrington ’19 said. “You feel free to give your opinions, and no one judges you for what you think about something. I think that’s really cool, because we can all bounce ideas off of each other.”
Hobbs begins each class by connecting modern examples of African-American women to historical figures to give students a way to relate with familiar ideas. In one recent session, Hobbs showed her students a clip of actor and activist Jesse Williams giving his acceptance speech after receiving Black Entertainment Television’s Humanitarian Award, targeting racial tensions and cultural appropriation in light of recent tragedies. Students discussed the social setting of the speech and how money and capitalism can potentially impact the aspects of racism Williams mentioned. Hobbs also highlighted Williams’ remarks on the underrated respect African-American women receive.
During another class, Hobbs gave her students a chance to examine visual depictions of first lady Michelle Obama and musician Beyoncé. She used these two women as examples of how success and motherhood can be intertwined in a single lifestyle.
“We analyzed a picture of Michelle Obama and Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ video, and we discussed how radical these two images are — how they can be successful and be mothers, and how this is kind of unprecedented in black female history,” Jace Casey ’17 said.
Hobbs then connects the contemporary figures to historical examples of African-American women’s lives. The course focuses on intersectionality and the idea that racism, sexism, classism and homophobia relate to each other. Hobbs introduces the ideas of a culture of dissemblance, appearing opposite of a stereotype, and the politics of respectability, adhering to middle-class values, and shows how African-American women are affected by them.
She prompts participation by using open-ended questions such as “What happens to the women who do speak out?” and “How are they perceived, and how do people respond to them?” when bringing up examples of renowned female historical figures such as Rosa Parks.
Hobbs also addresses enslaved African-American women and explores the ideas associated with female slaves, including powerlessness, invisibility and sexual abuse.
Some texts that the course explores are Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Henry Bibb’s “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb” and Deborah Gray White’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” In conjunction with the readings, Hobbs has created an ongoing blog that gives students an opportunity to respond to the texts with their ideas.
“The blog offers students a chance to have a weekly assignment that is meant to be creative and is meant to give them a chance to really step into the minds of either the authors of the readings or some of the figures in the readings,” Hobbs said. “We use that as a launching pad for our conversation.”
Movie screenings are held once a week to explore specific films centering around topics relevant to the class’s weekly discussions.
Students found numerous aspects of this course to be eye-opening, as it gave them a better understanding of the history of African-American women.
“This is specific to me and my life, and it’s been cool to see the progression,” Carrington said. “I like to see how we’ve been able to evolve over time.”
Contact Nicole Chen at 19nicolec ‘at’ students.harker.org.