On September 23, 2021, the Wellesley Centers for Women hosted “Evolutions of Womanism: From West African Roots to Emerging Ideas in the Caribbean,” a virtual social change dialogue, about the evolution of womanism and the importance of the African/African-descended worldview in higher education and global problem solving today. The program was co-sponsored by Harambee House at Wellesley College.

The program was a conversation between WCW Executive Director Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., and Visiting Scholar Sheron Fraser-Burgess, Ph.D., ’87. Maparyan is an expert in womanist theory and author of two groundbreaking books that chronicle its history, explore its ties to spirituality, and highlight its implications for activism. Her most recent article discusses the West African roots of womanism. Fraser-Burgess is an educational philosopher who studies the social and philosophical foundations of education for multiculturalism. During her time at WCW, she is exploring how womanism has evolved among Caribbean women in higher education in the last decade.

“I was enamored by this idea that Socrates put forward, that the unexamined life is not worth living,” said Fraser-Burgess in explaining how she was drawn to the study of womanism. “But it didn’t seem as if all the examiners counted. And it didn’t seem as if everything was to be examined.”

Womanism as an intellectual, social, and cultural movement grew out of Black women’s recognition of a culturally distinct approach to thinking about social problem solving in the 1970s. In the context of mainstream feminism, which was, at that time, largely driven by white middle class women’s ideas, goals, and agenda, Black women in the U.S. and beyond started to articulate an alternative praxis that came to be known as womanism, after a term introduced by writer and activist Alice Walker in 1977. These women were Black feminists, self-described Third World feminists, and other Black women who, up to then, had resisted these labels but, nevertheless, were part of the movement by Black women to transform the world in the direction of justice, peace, and healing. Over the next several decades, womanism matured into a world-embracing perspective informed by Black women and people of color of all genders from diverse countries and cultures.

“When people say, where can I see womanism? I just say, look anywhere that you see a Black woman or girl thriving, surviving, and experiencing joy, despite all that's going on around her and all of the things that are working against her survival and her wellbeing,” said Maparyan. “When you see that, then you see womanism in action. And when you see other people helping people in that situation, you see womanism in action.”

Resources on Womanism

During this program, Maparyan and Fraser-Burgess referenced many scholars of womanist theory. The sources they mentioned have been compiled into a reference list for those who are interested in learning more about womanism.

September 23, 2021

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