Section 5.1 Writing for African American Studies
African American Studies (AFAM) is a discipline that you probably didn't encounter in high school, and hopefully you're excited about how much you have to learn. Read this guide to understand the basics of writing in AFAM!
Unless otherwise stated, all italicized quotes throughout this section are excerpted from the interview with AFAM faculty members at the University of Puget Sound that informed this section.
“Without writing it's hard for students to even learn and process what they're getting from AFAM, because it's so much, but if you start to write it, you can really start to gather your thoughts—what you do know, what you don't know, rather than just being able to shake your head agree, or even give a couple comments randomly in class. When you're trying to put it on paper you see the fact that, most likely it's a lot bigger than you thought.”
Distinct from other disciplines, AFAM is a deeply introspective, interdisciplinary, civically engaged and explicitly ethical field. Accordingly, the purpose of AFAM is to shape and strengthen your ethical convictions through informed research and writing. Thus, writing in AFAM is a practice that intentionally gives you a space to reflect more deeply on the bigger pictures of the discipline—to see what you didn't see before, to see your mind out loud. Therefore, even as AFAM shapes you into a better writer, it can also reveal to you how you've been taught to think by society and other disciplines, and encourage you to reflect on those teachings. This introspective quality of AFAM makes it uniquely interdisciplinary, allowing it to take on the absences, the unaddressed issues and unanswered questions of other disciplines. Lastly, AFAM will also push you outside yourself and into the experiences of others and into the civic sphere that the discipline itself is engaged in.
Traits and Characteristics.
“You have to ask ‘where we should have been in history?’ Because people of color are missing, that's why we cover all the disciplines, to ask ‘where are we?’ So, really, every discipline is a part of Black Studies.”
At the heart of AFAM is an interdisciplinary formation. At its beginnings AFAM took on the absences of all the other disciplines, the places in them where should people of color have been. Accordingly, AFAM asks you to write conscious of the other disciplines you're writing in, not by being obedient to those disciplines, but by being aware that all disciplines have particular modes and methods of thinking and that they understand evidence differently—in a way that isn't necessarily objective. For instance, if you're citing an anthropologist on a particular topic, part of your analysis needs to include context like “What does an anthropologist tend to see and not see?” and “What is it that the field says?”
Another of AFAM's values is the importance of understanding both sides of an argument and where both sides are coming from. It's an ethic of respect and regard to ask, before you get to “I disagree” and “I'm arguing this,” whether you know what the actual argument you're opposing is. This ethic of respect also extends backwards within the field itself: ideas have a long trajectory, and we tend to quote only the recent works. For example, we tend to give the prison industrial complex and the new Jim Crow conversations to Michelle Alexander, and that affects the erasure of Angela Davis. So when you're building an argument, you have to ask where the idea came from, because that's part of the battle against erasure. Further, this battle is an intersectional one, within the field, across gender, sexuality and class. Even within Black Studies there are ways in which certain writings get privileged and others don't, so the writing in this field strives not to practice the same erasure that other fields have practiced.
A third characteristic of writing in AFAM is its civic engagement. Scholarship in AFAM is meant to reach out beyond practitioners of the field to people who aren't necessarily trained in sociology or history: if someone were to pick up your paper anywhere, they should be able to know what it's about quickly and efficiently. Although your professor likely already knows or has explained in class the definitions and the context of what you're writing about, at the end of the day, a lot of people don't know, and that's who you're writing to. Consequently, you have to make sure there's a foundation within your own writing that sets up for what you're sharing. You always have that platform you kick off of.
“The idea that knowledge can come from outside of the academy is really central to Black Feminist thought.”
Unlike in many other disciplines, the lived experience and identity of the author are very important in AFAM. It would be difficult, in this field, to dismiss the personal because AFAM doesn’t exist without questioning knowledge production, without noting that knowledge is not objective and that Eurocentric disciplinary knowledge comes out of a particular time and place. So acknowledgment of personal perspectives or identity or position is a part of how this field understands knowledge constructions. Indeed, AFAM literally began with personal experience, with slave narratives. Some of our first historical information about Black folks is from those stories, and it’s in them that we first start to get a glimpse of what society was like for African Americans and other marginalized groups. Those narratives, written from an African American perspective, are the only way that some original truth or experience can be found. Even if you’re not African American or Black and you’re in this field, you still can’t erase the personal because that identity situates you.
You do have to be careful with personal experience, though. Any evidence you bring forward must be part of a larger conversation, not something that only relates to you.
Conventions and Tips.
“It’s not about political correctness or censorship. It’s care. Historically situated care. It’s not that you didn’t use the politically correct thing, it’s that you didn’t use the contextually careful thing, the ethically careful thing. The only way to write ethically is to practice.”
Language is important. Be very specific about the language you use throughout your writing; here are a couple of specific guidelines:
Capitalize “African American Studies,” and it's singular not plural.
Use current, appropriate language in your writing. Language used in the past to identify people of color is usually not appropriate in the current context unless you are citing a quote. (see Chapter 6 for more help on this, and if you’re still not sure, ask your professor).
Understand and convey the situatedness of whatever you write about. For instance, if you're writing about DuBois, you've got to explain why DuBois was arguing the way he was (in opposition to Booker T. Washington).
Integrating language and quotes from Non-SAE speakers is encouraged. Use your writing as a space to include different voices. For instance, in an upper level AFAM class you might write a scientific counseling article about drug addiction but you could have direct excerpts about people's experiences with drug addiction as African Americans related to whatever section you’re talking about because that adds to it (see Subsection 6.3.1).
Define your terms! You can't assume that everybody knows what you mean. Also sometimes there are many words for the same definition. You need to explain that when you say “Black,” you mean this vs. when you say “African American” you mean that.
Don't rely on jargon! Your writing should be a way you can express what you're learning in class to the public. Jargon can get in the way.
Come to class and do the reading so that you're prepared to write respectfully.
Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women's Studies and Research Methods in Africana Studies by Serie McDougal III will give you an idea of the different registers that form AFAM scholarship.