Hamlet, “Assessing Womanist Thought”

Hamlet, Janice D. “Assessing Womanist Thought: The Rhetoric of Susan L. Taylor.”Communication Quarterly 48.4 (Fall 2000): 420-436. (17 pages)

Hamlet charts out a theory of womanist thought, worldview, and epistemology rooted in the writings of Susan L. Taylor, editor of Essence and writer of a syndicated column targeting black women. Womanist thought is an area of study that is a reaction to the presumed assumption that the issues of black women are synonymous with either African American males or white females. Its focus “suggests a more holistic understanding of African American women their history, culture, and lived experiences” (421). She summarizes Hill Collins’ description of the operations of the black feminist. The black feminist:

  • Refuses to reinforce the social relations of domination. Her work is accessible to women from many walks of life while still being rigorous and well research.
  • Does not privilege elites but rather recognizes that everyone has a privileged view from their won vantage point.
  • Encourages people to examine their location, share their location, and pay attention to other people’s locations.
  • Places black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis.
  • Does not try to accommodate the dominant or traditional discourse by using its language to fit in.
  • Incorporates the everyday unapologetically.
  • Rejects dualism and objectivity in favor of both/and perspectives
  • Is actively challenging to existing notions of intellect as well as traditions of knowledge production and validation. (421).

Succinctly, the womanist consciousness “grew out of African American women’s need to define their own realities, shape their own identities, hear their own voices, and find inner peace” (422). Key to this worldview is an optimal conceptual system, one that assumes that “all people view the world based upon their own particular belief systems” (425): it is ‘optimal’ because it is “structured toward the achievement of everlasting peace and happiness” (425).

Hamlet uses cluster analysis in her methodology to draw out patterns in womanist through via Susan L Taylor. As she writes, cluster analysis involves four steps: “(1) identification of key terms or symbols in the rhetorical artifact; (2) charting of terms that cluster around the key terms; (3) discovery of patterns in the clusters around the key term to determine the meaning of the key terms; and (4) meaning of the rhetor’s worldview on the basis of the meanings of the terms” (425). She outlines seven themes that have emerged from Taylor’s writing and indicate a scope for womanist epistemology.

Spirit Power: “Spirit is the life force of every living element in the universe…Spirit is the energy of the Creator manifesting itself in many forms. According to Afrocentric thought, there exists the notion that there is an all-pervasive energy, that is the source, the sustainer, and the essence of all phenomena” (426). This forms the basis for consubstantiation—“the whole being in each of its parts” (426)—among black women (or all people).

Harmony and Balance: here, since everything is functionally connected (“we are one with nature”), the destruction of one aspect of existence is a destruction of the total existence of the black woman: “therefore, Afrocentric thought constitutes looking at the whole rather than specifies within the whole” (427).

Self-Affirmation: “From a spiritual perspective, we can create our reality through speech, Africans refer to it as ‘Afose,’ the power to bring about occurrence through the power of speech” (428). In this way, black women use speech to create their reality.

Cultural History and Ancestral Reverence: “In Afrocentric thought, each person is a product oof her (or his) individual history, but they are all standing on the shoulders of their ancestors. Ancestry is the sum of the accumulated wisdom of the race, it manifesting itself in the living” (429). We connect to the future through our children, the past through our parents.

Love: particularly self-love in order to love others.

Collective Power: “The individual cannot and does not exist alone, but owes his/her very existence to other members of the group or community, including ancestors and those yet unborn” (431). Hamlet makes sure to affirm the individual articulations of expression while also affirming the aggregation of those individual expressions of consciousness focused on collective consciousness. Knowledge is socially constituted among group members.

Self-Destruction: Unlike the other God-terms, Hamlet sees self-destruction as a devil-term. Connected to the previous theme, women must not self-destruct and get in the ay of obtaining success, happiness, and inner peace.




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