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date: 12 July 2020

Black Feminist Thought and Qualitative Research in Education

Summary and Keywords

Black feminist thought and qualitative research in education is guided by a particular understanding of the learning strategies informed by Black women’s historical experiences with race, gender, and class. Scholars of Black feminist thought remind us of a Black feminist pedagogy that fosters a mindset of intellectual inclusion. Black feminist thought challenges Western intellectual traditions of exclusivity and chauvinism. This article presents a synopsis of the nature and scope of Black feminist thought and qualitative research in education. Further, this article highlights the work of scholars who describe the importance of an Afrocentric methodological approach in the field of education because it offers scholars and practitioners a methodological opportunity to promote equality and multiple perspectives.

Keywords: Black feminist thought, endarked feminist epistemology, Black feminist pedagogy, qualitative research, educational research

How does one understand the “other” when she is the “other” and few have been able to articulate a definition of the “other” that is acceptable to her and from which she can begin the understanding process”?

Givens and Jeffries (2003)

Black Feminist Thought and Qualitative Research in Education

Qualitative research sheds light on understanding in such a way as to guide an increased knowledge about a particular narrative. What matters most is the quality of the insights, not the quantity (Patton, 2002). Its multi-disciplinary lineage prevents the creation of an umbrella or catch-all definition. Thus, fundamentally, qualitative research is the quest to discover meaning within a particular narrative or story with particular concern to the nuances of the story to deepen meaning and understanding. Qualitative research can be organized in several forms ranging from case study, narrative inquiry, phenomenologically grounded theory, action research, and ethnography. All qualitative research employs a similar data collection process including (in varying degrees) interviews, observation, documents, and audiovisual materials (Creswell & Poth, 2018).

It is imperative to understand “research is not an objective endeavor, void of the interrelationships formed and maintained by the researcher and participants” (Givens & Jeffries, 2003, p. 2). When qualitative research and Black feminist thought come together, we see a methodological practice that works to increase the level of understanding among researchers and participants. Much of the work situated within Black feminist thought and qualitative research highlights the work of Black women qualitative researchers on communities of color and their lived experiences in critical and informative ways. Historically, academics have utilized positivistic methodological approaches that distance researchers from communities and the academy.

Sociologist and architect of Black feminist thought, Patricia Hill Collins (2000), identified four dimensions of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology: (a) lived experience as a criterion of meaning, (b) the use of dialogue to assess knowledge claims, (c) the ethic of caring, and (d) the ethics of personal accountability; all of these aid in helping the researcher understand the interviewee as a participant with agency and history. These four dimensions helped Black women qualitative researchers bridge the disconnect between their personal and professional lives. It also supported them in increasing their understanding of their participants’ lives particularly as it pertained to the intersections of race, class, gender, and other cultural intricacies.

Givens and Jeffries (2003) crafted the edited volume, Black Women in the Field: Experiences Understanding Ourselves and Others through Qualitative Research, to highlight eight Black women’s experiences and encounters as qualitative researchers. The book provides insight on Black women who work to improve and understand Black communities. Jeffries and Generett remind us, “efforts not to reinscribe the ideals and thoughts perpetuated by positivist methodical approaches lead Black women to choose alternative epistemologies to describe knowledge and experience. Qualitative research, unlike more positivist methodologies provide a means for researchers to critique and improve this process” (Givens & Jeffries, 2003, p. 4).

Further, Dillard (2016) offers a broader understanding of a global Black feminist thought that is centered upon what she describes as “research as responsibility.” She provides a unique context to deepen our understanding of an endarkened feminist epistemology as “a catalyst for thinking about a vision/version of feminisms that, for diasporic Black women, might open a way to (re)member our identities, lives, and work as Black women” (Dillard, p. 406). Black feminist epistemology and endarkened feminist epistemology support researchers in what Dillard (2016) describes as a

move away from the traditional metaphor of research as recipe to fix some problem to a metaphor that centers reciprocity and relationship between the researcher or teacher and those who, in that moment, are engaged in the research or teaching with us.

(Dillard, 2016, p. 407)

Black and endarkened feminism call for researchers to think about the ways in which we can build upon what Noblit, Flores, and Murillo (2004) have called postcritical ethnographic research. Postcritical ethnography contributes to emancipatory knowledge and revolves around a discourse of social justice. This work pushes qualitative researchers to make the move from “what is” to “what could be” (Noblit et al., 2004; Thomas, 1993). The aim is to address the process of unfairness no matter the lived domain. I To do this effectively, positionality is key. Noblit et al. (2004, p. 157) asked, “What difference does it make when the ethnographer comes from a history of colonization and disenfranchisement?” Much of the Black feminist thought and qualitative research work on race, gender, and social class have forced researchers to unpack their positionality around their own power and privilege as researchers in the academy.

A Review of the Dimensions of Black Feminist Thought

In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment Collins (2000) described the importance of an Afrocentric methodological approach. Collins wrote:

I knew that when an individual Black woman’s consciousness concerning how she understands her everyday life undergoes change, she can become empowered. Such consciousness may stimulate her to embark on a path of personal freedom, even if it exists primarily in her own mind. If she is lucky enough to meet others who are undergoing similar journeys, she and they can change the world around them.

(Collins, 2000, p. x)

The act of sharing one’s story and drawing a connection to other Black women who have similar experiences is powerful and can aid the understanding of the many challenges people face. Moreover, the “Afrocentric feminist methodology validates the experience, dialogical knowledge, caring, and accountability that may exist within a Black female academic philosophy” (Givens & Jefferies, 2003, p. 4). Black feminist theory offers insight to a complex history of Black women’s work and activism.

In linking Patricia Hill Collins’ definition of Black feminist theory to conducting fieldwork one must also review standpoint theory. Black feminist theory comes out of standpoint theory, a feminist materialism that enables us to expand the Marxian critique of capitalism to include all of human activity, especially the activity of women (Collins, 2000; Hartsock, 1983). In Feminist Methods in Social Research, Reinharz (1992, p. 251) stated, “At the heart of much feminist research is the goal, even the obligation of taking action and bringing about social change in the condition of women.” Feminist research aims to give voice to the invaluable, but all too often, the experiences of women of color are overlooked. As a result, Black feminist thought works to create a space where Black women can share their experiences and contributions as educators and activists. When researchers utilize Black feminist thought, their work illustrates how Black women activists are Black women theorists and producers of knowledge.

Black feminist core themes of work, family, sexual politics, motherhood, and political activism rely on paradigms that emphasize the importance of intersecting oppression in shaping the U.S. matrix of domination (Collins, 2000, p. 251). The four dimensions of Black feminist epistemology shape one’s role as a qualitative researcher: (a) lived experience as a criterion of meaning, (b) the use of dialogue to assess knowledge claims, (c) the ethic of caring, and (d) the ethic of personal accountability all aid in helping researchers understand the interviewee as a participant with agency and history. The first dimension, “lived experiences as a criterion of meaning,” situates the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Here, Collins (2000) gave the example of Sojourner Truth’s statement, “look at my arm, I’ve ploughed and planted. . . . Ain’t I a woman?” She situated Truth and other Black women as “connected-knower[s]” because of their lived experiences and unique voice to address societal issues. This is vitally important for Black women because not only have Black women developed a distinctive Black women’s standpoint, but Black women have done so by using alternative ways of producing and validating knowledge (Collins, 2000, p. 252).

The second dimension of a Black feminist epistemology addresses “the use of dialogue.” This implies talk between two subjects, not the speech of subject and object. Collins (2000) noted that this humanizing speech challenges and resists domination. Rather than believing that research can be value-free, Collins (2000) argued that all knowledge is intrinsically value-laden and should thus be tested for the presence of empathy and compassion. Collins’ (2000) third dimension of Black feminist epistemology implies that knowledge is built around an ethic of caring. Collins argued that the presence of emotion validates the argument. “Emotion indicates that a speaker believes in the validity of an argument” (2000, p. 263). The “ethic of caring” implies talking with the heart; appropriateness with emotions, because emotion indicates that the speaker believes in the validity of the argument; and capacity for empathy (Collins, 2000, p. 266). For Collins, the ethics of care can bridge the binary breakdown between the intellect and emotion that Eurocentric knowledge values.

The “ethic of personal accountability” is the fourth dimension, and it demands one to be accountable for their personal knowledge claims. Knowledge claims made by individuals respected for the moral and ethical connections to their ideas will weigh more than those offered by less respected figures. In addition, ideas cannot be divorced from the individuals who create and share them. Collins examines exactly what Black feminist theory is and how it began to offer an alternative way of knowing. Black feminist thought coupled with an education project can challenge the status quo particularly as it pertains to students, teachers, school leaders, and policy makers. Research, with a Black feminist thought and education thesis, focuses on Collins’ four dimensions—articulate themes of survival as a form of resistance, critical discourses within the history of education, and pedagogical foundations rooted in Black women’s activism and Black feminist pedagogy.

Black feminist thought and qualitative research encourage partnerships to be formed with participants who work to initiate dialogue as they began to remember instances and give meaning to their experiences past and present. Feminist research methods are concerned with social justice, dismantling power structures, recognizing that women experience oppression and exploitation, and that experience varies based on race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc. (Reinharz, 1992). When linking Black feminist theory to conducting fieldwork, researchers become equally as concerned with the research process as they are with the data they are collecting. Black feminist theory is critical social theory, and from this a researcher can craft a research methodology that aims to uncover the subjugated voices of their communities.

Black Feminist Thought and Positionality

Positionality has its roots in feminist literature and allows researchers to clearly identify the lens through which they interpret the social world. How one conducts fieldwork, how one codes the data, and one’s rapport with participants are extremely important. When utilizing Black feminist thought as a methodological technique, researchers recognize this as a political stance. There is a commitment to making sure the work is self-reflexive. Researchers must answer personally and professionally: “what’s my investment in this research?” or as Alice Walker puts it, “what is the work my soul must have?” Madison (2005) wrote extensively on positionality and stressed the importance of being vulnerable, transparent to judgment and evaluation. When engaging in Black feminist thought, scholars have to have a comfortable relationship with theory. By comfortable, this means that, even in the midst of struggle and confusion, the researcher must commit to wrestling with uncomfortable ideas. One may constantly struggle in the field with what they thought things were and what they found things to actually be upon completing the research. This means scholars who utilize Black feminist thought are constantly reflecting on their historical understandings of various ideas and navigating their privilege when making meaning of their findings.

Many texts fully engage and challenge how identity impacts one’s professional life as a qualitative researcher. In Oral Narrative Research with Black Women: Collecting Treasures, Vaz (1997) began with “Why conduct oral narrative research with African and African American women?” This research method “allows the unique knowledge domains of Black women to come into full view” (Vaz, 1997, p. vii). Vaz (1997) worked with several Black women personal narrative researchers and commented on the strategies they have found helpful when writing about the experiences of Black women. Methodological information about conducting oral narrative research from this standpoint is rare. When Black women interview other Black women, the notion of “insider privilege” is negotiated. Researchers tease out the nuances of what it means to be from the same racialized community. This experience of understanding “the other” when one is “the other” can be challenging and force researchers to be more self-reflexive about their projects (Groves, 2003). In an effort to “make the familiar strange,” “Black women researchers must consider the places we were reared, our gender, race, class, and ability, along with other interrelated factors that play a crucial role in developing and shaping our experiences and the experiences of our participants” (Givens & Jeffries, 2003, p. 3). While one may think they know what their participants would potentially say, one must carefully ask each question and get the participants to explicitly comment about their lives and work as Black women.

Qualitative researchers who utilize Black feminist thought are challenged to organize a legitimate piece of work that could celebrate the work of women in their communities, function as a critical ethnographic piece that is not exploitative and promote the further emancipation of Black women. Sophia Villenas (1996, p. 713) reminded us, “we are both the colonized and colonizer, marginalized by the academy yet using the resources and tools of the academy to write about our own communities and, even more intimately, our own lived experiences.” Qualitative researchers who utilize Black feminist thought typically make themselves available for their participants if they need any assistance. They work to remain conscious throughout the entire process of their positionality. They developed a rapport with each participant, fostering them through various modes of communication. There is a keen understanding that “research is not an objective endeavor, void of the interrelationships formed and maintained by the researcher and participants” (Givens & Jeffries, 2003, p. 2). As a result of this phenomenon, a kinship is developed with the text, the participants, and the mission to create a research project that would aid in the development of a better understanding of Black communities.

Black Feminist Thought and Data Collection and Analysis

There is no single right way to analyze qualitative data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, p. 2). Many compile archival data chronologically to situate any historical context. Relevant documents provide context to the educational and community organizing experience of participants. Document analysis in qualitative research makes use of excerpts or entire passages from journals, personal diaries, correspondence and memoranda, and official publications (Merriam, 1998). When researchers fluent in Black feminist thought conduct qualitative research, they think critically about the interview processes. Many times, the interviewees will select the time and location, making it comfortable and accommodating for the participant. Researchers fluent in Black feminist thought also remain diligent about recognizing their positionality as it helps them build a rapport with their participant that began with the need to collect data but ends with a commitment to honor the particularities of the stories to which they are privileged to gain access.

Coding is an essential part of data analysis that allows researchers to identify salient themes and patterns. According to Coffey and Atkinson (1996, p. 27), “in practice, coding can be thought of as a range of approaches that aid the organization, retrieval, and interpretation of data.” (Many researchers fluent in Black feminist thought approach coding by employing in vivo coding, sociologically constructed coding, and open coding. Open coding is identified as an “open” process because it allows the researcher to engage in exploration of my data without making any prior assumptions about what the researcher might discover. In vivo coding “refers to the codes that derive from the terms and the language used by social actors in the field, or in the course of the interviews” (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, p. 32).” In vivo coding coupled with Black feminist thought allows the researcher to inductively engage with the participant’s narrative. On the other hand, sociologically constructed coding allows the researcher “to identify themes, patterns, events, and actions that are of interest and that provide a means of organizing data sets” (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, p. 32).

Black feminist thought and qualitative research in education positions data analysis as a process of organizing, interpreting, and producing stories that generate reflexivity. According to Coffey and Atkinson (1996), “narratives have rather specific, distinct structures with formal and identifiable properties” (p. 57). People who work within this field are in turn the interpreters, evaluators, and producers of stories. Bhattacharya (2016) provides critical insight on how vulnerable personal narratives demonstrate how de/colonizing and microaggressive discourses intersect in higher education in the United States. She argued that vulnerability offers a means of reconceptualizing and rethinking possibilities for addressing social inequities in higher education. Researchers use narrative to frame understandings of people, culture, and change, and to address social and cultural phenomena without reducing the phenomena to isolated variables. As a result of this understanding, Black feminist thought can be used as both a methodological tool and a framework for analyzing the data.

Reciprocity, Research Trustworthiness, and Black Feminist Thought

Alridge (2003) named the dilemmas and challenges of objectivity, voice, agency, and presentism encountered by African American educational historians whose research focuses on the education of African Americans. Similarly, Collins (2000) noted that Black women run the risk of “being discredited as being too subjective and hence less scholarly” (p. 19). Alridge (2003) argued the “double consciousness” African American scholars face within the academy may be transcended by using solid and innovative conceptual and methodological approaches (Alridge, p. 25). Black feminist thought, when implemented with fidelity, serves this need. Scholars of color often reconcile this dilemma by actively recognizing their race, sexuality, gender, and class as tools that shape their identity as a researcher.

For Glesne (2006), reciprocity can have a therapeutic effect on the interview process. She wrote, “What specifically is therapeutic about the interview process is the unburdening effect of the respondents saying safely whatever they feel. . . . The therapeutic dimension of a good interview is part of what [I] return to [my] participants” (p. 85). Similarly, Patton (2002) also found that giving participants recordings of the interview and transcripts was a way to continue family legacies. He wrote, “Participants in research provide us with something of great value, their stories and their perspectives on their world. We show that we value what they give us by offering something in exchange” (p. 415). The words of Patton (2002) and Glesne (2006) resonate with scholars and challenge them to think about the reciprocal aspects of research. This type of research provides examples of the multiplicity represented in the world that has been silenced and neglected by traditional research methods. Investigating the subjugated knowledge of subordinate groups—in this case a Black woman’s standpoint and Black feminist though—requires more ingenuity than that is needed to examine the standpoints and thoughts of dominant groups (Collins, 2000, p. 252). This is in part because subordinate groups have long had to use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions and self-valuations of themselves. The rendering of multiple realities in research ignites a greater sense of reciprocity among participant and researcher.

Glesne (2006) stated that validity is an issue we should consider “during research design as well in the midst of data collection” (p. 35). She listed several verification procedures one can employ to address the issue of research validity. The procedure researchers use most often is member checking. Glesne (2006) described member checking as “sharing interview transcripts, analytical thoughts, and/or drafts of the final report with research participants to make sure you are representing them and their ideas accurately” (p. 36). Member checking help researchers verify the trustworthiness of their data collection and analysis.

Black Feminist Thought and Qualitative Research in Education in Action

What follows is a review of relevant works that have utilized Black feminist thought and qualitative research in education. Waters (2016), We Can Speak for Ourselves, is a multifaceted analysis of the ways in which one might think about Black mothers. Negative portrayals of Black mothers continue to permeate throughout film, music, and other forms of media. Black women are often over-sexualized and under-intellectualized in academic scholarship. The majority of American society holds on to and reproduces negative images about Black women. These controlling images perpetuate Black women’s oppression. We Can Speak for Ourselves pushes back and highlights the various levels of agency Black mothers possess to move forward. This work builds on early Black feminist writings (Collins, 1998; Giddings, 1984; hooks, 1984) and is in conversation with new work in the field of motherhood studies and women’s studies that looks at “motherhood as praxis, institution, and lived experience” (Story, 2014). This book highlights the grave conditions facing Black mothers and articulates a new viewpoint of Black women’s lives and capabilities. There is an imperative nature to this book as it is a call to action. We Can Speak for Ourselves articulates Black mothers’ engagement in acts of resistance to sustain their lives and build communities. Through personal narrative interviews, this qualitative study gives voice to Black women who are grappling with the work of being a mother. Situated in Chicago, these stories add to the scholarship on the work of Black mothers and force readers to engage in a dialogue that recognizes the contributions of Black women’s community activism through time and space. This work provides a unique historical analysis of controlling images of Black mothers alongside a sophisticated analysis of contemporary issues in popular culture that work for and against Black mothers. The work also challenges the general public’s assumptions about Black mother work and the pre-conceived notions about their approaches to parenting, “othermothering,” and the overall care for their children.

Next, Dillard’s (2016) work, entitled “Turning the Ships Around: A Case Study of (Re)Membering as Transnational Endarkened Feminist Inquiry and Praxis for Black Teachers” argued that an endarkened feminist epistemology (EFE) articulates how reality is known when based in the historical roots of global Black feminist thought. This work focuses on a young Black woman teacher from the southern part of the United States. Dillard examined how this teacher’s engagement with Africa and African knowledges, culture, and womanhood in Ghana transformed her ability to respond in culturally relevant ways in her teaching of Black children. This work specifically links how encounters with the African continent and people can transform teaching and learning and teachers’ lives. She builds upon critical feminist scholarship including but not limited to Collins (2000), Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres (1991), Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism; Alexander (2005), Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred; and hooks (1993), Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Dillard (2016) reminded us of the intersection/overlap of the culturally constructed socializations of race, gender, nation, and other identities, and the historical and contemporary contexts of oppressions and resistance for African heritage women.

A critical point in Dillard’s (2016) work comes when she articulates how, in an endarkened feminist epistemological space, one is encouraged to move away from the traditional metaphor of research as recipe to fix some problem to a metaphor that centers on reciprocity and relationship between the researcher or teacher and those who, in that moment, are engaged in the research or teaching with us. She reminds us that this is a more useful research metaphor. Dillard (2016) wrote, “The distinction being made between spirituality and the sacred is important here. Many Black feminist and feminist researchers of color suggest that spirituality is to have a consciousness of the realm of the spirit in one's work and to recognize that consciousness as a transformative force in research and teaching” (Dillard, p. 407). When researchers understand research as responsibility, the work becomes answerable and obligated to the very persons and communities being engaged in the inquiry. This particular work of cultural memory, spirituality, and sacredness in endarkened feminist epistemological space honors the wisdom and spirituality of the transnational Black woman’s ways of knowing and being in inquiry.

Evans-Winters and Love (2015) edited volume, entitled Black Feminism in Education: Black Women Speak Up and Speak Out, explores the impact of race, gender, and culture on education through the lens of Black feminist thought and endarkened feminist epistemology. This text is divided into three sections: a) Black feminist and intellectual spiritual pursuits, b) Black feminism in educational research, and c) Responsibility for who and what is a Black feminist educator? This book examines the intersection of race, gender, culture, power, privilege, and interlocking systems of oppression. This unique collection of scholarship forces readers to think about new methodologies, new pedagogies, and new theoretical frameworks when thinking about Black feminist thought in higher education. The contributors to the volume analyze the dimensions of being Black and woman in academia. More specifically, the text highlights some of the personal and professional challenges Black female students, educators, leaders, and activists face that are related to resilience, humanity, spirituality, and academic/professional pursuits.

Davis (2009) utilized Black feminist thought as a lens to examine the mentoring experiences of Black women in graduate and professional schools. Davis wrote, “the findings are central to placing Black women at the center of their own realities as students in graduate and professional schools and support the importance of mentoring among African American women as a method of empowerment and uplift in the academy” (Davis, 2009, p. 531). The linkages she made between what the participants shared, and the distinguishing features of Black feminist thought highlight the need for more mentoring opportunities for Black women. She cautions institutions of higher education to play close attention to that fact that establishing mentoring relationships is difficult. This is particularly the case when thinking about mentorship and Black women. Further, in some of her more recent work, Davis (2017) articulated how the conceptual underpinnings of Black feminism serve as a leading theoretical lens for understanding the intersections of race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, and citizenship for Black females. In a lecture given at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Black Woman’s Blueprint for Institutional Transformation in Higher Education,” Davis reminded the audience that despite Black women’s high achievement, Black female collegians and academic routinely have their ways of knowing when they are devalued as a result of the myriad of ways institutionalized oppression manifests thought racism and sexism. The use of Black feminist thought helps make sense of these challenges and provides a critical record of these challenges through various historical moments.

Conclusion

This article began with the assertion that Black feminist thought and qualitative research in education is guided by a particular understanding of the learning strategies informed by Black women’s historical experiences with the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Through the examination of the work of scholars fluent in a methodological practice rooted in the tenets of Black feminist thought and endarkened feminist epistemology, we see the work of Black women is legitimized in new ways. Audre Lorde (2007) reminded us that to “examine Black women's literature effectively requires that we be seen as whole people in our actual complexities—as individuals, as women, as human—rather than as one of those problematic but familiar stereotypes provided in this society in place of genuine images of Black women” (Lorde, 2007, p 117). Black women’s narratives can be utilized in such a way where we see “whole people in our actual complexities.” This means employing a methodological approach that validates the lived experiences and particularities of a Black women researchers, scholars, participants.

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