As an academic, citations are a major part of my work and take up a significant amount of my writing time. There are different styles to adhere to depending on the publication venue for the work, checks and double checks to be made regarding page numbers and author names, and carefully considering how much to direct quote, how much to paraphrase, etc. Citations are work! But for a long time, I never considered the political and social impacts of the practice of citation. Who and what you cite is important, after all. What scholars are you relying on to support your argument? Whose arguments are you pushing back on? What texts represent the best examples for your analysis? These questions reveal that we tend to think of citations as a reflection of the “quality” of our work. In other words, we cite those scholars and texts which we think will make us look good and enhance our credibility. But we ought to think in the other direction, as well: who can we cite in order to bring attention to their work? How can we shine a light on the scholarship and art of others so that there is a reciprocal relationship between our work and theirs? Enter the philosophy and praxis of Cite Black Women, a movement that has encouraged me to think more carefully about citational politics.
The organization formally got started in 2017, with t-shirts that said “cite black women” and has grown to include social media accounts, a hashtag, a website, and a fantastic podcast. According to citeblackwomencollective.org, the purpose of the movement is simple: “to motivate everyone, but particularly academics, to critically reflect on their everyday practices of citation and start to consciously question how they can incorporate black women into the CORE of their work.”
In my own work, I cite Black women quite a bit. This is just the nature of my scholarly focus on African American theatre and performance. But to actively and purposefully cite Black women is not something I had ever reflected on. This is undoubtedly the nature of my white privilege. White scholars have an enormous advantage over any and all scholars of color. Their work is promoted more robustly and cited more often. (And of course, white men sit right at the top of the citational pyramid.) White scholars’ work is seen as more credible and worthy, and the work of women of color, especially Black women, is seen as less rigorous. A recent case out of the University of Delaware clearly illustrates this dynamic. This is an institutional problem, built on years of systemic racism and exclusion, meaning white leadership and administrations within academia will continue to operate in ways that reinforce this status quo. And so, to paraphrase Alice Walker, Black women find ways to persevere and lift each other up.
#CiteBlackWomen is a method for Black women academics to support one another’s work and build a citational practice accordingly. It is also a call to action for those of us who are not Black women to walk the walk in solidarity and cite the work of Black women in our own projects. After all, citation is one element of academic praxis that we have control over and each citation is an opportunity to support and promote someone else’s work; why not use that ability to support and promote Black* women? If you are wondering how we can go about this, the Cite Black Women collective has a handy set of steps for us to follow:
#1 – Read Black women’s work
#2 – Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
#3 – Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
#4 – Make space for lack women to speak.
#5 – Give Black women the space and time to breathe.
These are all fairly easy practices to adopt, but they do take intention. We have to actively seek out these texts and scholars if we want to shift our practices away from the usual white men who dominate the conversation(s). This is something I have done in my 20th c American Literature syllabus, which is far from perfect, but which I have refined over the years to include more marginalized voices. Here is an excerpt from a conference paper I delivered about my work revising this syllabus:
[…] I would like to emphasize that creating a syllabus around marginalized or minority voices in no way means you are sacrificing canonicity or short-changing students in the already-too broad literature survey. My 20thcentury syllabus hits many “heights” of the canon – William Faulkner, Susan Glaspell, Ken Kesey, Lorraine Hansberry alongside other significant, but perhaps lesser taught writers such as poet and playwright Georgia Douglas Johnson, and playwright Robert O’Hara.
And as a white professor who teaches at a majority white campus, I consider it a crucial part of my job to ensure students are reading writers of color, especially women of color. The inclusion of Naturalism is a helpful way to open discussions about things like institutional racism, red-lining in the housing market, and Jim Crow restrictions throughout the nation. This is partly because Naturalism was an important style in the early to mid 20thcentury, but mainly because it is not a subtle literary style. There is plenty for students to dig into and unpack, but the tendency toward heavy handed symbolism or even just outright soliloquies by the narrator mean that students who might find literary analysis daunting can effectively participate.
I want to emphasize that the practice of integrating Black women and/or other marginalized voices is an easy thing to do on a syllabus. After all, didn’t post-structuralism help teach us that the “canon” is an artificial construct maintained as a site of power and control within academia? The syllabus is a document about teaching and learning objectives, not about maintaining a canon of white men. The project of Cite Black Women can instruct us in better, more inclusive citational practices, both in our scholarship and in our classrooms. There is absolutely nothing to lose, and so much to gain by considering the politics of our citations. Below is a short list of some Black women scholars I’d like to cite right now:
Ayesha K. Hardison – her excellent book, Writing Through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature is a favorite of mine and one I turn to time and time again. It traces the specific positions of women as writers and subjects in African American Literature of the Jim/Jane Crow era.
Carol Bunch Davis – she has been a supportive colleague to me over the years and is also a great writer. Check out her terrific book Prefiguring Postblackness: Cultural Memory, Drama, and the African American Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. The study examines dramas of the 1960s and the ways these texts both advanced and critiqued the movement.
Kimberly Springer – her work on Black women’s organizing is essential. You can read about it in her book Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. She covers important organizations such as the Combahee River Collective and the Third World Women’s Alliance.
*While the focus here is on the work of Black women, I would also encourage all of us to consider other marginalized scholars in our citational practices. For example, consider the work of indigenous scholars, trans* scholars, and scholars with disabilities – how can we support and promote their work, as well?