“Seeking the Ancestors: Forging a Black Feminist Tradition in Anthropology” by A. Lynn Bolles
(This is the first in a series of essays presented in Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

As I have felt more acutely aware of the value of the sense of shared experience, I particularly enjoyed this historical overview of black women in anthropology. When Bolles writes about why black women study anthropology, I understood and felt every word of it. She writes of how black women are attracted to anthropology’s embrace of its own eclecticism and of its holistic approach that draws on perspectives from multiple disciplines, *and because it can be used as “a tool to locate the sources of inequality, and in some instances, as a place where one could participate in finding a ‘cure’.”  She also speaks to some of my concerns when she writes that black women anthropologist do not receive appropriate recognition in the anthropological canon, that their intellectualism is held suspect, and that they often feel strongly driven to exert a corrective influence on theoretical and historical perspectives in anthropology. In light of these concerns, I have considered that as a black woman, my views on culture (in the public arena) might be better respected if I had an advanced degree in physics than if I had an advanced degree in anthropology as such a degree would be seen by the wider public as more convincing proof of my intellectualism.

Continuing that line of thought, I have often wondered whether as a black woman I should study a subject like physics because I can. Bolles commentary on the black intellectual tradition speaks directly to my reasons for thinking this. She quotes Leith Mullings as summarizing the goals of the tradition thusly: “(1) the charge of uplifting the race, (2) dealing with the social and material condition of the race, and (3) finding ‘a cure for inequality’.” So my question to myself has been, given the view of the study of physics in the wider public, whether I would do more to further the stated goals by increasing the number of black women with advanced degrees in physics. A female physicist (Kawtar Hafidi) with whom I felt some commonality regarding her childhood joy in studying math expressed similar considerations: “[My father] said, ‘What will you do with literature? It’s not useful to the country. Since you are good at everything, you should do science.’ So he convinced me, and I went ahead with science, because I thought I could help my country this way. So I started mathematics and physics in university.” As a black child who excelled in academics, it was impressed upon me early that I had to consider how what I studied and how well I did in school reflected on black people generally. During the many years that I spent (mildly) philosophically opposed to further study in academia, I wondered whether I should feel obligated to return due to the above mentioned considerations.

Yours truly,


*edited to add